I must admit I have recently been worried about what I can post on this blog. I am discovering more and more people who are following it (either the occasional drop-in or the avid “follower” who I assume gets an email when I make a new post), all of them from very different backgrounds. They say write for your audience, but I’ve got a funny audience. I’ve got Nigerians from the South and Nigerians from the North. I’ve got Americans and a few Europeans. I’ve got academics. I’ve got atheists and agnostics. I’ve got Buddhists. I’ve got Muslims and evangelical Christians, Catholics, Pentecostals. Politically conservative and politically radical. I’ve got people I’ve known since high school, and people I’ve never met except through their comments on my blog. So when I “write what I’m thinking” (the meaning of the title of this blog in Hausa) how careful do I need to be? Can I just write what I want or do I need to issue disclaimers on everything?
I remember the advice of an old poetry professor who said you can’t think about what your family (or others) will think when you write, you just have to write what is true to yourself. But as an academic, I also have a little critic crouched on my shoulder, repeating back to me what my various readers might say to themselves. I worry about the ethics of being “true to myself” when it involves writing about other people or even writing about what I’m thinking. I can’t write as freely as I could if I were writing poetry, which has a certain limited audience, and in the age of internet these posts are far more accessible than my poems ever would have been.
Maybe I should start giving Victorian-type titles or chapter descriptions, and people can choose whether to read it or not.
This one will be:
“A Very Long and Personal Post In which Talatu-Carmen Worries about her Audience and then Muses about the Original Christmas and Christianity in Relation to the Jos Crisis.”
“O Holy Night”
I have been thinking during this Christmas season about refugees and displaced people, poverty and war, about indigenes and settlers and politics. About how many similarities there are between the nativity story and about life here now. Christmas carols leap to life: the darkness of the earth and the sudden burst of joy, the supernatural promise of peace and how “tidings of great joy” were brought to the wretched of the earth—shepherds, peasants, a poor carpenter and his young bride who were moved by imperial decree back to their place of “origin.”
Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, outposts in an imperial province. Arrogant Roman soldiers patrolling the streets. Rebels in the hills. The corrupt incestuous Herod family who assassinated each other and who would order the death of children to secure a political post.
In the village of Nazareth there is a young girl promised in marriage. In a Judean town there is the barren wife of a priest. Suddenly the virgin and the old woman are impossibly filled with life.
The rhythm quickens.
A carpenter is heart broken by what seems to be the girl’s betrayal. The old woman believes her, knows, when her own child leaps within her, the mysterious burden her young cousin is carrying before she says a word. Angels come down in dreams. The carpenter believes.
The rhythm quickens.
There is an imperial degree that “settlers” should go back to their place of origin to be counted. A government census is declared. Villagers mutter about the government exercise being a good excuse for officials to take extra kickbacks. What choice do they have? What control do they have over their lives? The carpenter sets off on foot with his tough pregnant little bride for the hundred mile journey. It has been long since his parents or his grandparents had left Bethlehem. There are no family, no friends that they know well enough to stay with. The town is chock full of lost, short tempered pilgrims back in what Rome calls their homeland, and there is no room for hire in the inn. The carpenter and this pregnant teenager must settle for someone’s charity, a room in a poor man’s house where the animals wander in and out, or a stable near the fields.
This is not how most women give birth for the first time. This is not how it is supposed to happen. Mary had seen her cousins give birth, with family around them, sisters and mothers and neighborhood midwives. In Nazareth there would have been clean, soft newly sewn cloths to wrap the baby in. But here she is like a refugee, in a strange town. The only familiar person is this man her parents arranged for her to marry, this man she has only just begun to know. This place they have settled is dirty. Goats and sheep and chickens wander in and out. She does not know where women go to bathe or ease themselves. She is not sure where to find water to wash her clothes. Joseph is an “indigene” of this place, but he knows no one. She had never been in this small dusty village before, although both of their ancestors were buried here.
They are dark days, brutal soldiers, corrupt tax collectors, armed robbers plaguing travelers on the roads. People are suspicious of each other. Rumours fly faster than imperial messengers bringing declarations of new taxes. The Judeans hate the Samaritans and the Samaritans hate the Judeans. The king is a despised Edomite placed in power by colonial overlords. He builds a palace on a distant rock and neglects security and the repair of roads. Religious leaders proclaim their righteousness in the streets, making great displays of their money, while their own parents starve.
The contractions come closer and closer together.
Yet there is this mystery, this insane promise made by angels that makes the tired dirty young couple glow and wonder.
This is the transcendent mystery of Christmas.
The moment of the birth when the earth exploded and all the laws of nature spun topsy turvy.
