Monthly Archives: March 2012

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

I wrote the following in early February after my parents returned from a trip to the U.S. and brought with them Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place I had ordered for my friend Daily Times columnist and author  Elnathan John:

 

Before I send it off to Elnathan, I crack it open curiously, read a chapter before I go to bed. The next morning I wake up and open it again. I read greedily. The way I used to when I was in high school with my science fiction and fantasy. The way I read when I would neglect my homework, come home with a novel, which I would finish before I would start my homework late at night, working on my bed far into the night with a candle. I would fall asleep, my head inches from the candle balanced on a plate, sometimes not yet done with the algebra, which I would try to hurriedly finish in shaky pencil in the car on the way to school the next morning.

 

Those days, I poured the stories into me. Every day a new novel. Greedily. In grad school, I began to read more slowly, pencil in hand. I read theory and criticism, and long academic papers that I printed from the Internet. It was no longer a joy to read. I stopped reading. I became addicted to the Internet. In grad school when trying to finish my MA thesis, I started a blog. It was such a relief to have that outlet–to write my thoughts effortlessly in that forum when I was so stuck with academic writing. Then Facebook came along, and I became doubly addicted—to the inane games, the well-turned status update, the latest news–link upon link upon link.

 

I am two days late on an academic paper deadline, and yet I am sitting here in an office chair in my parent’s spare room, sitting at the desk in front of my computer, reading shamelessly–even when my mother comes in, the computer screen dead–reading Wainaina like a science fiction novel. It is not what I am supposed to be doing. It is not work. It is pleasure. Wainaina’s musings awaken in me memories of my own life, of the daydreams at fifteen, when I would stare dreamily out the windows of our van at the misty mountains of the green plateau in rainy season and imagine fantasy novels about a shepherdess name Merrony tending flocks on a long sunflower strewn Plateau. It was to be a trilogy. I can still remember the story now, as if it were a novel I had read long ago, a novel that will always remain in that “to-be-written” stage. My preoccupations have moved past Merrony, but Wainaina makes me want to write again in that way.

 

When I planned to write a review of Wainaina’s memoir for my column, I thought at first maybe I’d write something stream of consciousness. What I’ve copied above was the beginning of my brainstorm. But it felt too self-indulgent for the Weekly Trust. I let it be a blog post. Instead, I decided to focus on the parts of the memoir that seemed the most strikingly relevant to Nigeria right now. I can’t find the hard copy of the article, but if you scroll down below or click on this link, you can read what I wrote.

 

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

 

Written by Carmen McCain, Saturday, 11 February 2012 05:00

 

 

This past week, I procrastinated revisions on an academic article to greedily devour Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place. Wainaina won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 for his short story “Discovering Home” and is perhaps best known for his satirical essay “How to Write about Africa” published in Granta in 2005, a piece that skewers stereotypical ways in which non-Africans write about the continent. In a later reflection on the essay, Wainaina reveals that it “grew out of an email” written “in a fit of anger, responding to Granta’s “‘Africa’ issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known.” When Granta later published an edited version of the email, he wryly remarks: “I went viral; I became spam. […] Now I am ‘that guy,’ the conscience of Africa.”

 

As my own familiarity with Wainaina’s writing was limited to

Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina (Photo credit: Internaz)

having read a couple of his sardonic essays and interviews, I admit that the lilting dreaminess, even sweetness, of his memoir came as a surprise. If “How to Write About Africa” bitingly mocks how foreign reporters or celebrity activists write about Africa as if Africans had “no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks” then Wainaina’s memoir explores the depths and quirks through the remembered details of his own life.

 

Wainaina writes in an impressionistic present tense: the haze of childhood, an early obsession with words, his mother’s patient love. He changes schools, goes to South Africa for university, holes himself up in a room, drinking, reading, partying, never finishing school. He takes a trip to Uganda for a family reunion, out of which comes his first publication in a South African newspaper. A turn in the narrative comes when he submits the hastily revised piece, re-published as a short story in an e-journal, to the Caine prize. Although they initially respond that they do not accept electronically published material,  one day he receives another “email from the bloody colonizers” inviting him “to come to England, and have dinner in the House of Lords, and do readings, and go to the Bodleian Library for a dinner of many courses, with wine, and all of London’s literati.”

