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A Win for Translation: Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s novel Tram 83 wins Etisalat Prize for African Literature. (And I archive my articles of 2013 critiquing lack of translation)

The Etisalat Prize for Literature just announced its 2015 prize for African Literature at a ceremony in Victoria Island, Lagos. The winner of the £15,000 prize is Congolese novelist Fiston Mwanza Mujila for his novel Tram 83, originally written in French and published by Éditions Métailié, Paris in 2014, and translated  from French to English by Roland Glasser for Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas.  I have not yet read the novel, but I picked it up at the most recent Modern Language Association Conference on the recommendation of Aaron Bady. So, it is going onto the top of my reading list.

Let’s use this space to celebrate, also, the translator Roland Glasser, who writes here about the process of translating the novel. Glasser watched the ceremony via live webcast (Etisalat, couldn’t you have brought the translator to the event as well? This makes me also wonder if the prize money will be split at all?)

Tram 83‘s  win is exciting on multiple levels, but I am the most excited about the reversal of Etisalat’s 2013 policy that the prize would only be given to works written originally in English. See the twitter conversation I had with the organization in June 2013.

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I criticized the policy in my column in Weekly Trust, part of a two-week critique of African literary prizes inspired by my time at the 2013 Africa Writes event in London. Rather bizarrely the South African literary website Books Live, picked up on my critique of the Etisalat Prize and gave it a headline.

Since the time I wrote my critique, there have been many changes for the better. In 2015, Mukoma wa Ngugi and Lizzy Atree founded the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, In October 2013 Words Without Borders published a special issue on African women writing in indigenous languages, Abuja-based Cassava Republic/Ankara Press published a special Valentine’s Day anthology in 2015 featuring stories written in African languages translated by well-known authors, and Nairobi-based Jalada published a special language issue in 2015. Since 2015, Praxis Magazine has also been making an effort to publish creative work in African languages and in translation. There has been an upsurge of interest in Hausa literature, brought about by both the 2012 publication of Aliyu Kamal’s English language translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home by Indian publisher Blaft, and Glenna Gordon’s 2015 book of photography Diagram of the Heart that features gorgeous images of Hausa novelists. And now the Etisalat Prize for African Literature has become truly pan-African in awarding a Francophone novel translated into English, not from London but from Lagos. (The prize is in pounds rather than naira, but I suppose we have to take one thing at a time.) I hope the next big news will be that a pan-African prize is awarded to a novel translated from an African language.

In the meantime, I have realized I have not archived either one of my 2013 articles on the Africa Writes event or the Etisalat prize on this blog, so I will copy them below here:

Defining the “African story” in London: a preliminary response to the African Writes Festival at the British Library

It was around 10:20pm on 8 July in London. Just as I was handing my boarding pass to the ticket agent at Heathrow airport, I refreshed my phone screen and saw the news that Nigerian-American Tope Folarin had won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his story “Miracle,” a subtle well-crafted story set in a Nigerian church in the American state of Texas.

I had spent the weekend at the Africa Writes Festival hosted at the British Library in London, hanging out with the lovely Tope Folarin, as well as my two friends Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, who had also been shortlisted for the prize. After finding my window seat and chatting a moment with my seatmate in Hausa, I asked her “have you followed the Caine Prize at all?” “Not really,” she said. “I’ve been so upset about the killing of these school children in Yobe.”
My heart dropped. As I kept refreshing the twitter homepage on my phone, waiting for the winner of the Caine Prize to be announced, I had seen some chatter on twitter about a school attack. I suddenly remembered the Facebook message my cousin had sent me a few days before condoling me on the school attack and saying she was praying for Nigeria. I hadn’t known what she was talking about, and I didn’t google the news. I was too busy going to the festival and seeing London-based friends, too sleep deprived from late nights of gadding about with writers. I did not read the full story of the attacks in which, according to Leadership, forty-two students and teachers at a Yobe boarding school were shot in their beds Saturday morning by invaders, until I arrived back in Nigeria on Tuesday morning.

