The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Tribalism

This entry has actually been a year or so in the making… Recently I’ve been thinking a lot more about my relationship with religion. I was raised Catholic and although I believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I’m not so sure about little-boy-rapists, thieves and hypocrites. I’m not saying that any religion is perfect, but rather that one should strive for matter over content – that is, to seek spirituality rather than to constantly apply rules and labels to what some call “faith.” With that said, allow me to ruminate.

A year ago I went to a discussion on my campus about Islamophobia. While listening to the other people present (all of whom had grown up in the West), it became clear to me that the word Islamophobia can have very different connotations depending on the geographical and cultural perspective of the person talking. Most people think of the words “jihad” and “terrorist” in this post-9/11 world when the topic of Islam comes up, which makes perfect sense sitting in a brownstone on New York’s Upper West Side. However, as the conversation went on and the participants were asked to give specific examples of Islamophobia that they had witnessed, I realised that as a Nigerian my experience of this phenomenon was considerably unlike that of those who weren’t from my part of the world.

I was living in England at the time the September 11th attacks took place. I was there when the London bombings of 2005 happened. I had seen the television reports and heard the hostile comments that painted a picture of the average Muslim as a rabid fanatic hell-bent on destroying the values of democracy that make “Western civilisation” the best of all human societies. Although I could go further into the problems of this level of stereotyping, I think I may save that for another entry. The discussion actually made me think for the first time about the ways in which Islamophobia works where I come from. Because Nigeria wasn’t directly affected by 9/11, the whole “terrorist” discussion didn’t initially come up with regards to Islam (again, thanks, panty-bomber). What does seem to be a problematic issue back home is the relationship between Muslims and Christians. Nigeria is split roughly 50/50 in terms of religion between these two groups. The Muslims live predominantly in the northern part of the country, whilst Christians occupy the south. My city, Lagos, is probably the most diverse in the country because of its status as the commercial centre, and for the most part Muslims and Christians happily coexist side by side there. In other parts of the country, however, this isn’t necessarily the case.

The news has been filled recently with stories of “deadly religious clashes” in Plateau state, which is in the “Middle Belt” of Nigeria (the dividing line between the “Muslim North” and “Christian South.” The violence was horrific – burnt babies, men mutilated by machetes, women wounded in indescribable ways. Although this violence is labelled as religiously-motivated, other factors such as scarce resources, a lack of education and the consistent failure of the Nigerian government to build a cohesive national identity over the past 50 years are probably more central to the issue. Many people on both sides of the religion line see each other as so fundamentally alien, despite the fact that we are all citizens of the same country and the many intersections in our history, cultures and languages. I’ve heard Christians I’m close to call Muslims “uneducated,” “polygamous” and “close-minded” like these are terms exclusive to Islam. My cousin has told me stories of being called an “infidel” by her Muslim classmates as a child, classmates who just a day earlier had sat next to her and called her a friend. And when you’re struggling to scrape by as a farmer and water gets scarce, it’s probably easier to take your frustrations out on the person from a different tribe and village than on the gun-protected officials who don’t perform the tasks they were “elected” to do.

I was just reading an article by David Goodhart for a political science class in which he argues that the more diverse a society, the harder it is for it to be cohesive. This may be true, but I find it impossible to accept that Nigerians are so dissimilar from one another that they cannot possibly find a common ground. Islam and Christianity are no more radically different from one another than a Yoruba is from an Itsekiri. A friend invited me to Friday prayers on campus last week and listening to the lecture, I heard nothing that I hadn’t heard in a homily at a Sunday mass. I can’t speak for other places but in the context of my country, I think that these supposed “differences” between us – whether distinctions of religion, ethnicity or class – are being exploited and exaggerated by leaders seeking support for their kleptomaniac ways and bullshit “ideologies.” Of course, this is only politics as usual but seeing a man sob after his wife was buried in a mass grave with his children nowhere to be found, one may have to start rethinking some things. Nothing will ever change in the country if its people don’t have a sense of community with one another, regardless of whatever superficial differences we perceive among ourselves.

P.S. This Jill jawn right here is beautiful… even though it really doesn’t have much to do with this post, that line always stands out for me. Sura 31:18, by the way, reads: “And swell not thy cheek/(For pride) at men/Nor walk in insolence/Through the earth/For Allah loveth not/Any arrogant boaster.” Good advice to live by.

