No Other Way to Be Human

Excerpts from "Telling Stories of Our Shared Humanity," Chris Abani, TED Talks, Feb. 2008:

What I've come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion. In South Africa they have a phrase called ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.

But if you're like me, my humanity is more like a window. I don't really see it, I don't pay attention to it until there's a bug that's dead on the window. Then suddenly I see it, and usually, it's never good. It's usually when I'm cussing in traffic at someone who is trying to drive their car and drink coffee and send emails and make notes. So what ubuntu really says is that there is no way for us to be human without other people. It's really very simple, but really very complicated.

During the Biafran war, we were caught in the war. It was my mother with five little children. It takes her one year, through refugee camp after refugee camp, to make her way to an airstrip where we can fly out of the country. At every single refugee camp, she has to face off soldiers who want to take my elder brother Mark, who was nine, and make him a boy soldier. Can you imagine this five foot two woman, standing up to men with guns who want to kill us?

All through that one year, my mother never cried one time, not once. But when we were in Lisbon, in the airport, about to fly to England, this woman saw my mother wearing this dress, which had been washed so many times it was basically see through, with five really hungry-looking kids, came over and asked her what had happened. And she told this woman. And so this woman emptied out her suitcase and gave all of her clothes to my mother, and to us, and the toys of her kids, who didn't like that very much, but—

That was the only time she cried. And I remember years later, I was writing about my mother, and I asked her, 'Why did you cry then?"

And she said, "You know, you can steel your heart against any kind of trouble, any kind of horror. But the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger will unstitch you."

See also:

Chant:

by Chris Abani, from Dog Woman

It was the hornbill that spoke it.

In the nothing, becoming nothing,

begetting nothing; this is everything.

The world is old, the world is new

How does the darkness hide?

In the nothing, becoming nothing,

begetting nothing; this is everything.

The world is old, the world is new

The sun is no bigger than a crab.

In the nothing, becoming nothing,

begetting nothing; this is everything.

The world is old, the world is new

Hot soup is devoured from the edges.

In the nothing, becoming nothing,

begetting nothing; this is everything.

The world is old, the world is new

The blood sign is red; burning like fire.

In the nothing, becoming nothing,

begetting nothing; this is everything.

The world is old, the world is new

It has no name; silence is its name.

In the nothing, becoming nothing,

begetting nothing; this is everything.

The world is old, the world is new.