Think of the starving children in Biafra.
If you’re my age, you’ll remember being told that, probably over the pig-bins in the school dining room. Kids used to joke, asking if the school would send the contents of the pig-bins to Biafra. What did they know?
My life changed a lot after my first visit to FiLiA Women’s Conference – when was that… when it was in Eccles. A few years back. It always surprises people, the first time they attend FiLiA. Generally, women hear of it because of one campaign or another – probably something contentious – something that comes under “women’s issues”, and so is a bit of a side-line in mainstream politics (not many people are women, you know!) But FiLiA is bigger than that. It is a political education catalyst. It’s very international so instead of the context-free stories you get when you’re a kid (children in Biafra have red hair and huge eyes and bellies, and they are starving because they are in Africa) – Instead of that useless information, you meet people – women from all over the world, and women from the city the conference is in, women who are living the campaigns behind the stories the news glosses over – women who have got a hold of a problem, large or small, and are trying to fix it.
A Visit to a Conference
I think we children would have been more compassionate if we hadn’t been regaled with “think of the starving children in Biafra” along with half a hundred other supposedly improving exhortations. At FiLiA that year, I went to my first ever consciousness raising session. It turned out to have racism as its theme. Because of that one hour out of the weekend at FiLiA, I learned that when I go looking for something to read, I should make sure my selections include writings – particularly by women – from different countries.
A Visit to the Library
This month there was a display stand with a selection of Black history books in the library when I visited, and Half of a Yellow Moon by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie caught my eye. I like her work, I realised I had never read this one, so I chose it. Did you know that Biafra only existed for around three years? It was literally starved out of existence by a war from the moment it declared itself. Where does the blame lie? If you look at the big picture, of course it is with colonialist politicians and business people. Zoom out even further and, as ever, you’ll see it’s mainly the UK, with a lot of help from Russia and the USA. (Nowadays, it’s usually the US, with a lot of help from Russia and the UK).
…Or you can zoom in, and blame a whole host of people who were closer to the action but after 50 or so years of learning about world politics, I look back on the understanding I was given about “starving children in Biafra” in amazement. Now, I know they were real kids, just like the kids in all the other countries where human dysfunctionality kills. I also know that their parents died too, but I suppose teachers didn’t think talking about starving people would be so improving. After all, if you include adults, it might be their fault.
A visit to a concert
I think the next bit of the article should have a musical background – please click below if you agree…
It all depends on where you’re standing
This is an article about despair, and about hope, and about changing perspectives. The farce that UK politics has become weighs heavily on us in the UK lately. The hope that some felt when socialism briefly re-awoke in the Labour Party is long-gone. Hope rose again this summer when our Trade Unions agreed to get together and #DemandBetter and say #EnoughIsEnough and people like Mick Lynch started getting on the telly, forcing a bit of reality back into the mix.
I felt the worst political despair of my life the morning after the 2019 general election. One of the things that helped me start recovering was that year’s FiLiA conference (I think that one was in Bradford). Seeing all those women from all over the world, working on fixing so many wrongs, reminded me that no one of us is expected to solve everything – but each of us needs to stand up and try to solve one small thing – or join in a campaign somewhere to help solve a larger thing. Once you grasp that, it becomes manageable. And each person who stands up to do their little bit inspires more people around them to do the same. That’s the way to drive out despair.
Good guys and bad guys
One of the stories from this week’s news that could easily provoke despair is the one about the sexual and domestic violence in London that appears to have been perpetrated by London’s police officers. It didn’t make me despair though, because I’d been reading Half of a Yellow Sun, the story of a war. A story that reminds you that humans will do bad things if you turn them into authoritarian politicians, or soldiers, or police officers. It also reminds you that (how you read the next bit especially depends on where you’re standing) when their soldiers and police do terrible things, we want the evil bastards killed but when our soldiers and police do terrible things, we want them brought home and healed.
Politicians, soldiers, police officers – who chooses them, who trains them? That’s what needs to change, I think. And I think that because FiLiA. It’s in Cardiff this year, and I know a lot of the political turmoils in our government and others, and within the women’s movement, are going to be on our minds but I am going to be talking to some women about socialism and I’ll have the lessons of Half of a Yellow Sun in my mind. The factions in a war or a political struggle, or the goodies and the baddies in a law-and-order situation – they are all humans. Some of them are humans that need to do some learning.
For one thing, we need to learn some new ways of choosing and training politicians, police officers and soldiers.
The most extraordinary thing I saw at FiLiA the year it was in Bradford was a panel at an event about war, where a woman who had worked in the US President’s Office sat next to a woman who had nearly lost her life in one of the countries that President presided over the bombing of. They both told their experiences. We all listened. They listened to each other.
Listening and learning are the things that fix problems (or reading, if you’re a book-friendly person). That is what I intend to do at FiLiA. Hope to see you there. If you need something to read on the train, I recommend Half of a Yellow Sun, if you haven’t already read it. My favourite part is right at the end of the war.
Before the war starts, all the characters are doing what characters usually do. Everyone, including the politicians, the generals and the business people are very worked up about cars, clothes, dinners, all kinds of things, but especially about who’s sleeping with whom, and the politicians are setting things up for a war. During the war, the politicians, the generals and the business people go on doing what they do but the people, busy trying not to die, are a lot less worried about who’s sleeping with whom and the only concern about dinner is how to get any. They are very passionate about who’s going to win the war, because that is a part of staying alive but when it ends, win or lose suddenly doesn’t matter:
After the broadcast, Olanna felt dizzy with disbelief. She sat down.
“What now mah?” Ugwu asked, expressionless.
She looked away, at the cashew trees covered in dust, at the sky that curved to the earth in a cloudless wall ahead.
“Now I can go and find my sister,” she said.
Let’s go to FiLiA, do some listening, and some learning, and find some things we can change. See you in Cardiff, sisters all!
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