Recently, I added a chapter to the inexhaustible pages of my love stories. I encountered an exquisite young African belle through a friend of a friend. She ticks all the boxes of the ‘ideal’ lady for me, bar one aspect. Per my usual custom, I did my own research on my muse, making note of what I thought were her strengths and weaknesses. On completion of this task, I shook my hair like the biblical figure of Samson and confronted the Philistines – I took her up on a relationship, asking her for the pleasure of ruling my heart.
To my disappointment and shock, to say the least, she made it crystal clear that she would have nothing to do with me due to our religious differences. While I pride myself in my Christian heritage, she glorifies her Islamic faith. In her words, “I do not want to have anything to do with a non-Muslim. My religion is my life”.
Full stop… chapter closed? Well, I had my game plan. It dawned on me that for every enmity between Yusuf and Mary there is a friendship between Hallvard and Hajarat.
Granted, I had wanted an answer and I got an honest one. But, her answer raised additional questions within me – questions that I am yet ready to satisfactorily answer, even as I write this. Why is it so difficult for us to tolerate our differences? Why do we hate and maim ourselves in the name of religion? Why is there no love in this country? Why is there no love on this planet? Why do we choose to neglect the lessons the past taught us?
Thinking of the past, it is important that I share an experience from my first year in Junior Secondary School. It was way back in February 2004 at the Baptist Boys High School in Abeokuta (the capital city of Ogun State in Southwest Nigeria). On that Friday, I stumbled across a group of Muslim ‘brothers’ who were busy criticizing and throwing unguarded words at the people of the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. I approached this group and cautioned them, but was greeted with a punch and beatings. I am not always the type that will turn the other cheek, so I took the four of them on for about fifteen minutes before I got support from my more combative brother from another mother in the vicinity. Thankfully the fight was resolved without blemish.
Today, I find it difficult to believe those boys of eleven or twelve years could nurse hatred for people of another faith. In my fallible opinion, their words were likely the local outcome of Nigeria’s broader religious conflicts or these boys being misguided by some clerics or extremists.
That occurrence reminded me of a more violent fight when I was living in my village of Nariya – a predominantly Christian village on the edge of Kaduna (North-West Nigeria). Nariya had already been attacked during the 2000 Sharia crisis and a number of people had been killed. At that time, the population consisted of both Muslims and Christians, the latter mostly from the Gwari ethnic group. Since then, many Muslims had moved out, but a few have remained – the Muslims that remained were Yorubas (South-westerners) rather than Hausas (Northerners) – an obvious evidence of the ethnic undertone of the strife. That day, I was almost stabbed by my neighbor who I viewed as a brother, because my uncle was in love with his sister. O! How the years go by. O! How the hate brings tears to my eyes!
Honestly, the feud between Muslims and Christians in the North of Nigeria can be likened to the feudal wars between the Capulets and Montagues of Verona in the renowned drama of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. We (Christians and Muslims) grew up disliking ourselves for reasons unknown to me. One fact I do know, is that the strife of the past did not help in creating an environment for both groups to co-exist peacefully. We cannot rule out our ethno-religious differences as a contributing factor if not a major factor.
Elisha Godswill Gwanzwang