Tag Archives: Nigeria

Remembering September 11 through a lens of fourteen years

Even all these years later, seeing the date September 11 still gives me a small jolt. Last night I was up past midnight trying to put up a course syllabus online. When I glanced at the date in the top right-hand corner of my screen, I jumped a little. I was chatting with my brother online about a documentary on climate change we are working on, and I said, “oh my goodness I just saw that it was Sept 11.” “Yeah,” he said.

I forgot again today until I saw this tweet from President Obama

I responded

Because remembering September 11, now, through a lens of fourteen years, I think of how America’s knee-jerk response, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, the years of bombings that often killed people as innocent as the ones working in those towers, ultimately led to rise of ISIS, maybe even Boko Haram. If we could go back to that time, if America had not gone to war, if we had investigated better, if we had responded less violently, what would the world look like now? Perhaps it is futile to play “what if” games, perhaps even worse things would have happened. But despite all the trauma of the day, since September 11, 2001, the world has been filled with bombs. Hundreds of them have gone off in Nigeria since 2010. I was closer to the Boko Haram bomb at the COCIN Headquarters Church in Jos on 26 February 2012 than I was to the World Trade Centre on September 11. Americans are loud in their grief, but elsewhere far more people have been killed than were in the towers, the planes, and the Pentagon on that blue-skied day in September fourteen years ago.

Yet it remains an epochal day in the history of the world, the scale of it, and by what it precipitated in the world. I’ll post here a few of the other articles I’ve written about my experiences on September 11. I’ve revisited those memories many times over the years. Reading back over them, I am struck by how each time I remember, other details emerge, while others fade away. Here are three columns I wrote in 2011, around the ten year anniversary of the tragedy.

Daily Trust has recently updated their website. The dedicated site for my column is gone, and almost all of my articles have their introductory paragraphs cut off now. I will try to slowly begin to archive them here on my blog from pre-edited copies that I submitted to my editor. The first article I will post here is on the event of the 10-year anniversary of the attack on New York published on 10 September 2011 and the second and third are from articles I had published in January of 2011.

2011-9-10-Weekly Trust-column-Sept 11 10 yrs later

September 2001, ten years later

(published in Weekly Trust on 10 September 2011)

Ten years ago, September 11, 2011, my flat mate and I arose to a crisp, clear-skied Tuesday morning in the New York City borough of Brooklyn and began preparing for the day. I had recently quit my job as an editor at a small children’s book publishing company in order to return on a Fulbright scholarship to Nigeria, where I planned to live in Jos for the year, doing research before applying to PhD programmes. I hoped to spend that Tuesday packing. While my flatmate got ready for work, I made tea and turned on the radio to listen to the news on New York’s National Public Radio (NPR) station. A crisis had begun in Jos on September 7, where both my flatmate and I had gone to school. NPR had begun to cover it in previous days, and we were anxious to hear the news. But when I turned on the radio, all I could hear was static. Strange, I thought, and turned the dial trying to find a signal. I tuned in to a different radio station, where the news was being reported of a plane flying into the World Trade Centre in lower Manhattan. I imagined that it was a freak accident involving a small private plane that held only a few people, like the one JFK Jr. had crashed in two years earlier. But as we ate breakfast, a school friend of ours from Jos now living in the U.S. called, her voice high and worried. “I just saw a plane flying into the World Trade Centre,” she said. “On TV. Are you Ok?” This was the second plane. The story became clearer. Both planes had been commercial flights. Both towers of the World Trade Centre were on fire and seemed to be structurally damaged. The news was unthinkable. Neither of us knew how to process the information. I had been in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics and had visited the Olympic park the day before American domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph set off a bomb there, but this was larger and more frightening than anything I had ever heard of. “Are you sure you should go to work?” I asked my flatmate, as she prepared to walk out the door. “Do you think the subways will be running?” “My meeting is in Brooklyn, not in Manhattan,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

We were very young, and neither of us had any idea of the world that day was christening us into. As she proceeded to the subway, I quickly dressed and ran down to the pier on the Hudson River only a few blocks from where we lived, which had a clear view of lower Manhattan. In previous columns I have written about standing on the pier with other New Yorkers, mouths agape as we watched hot fire devour the centre of towers, white smoke pouring across the blue sky into Brooklyn. I’ve described how a ripple of smoke ran down the South Tower before we saw it collapse into dust, how I walked numbly away from the water back towards my apartment, through deserted streets, televisions blaring through open windows. By the time I got back home to the radio, the second tower had also fallen. I lay on my bed, hot tears trickling into my ears trying to calling my flatmate, another friend I thought had been in the tower, my aunts and uncles. All networks were busy. My flatmate got home around noon, covered in soot. She had not yet arrived at work when the train stopped. She had walked about 70 city blocks back home through the ash blowing across Brooklyn, holding a paper serviette from a deli across her mouth and nose. Later, we went back out together, down to the pier where I had seen the first tower fall. The sky was clear and blue and the afternoon sun, hot. Where the gleaming silver twin towers had once loomed over the skyline of lower Manhattan, there was nothing but smoke. Suddenly, we heard the sound of planes overhead. My body tensed. There was a no-fly order imposed. There were not supposed to be any planes in the sky. When we looked up, they were fighter planes. It was a symbol of what was to come.

The next few days, we stayed at home and listened to the radio with two other friends who came to stay with us because they didn’t want to be alone. The couple who lived below us in the brownstone house were both newspaper editors, and one day I stayed with their children while they both went in to work. The children asked me why someone would fly planes into the World Trade Centre. I didn’t know what to tell them. “There are crazy people in the world,” I said. “There are bad people.” Around the city, family members posted photos of missing loved ones on subway walls and lamp posts. Small shrines sprung up around them, with candles and ribbons and letters. A bagpipe procession went past our window, as a funeral was held for a fireman at the Catholic church down the street. The Muslim shop owner around the corner from my house put up a gigantic American flag.

Two weeks later I boarded my plane back to Nigeria, on my way to another wounded city, where my parents had hosted a refugee camp at their house, churches and mosques had been burnt, and one of my father’s students had been found murdered, washed up on the banks of a river. It felt, in those days, as if the whole world were on fire.

Ten years later, both countries I call home are harsher more violent places. The U.S. has turned on itself. American extremists lash out against Muslims, who they blame en-masse for the attacks, filling the internet and airwaves with hatred. Al-Jazeera reports that in the past ten years the FBI has “investigated more than 800 violent acts against Muslims, Arab Americans, or people perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.” The violent rhetoric in the U.S. does not stop at American borders. Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed seventy-seven people in a bomb and a shooting this July, cited American bloggers in his online manifesto. In the countries the U.S. invaded following the 9-11 attack the death toll is much higher, and such actions are used by violent extremists as justification for further violence.

In Nigeria, the entity popularly called Boko Haram has, this year, initiated Nigeria’s first suicide bombs, only a few weeks ago attacking the UN building, which, like the World Trade Centre, represented the existing global system. Ten years after the first large crisis, Jos has become an appalling place. The first few crises may have been instigated by politicians, by “bad, crazy people” as I told my landlord’s children in the wake of 9-11, but is continued through communities seeking revenge. Those who were children at the time of the first crisis have grown up to become murderers, committing atrocities against those with whom they might have been friends had they lived in a different city, but whom they have been taught to despise. Parents and clerics and leaders who should be restraining them, encourage hate, or else refuse to speak because they are afraid their children will turn on them.

One of my favourite writers C.S. Lewis imagines in his novel The Great Divorce, Hell, as a place where people continue for an eternity in the path they decided to follow on earth. Unforgiveness, hatred, and arrogance eat away all their good characteristics till they become shadows, left with nothing but the sins they refuse to give up. Given a chance to go to heaven, most of the ghosts in the novel return voluntarily to hell. In heaven they are unable to hold on to their hatred, and they’d rather live in hell than forgive.

Ten years after the Jos crisis and the 9-11 attacks, I am only left with questions and fear for the future. What are our children learning? What are they becoming? What kind of world will we leave them? Where will we be in another ten years? Are we willing to do the hard thing, forgive those who have killed our loved ones and teach our children peace, or do we want to take revenge after revenge, until we have made for ourselves hell on earth?

