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The Headstrong Historian by Chimamanda Adichie details the way Nwamgba, a willful black woman in colonial Nigeria, loses her son to the teachings of a Catholic missionaries’ school. The way her son abandons his home culture saddens Nwamgba, but she later finds solace in her granddaughter Grace, who stands behind her heritage and becomes a “headstrong historian,” eventually writing a book titled Pacifying with Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria.

Upon being introduced to this narrative in my World Literature class, I was amazed by Adichie’s enchanting rhetoric and cogent voice. Nwamgba’s pain was almost tangible as her son slowly drifted away, and both my friends and I condemned Western imperialism for her sorrows. It was, however, only after my return home to Korea that I truly internalized the story.

During mass at the Methodist church I attend with my grandfather every week, I was fighting a losing battle with my jet-lagged mind, waiting for the pastor’s sermon to come to an end. But the moment he started talking about the church’s plans for launching a missionary effort in Tanzania, I snapped wide awake. While my grandfather smiled and silently mouthed thankful prayers to God as our pastor described the Tanzanian children that will have access to much-needed supplies and a Christian education at our soon-to-be-built school, all I could think of was Nwamgba, her son, and the discussion I had with my classmates here at NMH.

And suddenly, I was afraid. What if some Tanzanian mother wrote about losing her child to the Christian teachings of our school? What if some self-righteous, entitled boarding-school kid started criticizing my grandfather for patronizing the Tanzanians? Should I — or rather, did I have a right to — speak up and point to the way the Tanzanian children will lose elements of their home culture at our school?

After all, my grandfather, alongside most elderly members of church, had great reason to believe in the absolute virtue of God. From the Korean War to the Asian financial crisis, many were hopelessly impoverished, and my grandfather always found consolation in the aid that the local Christian community and Western missionaries provided. Therefore, being the humble man that he is, he credited God’s guidance — rather than his own backbreaking endeavours — for the family business’ eventual success.

And it is thanks to his company that I now finance my education here at NMH, including the World Literature class where I so eagerly disparaged the Catholic missionaries with my peers. So again, is it wrong for my grandfather to support the missionary effort out of a genuine desire to share his good fortune with the Tanzanians? And even if it is, what right do I — a privileged individual who has never had to pray for survival — have to question my grandfather’s faith?

Well, one thing is for sure — even after two years, I do not have answers to these questions. I am, however, no longer the man I was in World Literature class sophomore year, thoughtlessly condemning the missionaries without really understanding their story and how it related to my own. Although I have yet to reach synthesis in between the dialectics of accepting or rejecting our church’s Christian mission, the fearful moment of realization I had at church prodded at my previously nebulous sense of morality, forcing me to question and evaluate my understanding of right and wrong as I internalized the antithetical tales of my grandfather and Nwamgba.

Even now, I probably remain self-righteous, judgemental, and privileged. But I am also aware. Although I stand on this hill where, as one of my teachers described, the “far left of the far left” dwell, I have learned to ponder stories more thoroughly, recognizing the multiplicity of every situation and the many layers of my identity that define my perspectives.

Neither Christian missionaries nor Donald Trump are just “bad” nor “good.” Our very humanity stems from the intricate nuances that set each and every one of us apart, and I implore you to make it your purpose to see the world for not its generalities, but for its complexities. Our experience here at NMH has taught us to approach the world with neither the naiveté nor arrogance of an outside observer, but rather with a penchant for introspection and analysis that can serve as fuel for the lifelong evolution of our identities and self-awareness. Thus, I urge you to remember not only Adichie, but also the intricate complexities behind her story, even after our diaspora from this hill commences and we all find ourselves situated in new homes around new people. As for myself, I shall always carry not only Nwamgba’s story, but also that of my grandfather, wherever I go.

Thank you.


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