 

Following his Caine prize win, the memoir becomes more travelogue of the African countries he visits on writing business, impressions of Lagos, Lome, Accra; Kenyan election violence; African news browsed for on the internet, the writing life in America’s cold winter, where he is now director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. What struck me most in this sprawling account of family and personal history was the reoccurring motif of the ambiguity of borders, the way people change personalities as they switch languages, the shifting identities of ethnicity and naming that languages bring, how they include and exclude.

 

Wainaina grew up in Nairobi, son of a Ugandan Bufumbira mother and a Kenyan Gikuyu father, speaking Swahili and English. Following Gikuyu tradition, he, as second son, was named after his maternal Ugandan grandfather, Binyavanga, a Bufumbira nickname that means “mixed up”. His name becomes an appropriate lens through which to read his memoir.

 

Lessons about the way language and ethnicity exclude come early. One of his earliest childhood memories is of a quarrelsome woman who insults his mother because she is Ugandan. As a teenager while Kalenjin Daniel Arap Moi is in power, Binyavanga and his sister are among the top twenty students in their province, yet neither of them is called to any secondary school, “Rumors are spreading everywhere. We hear that [...] names are matched to numbers, and scrutinized, word by word, line by scientific line, for Gikuyu names in the secret office by Special Branch people.” Discriminated against because of his father’s Gikuyu name, when a Gikuyu becomes president, “for the first time in my life, to be Gikuyu is a public event. […] The rest of Kenya has become Tribes. There is a text message being sent to Gikuyus calling Luos and people from western Kenya ‘beasts from the west.’” The Ugandan origin of his first name becomes confusing for those who want to pigeon hole him into one of “us” or “them.” He describes an airline hostess who insists on knowing where his first name came from before she lets him pass. “One person stops me on a street to tell me how happy he was to see me in the newspaper—but that name of yours, my friends are asking, you are half what?”

 

And yet, Wainaina points out, these political uses of language and ethnicity are often colonial constructs. He frequently returns to a history of diverse kinship, rich old stories about the kingdom of Buganda, the Swahili culture the Arab explorer Ibn Batuta encountered centuries ago. “We are a mixed-up people,” he writes, describing how his Ugandan grandmother was originally from the Congo, his mother’s sister went into hiding in Rwanda, other family members settled in South Africa and America. In the two days of a reunion in Uganda, “we feel like a family. In French, Swahili, English, Gikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kiganda, and Ndebele, we sing one song, a multitude of passports in our luggage.”

 

Of his nanny Wambui, he writes, “Her aunt is half Nandi, her grandmother an Ngong Maasai. Wambui is Gikuyu by fear, or Kenyatta-issued title deed, or school registration or because her maternal Gikuyu uncle paid her father’s fees, or because they chose a Gikuyu name to get into a cooperative scheme in the seventies. […]She could have become a Luo, if they stayed there long enough, and she married there; she is dark skinned enough to get away with it.”

 

Though Wainaina’s memoir is written in English, he invokes his compatriot Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the great champion of writing in African languages, in a celebration of how multiple languages, though sometimes abused politically, are one of the riches of Kenya’s national character: English for official business, “brotherhood” in Swahili, more intimacy in mother tongues. “All city people inhabit several worlds in many languages. […Some] speak six or seven languages.”

 

Personalities change from language to language. A Maasai girl he meets is shy and awkward in English, but in Swahili and the street language of Sheng, “she pours herself into another person, talkative, aggressive. A person who must have a Tupac T-shirt stashed away somewhere.” On a bus, he watches a conductor whose “body language, his expressions, his character even, change from language to language—he is a brash town guy, a Gikuyu matatu guy, in Gikuyu, and even in Kiswahili. When he speaks Kalenjin, his face is gentler, more humorous, ironic rather than sarcastic, conservative, shy eyes.”

 

In his travels around Africa, Wainaina’s observes, along with delightful new quirks of national character, similar discrimination over language, class and ethnicity. Towards the end of the book, he writes in a fog of horror about the Kenyan election violence of 2007-2008.