The juxtaposition of the two news items made me think about the ongoing debate about the Caine Prize and “stereotypes” about Africa. Last year in my article “The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story,” I questioned the rhetoric of last year’s chair of the prize, British-Nigerian novelist Bernadine Evaristo, who said it is time “to move on” past stories of suffering in Africa. At the Africa Writes festival on a panel “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” on 6 July, Evaristo continued in this vein, speaking about how during her tenure with the prize, “I was absolutely determined that we were not going to have any traumatized children winning this prize.” She described her “battle” to make sure one particular story, “which ticked all the boxes … a boy living in a terrible situation, prey to gangs, brutalized etc” did not make the shortlist. In her defense, she brought up U.S.-based author Helon Habila’s recent review of Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names, in which he commented that it seems Bulawayo “had a checklist made from the morning’s news on Africa.” Habila, himself a recipient of the 2001 Caine prize for his story about the suffering of a journalist in a Nigerian prison, worried that a certain “Caine Prize aesthetic” was developing that valued sensational stories of Africa—what he called “poverty porn.”

Ironically, Evaristo was expressing her impatience with stories about “traumatized children” only hours after the attacks on the school in Yobe. When I arrived back in Nigeria, a friend described to me a story he/she wanted to publish about terrorism in a Nigerian newspaper but was afraid of becoming a target. As I wrote in my article last year, “To say we must ‘move on’ past stories of hardship suggests to those who are suffering that their stories don’t matter—that such stories are no longer fashionable. Writers who live amidst suffering are in the unfortunate position of inhabiting an inconvenient stereotype. They are silenced by threats of terrorists inside the country and by the disapproval of cosmopolitan sophisticates outside.”

Later that night after Evaristo’s panel, Kenyan writer Mukoma wa Ngugi on the platform with his father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, spoke of his concern about “this push for what I call Afro-Optimist writing … wanting to show an Africa that is very Hakuna Matata…. In Kenya you have a very, very wealthy estate and next to it you have poverty…. I think it is our job as writers to explore this contradiction.” In response to Habila’s essay he cautioned, “we have to be very, very careful. It’s too easy to say there is a Caine Prize aesthetic… it’s as if we want to paint happy colours over the poverty and all those complications.” Caine Prize nominee Chinelo Okparanta further argued that “many people who jump on the poverty porn thing don’t even understand the context of what is being said…. These are superficial discussions.”

When I asked Evaristo about these contradictions, she hurriedly assured me that she was not in the position to tell people what stories to write, but that it was time to “start talking about different kinds of stories coming out of Africa, and I think this is happening especially with Taiye Selasi’s new book, and Chimamanda’s new book…” Ironically, the two novels she cites as more exciting new African stories are about relatively privileged Africans living in Diaspora—stories more like her own than the stories of traumatized children she is so determined to squelch.

As I point out these contradictions, I do so self-consciously, because I recognize myself in Evaristo’s impatience, in my own tendencies to review books published abroad before those published at home. I too am implicated because in London, I too did not make the effort to follow up on my cousin’s mention of the school attack. Another shooting? I thought. It has become too common. I don’t want to know about it right now. I just want to enjoy all of these great debates about African literature.

It is perhaps for this reason precisely why it is so problematic to have the “gatekeepers” of what stories are heard centred in London or New York. Because even a writer like Helon Habila, who has written such beautiful novels about the humanity of Nigerians who laugh and love and write amidst  conflict and poverty, now, from his professorial position in the West, jumps on the band wagon of complaining about how Africa is perceived in the rest of the world. But should not the focus, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long stressed in books like Moving the Centre, be instead on one’s immediate audience, expanding beyond that only when the story has been first heard at home?
Satirist and Caine Prize nominee, Elnathan John mentioned on several occasions during various interviews that he was still trying to get used to this talk of the “African writer” or the “African story.” He was writing, he explained, about northern Nigeria. His nominated story “Bayan Layi” was a northern Nigerian story, which he wrote shortly after the election violence of 2011, in which he was thinking about how to explain the nuance and complexity of the event to a Nigerian audience.  Author of The Spider King’s Daughter, Chibundu Onuzo touched the heart of the problem when she challenged Evaristo’s assumption that such stories were meant for publication in Britain. “Why do African writers need to be published here?” Shouldn’t the focus, she asked, be on building up publishing institutions in Africa, so that editors and publishers on the continent make the decisions on what kinds of stories are the most important and export them, rather than always having the most famous African writers be those first recognized in the West?

