Violently angry at my husband some time ago, I desperately googled “How to forgive.” Some of the suggestions were the same ones I have heard many times from preachers and smug, know-it-all lifestyle gurus. “Grow up; move on.” “Put the past in the past.” “Anger only poisons you…” and on and on. One suggestion though was particularly original. It suggested picturing that person as a child. It was only a one-liner; no explanation included. But I am sure the anonymous author hoped to suggest that imagining someone in a state of innocence, pure and unhardened by life could allow sympathetic, warm feelings to replace those of anger and confusion. I endeavored to try this method.
What was particularly helpful for this imagining (as I was not part of his childhood) is that I have now on three occasions between 2011-2013 made the pilgrimage to my husband’s place of birth, Jos, Nigeria. And what a place it is! Jos, which is about one and a half hours by plane from Lagos, or 12 hours by road, is the capital of the Plateau State and sits in the North Central region of the country. It is vastly different from any other city in Nigeria that I have visited. At more than 4,000 feet above sea level, it has a mild, and inviting high-elevation climate; it is considerably cooler than other parts of Nigeria. Some of the older homes even have now-defunct fireplaces, harking back to a time prior to deforestation and global warming.
The most beautiful plants and trees grow in Jos. I remember coming in from the airport, the welcoming greenness of the city – not the heavy, swampy, jungle green of tropical Lagos – beckoned me. I took in every leaf and branch that we passed by. I saw Nandi flames resplendent in their blooms and I felt as though they must have laid out their red carpet for me. I saw the stunning lilac blooms of the jacaranda-lined roads, their jeweled branches waving in the cool breezes. We passed many golden and silver rocky hills along the way and as the roads wound around, they brought bronze and olive-colored fields into view. I thought about a young boy and his family making the same trip in a car 25 years ago, coming back from their own travels.
With the pale blue sky quilted with perfect patches of clouds above us, and my heart pumping with the thrill of all the rare beauty around me, I recall entering his former compound. It was a neat, well-kept place in the hallmark style of missionaries. It was full of delightful plants: roses and fragrant orange blossoms, geranium and amaryllises, and overrun by birds and friendly critters. I studied every tree and bush, picturing the trees he climbed, the bushes he hid behind. I considered every pebble and meandering path, not wanting to miss the opportunity to see the one he may have run over as a boy. I was able to picture a brilliant boy with blazing, blonde floppy hair trying to hang clothes on a line, building forts, and climbing trees.
Not surprisingly the anger only slightly dissipated; it was a very real adult pain, a devastating pain from which I was fleeing; it was not one easily glossed over by pretty pictures from the past.
The anger remained and as my mind moved on to think about Jos as a whole, my anger was joined by grief. Since September 7th, 2001 conflicts have plagued the city and its vicinity, though the complex story starts way before that– as early as the early 1800s, some historians argue– and unfortunately it is your typical mixture of hatred, racism, power, classism, colonialism, mixed in with Christianity and Islam. It’s the ubiquitous story of who got there first, of who’s entitled to rule, and of who must resist oppression. It is the same story of the quest of hate to overcome hate, of the inability to forgive.
It is a hate so strong that despite the abundance of natural beauty and richness of Jos, despite its enormous potential, that hate remains and has retarded any significant development since the 1990s, except maybe for a new overpass and more urban sprawl. As the places were unchanged, it made it easier for me to grasp and imagine Jos, but I watched my husband mourn the deterioration of the city: the numerous security check points all over the city, some manned by brazen soldiers parading their machine guns with a mix of relish and resignation. They out rightly mocked the official tagline of Plateau State seen on every area license plate, “Plateau State: Home of Peace and Tourism.”
My husband shook his head sadly, pointing out buildings from his heyday, now dilapidated and rundown. When asked what the biggest change for him was in Jos, he answered soberly, as if personally let down, “The fact that there has been no change…” And by that he meant “progress.”
Though I sought to think of Jos as a backdrop to help alleviate my own pain, I could not help feeling sympathy for this city and its citizens. The juxtaposition of the incredible beauty I witnessed – and the kindness and gentleness of every Jos resident I met – with the crumbling city, stories of “what ifs,” and warnings of hate in the region was too much to bear.
Moving away from the purpose of my recalling those memories, I asked myself the question, “How can Jos be saved?” And in its answer I realized there was a great irony, an answer to my own quest to find a formula for forgiveness. Jos can be saved in the same way I can learn to forgive my husband. It, like me, and like the anonymous author suggested, can think of childhood days when innocence reigned. I can think of the tremendous potential of a boy yet unhardened and affected by life. When mistakes were purely innocent. The citizens of Jos can remember a time when its city was the most coveted spot in Nigeria, when investors flocked to the Plateau to provide jobs and growth and purpose to the city. When Jos was famous for the kindness and hospitality of its people, and citizens, both Christian and Muslim, lived side by side peacefully and treated each other with respect and understanding.
And though this happy reminiscing is useful, if not used carefully it can be a lazy trick of the mind keeping us in that childish place of sugar-coated memories. A place where good things only live in a time gone. It can deny the very grown up act of forgiveness, of moving forward, a step that can only take place in the present. It denies the possibility that good things can exist in the future. And like me, in the end, it may only slightly alleviate the pain.
And so it seems the preachers and life-style gurus were also right: true forgiveness can only happen when one lets go and moves on. But this is an act of greatness, and of maturity.
So far this year in Jos, there have only been limited reports of violence, revenge, or killings. There are no bodies stacked up like speed bumps on the road – yet low-lying threats still exist in and around the city and many are frozen with fear.
Jos, you must find a way to take on the very adult pains that have wreaked havoc on your city. Look back but then look forward. And when you accomplish that, be brave enough to find a way to forgive each other, and to move forward. In essence, dear Jos, and with all due respect for the real pain you have gone through, for I have gone through some painful heartbreaking as well, we need to get over the violent anger and the violence; it is now time for us to grow up.