 

Yet the mixed-up nature of his own family background points to relationships of familiarity possible all over the continent. When, a kind South African friend hires Wainaina, at his most destitute, as a marketer, he remembers in a rush of warmth other acts of compassion: how another South African friend  “offered to let me stay rent free in her house” and how her “father, a physics professor […] left South Africa in the fifties unable to get a job in Verwoerd South Africa [… but] was adopted in Nigeria where they lived for many years, […teaching]  a generation of Nigerian physicists at Ibadan.” “This is how to become an African,” he writes.

 

The “place” Wainaina writes about is both his mother’s hometown and the continent he travels: His family history is one of blood and one of adoption by friends throughout Africa. This is how to write about Africa, he implies. This is how to write about this place.

 

The Strange Poisonous Fruit of Hate: South Africa, Nigeria, and the world

Here is last week’s column, “The Strange Poisonous Fruit of Hate.” I wrote it in a very scattered state of mind. At times, there was gunfire in the background which punctuated my own emotional turmoil. I’m afraid my attention span manifests itself in the piece, which jumps around a bit, but which perhaps gives a feeling of Jos following the St. Finbarr’s Catholic church bombing in Rayfield and the tragic ‘reprisal’ attacks that followed–as well as my increasing horror at the hatred I see creeping out on little cockroach feet to infest the world.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (left) with his publisher at Parresia, Richard Ali (right). A friend is in the background. (c)CM

I had been planning to write a piece on my personal boycott of South Africa, following the  deportation of around 150 Nigerians (125 initially and more thereafter) from the Johannesburg airport for supposed irregular yellow card certificates. I had spent the week before agonizing with my friends Elnathan John, a blogger with Daily Times whose most recent short story has been published in ZAM Magazine, and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, the literary editor for Sunday Trust whose collection of short stories The Whispering Trees is forthcoming from Parresia Press. (For a taste of their work, see Abubakar’s story “Closure” and Elnathan’s story “Your Man” both published in Sentinel Nigeria, edited by Richard Ali.) Elnathan and Abubakar had been two of the twelve African writers invited for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing workshop to be held in South Africa this year. (The Caine Prize for African short stories is sometimes called the African Booker, and luminaries like Helon Habila and Binyavanga Wainaina have been among the recipients of the prize.)

Elnathan John in Abuja. (c) CM

Elnathan had applied for his visa over a month earlier but, because of a technicality regarding a deadline he was not told about for paying a N110,000 ‘repatriation fee’ that South Africa requires many Nigerians to pay before granting them visas, his visa was delayed until 3 days after he had supposed to travel the trip had to be cancelled.  Abubakar was able to get the visa in time but when he got to Johannesburg was told that his yellow fever certificate (which he had gotten following an inoculation in the Abuja Airport port health office) did not have the manufacturer’s batch number, and he was sent back to Lagos.  (Abubakar describes his travails in this article in Sunday Trust). Ironically, the day Abubakar was sent back, Elnathan got a call from the visa office saying that he should come pay the N110,000 visa fee. (He declined.)

Following this outrage, I determined to boycott South Africa. South Africa businesses make billions of naira in Nigeria (the largest market in Africa for South African businesses like MTN and DSTV), yet they continue to treat Nigerians with disrespect. In 2005, Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, incidentally one of the patrons of the Caine Prize,was held at the airport for over nine hours. (see here and here).

My Boycott: My phone had been slowly dying for about a year (and I had been stubbornly putting up with it.) But upon my resolve to boycott South African businesses, I took the opportunity to buy a new two-sim card phone and along with it a new glo line to gradually replace my MTN line. I also recently switched over from MTN internet to Glo (a Nigerian company), which gives more bandwidth and is cheaper. So far, I have been very pleased. Although the Thursday (8 March) after the deportations, South Africa’s foreign minister came out with a humble apology, later followed by an apology from South African President Zuma himself, the apology was too late for both Elnathan and Abubakar who missed the Caine workshop. Neither does South Africa seem to have any plans to compensate the nearly 150 visitors who were sent back to Nigeria by over-zealous immigration officials. Although I have long been invested in an “Africa without Borders” and while I am pleased with the apologies from the South African government over the diplomatic incident, I think this is an appropriate time to challenge the hegemony of  South Africa’s businesses on the continent.