This, indeed, is one of the most central problems in discussions of African literature based in the capitals of what literary critic Pascale Casanova calls the “World republic of Letters.” Only rarely was there mention of the irony of such a festival being held at the centre of the former colonial empire, and there was more talk of “development” of African writers by Diaspora-based writers than I was comfortable with. However, I did think it was encouraging that Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “The Whispering Trees,” from his short story collection of that name, made the Caine Prize list.  The Whispering Trees was the first title published by exciting new Nigerian publisher Parresia, and the story selected by the Africa-based “Writivism” Facebook group as their Caine Prize winner. As Africans continue to tweet, blog, sell books through homegrown digital distribution like the phone-based okada books, and develop their own prizes, there is hope that the “centre” will move south to the continent itself.

 

African Literary Prizes: Where are the translations?

Last week, in my discussion of the Africa Writes Festival, which was held on the 5-7 July in London at the British library, I followed Kenyan author and language activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o in calling for “moving the centre” of the discussion about African literature to Africa itself.

As fantastic an initiative as the festival in London is and as impressive as the Caine Prize, the Commonwealth prize, the Brunel Prize for Poetry, the recently announced Moreland Writing Scholarship, and other such initiatives to reward African literature are (may they flourish), the healthiest state of African literature will be when the infrastructure to support African literature is developed and hosted on the continent itself.  As Caine Prize shortlisted writer Elnathan John pointed out at one of the first Caine Prize events in London on 4 July, “I think it is a shame that we are in London having this. I think all of us should be in Nairobi or Ghana or Lagos… Is the Caine Prize useful? Of course. It is among the best things that has helped African writing. But could the interaction be more equal? Yes. You don’t want us to just sit down be getting. We also want to interact and add value to the entire process, and I hope that as time goes by we are able to contribute more to that process.”

There are changes in this direction. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila both regularly hold workshops in Nigeria funded by Nigerian banks. The Kenya-based (albeit with European and American sponsors) Kwani Manuscript Project just awarded its first three authors and plans to publish other submissions from its short and long list. The Ghanaian-based Golden Baobab prize, founded in 2008, awards and helps publish African children’s book manuscripts. The Nigeria-based Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature, founded in 2006, is awarded every two years to a work of African literature, cycling through a different genre each time. The NLNG Prize, though open only to Nigerians, similarly cycles through different genres and at a whopping $100,000 is one of the most financially rewarding African literary awards. The most recent Africa-based prize is the £15,000 Etisalat Prize for African literature that was founded in June 2013 to award first novels. Similar to the Wole Soyinka Prize in its pan-African scope, the Etisalat prize, which has its first submission deadline 30 August 2013, seems to go beyond some of the other prizes in infrastructure building. Its website mentions that “Entries by non-African based publishers will require a co-publisher partnership with an African based publisher should any entries be shortlisted,” and Etisalat commits to purchasing “1000 copies of all shortlisted books which will be donated to various schools, book clubs and libraries across the African continent.” Although the prize still looks north in offering the winner a U.K.-based fellowship at the University of East Anglia (and mentorship by British author Giles Foden) (why not a residency in an African location with an African writer?), the infrastructure building for African publishers is important. The most glaring deficiency to the prize, however, is this: Although the United Arab Emirates-based company Etisalat also gives a prize for Arabic children’s literature, the criteria for entry in the African Literature prize specifies that books are only eligible if they have FIRST been published in English. Now, the other prizes I’ve mentioned also specify English-language submissions but most also accept translations into English from other languages. Yet when I tweeted the Etisalat Prize’s twitter handle asking them if they were indeed excluding translations, they confirmed, “At this time we are only accepting books originally published in English.” Ironically in the photos of the Lagos gala event opening the prize, there were photos of steps honouring African writers Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote in Arabic, Okot p’Bitek who wrote in Acholi, Assia Djebar who writes in French, and Mia Cuoto who writes in Portuguese, all of whom are accessible to English-speakers only through translation.

