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TED2008: Chris Abani – Forgetting their names

Chris Abani wasn’t the last speaker of the day, but he kicks so much ass, I’m blogging him last.

Chris Anderson introduces him, saying, “Ten minutes into the student production Abani was participating in, the soldiers came in. They gave him a statment to sign. He could either confess to treason, punishable by death, or he could send his classmates to prison. He’d already been to prison twice for a novel he’d written. So he signed the statement, and went to jail for the third time, this time to sit on death row.” Chris waits a beat. “He’s got material to write about.”

Abani tells us that when he grew up in Nigeria in the 1980s, a whole generation was protesting military dictatorship, not just him. Their protests taught him that the world is never saved in grand gestures, but through small, soft acts of compassion. He tells us the South African word “Ubuntu” – the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back to me. We tend to feel like our humanity is transparent most of the time, like a window – sometimes we don’t notice the reflection until we catch an insect or a smudge on it.

He tells us of his mother, an English woman who was 5’2″ and incredibly feisty. Before she passed away she visited Abani in LA, and was disappointed by Malibu, he says. “Chad the surfer dude told us about the specials – it’s this great salmon in pistacio with a wasabi glaze, dude. My mother said, ‘What language is he speaking?’ and I said, ‘English, Mom.’ She said, ‘Oh these americans, we gave them a language, why don’t they use it?'”

His mother converted from Church of England to Catholicism to marry his father. And that’s how she found herself teaching the Billings ovulation method to Ibo women. Unfortunately her Ibo wasn’t very good, so she took Abani along to translate. He was seven. He points out that Ibo women never discussed these matters with their own husbands, so they found it a little odd to have a boy asking them, “how swolen is your vulva?” His father was afraid the experience would make him too feminine, but his mother declared, “Anything a man can do, I can fix.”

He, his siblings and his mother fled the Biafran war, travelling from camp to camp, fending off soliders who want to take his nine year old brother as a boy soldier. His mother didn’t cry that whole year. But as they were flying to England, stopping in Lisbon, his mother was stopped by a woman who wanted to know why her clothes were so threadbare. She explained their story, and the woman emptied her suitcases, giving the family all the clothes and toys she carried. Her mother wept then, saying, “the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger will not stitch you.”

His father stayed behind. And when they returned to the village, each year, they sang the names of the war dead when planting rice. And when they harvested, they sang the names of children who had been born that year. “In this way, the women enacted a lot of transformation.”

“Before the genocide in Rwanda, the word for rape and for marriage was the same. But now it’s the women who are rebuilding that nation.” Under Apartheid in South Africa, the government buildings had no women’s toilets. “Apartheid was the matter of men.”

To become an Ibo man, men are taught to be men in ways that means they are not women, which mostly means killing animals. “Hey, it’s an agricultural lifestyle – you can’t go to Whole Foods.” As a young man, he was told to kill a goat. He brough a friend, a former child soldier named Emmanuel. His friend saw him, unable to kill the goat “which had eyes like a child, and bleated like a human being.” And then Emmanuel covered the mouth and the eyes of the goat, allowing him to kill it. “To someone who’s seen so much, this must seem like such a quotidian experience, but he found a way to help me. He never made fun of me. He just said, ‘It will always be difficult, but if you cry like this every time, you will die of heartbreak.””

Abani’s birthday is two days after Christmas, so he rarely got presents. A visiting priest asked him where his birthday present was, so his father, embarrased, sent the boy upstairs, saying, “Take one thing from my suitcase and that will be your present.” his father figured he’d choose a book; he chose an inflatable sheep, and carried it downstairs, “with my finger where it shouldn’t be.” His mother was agitated, but the priest said, “It’s alright, Daphne – I’m Scottish.”

As the room stops roaring from that joke, he tells us about his cellmate in prison that last time. His name was John James and he was 14 years old. He was being held for ransom, because someone in his family had committed a crime. And he was a comics nut, who had smuggled a copy of X-Men and one of Spiderman with him. In the evenings, he taught the hard men on death row to read – “There were these hardened criminals reciting’ ‘Take that, Spidey.'”

John James didn’t really understand death row and believed they’d get out. “They killed him. They handcuffed him to a chair, nailed his penis to a table, and let him bleed to death. That’s how I ended up in solitary, because I made my feelings known.”

The Ibo, he tells us, would build their own gods. “If the god became unruly and asked for human sacrifice, the Ibos would destroy the god. This is how they came to reclaim their humanity.”

“Every day, we are building gods that have gone rampant. We should start knocking them down and forgetting their names.”

10 thoughts on “TED2008: Chris Abani – Forgetting their names”

  1. Ethan, thank you for this! I’m a mom & an artist living in Silver Spring, Maryland who will probably never make it to TED, but I can be that stranger committing acts of compassion–both intentional and random. Chris Abani was my favorite speaker (hands down) from TED last year–thank you for giving me a little peak at what he said while I wait for the video.

  2. And when they returned to the village, each year, they sang the names of the war dead when planting rice. And when they harvested, they sang the names of children who had been born that year.

    Holy wow.

  3. I had the pleasure of working with Chris Abani about five years ago at a literary event in Seattle. His poetry are heart-breaking and immensely courageous, but the thing about him that struck me the most was his laughter. We sat next together in what I can only call a “subversive puppet opera”… I chuckled while his whole body shook with great waves of laughter. He’s a great man and one can learn a lot about how approach from him.

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  5. You know, some people are just incredibly gifted and special. Chris Abani made such huge impact on me in Arusha, so much so that I can hear him speaking as I read your post. Thanks Ethan, this was special.

  6. Thanks so much Ethan. The quote Rachel used above just wrecked me, bringing to mind sunny days and springtime and the laughter of two small boys accompanying their father, bobbing slowly and methodically across a wide asparagus field, bent to harvest. Oh man that quote touched me.

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  8. Chris is a pathological liar. He was never on a death row in Nigeria. It is amazing that people are not questioning this part of the video.

    “They killed him. They handcuffed him to a chair, and they tacked his penis to a table with a six-inch nail, then left him there to bleed to death.”

    Is possible to handcuff someone to a chair, and tacked his penis to a table with a six-inch nail? I rest my case.

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