Not Waving But Drowning | By Kayode Akinwumi

It was a period of National celebration when Nigeria won their Quarter Final tie against South Africa yesterday evening. Periods such as that are the brief bright moments in the life of an otherwise depressed nation. Yes, Nigeria is a depressed nation, no matter what the economic reports say. You can confirm this fact in the pattern of living of an average Nigerian.

We all battle a lot of demons, ranging from economic to social. This has been evidenced by the recent increase in the suicide rate. Different suicide notes citing different reasons for quitting life. And we often ask ourselves, why didn’t anyone notice? Most of these suicide victims had friends and relatives.

Psychologists will tell you it takes days, or sometimes months and years to arrive at the point of taking one’s own life. How then, does it manage to escape our notice when close friends are approaching this end?

Suicide is one thing, but the point I’m trying to raise is how oblivious we can be of each other’s plights. We all see the recent wave of confessions about sexual victimisation. A lot of people go into their graves with these secrets. Many even die of the psychological damage those experiences did on them.

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We may all be wondering, were there no loved ones they could tell? Couldn’t they scream for help? It’s a really messy situation. But there could have been no tell-tale signs. On the contrary, most times, these signs are so obvious. So obvious that we take them for granted.

20th century British poet, Stevie Smith tells a rather curious story we can’t but relate within her magnum opus, Not Waving but Drowning. The poem, published in 1957, tells of a dead man, whom nobody heard but still lay moaning. And he was telling them: “I was much further out than you thought and not waving but drowning.” This leaves us wondering, how many people’s desperate gesture have we misinterpreted by not paying close attention?

We often tend to conclude what people’s experiences are about without finding out from them. “Poor chap, he always loved larking and now he’s dead It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way, they said.” This really depicts our attitude to people’s experience. We’d say ‘O, he’s having a time of his life drinking.’ What if he was drinking to drown his depression? We’d never know, cos now he’s dead or terminally sick.

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We are obviously sick as a society and probably too busy fighting our own individual battles. But history has proven to us that nobody wins alone. What we never know or realise, is that we’ll need help at certain stages of our own lives (if not at all points). We’ll cry silently, violently signalling to others that we’re drowning fast.

But then they’ll just look and wave back at us. They’ll wave back because they think we’re waving, whereas we’re drowning! So then before the chap, next door hangs by his own rope, why don’t you genuinely check to see he’s fine? Before that beautiful girl drowns in her painful silence, why don’t you pause to find out her fears? A lot of us are not waving, but drowning. Care enough to find out!


Kayode Oyeyemi Akinwumi studied Yoruba at Obafemi Awolowo University. A music enthusiast, social observer and music freak. He writes on various interests including social commentary and popular culture.