As I was writing my column, I was struggling with a bit of cognitive dissonance over my belligerence to South Africa vs my plea for peace in Nigeria. I didn’t get into that in the column, but I think I can settle my internal inconsistencies by thinking about inequitable power structures. Diplomatic relations between two sovereign nations are quite a different matter than people taking justice into their own hands.

As usual, to read my column, you can click on the photo below to be taken to a readable version of the original, or you can scroll down below the photo to read it on my blog (with lots of links added).

The strange, poisonous fruit of hate

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 17 March 2012 05:00

 It’s a little before midnight on Monday, the day after the bombing at St. Finbar’s Catholic church in Jos. There was automatic gunfire a few hours earlier and I am having trouble concentrating on anything. I turn on the TV and Centurion is on. It is a film about a group of Roman soldiers fleeing a band of indigenous warrior Celts in ancient Britain. The movie is violent. Arrows thunk into the chests of soldiers. One Roman soldier betrays another, stabbing him so that he becomes bait for the wolves pursuing them, while the other man escapes. During an interlude, I hear, in my own world of Jos 2012, what sounds like the shouts of spectators at a football match. I know it is not football. I turn down the volume on the TV to listen. Onscreen, Romans soundlessly slam Celt faces into log walls. Celts stab spears through Roman bellies. Outside I can hear the rumble of an angry mob, then gunfire.

This week I had planned to write about xenophobia in South Africa. About how two of my friends, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John were unable to attend the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing workshop that was to hold from March 5 to 15. Elnathan’s visa, for which he had applied at the beginning of February, was delayed until the travel date passed. Abubakar got the visa on time but was turned back at the Johannesburg airport because the immigration officials claimed he didn’t have the manufacturer’s number on his yellow fever certificate—even though he had been inoculated and received the certificate from the port authority in the Abuja airport. I spent the week furious at South Africa, which makes billions of naira in Nigeria from businesses like MTN and DSTV, and from Nigerian films on the Africa Magic channels, yet still treats Nigerians with such disrespect. South Africa eventually apologized for deporting around 150 Nigerians over the yellow fever issue. It was an appropriate gesture, but the apology came too late for my friends to represent Nigeria at the Caine workshop. I went ahead and bought a new phone SIM card from a Nigerian company and made it my main line. My ideal is an Africa without borders, but following South Africa’s display of contempt, I prefer to support Nigerian businesses.

Now Tuesday, it is still hard to concentrate. I read Internet news all day long. Hatred hangs in the air, a suffocating grey smog creeping along the earth. It is pathological, infectious. In South Africa, the poisonous structures of apartheid have been internalized and then erupt into violence. Xenophobic riots in May 2008 killed 62. Last week the hatred showed a more refined face, a more polite aggression. Uniformed immigration officials smiled cold professional smiles, while expelling Nigerians from their country.

But it is in Nigeria too. The hate. Writing in the Daily Times, Ademola Thomas Olanrewaju points out that Nigerians discriminate against each other much the same way South Africans discriminated against them. He cites how Fashola ‘deported beggars to their respective states’—how states all over Nigeria discriminate against so-called non-indigenes. Much of the violence in the country grows out of notions that people should stay in the land of their great grandfather’s origin or else live as second class citizens. This hatred also seems to be one of the factors behind the violence of Boko Haram, who have spoken about their plans to drive Christians, even those who are indigenes, out of the north and who tolerate no one except those who share their own purist ideals. Those claiming to be Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad raze schools, shoot up mosques, bomb churches, police stations, soldier barracks, the UN headquarters. [A partial UN list of attacks up to 20 January 2012 here.] Leadership reported the story of a former member of Boko Haram who attempted to flee the sect in Maiduguri by running to Kaduna with his fiancée only to be found by them in Kaduna and carted away to unknown tortures.