We Christians believe that God himself was born that cold dusty night in Bethlehem. That God himself burst into the world in the poorest of conditions, to tired displaced peasants who could not even comfort themselves with the warmth of home or family. It is incomprehensible to us—how such a thing could happen. Incarnation--the depth of humility in which the Creator of the Universe sank to emerge into his own creation—as if the author of a book suddenly entered its flat pages or an embroiderer sewed herself into the fabric of her art. The degree of difference between the Roman emporer and the road-weary paupers suddenly becomes miniscule. All the gold and silks and great marble palaces suddenly seem cheap and gaudy compared to what the poorest of the poor saw that night in the dusty ancestral home of David.
The world began to explode around them. The earth could not contain this limitless Being. The night sky burst with light of Presence, just as 33 years later the day would grow dark with Absence.
Shepherds, with their sheep and cattle huddled around them, staggered backwards as the night sky cracked open and stars poured down and music from outside the universe spilled in through the rupture. And it was they, a teenage girl and the manual labourer who married her, shepherds with handwoven hats and cracked heels who first felt the joy. It rippled out from there, an old man and an old woman in the temple who had waited their whole lives to see the prophecy fulfilled, foreign scholars from the East who came on camels bearing gifts for a king, the peasants of Egypt who watched the child as he grew long and slim and began to walk.
And those he touched as he proceeded towards his death: religious leaders, politicians and prostitutes, tax collectors and thieves, fishermen and soldiers, the blind and the epileptic, beggars and rebels, Jews and their hated relatives the Samaritans, colonial Roman overlords, Egyptians, and visitors from the East, those who worshiped him and those who spat on him.
The light of dawn bursts out and the darkness cannot hide it.
But there is so, so much that is wrong—good ripples out and the evil bunches up into pockets of atrocity. The small dusty town of Bethlehem witnesses the birth of an impossible Child, both an indigene and settler, human and God, Creator stitched into his own creation, and the king orders the death of dozens of other children. (How hard it is for a rich man, a ruler of an earthly province, to see the kingdom of God breaking around him like a tidal wave! It is invisible to him)
He thinks he is safe now, protected, like Pharaoh, from children who would usurp him. The Great One dies only months after he thinks he has secured his throne. His son Herod takes his brother’s wife, sneaks into her teenage daughter’s room when he thinks she’s not looking. He is driven mad by nightmares of the prophet he has beheaded yet approves another to be crucified. Another son Herod is consumed by worms that came from inside of him and eat him alive.
Now two thousand years later, these Herods still scheme, unaware of the worms that are eating them alive. They pick schoolgirls off the streets, vacation in Rome with money extorted from peasants, secure bank accounts run by distant colonial lords, pay mercenaries to kill children in the street. The worms eat them. And poor beleaguered people, who keep having to leave their homes, who grow used to gun-wielding soldiers on the roads, are still dazzled with joy at the memory of the song that drifted into our world that winter’s night.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall see the kingdom of God.”
There is such darkness in the world, and yet there is this unexplained spirit, this beauty that keeps blinding us. We keep surviving. I don’t understand it. But there it is.
Long lay the world, in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel’s voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
Glory to God in the highest
And on earth peace
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
I came into Jos from Kano last week in a taxi full of Hausas from Angowar Rogo. “Kuna Jos lokacin da rigima? Were you in Jos during the crisis?” I ask the two women sitting beside me, as we left Kano. “I, wallahi,” they say beginning to exchange stories of huddling in their houses with their children and other refugees. Coming into Jos, I am stricken by what I see on the road, on the north side of town—what I did not see before because I flew out of the airport in Jos South to Lagos the Wednesday after the crisis. There the blackened outline of the sprawling school for Islamic higher education and another burnt school just before we got to Farin Gada. Rows of burnt and roofless houses and shops. As we pass, I see men bowed in prayer, filling the burnt hull of a mosque. The walls are blackened and broken down on two sides yet they bow, they pray to God.
“There is so much we did not see. There is so much we did not know.” I think. “All we saw were the churches.”
Two days to Christmas, I drive with my parents through Tudan Wada, Katako Market, and Angowar Rogo, taking shortcuts to try to get home before the curfew. Whole streets of shops lie in blackened ruins. They belong to both Christians and Muslims, but the deepest devastation is in Muslim areas.
I read the 2006 Human Rights Watch report on the indigin/settler problem in Nigeria. I'm sure they are oversimplifying some things, but how had I not known that a student could not enter any university in Nigeria without an indigin certificate from somewhere—that there are thousands and thousands of Nigerians caught between here and there, between where they’ve “settled” and their supposed “homeland” where they cannot get indigene certificates either? People who can’t get into schools, can’t get government jobs, who are seen as “settlers” wherever they go? When Jos Hausas go to Kano to make movies they are seen as being “Jos people” coming to corrupt Hausa culture. When they stay in Jos, politicians tell them to go back to where they came from.
Friends (Plateau indigenes and Christians at that) explain details of the elections—how egregiously the elections seem to have been rigged in favour of “indigene” politicians preaching a gospel of protectionism.
