. . . and I began to see that the pen and the words that come from it can be much more powerful than machine guns, tanks or helicopters. We were learning how to struggle. And we were learning how powerful we are when we speak.1
I was at a meeting. The preacher declared, “If you haven’t found what is worth dying for, then you haven’t started living!” In my mind, I said, “But I am living and I enjoy my life although, I don’t know what I would die for.” The preacher reeled off convictions on which he would stake his life. I thought, that’s good for you, my children are still small, my marriage too young.
In my university, when students would gather to protest against government policies, I always left the campus and went to stay at my aunt’s, as I did not fancy being tear-gassed, arrested, or beaten or raped if the protest degenerated to a free-for-all.
Their protests annoyed my middle-class sensibilities. Shielded by my parents, I had never felt the sting of socio-economic or political policies. The more daring the protest, the more likely, that my university would be shut down, so that, instead of graduating at twenty, I would graduate at twenty plus x, x being anything from one to five years. This concerned me because I had mapped my life’s trajectory without the possibility of detours.
And so, Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography interested me, as all biographical material does, but more so because she is a teenager. She’s described as the educational campaigner from Swat Valley, Pakistan, who came to public attention by writing for BBC Urdu about life under the Taliban. News about her work had floated in and out of my attention in years past, but as I settled to read her book, I shook my head, what was she thinking?
The man was wearing a peaked cap and looked like a college student. He swung himself onto the tailboard at the back and leaned in right over us.
“Who is Malala? He demanded?”
No one said anything, but several of the girls looked at me. I was the only girl with my face not covered.
That’s when he lifted up a black pistol. I later learned it was a Colt 45. Some of the girls screamed.2
Malala’s story, in my view, traces the journey of her convictions, how they were shaped, how they crystallized, and how she learnt to live and expect to die for them. Her father is central to her story. She interprets her world through his eyes. But I get the sense as I read that even if Malala were translated into another set of circumstances, mine as a youngster, for example, she would still shake the world. Named after the Pashtun heroine, Malalai of Maiwand, when she was born, she popped out kicking and screaming.
Malala gives us a history lesson on her beloved Pakistan and Talibanization. It is a story I recognize: Nigeria before and after British colonization; Nigeria in the age of Boko Haram. Politics never sleeps. Poverty and illiteracy make indoctrination and intimidation potent. But Kalashnikovs and RPGs make the rich and educated flee too.
Her photo on the book cover hides fear and courage, a tension that she draws her readers to share with her family in Taliban-controlled Swat Valley and beyond.
“Are you scared now?” I asked my father.
“At night our fear is strong, Jani,” he told me, “but in the morning, in the light, we find our courage again.”3
She writes that her father hated the fact that most people would not speak up. She knew he was right. He kept a poem by Martin Niemoller in his pocket.
First they came for the communists,
and I did not speak out because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
I live in a land where my concerns range from 30% income tax deductions to choosing between Gouda and Maasdammer cheese. Comfort is a familiar place and I do not apologize for it. Privilege comes with responsibility and many are not silent. But I must break my silence and scream with more than sympathy, with my words, my money, my time, and my votes, because Malala proves that one voice can be heard. At a cost, at a cost . . .
©Timi Yeseibo 2014
1. Yousafzai, Malala with Lamb, Christina, I Am Malala (London: Orion Books, 2014), 131.
2. Ibid., 6.
3. Ibid., 115.
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