Empathy lessons from Nigeria

When I started writing a book about a telepathic link developing between two strangers, I wanted the second woman to lead a life that was very different from my protagonist. There were a lot of good reasons to make her Nigerian. For one, I’ve gotten to work with and know a variety of Nigerians in my day job, and I had both information on and appreciation for Nigeria’s cultures. Secondly, I recognized that few nations have as poor a reputation here in the US, largely due, I think, to the ongoing rash of Nigerian internet scams.

But I also knew that Nigeria has lessons to teach the rest of the world about learning to get along. As a nation born out of a forced union of tribes which sometimes held a deep hatred for each other, modern Nigeria has endured internal fighting and atrocities beyond belief. Years ago when I was involved in recruiting geoscientists, I learned about Nigeria’s National Youth Service Core.  Set up in response to Nigeria’s civil war in the early 1970’s, it requires that all Nigerian college graduates spend a year of public service while placed within other ethnic groups. In other words, they are sent off to live with the very people whom their own families may have hated.  The goal is to foster communication, compassion and empathy by exposing young Nigerians to the day to day lives of these “others’ .

As one might guess, such a scheme is plagued by problems.  It targets only the educated youth, and arguably they are already the more open-minded and least likely to perpetuate old hatreds. University graduates are not evenly distributed throughout the regions, and so some areas contribute considerably more to the workforce while other regions benefit more. Sadly, several brutal attacks on young corp members in recent years have tarnished its reputation and left families fearful. And finally, all the problems found in a large bureaucracy can be found here as well. For all it’s failings, however, Nigerians themselves ask the question “What would our nation be like if we hadn’t set up such a program?”

Which brings me to going to college here in the United States. Thanks to the bargain of in-state tuition and the relative ease of moving a teenager a few hundred miles instead of a few thousand, most parents I know strongly encourage their children to go to college nearby. When my three children left Texas to attend schools in far-flung New England, Chicago and the West Coast, we got asked what it was we had against Texas. The answer was that we had something for seeing our nation from different points of view. The U.S. of 2012 is not plagued by civil war, thankfully, but regional animosity and cultural dislike seem to be only growing, and in the end I think that fact can only serve to hurt us all, no matter where our home is or what our beliefs are.

So I personally think that there is lesson to be learned from Nigeria.  If we want our next generation to act and live as one coherent nation working together in spite of differences of opinion, then we need to encourage our youth to get out and see our country through the eyes of people we too often belittle. Nigeria may not be executing this plan perfectly, but they have an idea worth emulating. How would our nation change if a year of college far out of state was encouraged whenever practical? The result could well be that our children end up befriending the very people that we think that do not like, and we find ourselves in the awkward position of having to like more people.

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