Onward Christian Soldiers
Marching into war
One friend tells me he was out at a night spot Thursday night of the election and heard reports from people drifting in that the ANPP candidate has won by a landslide. Then somehow PDP was reported to have won. He tells me about how people on the middle class compound, where most of his neighbors have a university degree, “began to turn into animals before my eyes.” Christians who wanted to kill the few Muslim families who lived on the compound, who only days earlier they were visiting and watching videos with. Young men, his friends from childhood, who called him to come with them to kill and old Hausa man who takes care of horses. Teenage boys and girls who beat to death a Hausa boy who fell off a passing lorry.
This is what Christians have done.
In the name of Christ.
The Prince of Peace.
I begin to understand one of my friends, a Plateau indigene, who converted from Christianity to Islam because of what he saw in the church.
Yet the other stories remain. The “Hausa Muslim” boys who burned churches at 6am on Friday morning, who pulled people out of taxis as they passed on the road and cut off old women’s hands. The Christian girl living behind a nightclub who used her phone to video the mob of young men trying to beat down her door. These stories sit there beside the stories about the young Christian men who killed a fellow Christian night guard who tried to keep his Muslim employer’s property from being burned, beside the stories of young “Christian” men who began to call their friend a traitor when he wouldn’t come with them to kill.
And then there are the stories of what the soldiers did. Christian and Muslim soldiers. Mowing down the young.
Markets burned three weeks before Christmas.
This is the world that Christmas comes to.
The woman at Katako Market from whom my mother bought glass and pitcher sets before the crisis. Her neighbor gives her a few plastic buckets to hang outside the blackened remains of her shop to start over again.
The old Christian Igbo woman whose irrigation pumps are burned during the crisis, who keeps her fields green when her Hausa Muslim neighbors loan her their pumps when they have finished watering their fields.
Christmas comes upon us, unexpected, while houses are still buried in rubble, and refugees whose homes were burned still camp in relatives' houses.
Today, Sunday, the Sunday after Christmas, the last Sunday before the new year, we go to the small cement block community hall where Emmanuel Baptist church is meeting while they wait to begin rebuilding their church for the third time. There are a few streamers and balloons hanging from the ceiling and letters spelling out “Happy X-mas” hung haphazardly on the walls. Women and children greet us warmly. Little girls call out “Aunty Talatu.” The children sit on the floor at the front, while adults squeeze onto benches propped up on stones.
“I’m not happy that we don’t have enough chairs” said the pastor in Hausa, waving the children to the front. He was smiling.
He and his family had gone to the wildlife park with their three children and two foster daughters a week after the crisis to give the children a vacation. While there, they were robbed at gunpoint by men who lay them on their faces and searched in their pockets and purses, said they would kill the children if they did not cooperate.
These are the people who slept on our floors and who sat outside to eat paltry bowls of badly seasoned rice for four or five days. Who had to take baths in cups of water in our bathroom without a drain.
I should not have been surprised by the joy I saw on their faces today. Two days after the crisis started when their service was held at our house, with girls dressed in jeans and mothers in mismatched wrappers, they still sang and danced. They still woke at 5am each morning to pray and sing.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,
Shall come to thee, o Israel
Now they wore lace. Their shocked anger had given way to thanksgiving. Most families had gone back to their neighborhoods, to rebuild relationships with old neighbors.
The service is in Hausa. A man comes to the front to exhort the church to remember how Jesus said “If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.” He prayed that those whose homes had been burned would be given another. The assistant pastor, an elderly man whose house was burned, leads the singing.
After the exhortations, there are two occasions to celebrate: a baby dedication, and a thanksgiving for a couple married two days before.
The baby girl is prayed over. The drummer beats a danceable rhythm on the newly donated drums. People dance and sing and laugh, laugh, laugh.
The groom, an architect, had been married before. His wife lost their first baby in childbirth. On the road from the village where she had gone to recover, she and her sister were killed in a car accident. Now, two years later, he has married again. The bride smiles and dances as we bring up another offering. The young couple pledges to donate N5000 to help the church buy new chairs. After the service, they pass out a crate of minerals.
So many new beginnings.
See these people who keep coming back.
O come to earth
Abide with us
Our Lord, Emmanuel
The church is a bright bird, bursting out of the flames.
Reborn again and again.
Through the fire and the smoke. Through the gunfire and the raging mobs and the hungry roads and angry robbers.
There are those who politic in God’s name.
Those who kill in God’s name.
Those who steal in God’s name.
Those who take revenge in God’s name.
Those who demonize their neighbor in God’s name.
And you can call them Christians and Muslims if you like.
And call it a religious crisis if you like.
A holy war if you like.
If that is what you think God is like.
O Come thou rod of Jesse free
Thy home from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of hell thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel”
But this is what I saw today: Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Gentleness. Self Control.
Angry shock given way to joyful forgiveness.
And this is what I heard, at the end, after we had danced and sung for the bride and the groom and the child.
“May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the sweet fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us now and forever more.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.
The church is named Emmanuel:
God is with us.