More on the underwear bomber: Nigerian Parenting/Attitudes to Mental Health

I can’t believe this is my first post of 2010. I must start by wishing everyone a Happy New Year!

In my last post, I was concerned with the person of Umar and trying to understand his motivations in the mission he undertook. In the next couple of posts, I will be looking at what this young man’s story tells us about the war on terror in general and Nigerian attitudes to parenting and mental health.

My heart goes out to his family because this is surely a tragedy a for them. What Umar did has to be every parent’s worst nightmare. The boy who apparently was given everything messes up so badly, bringing disgrace to his family and his country. It is quickly becoming clear though that he was an emotionally vulnerable young man, lacking the support of family or a strong social network and who was dealing with the challenge of forging an identity on his own. In sending him off to the schools they did at such a young age, his parents had good intentions but looking back now, they may well conclude that they may have underestimated the necessity of emotional support in his life.

I’ve noticed that every time I’ve heard a group of Nigerian parents discussing Umar’s state of mind, they all seem to be agreed that he left home too young. To a person, they’ve all said that his being in boarding school meant that his parents missed the opportunity to discipline him, correct him and smack him if necessary. These reactions make me wonder why Nigerians seem to have such little understanding of people’s emotional needs.  I must confess that I find it strange that this conception of parental support is centred on discipline with not a mention of love or tenderness. I don’t think Umar was lacking discipline; he has come across so far as an internally disciplined person, you would have to be to fit  your underwear with explosives knowing you were journeying to your death. If anything, I think he was missing a sense of acceptance and the emotional grounding that we all need to face the harsh realities of life.

This brings me to the identity issues many young Nigerians and Africans deal with. More of us than at any other time in history are now living, studying or working outside our countries by choice (as opposed to slavery). While the potential benefits of making it abroad are obvious (the number of Nigerians praying to get visas to go abroad for any reason is a testament to this), too many people are blind to the difficulties that come along with the experience. Yes, the costs of ‘the dream’ are very high indeed.

I feel we are very ill-equipped to deal with these matters as even talking about it with family can be a massive challenge.  Attempts to discuss these topics are often met by a wall of ignorance, a failure to comprehend or even worse, dismissal.  It is important for adults, parents and families to understand what is going on when their children find themselves caught between cultures and trying to figure out where they fit in the world. You may not be able to fix it but the sense of being understood provides much relief to the ones going through this mental battle.

Umar is in many senses an extreme example. He happened to have the perfect combination of ingredients to create the Christmas day disaster we are all now intimately familiar with.  While it may be reassuring to know that the likelihood of others in his position following a similar path is small, we should not be deceived into thinking that they are living scar-free.

I remember studying a poem by Lenrie Peters in secondary school. It resonates with me now as I think about this issue.

(To be continued)


‘We have come home’ – Lenrie Peters

We have come home

From the bloodless wars

With sunken hearts

Our boots full of pride

From the true massacre of the soul

When we have asked

‘What does it cost

To be loved and left alone’


We have come home

Bringing the pledge

Which is written in rainbow colours

Across the sky for burial

But it is not the time

To lay wreaths

For yesterday’s crimes,

Night threatens

Time dissolves

And there is no acquaintance

With tomorrow


The gurgling drums

Echo the stars

The forest howls

And between the trees

The dark sun appears.


We have come home

When the dawn falters

Singing songs of other lands

The death march

Violating our ears

Knowing all our loves and tears

Determined by the spinning coin


We have come home

To the green foothills

To drink from the cup

Of warm and mellow birdsong

To the hot beaches

Where the boats go out to sea

Threshing the ocean’s harvest

And the hovering, plunging

Gliding gulls shower kisses on the waves


We have come home

Where through the lighting flash

And the thundering rain

The famine the drought,

The sudden spirit

Lingers on the road

Supporting the tortured remnants

of the flesh

That spirit which asks no favour

of the world

But to have dignity.

(Text from


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