This dismissal of translation, particularly from African languages, by those who desire to promote African literature is a shame, considering that translation has been the major way “world literature” is transmitted and studied between cultures. In Germany, the “International Literary Prize” awards the best German-translation of an international work, which was won this year by Christine Richter-Nilssons translation of Teju Cole’s novel Open City. The Nobel Prize has been given to writers of dozens of different languages including small ones like Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Japanese, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Swedish, and Turkish. Yet translations from and between African languages are rarely rewarded or recognized even by Africa-based prizes.

It was this sort of exclusion that Ngugi wa Thiong’o challenged at the “Africa Writes festival” in London two weeks ago. During the 6 July panel discussion “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” he asked rhetorically, “Can you seriously think about giving a prize to promote a French writer but you put a condition that they write in Gikuyu?”  He was concerned that “the abnormal has become normalized” when African languages, incredibly still called “tribal” languages by some festival attendees, become almost invisible in discussions of African literature.

Obviously, as Bernadine Evaristo, founder of the Brunel Prize for African poetry pointed out, there are logistical problems with prizes that accept entries in multiple languages, such as finding jury members who can adequately judge in submissions. While there are fewer such logistical problems with translations, Billy Kahora of Kwani and Caine Prize administrator Lizzy Attree pointed out that submissions in translation are rare.

In a later appearance, Ngugi spoke passionately of his “deep concern at what we are doing to the continent and this generation.”  “It pains me, in a personal kind of way to see the entire intellectual production of Africa—the one that is visible—in European languages” as if “Africa can only know itself—be visible—in English.” While qualifying that he did not begrudge anyone their prizes, he repeated his call for translation, not just between African and European languages, but between African languages themselves.  He pointed out that people should focus on whatever language they inherited and then learn others. “Why don’t we secure our base economically, politically, linguistically and then CONNECT with others. […] If you know the language of your community and then add all the languages of the world to it, that is empowerment.”

It is not as if literature in African languages does not exist or even flourish. The day before, Ghirmai Negash, Mohammed Bakari, and Wangui wa Goro spoke of translating into English, Gikuyu, and Swahili Gebreyesus Hailu’s Tigrinya-language novel The Conscript written in 1927 about the experiences of Eritrean men conscripted by Italy to fight in Libya. In Nigeria, there have been novels and poetry written in Efik, Hausa, Igbo, Tiv, Yoruba, and other languages. In Hausa alone, there are thousands of published novels and a voracious reading public. Though it seems to have been stagnant for a few years, there have been three editions of the Engineer Mohammed Bashir Karaye Prize for Hausa Writing, which awards Hausa prose and drama. Yet, as far as I know, not one of these award-winning or nominated works has been translated into any other language, and judging from the lack of interest in translation at the level of “African literature” it is unlikely that they will be without the intervention of bodies interested in supporting translation.

Fortunately, there are some venues interested in publishing translated work. Last year, the Indian publisher Blaft published Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Hausa novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne translated into English as Sin is a Puppy… by Aliyu Kamal and are interested in other such translations. The translation journal Words without Borders recently contacted me looking for African women’s writing translated from African languages. The problem is that there are few literary translators, and even fewer financial incentives within the continent.

Now, one solution is to protest this purposeful exclusion of translation by the Etisalat Prize, which you can do by tweeting them at @etisalatreads or emailing them at contact@etisalatprize.com. But judging from the experience of prizes like the Caine, even if Etisalat changed the rules, would there actually be any translations submitted? Another, perhaps more practical solution is to work on building up resources and training for translators through existing structures, like the Ebedi Writers Residency or to start new residencies to for writers and translators to come together to work on projects. Another incentive would be to start a prize for African literature in translation to focus on making the wealth of literature in Africa languages available to the world. Any lovers of literature out there who want to help make this happen?

As Ngugi said, this is his challenge to the next generation, “Connect. Let us choose the path of empowerment.”

 

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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.”

Global Reach?