2011-1-8-Weekly Trust-column-Anger Revolutionary Love

Anger and the Revolutionary Ideal of Love

(published in Weekly Trust on 8 January 2011)

Nearly ten years ago now, I stood with fifty or sixty other people on a Brooklyn pier looking over the water towards downtown Manhattan, in New York City. It was a crisp September day. The sky was clear and blue, except for the white smoke that streamed over Brooklyn. The iconic twin towers were burning. When the first ripple of smoke travelled down the first tower and it collapsed into dust, I stood with the others gaping. There was a stunned silence. We could hear nothing but the sound of people shouting on megaphones over the water. And then the people around me began to scream. “It’s falling.” “It’s fallen.” “That’s it. He’s going to war,” one man said. “He’s going to war.”

I thought I had just seen a friend die. I walked away, my hands on my head, dry eyed, my mind blank. As I walked back to my apartment, the streets were deserted. I could hear nothing but the sound of television news blaring out of open windows. Two construction workers I had passed on my way down to the water, ran past me. One dropped his helmet. “Leave it. Leave it,” screamed his parter. By the time I reached my apartment, I heard on the radio that the second tower had fallen. I lay on my bed, the sun travelling over me, trying to call my family (all networks were busy), waiting for my roommate to come home.

I lost a friend that day—but not to the towers. The friend who had worked in the world trade centre complex was fine. I lost my friend to anger. “I hope they hunt down who has done this,” I emailed my friend living in distant Midwestern America. “And kill them.” “Why do you want to respond to violence with more violence?” he asked me. “If you couldn’t look them in the eyes and kill them yourself, you shouldn’t say you want them to be killed.” I was furious. What did he know, living far away in an untouched city where he couldn’t smell the smoke, where he couldn’t feel the grit of pulverized buildings and burned bodies floating through the windows and settling on everything like harmattan dust, where he hadn’t suffered the agony of thinking a friend had died, a neighbor had died. His pacifist ideas felt namby-pamby, ideal without experience. How could he preach to me, when he didn’t understand my grief. I wasn’t saying we should go out and kill innocent people. I was saying we should kill terrorists. I never wrote him back. I never spoke to him again.

I flashed back to that day this week on New Year’s Eve, when I heard of the bomb that exploded in Abuja and the rumours of other bombs that turned out not to be true. I can understand now that there may have been more sense to my friend’s words than I gave him credit for. I regret losing a long friendship to anger. In anger, America went into a war they didn’t understand. They geared their action towards stereotypes rather than intelligence, and their actions have caused mass suffering and deaths far beyond what we Americans suffered on September 11.

Yet, although I never supported the war in Iraq, I can understand the anger that made other Americans support it. I do believe that international law should be followed in bringing justice, but I still understand why I reacted so violently to my friends glib pacifism, which did not seem to take seriously the massive suffering caused by those who hijacked planes and brought down towers.

It is true. I am white and the citizen of a superpower. My country has thrown its weight around the world. I can never completely understand the feeling of powerlessness, the feeling that there is nowhere else to go—or the very personal history of oppression. But I do know what it feels like to live in a city under attack, both in New York and in Jos. I have experienced terror attacks in America and lived through multiple crises in Nigeria. I have close friends who are Christians and Muslims in Jos, Kano, Abuja, Kaduna. I have seen the anger on both sides. And I know that it is not my friends, it is not the ordinary people who have committed acts of terror. But it is the ordinary people who suffer when angry people take the law into their own hands. It is the ordinary people whose houses are burnt and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and children are killed in the violence of retaliation.

Following my repeated reading of American civil right’s leader Martin Luther King Jr’s 1957 Christmas sermon “Loving Your Enemies” this week, I read excerpts from his book Stride Toward Freedom that describe how he developed his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, from influences as diverse as Marx and Ghandi. He has sometimes been accused of being too peaceful, of being a passive resister, of collaborating too much with the majority in power. Yet, Martin Luther King did not advocate sitting around and letting things happen. He advocated resistance and disobedience to injust laws and to corrupt law enforcers but a resistance that was based in nonviolence and ultimately love—a resistance that helped transform the American justice system and bring change to corrupt and injust policies. In his own words, “True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplied the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.” And while King’s fellow civil rights activist Malcom X is often viewed as having more violent solutions to injustice, his turn to Sunni Islam and his trip to Mecca near the end of his life revolutionized his approach. “I was no less angry than I had been,” he told Alex Haley, in their collaboration The Autobiography of Malcom X, “ but at the same time the true brotherhood I had seen in the Holy World had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision” (410). Malcom X anticipated his death, speaking with his brother about martyrs. “If I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood” (467).

Both Martin Luther King and Malcom X were assassinated by hateful extremists, and injustice has certainly not completely ended in American society. [UPDATE: In 2015, with the constantly reported killings of young black men at the hands of the police, this becomes particularly clear.] But the peaceful yet passionate forms of protest espoused by both men towards the end of their lives provides a powerful model of how change can be effected. Nigeria is not America. And no outside solution will ever work to bring peace. It must be a peace that come from within. But we can look, as both of these American leaders did, to other models of transformation as examples of ways in which peace can be built, and remember that the deepest ideals can sometimes be the most revolutionary.

2011-1-22-Weekly Trust-column-Sad consequences of hate

The Sad Consequences of Hate

(published in Weekly Trust on 22 January 2011)

In September 2001, my flatmate and I were closely following the events in Jos. We had both grown up in Jos and had moved to New York together after finishing university. Each morning we would turn on New York public radio to listen for coverage of the crisis raging across what we remembered as a peaceful, quiet city. Then, on September 11, two jets slammed into the twin towers in New York, and Jos fell off the international news radar. Although my parents didn’t have a mobile phone in those days, I was able to get through to some other friends in Jos, who had a landline. My parents got word that I was fine when someone came to deliver a bag of garri for the several hundred people camped out in and around their house. They later told me they hadn’t really had time to be worried about me. They had heard the news but figured I wouldn’t have been in the World Trade Centre. In the meantime, there was gunfire on the streets of Jos and hundreds of refugees to find food for.

As New York draped itself in American flags, distraught family members plastered photos of their missing loved ones on subway walls. All over the city, candles were lit in little makeshift shrines to the dead. Two weeks after September 11, I left New York to fly to Jos. My trip back had been planned for almost half a year. I had quit my job in anticipation of spending a year in Jos, and now I was flying from one city in mourning to another. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in New York and heal with the city. But I thought that if I let the attacks change my plans, I would be giving in to the terrorists. So, half in defiance, half because I’d already quit my job, I travelled back to my other home where people went about with haunted eyes, trading stories of where they had been, what they had seen during the crisis. “Happy Survival,” they said. It was an apt greeting for the time.

Those first few months back in Jos, I’d spend hours watching CNN, wincing at the endless replays of the jets slamming into silver buildings, eagerly following the cleanup in New York, listening to stories of the families of those who had been killed in the planes and the towers. A few months after I had settled, the cultural affairs section of the US embassy brought an exhibit to the University of Jos of “Ground Zero” photos taken by a New Yorker photographer—beautiful abstracts of fallen beams, of light rays defined by dust, and portraits of firemen and clean-up workers at the site where the towers had collapsed. I was hungry for images of New York, but as I walked through the rows of photos, I was struck by how the other people around me shook their heads at photos of smoke and ash and weeping people. “This is terrible, this is terrible,” they said. I felt a sense of vertigo. The same people who had just lived through nearly a week of war, of smoke on the horizon and shootings in the streets, the same people who had neighbors gone missing, never to be seen again, these same people were shaking their heads in sympathy for the tragedy in America.

Yet what did America know about what had happened in Jos. CNN was not covering it then. There were no international exhibits of photography travelling around to educate the globe on the thousands of deaths Jos had suffered. In that moment, my world shifted further on its axis. I still grieved New York. But now I wanted to collect the stories of those not constantly on global television, make heard the voices buried under the loud mourning of my homeland.

Sadly, almost ten years later, Jos does rise to the top of African headlines. The shock that a peaceful city would erupt into violence is no longer there. News coming out of the Jos is increasingly more horrifying. “God forbid,” wrote one of my Hausa actor friends on Facebook, when someone invited him to shoot a film in Jos, the home of the National Film Corporation, the National Film Institute and once a booming centre of Hausa films. Jos is now one of the Nigerian cities most likely to make international headlines for violence.