In her classic science fiction novel A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle writes of our planet as being covered by a dark shadow of evil. The shadow feeds on hatred. It covers the globe and is lodged like shrapnel in every human. After the bombs went off at the COCIN church in Jos two weeks ago and then at St. Finbar’s Catholic church last Sunday, cyclical revenge violence killed nearly as many innocent people as the bombs had. In my own country of origin, the United States, politics has become a cynical game of pitting those who claim purist American and Christian ideals against everyone else. The toxins enter the soil, and strange fruits grow out. The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik praised anti-Islamic American bloggers Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and others in the Internet manifesto he wrote before he killed 77 people. Since Breivik’s bombing and shooting, other bloggers have praised this self-confesssed killer as a patriot. [See for example, this one] In America’s war of revenge after 9-11, the poison entered the armed forces as it does in most wars, driving soldiers mad. Out of a jingoistic military culture grew the American torture in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Most recently an American soldier in Afghanistan went berserk, going out in the middle of the night to slaughter 17 Afghan civilians asleep in their homes.

Violence feeds violence. Hatred feeds hatred. Living in a violent environment, we are all traumatized. We feel helpless. Striking out against those perceived to be on the ‘other side’ seems to be the only thing we can do. Our first reactions are those of mistrust. But the only way out of this is to reach across boundaries to those who are as hurt and confused as we are—refusing to demonize the ‘other’. In the midst of all of the bad news, my father forwarded me some encouraging stories. On March 12, the Kaduna youth wing of the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Northern Youth Muslim Forum met to pray together and break the Christian Lent fast together. According to Leadership, the CAN youth chairman Diji Obadiah Haruna said that the breaking of Lent fast with Muslims was continuing a tradition that had been halted by crisis: “Our quest to bring back the true spirit of togetherness has given birth to an association that will foster unity between Muslim and Christian faithful […] Love is the key […] The more you plan for progress, definitely, the more some obstacles will come your way. But I believe we will conquer those evils that do not wish us well.” Likewise, the National President of the African Youths for Conflict Resolution, who led the Muslim delegation, Dr. Suleiman Shu’aibu Shinkafi said, “I urge us all to respect each other’s religion and to stop the incessant killings and bombings or any act of terrorism against each other through whatever name that both Christian and Muslim doctrine has disowned. ‘We pray that God will expose those who want to see us apart and may God continue to join us together in his glory and mercy.’”

The actions of Christian and Muslim youth in Kaduna offer a glimmer of hope in troubled times. But beyond formal meetings, we need to rebuild those informal friendships across faith and ethnic boundaries that are often interrupted in times of crisis. It is in these personal relationships that we recognize that the ‘other’, so easily labeled as an enemy, is actually a brother or sister. It is only by this sort of unity that we will be able to rebuild Nigeria, Africa, and the world.

The Darkness only Love can Drive out: the COCIN church bombing, Jos, on 26 February 2012

A COCIN church newsletter on the ground outside the church gates after the bomb blast. (c)CM

 

(This is written 19 March 2012 but time-stamped earlier for blog organization purposes)As I describe in my Weekly Trust column

Onlookers at the COCIN headquarters church the evening after the bombing. (c)CM

below, I was not far from the bomb blast at the COCIN headquarters Church on 26 February 2012, the first suicide bombing in Jos. (Since then, there has been another suicide bomb on March 11, at St. Finbarr’s Catholic Church in Rayfield) It literally shook me out of bed at around 7:15am. Later in the day after things had calmed down a bit, I went to the church and took a few photos. You can access the album, here. I had not planned to actually go into the compound so I went with a zoom lens that made it difficult to get much perspective once I did end up going into the church compound. This, as I wrote on Facebook that evening, is what I saw and some of the rumours I heard that day (some of them false–for example–tragically one of the men misidentified as a bomber and beaten to death was actually a church member):

Ok, before I go climb into my bed, an update. Jos is calm and quiet. I was able to pay a brief visit to the COCIN church this evening, and this is what I saw: lots of people in the compound taking a look. First, the initial description someone gave on Al-Jazeera this morning was incorrect. The bomber did not drive into the church towards the pulpit. The car entered the compound with three men in the car (how exactly he entered is still murky to me as I’ve heard different versions from people who were at the church shortly before the blasts). Somehow two of the men got out of the car and the driver sped towards the church building. Apparently the car detonated a few metres from the back of the church [...]I saw the crater where the car exploded, which had filled up with scattered church bulletins. The damage is not as dramatic as you would expect from the kind of sound that came out of the explosion. The church is currently under construction with wooden scaffolding all around it, so it is hard to tell the extent of the damage, but what I saw seemed to be a crack in the wall in the back, and a small portion that was blown off, which might perhaps cause structural problems. No part of the church, however, was collapsing. Neither did any of the pews in the church seem to have been burnt or displaced, though they were covered in dust from the explosion. The most notable things were the parts from the suicide bombers car that were scattered all over the

