On the front-line in northern Nigeria

It was mental torture in the dark of night. It was a vivid illustration of assertive Islam and at the end, too, it was an illustration of the uncertain response of the Nigerian churches.

100_0970We had enjoyed a wonderful Easter Day. We – my wife Sally, our two pre-teen daughters and I – were visiting Jos in middle-belt Nigeria to experience family life on the Christian frontline and to see and support the orphanage run by Gloria, the inspirational wife of Ben Kwashi, Anglican Archbishop of Jos.

The city is historically and predominantly Christian and is located on a territorial promontory at the north end of Plateau State, surrounded on three sides by two of northern Nigeria’s twelve Sharia states. Over the years there have been major and fatal Muslim/Christian clashes along its dusty poverty-stricken streets and the al Qaeda-linked group Boko Haram has targeted the city too.

Cocin church bomb blastIndeed on Easter morning we celebrated the Resurrection at one such target, the city centre church that was hit by a Boko Haram suicide car bomb on a busy Sunday morning in February last year, mercifully avoiding a carnage and killing just four worshippers. Amidst high security at the church entrance we walked by the car’s remains, preserved as a macabre memorial to the deceased and memento of God’s grace. The packed church, the apparent lack of fear and the lively but dignified Easter worship were uplifting.

But at 4.30am the following morning I was awoken by the loud wail of the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. There was nothing exceptional about this as we were staying with a local family in a mixed, albeit Christian-majority, area of the city. But we were then unexpectedly subjected to a provocative hour-long full-blast sermon in native Hausa which reverberated brutally around the houses. There was no choice, no respite and no possibility of sleep. It was menacingly oppressive. I lay in bed in the dark grinding my teeth at the racket, at the audacity of the mosque and at the apparent inability of the city authorities to stop such night-time dhimmitude being forced onto the predominantly Christian neighbourhood.

The sermon ceased at 5.30am and I rolled over to try to get some sleep. But at 6am I was aroused again, this time by Gospel music pumped out across the community. It was at a lower decibel level than the sermon and less overbearing. Nonetheless it was broadcast by a controversial Christian woman who against the wishes of other local Christians insisted on making a very obvious tit-for-tat point to the mosque and her Muslim neighbours.

map of NigeriaThe whole pre-dawn episode neatly encapsulated the tense situation both in middle-belt Jos and also across northern Nigeria where Christians are very much the minority. Society is now divided primarily along religious lines, and an assertive territorial Islam with its violent fringe faces down a Christianity that is subject to and seething at Muslim aggressiveness, yet fractured and uncertain in its response. In view of civil and military authorities’ inability to restrain the harassment, persecution and violence, the issue has become theological: do Christians passively turn the other cheek and leave vindication to the Lord; do they actively defend their families and churches if necessary by equally assertive means; or do they flee from evil and emigrate south?

On a completely different dimension was our time with Mrs Kwashi. We visited her orphan school, Zambiri Outreach and Care Centre, where amidst grinding deprivation 470 children are taught by 8 staff. Up to 140 are packed into each of the small rudimentary classrooms and at lunchtime they receive a bowl of rice, for many their only meal of the day. It was the morning of their Easter indoor picnic, and for a few hours laughter, singing and dancing covered over the underlying tragedy of many broken young lives.

P1030325We also visited the archiepiscopal home where amongst the monkeys, ostriches, peacocks, geese and long-horned cattle that inhabit the compound we met the 48 orphans who are loved by and live as family with the Kwashis, many taking on the Kwashi family name.

Archbishop Ben joined us dressed in American-style sleeveless T-shirt and long shorts. He had been teaching basketball to a lanky 14 year old. “I was good in my youth but age takes its toll,“ he grinned.

Some told us through tears how they had been rescued by Gloria, “Mama Kwashi” they call her gratefully. Six are HIV positive, one has been burnt as a witch, another is crippled, most have been abandoned, many have been starved and beaten, some have been raped.

But all now have received the liberating love of a new committed mother and father – Christ’s love mediated through an extraordinary Christian couple. This is divine love in action on the Nigerian front-line and young lives are being transformed. It is a wonder to behold.

(This post first appeared as an article published in this week’s edition of The Church of England Newspaper.)

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