Living in Nigeria with emotional investments both here and in the United States, I continue to recognize eerie parallels between my two homes. The first week of 2011, there was an upsurge of violence in Jos between rival factions, after a car-load of people returning from a wedding party were killed and a bus passing through Jos from Lagos to Yola was burnt. The second week of 2011, a gunman in Tucson, Arizona, shot American Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and eighteen others. Following the shooting, there was the kind of partisan bickering and casting of blame that has become usual in American public discourse. But whether the kind of violent metaphors and imagery used by “teaparty” political agitators against their political rivals had anything to do with the motivations behind the shootings or not, the rhetoric of hatred that is used regularly in American political discourse contributes to a general atmosphere of dehumanizing “the Other.” The consequences of such hateful rhetoric are seen even more tragically in Jos, where people seem to be killed on an almost weekly basis.

There is a long history of how dehumanizing rhetoric is used to justify violence. In the United States, Americans excused their enslavement and brutal treatment of Africans and their descendents by reasoning that they were not actually human beings. In the genocide in Turkey against the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century, Armenians were called dogs and swine. In Nazi Germany as death camps were set up, propagandists repeated the old poisonous libel used during pogroms throughout the centuries that Jews drank the blood of Christian babies. In Rwanda the Tutsi were called cockroaches as they were being slaughtered.

I am, thus, horrified and apprehensive when I hear similar kinds of dehumanizing rhetoric in America or Nigeria. In America, extremist members of the conservative “teaparty” movement question the citizenship of President Obama, and make calls to “take America back.” Members of Congress have been called by racial epithets, spat on, had doors and windows of their offices smashed in, and had their home addresses published by opposition parties. In Nigeria, I’ve heard Beroms called “arna” and “blood-thirsty savages.” I’ve seen Fulanis called “dirty/stinking”, “hoards” and “marauders.” I’ve seen calls urging “indigenes” to “drive away the settler,” with violence if necessary. Such rhetoric is followed by attacks, which while also seemingly political in origin, take an even more dramatic toll on ordinary people. Hundreds of people in Plateau State have been killed in the past year, thousands in the past ten.

Right before sending in this article, I received an email telling how two nephews of a Muslim friend “were killed in Anguwan Rukuba. They were machine drivers. The wife of the one killed got a cell phone call. ‘They have me, they’re about to kill me.’ Somebody in the background said, ‘tell them Anguwan Rukuba.’ His people went with soldiers the next day and found the bodies.”

Those in both countries I hold dear would do well to take heed to the warning Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made in March 2010 after her office was vandalized. In a chilling anticipation of the attack in January 2011, where she would be shot in the head, she said: “The rhetoric is incredibly heated. Not just the calls, but the emails, the slurs.[…]I think it’s important for […] community leaders, figures in our community to say, ‘Look, we can’t stand for this.’ […] For example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. And when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.”

Award-winning documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta screens at upcoming film festivals (plus my review)

Publicity photo courtesy of MIND

A few months ago, I got an email from the NGO MIND (Media Information Narrative Development) associated with the NGO Cordaid asking me if I would be willing to review a documentary The Daughters of the Niger Delta. Not knowing what to expect from a documentary made by an NGO, I was a little reluctant to promise to review it, but I told them to send it to me, and I’d see what I thought. When I watched it, I was blown away. It is an important documentary made by nine woman that tells the story of the Niger Delta (and directed by Ilse van Lamoen-Isoun) as seen through the eyes of the women Hannah, Rebecca, and Naomi. Since I first published my review in Weekly Trust

courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta public Facebook page

on 3 August 2013, which I’ve copied below, it has won awards at two film festivals, the Best Documentary Award at the Abuja International Film Festival and the Best Documentary award at the LA Femme International Film Festival, and has been screened at nine other film festivals, including the United Nations Association Film Festival, The Kansas International Film Festival.

The film will be showing today, 11 November 2013, 2-3pm, and on Friday 15

courtesy of the Eko International Film Festival

November, 1-2pm, at the Africa International Film Festival in Calabar. The venue is Filmhouse Cinema, Tinapa Resort, Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria.

It will also show at the Eko International Film Festival in Lagos on Friday, 22 November.

It has also received several other rave reviews:

Hauwa Imam’s “Daughters of the Niger Delta” in The Nation on 31 July 2013 and the Weekly Trust on 17 September 2013.

My “The Daughters of the Niger Delta Speak Out Through Film” in the Weekly Trust on 3 August 2013.

Sa’adatu Shuaibu’s “Humanizing Poverty: the Daughters of the Niger Delta” in Leadership on 14 September 2013.

Gimba Kakanda’s “The Blues of the Southern Women” for Blueprint, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times etc on 8 November 2013.

You can read a 13 October 2013 interview with the director Ilse Van Lamoen-Isoun in the Sunday Trust, and watch her TV interview with Kansas City Live, and watch a trailer copied below:

And finally, here is the review I wrote in full. To read it on the Weekly Trust site, click here.

The Daughters of the Niger Delta speak out through film

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 03 August 2013 06:00
Written by Carmen McCain

 “You suppress all my strategies / You oppress, oh every part of me / What you don’t know, you’re a victim too, Mr. Jailer,” croons musician Asa in her song “Jailor.”

The song can be read as addressing many forms of oppression, but it is used over images of a Niger Delta riverside in the 2012 documentary film Daughters of the Niger Delta to comment specifically on what Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, following Mao-Tse Tung, calls the “mountains” on the African woman’s back. In “African Women, Culture and Another Development,” Ogundipe-Leslie identifies six mountains, which include “oppression from outside”; patriarchal “traditional structures” that devalue women’s work and seek to control her own body; “her own backwardness,” which includes poverty and ignorance; men, who refuse to give up their privileges; and finally race and a woman’s own self-defeating internalization of patriarchal ideologies.

Many of these forms of oppression and structural inequalities become evident in the testimonies of women featured in the documentary Daughters of the Niger Delta (55 mins) made by 9 women from the Niger Delta trained by the Abuja-based NGO Media Information Narrative Development (MIND), directed by Ilse van Lamoen-Isoun  and sponsored by the German Embassy.  The documentary seeks to challenge disparities in media coverage. While the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was the focus of the global media, there has been far less attention to the much greater oil damage in the Niger Delta region. Even recent accidents, such as the December 2011 off-coast Shell Bonga oil spill or the January 2012 Chevron gas explosion in Finuwa, Bayelsa, barely made a blip on the international news radar. Similarly, as the voiceover at the beginning of the film points out, headlines about the Niger Delta often focus on oil output, kidnappings and violence in the resource-rich Niger Delta.  However, in fact, as we learn by the end of the documentary, the maternal mortality rate in the Niger Delta is the second highest in the world and 65,000 children under the age of five die each year in the region due to lack of adequate health care and related issues such as pollution and nutrition. These numbers far outstrip the number of those killed due to armed conflicts but the poverty that causes these deaths is also one of the causes of the conflict. Such stories are often invisible not only to the world but also to other Nigerians. Yet it is only with the recognition of these stories that change can come.

 The film focuses on three women: Hannah, Rebecca, and Naomi.  Hannah Tende, from Bodo City, Rivers State, is a widow who makes a living collecting

Hannah Tende (courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta)

periwinkles from oily mud and working on other people’s farms. Her own home and the land she once farmed was taken over by her husband’s family when he died in 2005. She wants to send her daughter Uke to university, but does not have the money. In fact, her children now survive on two meals a day instead of the three meals they had when their father was alive. But Hannah has limited possibilities, as remarriage for widows is forbidden and her livelihood is threatened by the pollution of the rivers.

Rebecca Churchill, from Tuomo, Delta State, was married at fifteen to an already married man. She describes how she first learned of the marriage when her husband told her that he had paid her bride price to her father. Now, the

Rebecca Churchill (courtesy of the Daughters of the Niger Delta)

pregnant Rebecca narrates how she has given birth eleven times. Only six of those children are still living. While her husband says it is Ijaw culture for his wife to keep having children, Rebecca herself wants to stop getting pregnant after her baby is born. She says she is not willing to let her daughters marry at fourteen or fifteen. Her dream for her children is for them to go to school and go to university.

The educated Naomi Alaere Ofoni, from Yenagoa, Bayelsa State (also a production assistant on the film), represents the dreams the other two women have for their children. Although Naomi’s father abandoned her mother when Naomi was a small child, her mother went back to school to become a

Naomi Alaere Ofoni (courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta)

community health worker and worked to put Naomi through school. Ironically, although school is seen as the path out of poverty, Naomi faced another obstacle once she reached university. She was harassed by lecturers who demanded sex. She refused to sleep with the course advisor who had changed her B grades to two carryovers, and he finally gave her a third class degree only after she offered him money.  10 years after graduating with a disrespected third class degree in Industrial Mathematics, she was yet to find a job. But, like her mother, who took her future into her own hands, Naomi started her own business making soap.