One of the wheels of the car carrying the suicide bomber. (c)CM

compound. There was a tire lodged into the back pew of the church. There was an engine somewhere else and another tire that went around the side, the fusilage elsewhere. There was what looked like an orange plastic water tank that seemed to have been torn apart. Apparently earlier in the day, the bombers body parts were also strewn around, but fortunately, I did not see that. The other notable thing was that windows as far as a 2-3 blocks away were blown out. All of the cars in the parking lot outside of the church had their windows blown out and a few of the ones closest to the church were blackened and a little melted from the blast. The windows in the 4-5 story COCIN headquarters office building were mostly blown out. There was shattered glass everywhere.[...] As far as casualties, I’m not sure, but what I heard earlier in the day was that 3 church members died on the spot, and 3 more died in the hospital later. There could be more, but I don’t have any way to verify that.

It took me until the next Sunday to walk around in the neighborhood near the church and realize the extent of damage that had been done in reprisal violence. The fruit sellers in front of the First Bank down the street from the church told me that they heard the blast and saw the dust cloud. When the mob ran down the street, they ran away, and the mob burnt or looted all their merchandise. The mob also burnt a Muslim owned restaurant and other shops in the area. I went to give my condolences to the men selling spare parts across from the Mobile station in that area, and he told me that the morning of the bomb they had been at the house down the street where some Muslim women have a business selling masa and miya every morning in front of their house, waiting for the ladies to finish frying the masa for breakfast. When the bomb went off, a mob came and they all ran away. Not only did the mob burn all the businesses around but they also burned down the house of the women who sold the masa and miya every morning. I had bought food from them before, and I knew most of the Hausa business people in the area. This I think is when the devastation really hit home to me–the bomb was bad enough, but then the human desire for retaliation resulted in far more innocent people suffering.

Before reading my article “The Darkness only Love can Drive out” (to read the hard copy click on the photo below, or scroll down for a blog version with links), if you are interested in reading the stories of some of the other victims, here is the sad story of Hajara, who fled Boko Haram in Yobe only to be killed in the Jos COCIN church bombing, and Grace, a Sunday School teacher. Her family tell of how she was born prematurely and they see the years they had with her as God’s blessing.

The darkness only love can drive out

Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 03 March 2012 05:00

 I was in Jos and staying with friends in town. Sunday morning, I had been hitting snooze on my phone alarm for an hour. At around 7:15am, I was just about to get out of bed to prepare for church, when it happened. The gritty boom that made the house shake.  “JESUS,” I shrieked in a brief instinctual prayer, and leapt out of bed, swatting at the mosquito net that tangled around me.

I had heard the bombs at the football viewing centres in December. They had an echoing, reverberating sound. This was more immediate. It sounded like rocks and metal crunching. When I stepped into the hallway, grit from the ceiling had fallen down over everything. Outside, thousands of bats were in the sky. The morning sun was bright.

Of course, we knew exactly what it was, when the sound shook the house. In those few seconds it took me to untangle myself from the mosquito netting, I knew it was a bomb, and that it was at one of the churches somewhere nearby.

When the bombs and the gun battles were exploding in in Kano, Bauchi, Yobe, Borno, Kaduna, and Gombe, Jos had remained unnaturally calm. In January, refugees from Yobe had fled to Jos. I joked that the city had temporarily gone back to being the ‘home of peace and tourism’. Of course we had known it was only a matter of time.

In the house we prayed and read the Psalms. My mother kept calling. A Nigerian friend called from the UK. As my shakiness subsided, I drank tea, sent text messages, went online to check for news.

