A Tale of Two Disappearances: Should it matter if they could have been us?

Over 200 people disappear in the middle of the night. How does the world respond? It seems that it depends. If the 239 people are tourists and business people on an aeroplane, the response is blanket media coverage for days on end, and millions of dollars and international cooperation in organising a weeks-long search, even though it has been clear for most of that time that there will be no survivors.

If, on the other hand, the 284 people are teenage girls from an African Muslim nation, it seems that it takes weeks for most of the world to even hear about their plight, desperate persistence by their families, and the beginnings of an outcry on social media before the mainstream media and governments even begin to mention the disappearance, even though it is very clear that these girls are very much alive and are being bought and sold as chattel.

I’ve been sickened and heartbroken over the news of the horrific kidnapping of nearly 300 16-18 year old girls from their school in Nigeria in April. It’s incredibly difficult to know how to respond. And like many others, I have found it difficult not to compare the response to this event to the response to the disappearance of flight MH370 in March.

The difference in news coverage has been striking. Our Australian Prime Minister has made numerous public statements about his dedication to the search for the wreckage of MH370, yet as far as I can see has made no public comment about the kidnapping and trafficking of these children in Nigeria. But I don’t just want to blame the government and the media. Often times they are simply focusing on what they think we want to hear about and/or care about.

And this raises for me some very tough questions about what we consider important and why. About whose lives are valuable and why.

Is it because these victims are black, or because they are female, or because they live in a Muslim country, that their story has not been treated as prominently? Perhaps. But I wonder if there is something else at work – something that lies within not just our governments, and our media, but in each of us.

I wonder if it boils down to this: “It could have been me.”

When we hear of a plane disappearing, most of us immediately think of our own air travel. It’s a part of our everyday experience, something we rely on and assume we can do freely without fear. We know there were four Australians on MH370, and so we relate to them because in many ways, they could have been us, or our family members. Perhaps it makes us that little bit fearful next time we board a plane, reminded of our own mortality and the risks inherent in our comfortable Western lives.

But militants kidnapping children because they are attending school? That is so far outside our experience, and so unlikely to ever happen to us or anyone we know, that we don’t have to worry about it. We can’t relate.

It seems to me that often we care more about people who are like us. And I wonder if it’s not necessarily because they are like us, but because subconsciously we think they could be us? So our compassion is in some ways selfish, because it is about our own fear, or our fear for our own children, rather than for the other person.

I’ve heard it said that 100,000 deaths in a remote third-world country = 1,000 deaths in a place you’ve heard of = 100 deaths in a country you’ve been to = 10 deaths in your own country = 1 death in your own neighbourhood. Is it simply about proximity, or is it that it’s “too close to home” meaning something like “that was very nearly me”?

A few years ago I was at a Women’s Retreat. Our guest speaker had recently returned from working in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world. She told story after story about children dying of malnutrition and starvation, of preventable diseases and lack of access to basic sanitation. Then, just before lunchtime, someone received a copy of the local paper, and read a story about a three year old child who had drowned in a backyard pool in our city. As I went into lunch, I couldn’t help notice that the major topic of conversation around the tables was about the news story. How tragic and awful it was for the mother, the family, of that child. And it was. But no more tragic and awful than the experience of hundreds, thousands, of women in Niger who we had been hearing about all weekend. Why did one story grab our attention so much more than the others? I can only answer that it was because deep down, perhaps without even recognising it, many in the room were thinking, “That could have been my child. That could have been me.”

I hesitate to tell that story, because I don’t want to seem judgmental of others when I am often exactly the same. But I felt like I learned something very profound that day. It is hard to care for people when their experience does not touch our own lives in some way. Deep down, do we categorise some people’s experience as different to ours, and some people therefore as “other” to us, so that we can seemingly justify to ourselves not caring about them in the same way?

These kinds of questions make me feel rebuked, and I kind of hope you do too. I don’t want to be a person who cares about things only because they have some connection to my own self-preservation and self-interest. I want to be a person of compassion, speaking out against all injustice, especially when it is so outrageous, so disgusting, so far removed from my understanding of humanity, that I still can’t quite believe it could happen to anyone.

In terms of the Nigerian girls, what can we do?

For starters, we can start speaking up. We can take every opportunity to ask our government and our media to speak up too. And we can start speaking the truth about what has happened. Recent media reports say these girls are being sold “as brides,” accepting the language the perpetrators have used for what they are doing. That is watering down the true horror. They are being trafficked as sex slaves. Let us name this evil for what it is and stand against it.

We can educate ourselves about this situation, and support organisations that are seeking to work against injustice in places like this. This article on 6 Things You Should Know About Nigeria’s Mass Kidnappings is a good place to start. If you want some much deeper context, and are willing to engage with some harrowing truths, this working paper on Boko Haram and Gender Based Violence is worth a bit more time.

And we can pray. I was so pleased to read this article at A Church for Starving Artists which lists the names of many of the missing girls, and encourages readers to pick just one name and pray for that girl. Let’s make this personal. Let’s not succumb to the temptation to think of these girls are “other,” but let’s start treating them as our own children. Because, humanity, they are.

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