There is a bitter irony here. In each woman’s story, men stand in the way of advancement by women and their children. “Modern day slavery” and “imprisonment” become motifs that run throughout the documentary, from the opening montage set to  Asa’s song “Jailor,”  to Hannah’s expression of frustration at her life in “bondage” as a widow. The film cleverly juxtaposes

(courtesy of The Daughters of the Niger Delta)

shots of men sitting around drinking—one thirty-five year old man telling of his three wives and the 17 children he hopes to have—with shots of women chopping wood, fetching water, picking periwinkles from oily mud, pounding, grinding, and frying cassava. Patriarchal male culture is behind much of the suffering of women—fathers hand over their teenage daughters to husbands, husbands with multiple wives insist on each wife bearing many children despite not being able to support them, male relatives of a dead man confiscate his widow’s property, male lecturers prey on vulnerable girls in the university.   Yet, as Asa notes, “What you don’t know, you’re a victim too, Mr. Jailer.” Larger neocolonial forces imprison both men and women.

(courtesy of the Daughters of the Niger Delta)

Multi-national oil corporations have so polluted the air and water that even rainwater is dirty and unusable. The fish in the creeks and rivers have died, so that the Niger Delta people, whose lives once revolved around fishing, now eat and trade imported fish. The government neglects healthcare and infrastructure for clean water.

The hope for the future, as Ogundipe-Leslie has argued in other essays, is for men and women to join hands in rebuilding their society. While patriarchal male culture is critiqued here, the film also shows male role models. Naomi’s husband, William Omajuwa Emmanuel, an engineer whom she met in university works together with her on her soap business and helps with the children. The male community worker, Inatimi Odio encourages men in the community to involve women in decision making. The film traces positive developments in postscripts, revealing that Hannah has begun to mobilize other women to protest the marriage prohibition for widows, Rebecca has convinced her husband to try birth control, and Naomi has become a principal at a school.

The documentary is beautifully shot and edited. Despite the pollution, the Niger Delta is still exquisite, and the women’s stories are compelling. Indeed, I thought the best parts of the film were the moments where the women were allowed to speak for themselves.  The most obvious flaw may have been the extensive use of Inatimi Odio, a man, as the one “expert” to explain the problems facing the community. While this was somewhat balanced by Bogofanyo Inengibo’s  female voiceover and a few comments from the teacher Caroline Giadom, the focus on the male expert risks reinforcing the idea of women as uneducated informants and men as the authorities who explain them.  Overall, however, I think the documentary is an important and thought-provoking piece that personalizes our understanding of the Niger Delta. In the same chapter in which she identified the mountains on the backs of African women, Ogundipe-Leslie suggests policies to enable women to benefit and control their own labour, the use of media to educate, and assistance for women artists so that they can express their own stories. This film made by women about women seems an appropriate response to her suggestions, giving subaltern women a platform by which to speak to the world.

Daughters of the Niger Delta was screened and received a special mention at the Pineapple Underground Festival in China on 16 July and the Rwanda Film Festival on 25 July. It will be screened in Nigeria at the Lagos-based Eko International Film festival in November, as well as other venues yet to be arranged.


For other documentary (and documentary-esque) reviews I’ve done see:

“There Is Nothing Wrong with my Uncle” on Tarok burial customs produced by Dul Johnson and Sylvie Bringas.

“Equestrian Elegance” about the durbar and parades during the eid sallahs in Kano, produced by Abdalla Uba Adamu and Bala Anas Babinlata.

Duniya Juyi Juyi, a docu-drama about the life of almajirai, scripted and acted by almajirai themselves and produced by Hannah Hoechner.

Translating (and Transcribing) the Hausa film song Zazzabi [Fever]


I’m going to do something today that I haven’t done for a long time on this blog, but which is something I originally started this blog to do, and that is to put up some work in progress–a song that I am working on right now in my dissertation–and ask for help from Hausa speakers in correctly translating and transcribing it.

Zazzabi (Fever) directed by Sha’aibu Idris Belaz and produced by Auwalu Madaki (story by Salisu Buldoza) for Sa’a Entertainment in 2005 is one of my favourite Hausa films. And the first song in the movie, sung by Sadi Sidi Sharifai, Ikram Garba Ado, and Sa’a A. Yusuf, has obsessed me since 2006. Yes, that long. (I’ve mentioned and posted it in previous blog posts in November 2009 and just the other day in October 2013). It must have been pretty popular with its audiences too, because the songwriter Sadiq Usman Sale gained his industry nickname from the film: Sadiq Zazzabi.

It’s a story full of twists and turns, so I can’t talk too much about the plot here, in case there is someone who ever wants to see the film (if you can find it anywhere). But, as it becomes clear by the 6th verse of the song, it is a film about love and HIV, but it is no NGO film (thank God). HIV is one of the things that complicates the love between the characters in the love triangle between the characters played by Sani Danja, Mansura Isah, (who ended up marrying in real life) and Ibrahim Maishunku. (Because the characters played by Sani Danja and Mansura Isah are not named in the film, I call them Sani and Mansura here. The character played by Ibrahim Maishunku is named Salim in the film.)

What I LOVE about this song is the ambiguity of the word zazzabi (fever). It can be used in the metaphoric sense as a fever of love, and that is the sense in which the audience would most likely initially interpret word. In Ado Ahmed Gidan Dabino’s bestselling novel In da So da Kauna, for example, the young lover Muhammad writes that he is fleeing Kano to Kaduna

Part 1 of Ado Ahmed Gidan Dabino's bestselling novel In da So da Kauna

Part 1 of Ado Ahmed Gidan Dabino’s bestselling novel In da So da Kauna

because he has been separated from his sweetheart Sumayya, “Ciwon sonta ne ya sa ba zan zauna ba/The sickness of loving her is the reason I won’t stay” (part 1, 85). Sumayya sings on a cassette to Muhammad, that  “In na tuna ka sai na farka daga barci na,/ Ciwon so ya sanya wannan ba komai ba/If I remember you I wake from my sleep/ The sickness of love makes it nothing” (part 1, 71). When she dreams that Muhammad has been killed in an accident she sings, “Ciwon so shi zan kashe ni/ The sickness of love will kill me“[or The sickness of love will make me kill myself] (part 1, 87).

However, the word “zazzabi” can also be used literally here, as a literal fever. Indeed it is when Sani complains about a fever that Mansura suggests he go for a medical check-up–a checkup during which he tests positive for HIV. The song thus layers a literal meaning of the “disease of love” on top of a metaphoric usage, creating a striking and disturbing image of the dangers love brings not only the heart but the body. In Verse 6, Sani comes out and says “Kanjamau cutar a jikina. Lafiya bata dawowa/ AIDS is the disease in my body. Health will not return.”

My attempts to transcribe the song (from the video below) and translate it– the transcription file on my computer dates back to 2009–however, has made me painfully aware of how much more Hausa I still need to learn. Of course, the poetic language of the song makes it a bit more difficult to transcribe than ordinary language. I’ve been sitting here with the R.C. Abraham dictionary, the Bargery dictionary, and the Hausa-Hausa dictionary published a few years ago by Bayero University, sometimes wondering if I have even divided the words correctly when I transcribed–or if the words I have written actually exist. So, I would love help from Hausa speakers and readers in checking 1) the transcription of the words of the song, 2) my translation. As I get corrections, I will try to make corrections on this post. At this point, I am not trying to be very literary in my translation–although I did translate “kauna” as “passion,” even though I know that “kauna” has a much milder connotation, because I felt it fit with the overall meaning of the song. For the most part, I just want it to be accurate. After I feel I have an accurate translation, I may try to make it sound more like poetry in English. But mainly, right now, I want a working translation that I can feel confident working with as I write about the song. At the moment, I probably don’t have the room to include an in depth analysis of the entire song in my dissertation–I’m using the refrain and chorus, which I understand fine. But I’m thinking I’d like to write a separate article on the entire song and the film at some point, and any suggestions people can give me here will help me work towards that goal.

