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Why Not Art? Why Not Stories?: N4 Nigeria’s First Story Exchange

Humanity is the first casualty of war. Neighbors become other, become adversaries. How does a nation rebuild in the aftermath? How does healing begin?

Composer Jonathan Larson wrote, “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” In Nigeria, Buchi Onyegbule is creating space for difficult and necessary conversation. He convened the country’s first story exchange, “Handshake Across the Niger”, about the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970.

As is often true in times of conflict, politicians, populists, and hate merchants exploit cultural divisions, fostering disdain and mistrust among communities. This Narrative 4 Nigeria initiative aimed to employ personal stories of the Civil War as a means to build bridges across gender, inter-generational, and inter-regional divides.

“If honest conversations have become tough to have in our fragmented polity, why not art? Why not stories?”, Buchi asked. And on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, the people replied. Over 320 participants―including veterans, survivors, and young people―gathered to listen to one another stories.

One participant said, “Sharing my story was relieving, freeing, being able to talk about how I felt without backlash from the other person. It also reminded me that some of us in our generation want better and we can do better if we just put the biases away.”

Post-story exchange, Buchi reflected, “Civil War conversations in Nigeria are extremely sensitive, with many resulting in shouting matches, political rhetoric, and attempts to explore national fault lines around religion and ethnicity.This story exchange provided a departure from that. It created an opportunity for deep and sober reflection, as well as for many hitherto unheard voices to be heard.”

Narrative 4 is drafting a strategic plan to continue our work on the continent, with a focus on developing regional hubs in Nigeria and South Africa. With thought leaders like Buchi at the helm, we know change is not only possible, it is inevitable.