Several times I have proposed keeping up with the blog by posting photos from my vast archive and writing a quick memory of the context behind the photograph, and today I intend to start that–begin the rhythm of a new blog posting schedule.

I went into my photos folder and picked a date at random. And this is the first photo that came up.

IMG_1681

Taken on 26 February 2012 after the Boko Haram bomb at COCIN Headquarters church in Jos, Nigeria (c) Carmen McCain, all rights reserved

The date: 26 February 2012

The photo: A bank flier amidst broken glass from a Boko Haram bomb at COCIN Headquarters church. I had been living in Jos at the time, while writing my dissertation, and the church was only a block and a half from my house. It was around 7:15am. I was lying in bed, procrastinating getting up, when suddenly an ear-splitting BOOM came, shaking the house. I lept out of bed, tangling in the mosquito netting. I couldn’t find my keys to run out of the front door, so I ran out the side door. In the sky were thousands of bats.

The closed windows in my neighbour’s houses had shattered. We all sat on the ground in a neighbour’s house, listening to the shouting outside the wall. Later that afternoon, when tensions cooled, I walked over to the church to take a few photos. I later wrote about the experience in more detail.

With the recent attacks on mosques in Jos and Kano, church in Potiskum, and during a biometric verification exercise for state workers in Zaria, it felt like a the right photograph to post today, expressive of multiple ironies. It expresses the uncertainty that we continue to face about the “global reach” of terror, in a time when ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram often seem to work in conjunction (and in a time when more stories of terror against minority populations in the U.S. and Europe are being heard); the tensions of Nigeria’s economic expansion and attempts to join marketplaces of global capital in a time of Boko Haram. And so on.

Hopefully, my next photo will be a little more cheerful.

#Politicalironies : Campaigning in a time of Boko Haram

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 10.16.32 PMI’m not sure this photo needs any captioning. A screenshot I took featuring an article and a sidebar ad on 16 January 2015. A lot of  juxtapositions these days.

Here is a link to my blogpost with similar ironic political juxtapositions during the 2011 Nigerian elections.

Kofi Awoonor, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and the struggle for the New Dawn

(courtesy of the Story Moja Hay Festival site http://storymojahayfestival.com/)

When I heard on Sunday morning, 22 September 2013 that the great Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor had been killed in the Westgate Mall attacks, I began to obsessively follow google news and twitter with updates about the attacks. As I later related in my column for the next Saturday, I guiltily remembered after sitting online all day that even more people had been killed in Benisheik, Borno, than had been killed in the more widely covered siege on the Nairobi mall. It was a gut-wrenching week all round, with terrorist attacks that killed over 70 mourners at two funerals in Baghdad, Iraq; around 160 travellers on the road in Benisheik, Nigeria; at least 72 people at the mall in Nairobi, Kenya; and around 85 worshippers at All Saints church in Peshawar, Pakistan.

As I obsessively followed the news in preparation for my column published the following Saturday, I came across a New York Daily News article (yes, I know it’s a tabloid) that had a screen capture of the HMS Press Office twitter account, ostensibly run by Al Shabab. This was one of the several accounts Twitter shut down during the siege on the Westgate Mall. I had followed the chilling live tweeting from one of the HMS accounts during the massacre. Unlike Boko Haram’s Youtube videos released in Hausa, the tweeting was all in English of a sort that makes believable the speculations that there were Americans and Britons involved. As I read down the list, I gasped at the tweet at the bottom of the image, right before the screen capture cut off. It read “A new era is on the horizon. A new dawn, illuminating towards #Khifaafa. It’s a paradigm shift #Westgate”

Al Shabab tweet--a new dawn--cropped

The use of the metaphor “a new dawn” shook me because I had just spent days reading through the tributes to Kofi Awoonor, his poetry, and the poem widely used as his self-written elegy, from his new collection Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems to be published in 2014.  

It is named “Across the New Dawn.”

It is easy to read the poem as prophetic now.