UPDATE: 10 November 2013. Anas Musa just sent me some amazing corrections to my transcription via email, and suddenly it all begins to fall into place. I will make his corrections on the transcription here and keep working on the translation. I am so grateful. He heard words and expressions that I just couldn’t quite get like kwarjini and kamani and furucina and kudurina and burin ruhina and dimaucewa and gane batuna and jin lafazina and akwai uzurina and gurbi and kulli yaumin and hangena and the whole proverbial expression “Mai guri ya zo gurbinsa shinfidarka ka zo ka nade ta” and don in zam in ganta and kuwa ya cancanta and hawaye (instead of ta waye) and Gashi na yi biyu ko daya (rather than Ga shi na bude bako) and Wayyo kaina (rather than Wayyo Allah). As you can see he’s made a huge difference! I’m still working on the translation. It’s rough but a lot cleaner now that I can actually hear what words they are saying.

I will post the video and my transcription below that. The cinematography is rather grey and uninspiring, but the song is brilliant. Please note that the video is included in this blog post as part of fair use policies for review purposes:



 by Sadiq Usman Sale (ie. Sadiq Zazzabi)


Sani:  Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi, Ciwon so, ciwon kauna,

 A Fever has come to my body, Fever so hot. Fever of love, fever of passion,

Salim:  Zazzabi shi ne a jikina

A Fever is what is in my body

Female back up Chorus:  Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

A fever has caught the lovers, A fever so hot,Fever of love, fever of passion, A fever that burns

Mansura:  Zazzabi ya sauka  jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi, Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, Zazzabi shi ne a jikina

Fever has come to my body, Fever so hot. Fever of love, fever of passion, A Fever is what is in my body

Verse 1

Sani: A gaskiya ciwon kaunarki, a tuntuni shi yake kamani.

Truly, lovesickness for you captured me long ago.

Female backup Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot

Sani: In na zo, wurin ji a gareki. Kwarjini shi yake kamani.

If I come to hear it from you. I am overcome with shyness.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot

Sani: Ina tsoron furucinki, shi ya sa jinkiri a gareni

I fear what you will say, that’s what made me delay

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot

Sani: Kin ji, dai, dukkan kudurina, ya a bar burin ruhina

Hear my great passion for you, oh my deepest soul’s desire.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

A fever has captured the lovers, A fever so hot. Fever of love. Fever of passion. Fever of scorching heat.

Verse 2:

Sani: Ki amince da ni, don Allah, kar ki sa ni na dimaucewa.

Trust me, for God’s sake, don’t let me lose my mind.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: So da kauna abin girmamawa, kin ga shine tushen kowa….

Love and passion is an inestimable thing, you know it is the root of us all… 

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: Na nutso kogin kaunarki ko dagowa bana yowa

I am drowning in a river of your love, I can’t come up out of it.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: Nai jiran amsa a gareki don kuwa duk kin gane batuna.

I wait for your answer, so that you understand all that I’ve said.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

A fever has caught the lovers, a fever so hot. Sickness of love, sickness of passion, Fever a sickness that burns.

Verse 3:

Mansura: Na ji dukka batunka bayani, to, tsaya don jin lafazina. 

I’ve heard all, all of what you’ve said. To, stop now and listen to me. 

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Mansura: Tun ada, tun tun na fahimta kai kana kauna a garena.

For long, I’ve understood that you love me

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Mansura:  Gaskiya ni da kai soyayya, ba na yi don akwai uzurina.

In truth, I have my reasons not to agree to love between me and you.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Mansura: Babu gurbi cikin ruhina sam… Salim shi ne a gabana

There’s no place in my heart. Salim, hes the one in my future now.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

It’s a fever that captures lovers, Fever so hot. Sickness of passion. Sickness of love. Fever a sickness that burns.


Verse 4

Mansura: Alkawari, ni da shi mun dauka duk wuya bama canzawa.

It’s a promise he and I have made each other. No matter the difficulty we won’t change.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Mansura: Son Salim, shi ne a gabana, kulla yaumin na ke ta tunawa

My love for Salim is before me,  I’m always thinking [of him].

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Mansura: So da kaunarsa ke ta bugawa zuciyata suke rayawa.

Love and passion are throbbing my heart to life again.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Mansura: Son Salim shi ne hangena har ke loda harkar ganina.

Love for Salim is what I see from a far, it fills my vision.

Instrumental Interlude


Salim: Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, zazzabi shi ne a jikana.

A fever has entered my body, A fever so hot. A sickness of love, a sickness of passion. A fever, that’s what’s in my body.

Mansura:  Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, zazzabi shi ne a jikana

A fever has entered my body, A fever so hot. A sickness of love, a sickness of passion. A fever, that’s what’s in my body.

Chorus:  Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

A fever has captured the lovers, a fever so hot. A sickness of love, a sickness of passion. A fever of scorching heat.

Verse 5:

Salim: Mai guri ya zo gurbinsa shinfidarka kazo ka nade ta

The longing lover has met his fate. Here’s your mat, come roll it up.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Salim: Ga ni gefen abar kaunata, in tsaya don in zam in ganta.

See me here by the side with my heavy love, I’ve paused here to stay and see her.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Salim: Zo mu je lambunmu na kauna, mu shige, don kuwa ya cancanta

Come let’s go to our garden of love, let’s enter it, because it is befitting.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Fever so hot.

Salim: Kai ku sai ka tsaya, bisa nan gun ke da shi, ku yi bankwana

You just have to stop all the familiarity you have with him,  you must say goodbye

Chorus:  Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

Fever has captured the lovers. Fever so hot. Fever of love, Fever of passion. Fever of scorching heat.

Verse 6

Sani: Yau ina kuka da hawaye sai takaice nake ta tunawa.

Today I am weeping hot tears, I keep thinking of my loss…

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: Ga shi na yi biyu ko daya babu rayuwata nake tausayawa

See, I have nothing, I pity my life.

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani: Kanjamau cuta a jikina. Lafiya bata dawowa

AIDS is the disease in my body. Health will not return

Chorus: Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi

Fever so hot.

Sani:  Rayuwata tana watakila mutuwa ko yau a wurina

I face the end of my life, maybe even today.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama

Fever has captured

Sani: Wayyo kaina,

Chorus: masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi.

Lovers. Fever so hot

Sani: Wayyo Allahna

Chorus:  Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kona.

Fever of love. Fever of passion. Fever that burns.


Mansura: Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, zazzabi shi ne a jikana.

Fever has come to my body. Fever so hot. Fever of love, fever of passion, Fever is in my body.

Sani: Zazzabi ya sauka jikina, Zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so, ciwon kauna, zazzabi shi ne a jikana.

Fever has come to my body. Fever so hot. Fever of love, fever of passion, Fever is in my body.

Chorus: Zazzabi ya kama masoya, zazzabi ciwo mai zafi. Ciwon so. Ciwon kauna. Zazzabi ciwo mai kuna.

This fever has captured the lovers. Fever so hot. Fever of love. Fever of passion. Fever that burns.

The Sun, the Moon, and a cardboard box

The sun and the moon and me (c) CM

So today there was a partial eclipse. I hadn’t heard about it until I went to lunch with a friend, and in her car, she had armed herself with a box with a piece of white paper pasted on one side and a hole cut in the other, over which she had taped aluminum foil and pricked with a pin. This was her eclipse viewing device, she told me. I had heard about people making these things to view eclipses before. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to the trouble. But around 2pm, as I sat on my couch reading the Sunday Trust, I looked outside and noticed that the light was long and harsh and strange, so I called her and asked if she was watching the eclipse through her box. Was it happening now? She told me I still had time, as the peak of the eclipse was supposed to happen at 2:40pm, so I went and found an old regulator box and made the same device.

It was not that dramatic as I was expecting. I had thought I might see some sort of photographic image coming through the pin–hole onto the white paper. Yes, people, there is a reason I’m not in the sciences. Instead, it was just a new moon shaped sliver of light, which showed the shape of the moon as it passed in front of the sun. I was too afraid to look up at the sun itself. Next time I’ll have to prepare myself ahead of time with properly treated goggles.

I showed the neighbours, and wandered about looking at it from different angles.

I had some poetic thoughts about it all, but in between going back inside to keep working on my current chapter and staying up too late before deciding to post, the eclipse poetry will have to wait for the next eclipse. In the meantime, here are a few of the photos I took of the sliver of light in my box. Note: there is nothing fancy or dramatic about these photos. I did not risk pointing my camera lens or my eyes towards the light. It’s just a recording of my delightful, dorky afternoon wandering around with a box with a hole taped over with tin foil and paper.

Look for the sun, look for the moon, they are there in the light, in the shadow, in the cardboard box.

Eclipse viewing device (c) CM

the sun, the moon, the box, and me.

