Being a Canadian ‘post-war baby boomer’ means that I’ve lived a fortunately ‘peace-full’ existence, without the test of major political conflict. But unlike most of my age-mates here, I have experienced war and its corrosive aftermath elsewhere.
As a CUSO cooperant, I happened to go to teach literature at the University of Lagos while the Nigerian/Biafran civil war was dragging on. Then in January 1970, the surrender of secessionist Biafra was announced. Everyone on campus was overjoyed, and classes were cancelled in that celebratory atmosphere.
One group of students created huge peace banners behind which they marched around, singing “All we are saying is give peace a chance”. Another group crowded into a large transport truck and drove to the barracks to congratulate General Gowon, then the head of the federal government as well as the military. But they soon returned in disarray, after being sprayed with tear gas! On a more positive note, in the following days, returning former faculty and students were welcomed back to Unilag.
A few months later, I was approached by Tai Solarin, founder of the Mayflower School and human rights activist, to accompany him (and others) to what had been Biafra, to check on continuing needs for private relief supplies that he was sending there. In a Land Rover for four days, we jounced around tank traps and over roads slashed repeatedly by retreating troops, to visit with survivors still caught in deprived conditions. We camped where we could, including in a deserted Nsukka University building pock-marked by bullets. It was a harrowing experience. Back home, this was the era of FLQ separatist violence, and although I had little information on such events while abroad, the issue of ‘reconciliation’ after such a level of conflict impressed itself on me, and has remained a matter of personal consideration as a Canadian ever since.
I might say (as background) that I was taught in graduate school by renowned Renaissance scholar Rosalie Colie, herself a student of famed art historian E. H. Gombrich. Colie emphasized THE critical question always posed by Gombrich, who apparently lisped: “What are the pothible alternativeth?” This continues to be a touchstone for me. For example, what might Nigerian decision-makers have done to prevent civil war in the first place, or to assuage its destruction of lives and resources?
But sometimes I apply this question in a lighter vein -- for instance, when thinking of the arts as well as of typical news coverage. Conflict, it is said, is the essence of drama -- and as for television news, well: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Recently, Ottawa was visited by ‘La Machine’, performance art consisting of giant mechanical beasts, the dragon-horse Long Ma and spider Kumo, who undertook activities around the city. I couldn’t help noticing that these were mainly macho fights between Long Ma and Kumo. So I fancifully imagined some ‘possible alternatives’ for Long Ma and Kumo here, featuring feminist and peace themes. They could have:
• Visited the Peacekeeping Monument with the Minister of Defence, along with veteran peacekeepers receiving appreciation awards
• Held a tea party at the Women are Persons Monument with gender equality activists
• Convened a seminar about maternal health and reproductive rights with Kumo’s cousin Maman, the giant spider sculpture, in front of the National Gallery of Art
• Taken flowers for a photo op with the Chief Justice & the statue of Justice at the Supreme Court.
A world with peace and no war? What a ‘possible alternative’ that would be.
By: Wendy Lawrence, Gender Equality Specialist