 We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

There are warring notions here of what this “new dawn” is. Al Shabab presents it as a new era when its brand of extremism will take over the world–a paradigm shift. And if the four attacks across Africa and Asia are any indication, it does seem as though violent terrorists are pushing through a new order based on hate and sadism. It is, as it is meant to be, terrifying. This past week following the horrific attack that killed what the Vanguard claims killed up to 78 students in a hostel in at the Gujba College of Agriculture in Yobe State, I wanted to vomit when I heard of it. My mind couldn’t focus. As I wrote this week, I sat physically at my computer all day long unable to write anything.

What kind of person kills students in their beds? What kind of person joins a death cult? What kind of person slaughters the children of the poor?  In the dark? While they are sleeping?

Why?

I fear triteness.

What trite words of comfort can one offer when 78 students have been killed in their beds? When terrorists have murdered sleep in the northwest for over three years?

Yet, the convergence of these two warring notions of what the “new dawn” entails must mean something. I think (I hope, I pray) that Awoonor’s dawn will light the sky after the sun has set on Al Shabab and Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, and other terrorists who would attack innocent people to prove their ideology. Awoonor spent his life writing dirges, recognizing the evil that there is, yet he also he recognizes like Martin Luther King that the “arc of the universe bends towards justice.” There is a wisdom in his poetry built on generations of Ewe oral song that all the hatred of terror cannot twist. He writes of death, as a kind of balance,

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn.

It’s the archtypal life cycle of mourning and joy, death and birth, night and morning that runs throughout the Bible, which itself builds on and collects an oral tradition. As the King James version translates David’s song in Psalm 30:5

weeping may endure for a night,

but joy comes in the morning.

It makes me remember how I grappled with with writing about Easter in the dark days earlier this year. In my column the day before Palm Sunday, I wrote: 

But this week, it seems only appropriate to mourn, once again, so many senseless deaths, so much needless violence, to cry out as the Biblical character Job did, “Where then is my hope? […]I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer,” (17:15, 30:20) to cry out like Jesus did on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
There has been so much tragedy over the past year that I think most of us have become numb. We step over the bodies and keep going. But every once in a while something touches you, the death of someone you know, the news of children targeted and attacked. In these times, the evil of this world envelops you in its horror, and you just want to lie down and let the tears empty you.

It is in this time that I look for scriptures that remind me how humans survive. The beauty of the Bible for me is that it is a document that spans a history of thousands of years, and encompasses dozens of genres. The books within record the sufferings of humans throughout time. The fall into despair in the darkness of night and the release into joy in the light of the morning is an archetype found over and over again in the Bible. It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to groan, we have been doing it for millennia.
The biblical book of Job is written in the form much like a play that tells the story of a good man who loses his wealth, his ten children, even his own health. Finally, he is plagued by “comforters” who insist all of his suffering must be his own fault. As he questions God, he begins to see human life in the context of eternity.

“There are those who rebel against the light, who do not know its ways or stay in its paths. When daylight is gone, the murderer rises up and kills the poor and needy; in the night he steals forth like a thief. […] For all of them, deep darkness is their morning; they make friends with the terrors of darkness.”
Yet such evil men “are foam on the surface of the water; […]The womb forgets them, the worm feasts on them; evil men are no longer remembered but are broken like a tree. They prey on the barren and childless woman, and to the widow show no kindness. But God drags away the mighty by his power; though they become established, they have no assurance of life. He may let them rest in a feeling of security, but his eyes are on their ways. For a little while they are exalted, and then they are gone; they are brought low and gathered up like all the others; they are cut off like heads of grain” (24:13-24)

Job comes to trust that, in time, God will “redeem” his suffering, even when he does not understand: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.” (19:25-27). While he cannot control what happens to him, he acknowledges that “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’” (28: 12-28)

The lessons Job learns are repeated throughout the Bible. King Solomon writes “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death” (Ecclesiastes 8:7-8) He laments “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless,” yet like Job he concludes “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (11:8, 13-14).

[…]

The prophet Jeremiah writes “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him” (Lamentations 3:19-24)  King David writes: “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Christians believe that the cycle of death and resurrection found throughout the Bible was embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In that moment nearly two thousand years ago, the entire universe was “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis puts it: overcoming death with life, conquering night with day. It is this hope then that I remember when the days are their darkest. The morning will come. We do not know when, but we wait, pray, hope.