The sun, the moon, and an evil forest (c) CM

The sun disappears behind the moon and the trees. (c) CM

The sun, the moon, me and a cardboard box (c) CM

Light (c) CM

Light (c) CM

Ramadan pieces from Last year: “Why, as a Christian, I Fast during Ramadan” and “Under the Mango Tree”

I have been reading back recently over several of the articles I wrote last Ramadan, when I was fasting alongside my Muslim friends in Kano. It was the third year I was fasting, and I had settled into the rhythm of the month. I did not fast this year, though, at points throughout the month I have wished I were. I think it may have made me feel a little bit more in tune with what is happening around me. As I never posted my articles last year, in part because I was never able to find a hard copies of them to include online, I figured, in honour of Ramadan, before it ends in the next few days, I would put up at least two of them right now. “Why, as a Christian, I Fast during Ramadan” published 20 August 2011 and “Under the Mango Tree” published 27 August 2011.

Breaking fast on the set of Jani-Jani, Kaduna, 29 August 2010. (c) Carmen McCain

“Why, as a Christian, I Fast During Ramadan”

20 August 2011

Recently, my blog was accessed six times with the search phrase “Is Carmen McCain a Muslim.” I’m not. I’m a devout Christian, but I can understand how some people might be confused. Most of my friends in Kano are Muslim, the people I write about are often Muslims, and this is the third Ramadan have fasted alongside my Muslim friends. When I brought up the issue on Facebook, several Christian friends told me they also had been confused about my religious identity because I had mentioned fasting, and in Christianity, one is not supposed to advertise one’s fast. Although there are also Christian traditions of public fasting, I tried to explain that ultimately I AM fasting with Muslims, but that does not mean I am any less a Christian. I won’t necessarily fast for Ramadan for the rest of my life, neither do I expect other Christians to do the same, though Christians in Bethlehem and other parts of the Arab world have done so for centuries. It is a personal decision I have made for the time being to participate in my community.

Last week, I walked into a Zoo Road studio a few minutes before maghriba with a bag of sliced watermelon. “Are you fasting?” novelist and scriptwriter Nazir Adam Salih asked me. “I am,” I said. “Kina taya mana azumi.” he said. “You are helping us with the fast.” I had not heard it put that way before but his expression felt exactly right. I am not as strict with my fast as a Muslim would be. When I am sick, as I was for the first week of Ramadan this year, I eat without any plans to later “make up” the missed days. But the experience of Ramadan and fasting out of love for my community has been one of the most powerful things in helping me empathize with my Muslim neighbors. This week, I share a piece I wrote three years ago in 2008, during my first Ramadan fast.

Ever since I knew I was going to be in Kano for a year, I thought that I would try to fast during Ramadan. First, I thought it would not be appropriate to eat in front of other people who are fasting, even if it’s just sneaking a meatpie and sachet of water from the canteen to my office at Bayero University; second, I thought it would be good to experience what millions of people, and specifically those around me, experience every year. As I told one of my friends on the first day of Ramadan, “If you are hungry, I will be hungry. If you are thirsty, I too will be thirsty.” The day before the fast began, I bought a book on fasting from an Islamic book seller to better understand fasting from an Islamic perspective—what my friends believe. But ultimately, what I hope to gain out of this is spiritual discipline practiced from the perspective of my own faith. Although not compulsory, fasting is a spiritual discipline in Christianity as well (Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert in preparation for his three years of ministry). I thought that, though I am Christian, I live among Muslims, so I will fast when they fast and pray when they pray. And I will hopefully grow in my own spiritual life.

Today, on the second day of Ramadan, walking wearily across campus to wait for the bus at around 5pm, I thought, maybe I should stop this. It’s not a requirement for me, and I’m finding myself dull, forgetful, distracted, irritable, impatient, on edge. It’s not easy to manifest the Christian “fruits of the spirit,” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control), when I have not eaten or drunk all day. On further thought, as I was walking from the bus stop to my house clutching two packets of dates and a sliver of watermelon I had bought to break my fast with, I realized that perhaps that is the point of fasting, at least for me. It forces me to realize, humbly, how much of my good spirits, my mostly cheerful demeanor are chemically-based, physical attributes. I have been blessed with good health, with chemical balance, with a fairly even and laid back temper (though my good friends know the exceptions). Peeling back those layers of the physical, one comes closer to the core of one’s being, what is underneath the surface pleasantness—what comes out when there is no protective politeness—and it’s not always very attractive. I have thought often over the past few years of what Christian writer and thinker C.S. Lewis says in his book Mere Christianity, about the difference between human perspective and God’s perspective:

 “Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of [Nazi war criminal] Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first tune, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.”

I meditate on this in relation to fasting. When fasting, those base human characteristics, the instincts, the first reactions, come out more dramatically, and you have to deal with them. You are impatient but you force yourself to speak patiently. You don’t feel gracious but you make yourself be gracious anyway. It becomes a discipline, training and subduing those initial reactions that surface more clearly when you are hungry and tired, and it encourages humility. You don’t have that easy excuse—oh sorry, I haven’t eaten yet today, and I can’t think clearly—because no one else has either. You become weaker and more vulnerable to your community while stronger in your individual will. This is spiritual growth—going beyond one’s personality to something deeper.

At the same time, you also become more aware of the joys of the physical. The pleasure that comes at the end of the day, especially when you are breaking the fast with other people. The lilting greeting “A sha ruwa lafiya,” “Enjoy quenching your thirst”—the sweetness of the crystallized sugar in a dry date when it is the first thing that has touched your tongue all day; the fresh wetness of a tangy orange or sweet watermelon or solid banana; the way the spicy flavours of Hausa shayi detach themselves and come one by one: cardamom, ginger, other flavours that I cannot yet identify. The first burst of energy after the sugar enters your blood stream and the pleasant stuffed feeling when your stomach is extended with tuwon shinkafa and miyan taushe or fried yam and potatoes, peppered tofu and kosai. Denied for 13 or 14 hours a day, the senses are heightened. Listening to the Ramadan service on the radio, the chanted Arabic, the call and response, it reminds me of listening to a mass—Gregorian chants in Latin—or a BBC broadcast of the Nine Lessons in Carols on Christmas eve.

These common elements of our faiths are what I am reminded of at Ramadan. Though Christians and Muslims have many differing religious beliefs we will never be able to agree on, at core, all three Abrahamic religions are linked by what Jesus identified as the “greatest commandments”: First, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” I believe that, beyond our differences, if we encourage each other in love to seek this truth, we will find peace. A sha ruwa lafiya.


“Under the Mango Tree”

27 August 2011

One of my main joys of Ramadan this year, whenever it is not raining in the evening, has been to take a mat outside and sit under the mango tree that grows outside my window. I read or write or just lie staring up at the leaves above me, mind at rest, until the maghriba prayer is called and I reach for my packet of dates. I am close to the dirt there and the strands of grass that find enough sun to poke up under the trees. One evening I moved around the mat for an hour trying to move out of the path of a slow but persistent little snail who seemed to want to follow me wherever I went. Eventually, I placed a leaf into his path and then carried the leaf to a muddy patch far from my mat. A neem tree arches over the wall of my house, branches mingling with those of the mango tree and when I lie under them, I look up through layers and layers of leaves, watch them sway in the breeze, hear them rustling together, merging with the sound of the neighbor children outside the wall and the distant honk of horns on the main road. If I gaze up long enough, I feel like I am floating.

This week, when I spread the mat out under the tree I could see dark clouds billowing in the East and thought I might not make it to maghriba before the rain came. All the same, I piled up fruit in a basket, and took out newspapers, a pen and a notebook. The leaves were mostly silent that evening. The air was still, in anticipation of rain. I lay on the straw mat under the tree, and thought, as the thunder began to break and the first fine droplets filtered through the trees, about the motion of the universe. This flat soil I lie on, this surface of the planet that seems so solid and still, is actually spinning through star studded space. This sun I am waiting to set on my face of the planet, my little patch of ground under the mango tree, is only one star in one galaxy out of a million. The sun does not, in fact, move down towards the horizon. We are the ones, clinging to this fragile planet, who are spinning past fire.

There is a peace in these moments, an awareness of my own smallness, as I listen to the rhythms of the earth. I am both as still as I will ever be and hurtling through space.  I am reminded that when we fast we acknowledge our own desires are ephemeral in the vastness of God’s design. We give up pleasures, which we may at times over-indulge, joys, not always necessary for life. This year, I have realized how weighted down we become with loves, which are not ours to own, the heaviness of commitments to unnecessary habits. It is sometimes in the pain of giving up that which we think nourishes us, gives us life, that we float free. In this time of discipline, it is only when the sun passes that we realize the sweetness of its fruit.

