A Nigerian Prayer: May We Wake One by One

Almost 20 years ago, a very good friend of mine used to say that prayer to me, every night, before we climbed our bunk-beds. I was quite perplexed the first time I heard her say it. ‘May we wake one by one.’ We were about to go to sleep, in our over-populated room in Moz Hall OAU, Ife, lulled to sleep by a cacophony of Lepa GaouAyefele & Montel Jordan. As a southern-northerner my Yoruba was functional, but colloquial south-western usage puzzled me. I asked her what that meant. ‘May we wake one by one.’ She said that during the night, if all goes well, everyone wakes up at their own time – one by one. However, if there is a disaster in the night, we all wake simultaneously in response to it.

‘May we wake one by one.’ It is a prayer against sudden disaster. I can remember naively laughing at the time. But with the billows of life the prayer becomes more meaningful. Nowhere is that prayer more meaningful than Nigeria – the land of sudden and preventable pestilence. Like the many times when fires threatened to engulf our halls of residence at night, and the time when we were awakened by gunshots and running feet, or the many, many times we were awakened by candlelit processions to commemorate the lives of dearly departed students; or outside of school when we were awakened by raiding, or thieves, or just angry people.

‘May we wake one by one.’

Sometimes it seems that our Nigerian lives are defined by avoidable disaster, man-made-malaise. But they are still lives, human lives, with all the attendant human needs, desires and cravings. We still yearn as they do in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Berlin or Birmingham. But it is the marrying of normal with peril that defines Nigeria; joy and sorrow are wrapped up in indistinguishable garments. The combination of the modern trappings and age-old death fuse together and walk with us. The universal quest of love that culminates in a marriage that could be destroyed by an accident so fatal that we could see the smoke from several kilometres away. Watching ‘How I Met Your Mother’ only to be interrupted by a brutal home invasion. Studying Donoghue v Stevenson and duty of care, sweat-dripping onto your notes, and then the Student Union bosses forcefully disrupt your class on the pretext of a boycott. Heads slashed open during a student union vote. Rape under the shadow of darkness. Students taking a video of a public lynching and murder of other students on the very latest Android phone. Knowing that no matter how expensive your Jeep is, each time you enter into it, you may never come home, because the roads are lamentable and the police are trigger happy.

‘May we wake one by one.’

Because in Nigeria, violence is normal. It is expected. It is always waiting. My father had a game plan for how to respond to a home invasion. We discussed this very pragmatically. Because in Nigeria, the question of a home invasion is not answered with ‘if’ but ‘when.’ And this violence can come from anyone. And for women in Nigeria there is almost no escape. It is believed that 95% of women and girls in Nigeria have been subject to at the very least some form of sexual harassment. I would like to know the 5% and their secret. Almost everyone has encountered police brutality, everyone would have come into contact with abuse of office.

‘May we wake one by one.’

This is why our stories matter. Even if the world is not listening. These stories are for us. These stories are how we heal. This is how we dismantle oppression. Unveiling the monsters we have leashed upon ourselves upon each other. Monsters disguised in cultural robes, monsters parading in religious regalia, monsters purveying violence as their mother-tongue. These are things we don’t talk about. We do not talk about how our souls die in the face of constant violence. But we pray.

‘May we wake one by one.’

May we wake one by one.’

May we wake one by one.’

May we wake, before it is too late.

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