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Kumbaya

Imagine a world of no conflicts, a world where everyone believes in the oneness of the human race. A world where people of all races sit down together and share equally in the wonderful resources the earth has to give. Africa and the Middle East are peaceful regions. The distinction between the third and first world, the developed and the developing, no longer exist. Racism, tribalism, xenophobia are all things of the past. The human race respects nature and the environment is safe. On that day, human beings shall hold hands together and we shall sing “Kumbaya” in unison.
Now to the realists/cynics amongst us, this vision of the world is unattainable. For such a world to exist we would have to give up the selfishness which marks us individuals, part of what defines us. While I do generally agree that this Kumbaya existence in unattainable, I do however feel that as humans we have the responsibility to try our best to eliminate bias and prejudice in every area of endeavor.
The reason I’m even thinking about this “I have a dream” scenario is because as an African, and specifically as a Nigerian, I come across all sorts of bias and prejudice in my daily life. I have always been of the opinion that education and exposure helps to lessen ignorance and hence helps to stem the tide of bias. It then surprises me that as a Nigerian that people, educated or not, are more concerned with what ethnic group I belong to than anything else about me. I say this because within the context of Nigeria or even Africa, people find it hard to place my ethnic group based on my name and hence I get all sorts of questions, “Are you really Nigerian?” “Are you this tribe, that tribe or the other?” – all of which are typically wrong. I am yet to meet a Nigerian even when I was in the US who wouldn’t, knowing that I’m Nigerian, ask as a follow up question to “What is your name?” what my tribe was.
Now there are people that would blame this on the colonial strategy of divide-and-rule. The colonial rulers played one tribe against the other to ensure easy rule although before the colonialists came, I am sure tribes were conquering each other and fighting. You would think over time people get over certain prejudices. Then again, it’s almost 50 years after the end of colonial rule and to the best of my knowledge Nigerians and Africans in general have been traveling to other lands and getting educated on the bigger picture. I say this because from my own experience, going to study outside my country provided me the opportunity to see the issues that are affecting my country outside the lens of tribalism. It gave me a sense of the bigger picture in the sense that I began to see my fellow Nigerians not as people of this or that tribe but as my fellow Nigerians. I also began to see my fellow Africans as brothers with whom I could share some common experiences. I would even venture further to say I see African-Americans as cousins of some sort and, in the complete Kumbaya state of mind, I judge a person by their merits and not by their skin color or culture. Of course as a human being, I’m not immune to all forms of bias, but I try to not let these biases be the major decision-makers in my life.

To put my thought process in context, I recently came back to Nigeria after studying in the US, and I am settling in for what could be a year or more in Africa. What has struck me while I have been back is hearing supposedly educated people spew stereotypes about a person of one tribe or another. You can walk through the streets and hear stereotypes that the Yoruba man, for instance, is dirty by nature, the Igbo man loves money and the Hausa man is an uneducated Islamic fanatic who rules and consumes all the country’s wealth. I am from the northern part of the country, where the Hausas/Fulanis are the majority tribes so anytime I tell someone I am from the north, it is assumed that a) I am a Muslim b) I am uneducated (they are surprised to discover I have finished university) and c) I come from an area that is wealthy. Of course all stereotypes have an element of truth: Nigeria is a country with enormous wealth and the north of the country has held power for longer than the other regions. The country is also has an illiteracy rate of almost 50%. The surprising thing about these stereotypes is that there are sometimes physical attributes that go along with them: the tall, skinny Fulani man, the light-skinned Igbo chap, the dark-as-hell Yoruba man and so on and so forth. If you look closely though, these so called physical attributes are almost complete hogwash as many people defy these parameters of identification. It still amazes me that people treat me a certain way because I look like I’m from a part of the country that I’m not. When I am in the northern part of the country, people sometimes treat me with disdain and speak in the language not knowing I understand, whereas when I’m in the southern part of the country, people speak their language to me and are surprised when I don’t understand them.
Now I am not anti-culture, nor do I advocate the adoption of European culture where all ethnic barriers are lifted and Africans sing Kumbaya with a Yorkshire accent. I say this because I have often been accused by people of my own ethnic group of having no respect for our people or culture because I feel we aren’t so different from others. I feel that there is a strong problem when people of different tribes do not take the time to appreciate and learn from each other’s cultures. I feel there is a problem when people of one tribe make it difficult for people from two different tribes to marry. Of course, times are changing and there are intercultural marriages, but there is still a deep suspicion of people of different tribes often steeped in the stereotypes many people already hold. I think there is a problem when as a governor, minister or president in my country, if you don’t provide dividends for people of your tribe as opposed to for all people in your constituency, you are seen as a traitor. Now I ask you how such a country hopes to progress even with loads of oil wealth. Would the US, for instance, expect President Obama to develop only Illinois at the detriment of the other states in the union? That would be ridiculous. It is a problem when people look at political appointments on the basis of ethnic affiliation, not in terms of merit and experience. There are very few technocrats working in the Nigerian government. And they are hoping to achieve the millennium development goals? I call bullshit on that one.

The same discussion could apply to religion in my country. Nigeria is statistically almost 50% Christian and 50% Muslim. As a young kid from a Christian family, I always wondered growing up why none of the Muslim kids would come and play with me. As I grew up and eventually made Muslim friends in places such as boarding school, it occurred to me that sometimes Muslim parents and Christian parents alike, depending on how fundamentalist or firebrand they are, often discourage their kids from playing with kids of the other religion. Now I wonder, if I had some Buddhist kids around, would my parents have let me play with them? I can speak for Christianity since I grew up in a Christian family. Christians in my country take religion more seriously than the damn colonialist missionaries who brought it to them. Nigerians are highly religious – it’s the only country I know where literally every street has a church or mosque on it. It doesn’t just stop there: in certain volatile parts of the country politicians often use religion to incite violence. The Christians often even argue amongst themselves, along the Catholic/Protestant line, each believing the other is wrong. It is a Nigerian Anglican archbishop that is spearheading the move by the African Church to leave the English Communion for appointing a gay bishop. I find it ironic that one of the most religious countries on earth is also one of the most corrupt. Now I wouldn’t want to make any inferences here on the role of religion in corruption because that’s a whole other discussion.

Now imagine a world rife with conflict, where each group is at another’s throat, where fighting between tribes and genocides are common place. Imagine a world where we murder anything that we perceive as different from us. I think it doesn’t take a genius to see that such a world needs progress. So my dear friends, what experiences in your life sometimes have you wishing for a world of equality and equal opportunity under the sun?

The song I had in mind as I was writing this was “If I ruled the world” by Nas featuring Lauryn Hill. I certainly miss Lauryn Hill, homegirl needs to get back pronto. Nas has always been one of my favorite rappers, dude speaks knowledge, if he listening, we need another “Illmatic” bruv.