One of my favourite music videos is “Patience” by reggae artist Damian Marley and rapper Nas. The musicians quietly ask piercing questions about life, challenging the arrogant presumptions of the privileged about “modern development,” sound-byte answers in the face of eternal mystery. The musicians emerge out of a backdrop with the perspective of a Renaissance painting, camera sweeping through layers of images, through clouds past pyramids, into a mythic African past:

We born not knowing, are we born knowing all?

We growing wiser, are we just growing tall?

Can you read thoughts? can you read palms?

Can you predict the future? can you see storms, coming?

The Earth was flat if you went too far you would fall off

Now the Earth is round, if the shape change again everybody woulda start laugh

The average man can’t prove of most of the things that he chooses to speak of

And still won’t research and find out the root of the truth that you seek of

Scholars teach in universities and claim that they’re smart and cunning

Tell them find a cure when we sneeze and that’s when their nose start running

And the rich get stitched up, when we get cut

Man a heal dem broken bones in the bush with the wet mud

Can you read signs? can you read stars?

Can you make peace? can you fight war?

Can you milk cows, even though you drive cars? huh

Can you survive against all odds, now?

Marley and Nas pace through a shallow river to where it spills over the edge of the world. Galaxies and planets stretch out above them: “Who made up words? who made up numbers?” Nas asks. “And what kind of spell is mankind under?”

I hear the song echo under the mango tree as dusk moves in, and hunger moves towards its end. The first time I broke fast for Ramadan in 2008, a friend took me home for dinner. We walked under the sunset, past the ancient sloping Kano wall grown over with grass, down winding paths through the old city, spitting out date seeds. I sat on a mat under the cloudy sky eating oranges, fried yam, drinking tea, tucking my skirt firmly around my ankles and mayafi around my neck as mosquitos began to bite. I answered in fumbling Hausa, those questions my friend’s mother asked, but I mostly sat quietly under the sky and listened to the chatter of teenage girls, the banter of young men, the good natured laughter of their parents. Above us the clouds scudded past in a darkening sky. After that first evening, I mostly broke fast with musicians and editors and actors on Zoo Road, sharing out quartered oranges and slices of watermelon, crispy kosai and fried potatoes served on a newspaper transparent with oil, hot thick koko sweet with sugar in plastic cups. As my Hausa began to improve, we’d have long conversations in the studios, about film and politics, music and religion.  At night, I’d speed home on an achaba,  moon rising overhead, as stars began to peak out from beyond the clouds.

Well into my fourth year in Kano, my days have grown busier. This week, as Ramadan draws to a close, I break the fast by myself on this straw mat, waiting for the sun to set or the rain to come, wondering which will come first. It’s good to be under the mango tree, under the leaves, under the clouds, beyond which stretch the stars. I am glad I am not inside with my laptop open to the insistent demands of the internet, emails that must be answered and people on Facebook demanding responses, the guilt-inducing cursor blinking on the blank white page of articles long overdue.

I let my mind sway with the trees. The rain comes before the sun sets. The ink on my page blurs into little wet patches. I slowly stand up and carry the straw mat, my basket of fruit, newspapers and books to shelter. Dark clouds are piled up in the east, blowing in with the approaching night, but in the west where the sun hovers on the horizon, the rain falls through light, glimmering and sparkling to the earth, watering the grass which thrives today and dies tomorrow. So many things we love are fleeting, the raindrops that fall from sky to soil, bushes that grow green and lush now, and fade to brown later, the light which rises with promise each day only to fall into dark. But it’s all beautiful while it lasts.


[Please NOTE that the video “Patience” has been embedded into this blog post under Fair Use laws for review purposes.]

“Cross of crescents: Muslims around the Church” a guest column by Gimba Kakanda

Gimba Kakanda during the Fuel Subsidy Protests (used by permission of Gimba Kakanda)

Gimba Kakanda during the Fuel Subsidy Protests (used by permission of Gimba Kakanda)

On 14 January 2012, the poet Gimba Kakanda, one of the brains behind the active “Nation-wide Anti-Fuel Subsidy Removal” group on Facebook, wrote a guest article for my Weekly Trust column about his experiences organizing a group of Muslim youth in Minna to protect a church the Sunday before: “Cross of Crescents: Muslims around a Church”. To read his thoughtful and provocative piece, click on the link, click on the photo below, or scroll down to read here on my blog.

Cross of crescents: Muslims around the Church

 Written by Carmen McCain and Gimba Kakanda, Saturday, 14 January 2012

 Last weekend, the stories of the killings of Christians in Adamawa and Gombe left me with a constant dull ache. I realized, as boys hovered their metal detectors over my Bible before I walked into church, that we could die as we prayed. And though the pastor pointed us to the revolutionary nonviolent teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5, Christians I spoke to were angry.

“It’s just lies,” one told me, when I argued that most Muslims were aghast at the killings. I couldn’t blame him for his anger—he had just lost a friend in Adamawa—but I wished that he could experience the kindness of my Muslim friends and realize they too love and hurt and breathe. It was in this funk that I signed online and saw the photos, like those in Egypt last year, of Christians protesters in Kano and Kaduna protecting their Muslim friends while they prayed.

Poet Gimba Kakanda, whose collection of poetry Safari Pants was published by Kraftgriot in 2010,  wrote on Facebook that he and other Muslim friends had protected St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Minna during a Sunday service. Beginning to feel hopeful again, I asked Gimba if he would write something about his experiences. I yield the rest of my column to him.  –Carmen

When I heard of the covenant made in Kano during the anti-fuel subsidy removal protests–of Christians willing to stand guard for Muslims and vice versa during religious services–I was hurt that the bond of our relationship has waned over the years to the point that a Muslim is considered an enemy of Christianity, an inhumane being adept in violence.

I didn’t grow up in a tense religious atmosphere. My upbringing wasn’t bound to intolerance. The Muslims and Christians of my early days seemed like adherents of the same religion. We had so much regard for each other that we marked religious festivals together, irrespective of whose it was. As a child, Muslims marking Christmas was a popular practice. Mothers would obtain Christmas dress for their children who would join Christians at parks or any available amusing exercise. We referred to Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter, in my mother-tongue, as Christians’ Eid-el Kabir and Eid-el Fitr.

This Boko Haram debacle causes me so much pain; it causes my faith to be branded as an enemy of Christianity. For a long time now, I’ve been thinking over the best way to restore the dwindling trust between the faiths.

It was my return to Jos sometime in September last year that made me realize the horrible extent of our religious divide. It was in the month of Ramadan. I hate travelling while fasting, and to save myself the hassle of scouting for food on my arrival, I called my host on the phone and asked him to get some food ready for my fast. He was Christian. When I got into the neighborhood, I was unaware that the quarter was a ‘death zone’ for non-Christians. Chollom didn’t tell me. I only realised the danger when I stepped out to locate a mosque. The one I knew was no longer there – it might have been the burnt edifice I saw in its place. At once, I waved down an okada rider and asked him to take me to the bordering quarter, Nassarawa Gwong! He sized me up with wonder, shrugged and zoomed away. I had no clue. I stopped another. This rider smiled as one would at a known teaser. “I no dey go there o!” He blurted, without offering a reason. I made it to the border on foot, wondering as people poured to the street to watch me amble into the other ‘death zone’!

I was unhappy with Chollom, but he said that he could never come to terms with the idea of not hosting me. That incident made me began to think about ways to solve such religious segregation. I discussed this with the poet Richard Ali when we met on that visit to Jos, offering what I considered a solution. Richard and I agreed on soon setting up an NGO aimed at fostering unity between people of divergent ethnic and religious differences.

On the eve of my birthday this year, a Saturday, I was chatting with a Muslim friend, when I suggested that a way to end these growing attacks on places of worship might be a community security set-up where Muslims stand guard for Christians during church services and Christians for Muslims during Jummu’at prayers. He bought that. So I called a relative, Ahmad Ibrahim Gimba, and informed him about the plan. He too bought it, and immediately arranged with a friend of his to inform their priest of our mission.