Around 9:30am I began to smell smoke. Strange, I thought, that I hadn’t smelled it before when the bomb had gone off. Outside, there were sirens, and the sounds of shouting, punctuated with silence. A friend, who usually attends the 9am service at COCIN headquarters, had gone to the church shortly after it happened. She came back repeating what she had heard, that there had been several people in the car, that they were in military uniforms, that one of them had died in the bomb and one had been beaten to death by the angry crowd. That she had heard at least two church members were killed, one of them a female usher. The smoke we were smelling was not from the church. It was from nearby shops that a mob of youth had begun burning. A doctor from Plateau Hospital came by. He confirmed that three church members had died. Others had been taken to Plateau Hospital. Many had ear injuries. He said that achaba drivers were being attacked. One woman with a machete wound to her head said they had seen the mob coming. They achaba driver had tried to turn around, but he hadn’t been fast enough. She survived. He hadn’t.

That evening, when things had calmed down, I went to the church to see the damage for myself . There were over a hundred onlookers milling about. The church, which had been under construction, was still surrounded by wooden scaffolding. There was a long crack down the backside of the church and a section of blocks that looked as if they had been blown off. There was a crater in the ground a few metres away from the building where they told me the car had exploded. It had filled up with the church bulletins that were scattered all over the compound. All of the cars in the car park were damaged with shattered windows, and drooping frames. Those closest to the building were blackened and pocked, with door handles blown off.

Windows of cars smashed by the impact of the blast (c)CM

Shards hung in the windows in the office building behind the church. The impact of the bomb had smashed windows as far as three blocks away.

Windows smashed out in office building behind church (c)CM

Most striking were the car parts that were scattered everywhere. There was a tire nestled against the last dusty pew in the church. Another tire lay outside towards the side of the building. The engine was a few metres away. When I came out of the compound, friendly police wanted to see my photos. They asked me if I had seen the body parts. I said no. That was something I didn’t want to see.

A few days later, more information has come out. The death toll still seems ambiguous, but it seems that at least five church members were killed, fifty others wounded, and three or four other people killed in mob violence.

Of course, Jos came out of this particular attack better off than some places have. The Madalla bombing killed around thirty-five. In Kano, the multiple bomb blasts killed nearly two hundred and the fighting continued off and on even to last week. The Friday before, five people had been killed in an attack on a Kano mosque. Later bombs went off in Gombe. There were other attacks in a village in Kaduna on Sunday.

I am of course devastated by what happened in Jos—that innocent people who rose early in the morning to worship God were killed. It is something every Christian in the north now faces when we go to church. But equally horrifying are the reports of mob violence against innocent young men on okadas just trying to make money to feed their families, the smoke that came not from the bomb at the church but from the Hausa businesses a block away which the mob burned. And then there is the devastating story that the man the angry crowd beat to death that morning was actually a church member who had been misidentified. As another friend pointed out, because so many have escaped from prison, people feel the need for immediate justice. But that was not justice. The story sickens me.

Boko Haram, who has claimed responsibility for the COCIN church bombing and much of the other violence in the north, attack Christians and Muslims alike. The church attacks make the most news, but the Kano mosque attack on 24 February follows other attacks on mosques and Muslim religious leaders in Borno. [This UN publication, published 20 January 2012, gives a partial timeline of Boko Haram attacks.] The police attacked are from both faiths. What worries me is that Boko Haram seems to have become an umbrella under which all manner of violence can be excused, whether it is claimed by them, blamed on them, or in retaliation for what they’ve done. In a bizaare twist, papers (see Tribune ) reported that several church members in Bauchi were caught with explosives trying to attack a ‘rival’ COCIN church the same Sunday. The COCIN president denied it.  And such a story does seem suspicious coming as it did on the same day as the Jos attack on COCIN headquarters. [The story has since been confirmed]. But it does illustrate how Boko Haram seems to have become a cover for any other evil plans anyone may have.

All, I can do is to repeat what I keep saying, so that I grow tired of speaking, so that I resent having to keep writing about violence when I would much rather write about film and literature:  the only way to defeat this evil is to band together, Christians and Muslims, and refuse to let Boko Haram succeed in making us violent in turn. The words of Martin Luther King Jr., from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community are worth repeating:  “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. […] Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”