This is not the false dawn of evil men, but a dawn of truth, mercy, justice. And above all love. For

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear… (I John 4:18)

And

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr, from “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love

To read the complete version of my three columns I refer to, see

“Weeping at Night, Waiting for Light” March 23 2013

“Where the worm eats, a grain grows: Kofi Awoonor, Benisheik, Baghdad, Nairobi, and Peshawar” 28 September 2013

“Murdered Sleep” 5 October 2013

Let me end with Kofi Awoonor’s poems, one from early in his career “The Journey Beyond” and the other one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn,”  both of which refer to the boatman Kutsiami of Ewe myth, who paddles the dead to the other side of the river. As I wrote after I heard of Awoonor’s death:

Terrorists thought they killed him. They didn’t know they were just bringing the boatman to ferry him home.

The Poetry Foundation Ghana makes his early poem “The Journey Beyond” available.

The Journey Beyond

The bowling cry through door posts
carrying boiling pots
ready for the feasters.

Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;
When I come to the river shore
please ferry me across
I do not have on my cloth-end
the price of your stewardship.

The Wall Street Journal published one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn” as a tribute after he was killed: 

ACROSS A NEW DAWN

Sometimes, we read the

lines in the green leaf

run our fingers over the

smooth of the precious wood

from our ancient trees;

Sometimes, even the sunset

puzzles, as we look

for the lines that propel the clouds,

the colour scheme

with the multiple designs

that the first artist put together

There is dancing in the streets again

the laughter of children rings

through the house

On the seaside, the ruins recent

from the latest storms

remind of ancestral wealth

pillaged purloined pawned

by an unthinking grandfather

who lived the life of a lord

and drove coming generations to

despair and ruin

*

But who says our time is up

that the box maker and the digger

are in conference

or that the preachers have aired their robes

and the choir and the drummers

are in rehearsal?

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn

*

We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

Someone said an ailing fish

swam up our lagoon

seeking a place to lay its load

in consonance with the Original Plan

Master, if you can be the oarsman

for our boat

please do it, do it.

I asked you before

once upon a shore

at home, where the

seafront has narrowed

to the brief space of childhood

We welcome the travelers

come home on the new boat

fresh from the upright tree

From “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” selected by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund, 2014

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.”

Unity or Hell: Choices for the New Year

I am writing this post on 17 March 2012, but backdating it to the first of the year, for blog organization purposes.

My column for the new year with the not so subtle title of ‘Unity or Hell: Choices for the New Year’ was published as usual in the Weekly Trust on New Year’s Eve 2011, republished in the Daily Trust on 2 January 2012 (on pages 25 and 26) and again in the Vanguard on January 12. I wrote this following the bloody events of Christmas Day 2011, which has (with hindsight) unfortunately ushered in the “year of the bomb” in Nigeria. I pray that, despite the tragedies that have occurred so far in 2012, that we can rally around to unify against those who would divide the country. To read the original, click on the photo below. To read on this blog with links to the passages, I quoted, scroll down below the photo.

Unity or hell: Choices for the New Year

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 31 December 2011 05:00

On September 15, 1963, during the American civil rights movement, the American terrorist group Ku Klux Klan, which uses twisted Christian language to support its racist ideology, set off a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where civil rights activists often congregated. The bomb killed four little girls coming out of their Sunday school class and wounded twenty-two other people. In 1997, People Magazine wrote an article about the bombing in which they quote Chris Hamlin, then pastor of the church, saying “The bombing was a pivotal turning point’ […] Birmingham- so rocked by violence in the years leading up to the blast that it became known as Bombingham – ‘Finally,’ adds Hamlin, ‘began to say to itself, “This is enough!’”
The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwis...