As early as 6 am on Sunday the 8th of January, my birthday, I was already up for the day’s task. I live in Tunga but the church, Saint Mary’s Catholic Church at Kpakungu, one of the largest churches in Minna, is familiar to me. Ahmad Ibrahim and I got there and were soon joined by our other friends who were very keen on the mission. Our Christian friend who worships in the church took us to the security guard to explain our mission. Before the 7:30 am service commenced we were already spread round the church: Awaal Gata, Shuaibu Usman, Dantani Usman, Danjuma Mohammed, Idris Lade, Mohammed Saba, Kabiru Mohammed, Aminu Umar… We were eighteen in all!

After the service, there were some hitches. Policemen came around to know why Muslims would offer to guard a church. Even though we informed them that Ahmad had spoken to a member of the church and arranged that we would be coming, they were leery. The trouble with such system, I learnt a day later from a member of the church, Dominic Eigbegbea, is trust. Dominic is the president of the Catholic Youth Organisation of Nigeria (CYON), Minna Diocese. He was blunt, confiding in me that Christians don’t trust Muslims anymore, that whatever bound them together is handled with suspicion. He said that he discussed our arrangement with the other members of the church, and they cautioned that we shouldn’t be trusted, that we just want to infiltrate them, study everything about them and, when they are put at ease by our dubious gesture, launch an attack. Every Muslim is a terrorist, I gathered from their response.

The priest of the church, Reverend Father Emmanuel Jima, was philosophical about the development. He’s from Adamawa, a northerner(!) and was born to a Muslim family, he told me. We discussed the unfortunate happenings in the country, especially the insecurity situations aggravated by the dreaded Boko Haram militancy. The cleric lambasted the old generation for the present mess in the country. He talked softly but he was obviously unhappy that the bond between the two faiths has weakened to this extent, considering any forum that avails both Muslims and Christians a chance to rub each other’s back a way to restore the lost paradise of inter-faith fraternity. The youths are more perceptive, he iterated. ‘The burden of fixing the country is now left for you, the youth.’

Yes, a burden, this weighs me down. I must carry this cross. Unlike Christ’s, though, my cross is the weight of a faith, the crescent, deconstructed by too many misperceptions, too many stereotypes, unwitting and deliberate. May God save us from us, Ameen.

“Splitting a Nation: Lessons from History” by Dr. K.A. Korb

For the week of 7 January 2012, my friend Dr. K.A. Korb of the Faculty of Education at University of Jos wrote a guest column for my column in Weekly Trust.  Following much public discourse about the possibilities of splitting Nigeria into two or more nations,  in “Splitting a Nation: Lessons from History”, she looks at the results of nation-splitting in the last twenty years, and concludes that such an option is not a promising one.  To read, her article, click on the link above, the photo below, or scroll down to read it copied onto this blog.

Splitting a Nation: Lessons from History

Written by Dr. K.A. Korb Saturday, 07 January 2012 05:00

My friend Dr. K.A. Korb of the Faculty of Education, University of Jos, recently shared some thoughts with me about the frequently heard rhetoric of those who want Nigeria to split. I yield the rest of my column this week to her. – Carmen

In the early 1900s, philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to relive it.” In the Nigerian context, we can learn from events in world history to consider solutions to problems we face today. Countries who successfully solved similar problems can be studied for positive solutions. Likewise, approaches to similar problems that failed must be carefully analyzed so Nigeria will not be condemned to relive those failures.One issue that is currently being discussed in homes, in markets, and on the street is that of Nigeria separating into two distinct nations. A separation is believed to be a peaceful solution to the misunderstandings between a “north” and “south” joined by colonization. A brief examination of other countries that have split in the past twenty years can provide valuable information about whether a separation can indeed be a peaceful solution to Nigeria’s current problems.

The most recent split occurred just six months ago when Sudan divided into two countries: Republic of the Sudan and Republic of South Sudan. Because the north and south experienced five decades of civil war that killed over 2 million people, there was considerable fear that the separation would be marked by violence. However, much to the international community’s surprise, both the referendum in January 2011 and the independence day itself on 9 July 2011 were very peaceful.

However, despite a peaceful separation, the two new nations have not been able to sustain a lasting peace. Less than four months after the separation, a Human Rights Watch report stated, “Sudan’s wars have not ended. They have, in fact, multiplied.” Violent conflict remains, particularly along the border between the two new countries.

Two states directly north of the border are currently engaged in violent conflict, largely between Sudan government forces and armed opposition groups linked to southern rebels. Bombings, shellings, killings, and destruction of property have caused around 50,000 people to flee Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states.

Within the new country of South Sudan, violent conflict also continues. Ongoing violent clashes related to cattle raids between the Lou Nuer and Murtle peoples have resulted in approximately 1,000 deaths since the country’s independence. A recent attack on 31 December 2011 caused over 20,000 Murtles to flee their homelands. On 2 January 2012, the United Nations warned other Southern Sudanese to flee their homes because six thousand Lou Nuer fighters continue to march through the countryside, burning homes and seizing livestock.

Prior to Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, commonly known as East Timor, separated from the Republic of Indonesia. East Timor shares an island with Indonesia in the Pacific. Over 100,000 deaths are attributed to the twenty-year conflict between East Timor and Indonesia over its separation: 18,000 from violence and 84,000 from hunger and illness resulting from the conflict.

As a result of this long-term conflict, a referendum was held in 1999 to determine whether East Timor would split from Indonesia. About 79% voted for independence. Within hours of the election results announcement, violent protests broke out. Anti-independence militias killed about 1,400 Timorese and caused 300,000 to flee. Most of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed in post-election violence. Because of the post-election violence, East Timor did not officially become independent until 2002.

Returning to Africa, Eritrea began its campaign for independence from Ethiopia in the early 1960s, which resulted in thirty years of war. As Eritrea was fighting against Ethiopia for independence, there were two civil wars amongst the Eritreans themselves as different rebel groups splintered and disagreed. As the result of peace talks in 1991, Eritreans overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence. The State of Eritrea was officially created on 27 April 1993.

Just five years later, a border dispute erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia that lasted for two years. In this border dispute, two of the poorest countries in world spent millions of dollars on a war that led to only minor border changes. In addition to tens of thousands of deaths, the conflict also resulted in reduced economic development, food shortages, and a severe land mine problem. Tension remains high between Eritrea and Ethiopia, with a brief border skirmish reported in January 2010.

Although Eritrea ratified a constitution in 1997, the constitution has yet to be implemented. National elections have been scheduled periodically, but have always been canceled so no election has ever been held. Eritrea’s human rights record has worsened since its independence from Ethiopia. Human Rights Watch reports, “Eritrea is one of the world’s youngest countries and has rapidly become one of the most repressive. There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement, no freedom of worship, and much of the adult male and female population is conscripted into indefinite national service where they receive a token wage.”

Finally, although Czechoslovakia in southeastern Europe did peacefully separate into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic in 1993, its near neighbor, the former country of Yugoslavia has not been so lucky. Beginning in 1991, Yugoslavia has repeatedly separated into smaller and smaller countries. Most recently, Kosovo declared independence in 2008. The former Yugoslavia is now divided into seven different nations, and many of these splits were associated with violent conflict.

A referendum for independence was held in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 29 February 1992. However, the people were divided on whether to stay with Yugoslavia or to seek independence. The referendum was boycotted by the Serb ethnic group that favored staying with Yugoslavia. However, despite low voter turnout, an independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina was created on 3 March 1992.

Because many disagreed with the separation, a war began that lasted for three years. The Bosnian War was characterized by systematic mass rape, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns. About 100,000 people were killed in the conflict and over 2.2 million people were displaced.

There have been three other violent conflicts in parts of the former Yugoslavia that have tried to separate. The Croatian War of Independence between forces wanting independence and those wanting to stay with Yugoslavia resulted in about 20,000 deaths  and cost $37 billion in damaged infrastructure and refugee-related costs. A ten-day war followed the Slovenian declaration of independence in 1991. The Kosovo War (1998-1999) fought by a group wanting independence resulted in 12,000 deaths and over a million refugees. War crimes during the Kosovo War included kidnapping, ethnic cleansing, and use of child soldiers. It is also alleged that prisoners-of-war were killed so their organs could be sold on the black market.

While none of the separations described above are identical to the Nigerian context, history teaches us that the peaceful separation of a country is remarkably difficult to achieve. Dividing a nation is much more complicated than dividing a state, involving new currencies, new constitutions, new political structures, and new borders. Although we may resent the complications that colonial borders brought to Africa, the experiences of nation-division in other parts of Africa, as well as Asia and Europe, should provide a warning to Nigerians that what may appear to be a peaceful solution on the surface may not be the best solution to its internal problems.