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nearly fifty years later, in a very different context, another bomb has gone off in a church, this one St Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, Niger State, Nigeria, this time on Christmas Day 2011, a holiday celebrating joy and peace. The latest in a series of bomb attacks around the country, it killed around thirty-five people including children and a pregnant woman and wiped out whole families. Boko Haram, a terrorist entity which asserts it is fighting for Islam, claims responsibility for the bombings. But just as the Ku Klux Klan violated Christian principles of love and non-violence, so also does Boko Haram violate Islamic principles of non-violence against non-combatants. Bombing a place of worship, especially on a holy day with families of worshippers inside, is such a sacrilege that I wonder if this time, remembering  the 2010 Christmas Eve bombings and this year’s attacks on Muslims during Eid-el-Fitr in Jos, we too, both Christians and Muslims, will finally say, “This is enough!”

When I first heard, on Christmas morning, of the bombs in Madalla, Jos and Yobe, I thought of my column published the day before. I had written about the December 10 football viewing centre bombings in Jos in the context of Jesus’s teachings on peace. As I tried to process the shattering news of dozens of innocent people killed after attending Christmas mass, I thought of a verse I had edited out of the conclusion of my last article to save space. It was Matthew 10: 28-31, where Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Several thoughts on Jesus’s words about fear:

First: the body. After I mentioned Boko Haram briefly in one of my other articles, a reader wrote me, warning that it was dangerous to talk about Boko Haram—“I think it is safer to avoid even mentioning the name of these mad creatures. They are everywhere: they watch & listen.”  My response was to re-tell the story of returning to Jos from New York in September 2001. “I realized that if I changed my plans [to return] either because of the attacks on New York or the crisis in Jos, I would be doing what the terrorists wanted, which is to make everyone change their lives and tiptoe around in fear. And if you do that, you are letting a minority of violent people rule your life, rather than God. I refuse to live in fear. My life is in God’s hands. If it is my time to die, it is my time to die. I will not refuse to speak out about truth or justice or peace out of fear.”  The deaths of those people on Christmas morning were tragic, but while terrorists could maim their bodies, they could not touch their souls.

Second: on hell. Whoever is behind the Christmas bombings and other “Boko Haram” violence wants to tear the country apart. They want Christians to curse Muslims and the South to declare war against the North. They want to deny complexity, deny love, drag the rest of us with them to a hell of hatred and violence. They want us to ignore the teachings of Jesus, beloved of both Christians and Muslims, who said “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If we fall into the trap the terrorists have set and begin to behave irrationally, hating those who had nothing to do with the terror and lashing out in violence against them, then we lose our souls and those who are trying to destroy Nigeria will succeed in their plan.

During Christmas, most of the Christmas greeting texts and phone calls I received were from Muslims. These sorts of friendships are what the attackers mean to destroy. I was encouraged, therefore, when I saw so many Muslim leaders unified in their condemnation of the attacks.  Daily Trust and This Day reported condemnation from Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), Muslim Public Affairs Center (MPAC), Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Izalat Bida’a Waikamtul Sunnah (JIBWIS), Muslim Congress, and the Malta Ahmadiyya Group, among others. Chairman of the Sokoto State chapter of Izalat Bida’a Waikamtul Sunnah (JIBWIS), Sheikh Abubakar Usman Mabera said “Almighty Allah forbids the killing of a fellow human being. Whoever thinks that he is carrying out Jihad by destroying places of worship and killing innocent citizens is ignorant of Islam because the religion forbids that.” Vanguard reports that the Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III declared:  “There is no conflict between Christians and Muslims, between Islam and Christianity. It is a conflict between evil people and good people and the good people are more than the evil doers. The good people must come together to defeat the evil ones.” And, despite rabble-rousing statements by some understandably distressed Christian leaders, Pope Benedict XVI responded in the pattern Jesus set, saying, “In this moment, I want to repeat once again with force: violence is a path that leads only to pain, destruction and death. Respect, reconciliation and love are the only path to peace.”

Back in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would himself be assassinated five years later, preached the funeral for the four little girl killed in the Birmingham church, saying: “my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’ The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood […from] the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.”

On this last day of 2011, as we mourn those innocents killed on Christmas morning, we can let this tragedy lead us on to a more unified voice against evil, both Christians and Muslims speaking out against terrorism and corruption, working actively together for peace against those who would divide at all costs. Or we can let our hatred lead us straight to hell. It is our choice. Happy New Year.