This past Easter I found myself in Maiduguri, Nigeria – a burgeoning boutique religious holiday destination (almost). In any case, I was there for work, but didn’t realize my visit would coincide with Easter. Regardless, given the predominately Muslim city (and being Muslim myself), I didn’t put too much stock (re: any) into it.
During much of the trip I worked with my Nigerian friend Richard, who happens to be Christian. We were planning to spend one of the weekend days with his family, towards the end of my trip when much of the work had been done. As I was flying out the day after Easter and it had been a busy trip overall, that really only left Easter Sunday. I was a bit wary about occupying his family’s time that day, given that they may wish to spend it with themselves and not entertaining yours truly, but they assured me it was fine.
In any case, considering our plans to hang out on Easter, Richard asked if I would be interested in attending church services before (I think mostly in jest). At this point I had a monumental choice – sleep, or wake up early at 7:30 to make it in time for Richard to pick me up for Easter services. Very much wanting to do the former, but thinking how often would I have the chance to do the latter (that is to participate in church services during a major religious holiday in northern Nigeria), I decided sleep could wait (it still is).
Prior to confirming that, however, Richard said he should see his pastor, just to clear with him that a random foreigner who was not the devil may be lurking in his crowd. So that afternoon we stopped by his office. He seemed genuinely intrigued by the concept and asked a lot of questions about my visit, and point blankly about my religion. I replied I am Muslim. He laughed, so I did to. But once the laughing stopped, it became clear that I was in fact not the comedian he had assumed.
That led us to the question of ‘why do you want to celebrate with us?’ I noted that as a terrorist spy, it was my job to infiltrate the enemy, figure out everything I could about their religious rituals, and proceed to ensure there were enough chocolate bunnies on hand to give everyone instant diabetes (maybe he was wrong about the comedian bit after all!). In reality, I think my response was more along the prosaic lines of my interest in the cultural aspects of the celebration, and that we are all the same on the inside (did I really say that last part? I have no idea – I may have even started talking about reverse-oreos at some point; it really got away from me).
I recovered though for my captivating closing statement – my ‘heathen’ wife is actually a Christian. He took great joy in that statement and permitted me to come the next day (I wasn’t sure if he was happy that someone had actually taken pity to marry me, or thought that my dalliances with such an enemy would ultimately prove to be my undoing – perhaps both).
In any case, Richard picked me up early that morning and we drove cross-town to his family’s house. Everyone was getting ready by putting on his or her Sunday best – I did what I could (probably more qualified as a Wednesday morning middling effort).
We then drove to the church, and parked as close as we could. It was crowded and for security reasons no one could park too close to the building. Though it had been a few years, Boko Haram used to target churches during Sunday services with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and given that we were in the birthplace of the movement during a special day, security was high. There was a policemen posted at each church, while red tape blocked off an area outside of it. We had to pass through a metal detector until we were free to enter the compound (fortunately they didn’t find my lucky spoon, or my less lucky but equally cherished dinosaur spork).
In a nice sign of religious tolerance, Muslims had begun protecting churches during Sunday services in Nigeria – an indication that those ascribing to such deviant and narrow ideologies remain very much in the periphery.
The church itself was nearly full, laid out in three columns of pews. Men sat on one side and women on the other. We quickly slinked into a row at the back, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, despite the fact that there was only one foreigner who may or may not have been a devil impersonator in the crowd – and it was clearly I.
We were about 30 rows deep, but even this area quickly filled up around us. A procession of music took place – some catchy rock band tunes I find myself bopping along to (to the point where I very nearly started Maiduguri’s first annual Easter mosh pit tradition). There was also a string of choirs and a brass band, while gospel in the Hausa language common to northern Nigeria (but interestingly not the Kanuri language more predominant in Maiduguri) followed. Richard’s mother and father had both gone ahead of us as they were part of a women’s and men’s signing group respectively, so we paid special attention trying to spot them amongst the performances (I must say, my ability to discern different Hausa gospel voices could use dramatic improvement).
I had settled into a comfortable rhythm – swaying to some of the music while the stares of those around me had subsided. But suddenly while the vice-pastor was making his speech (purely in Hausa), Richard told me I needed to stand up. Looking at him in a state of panic, I asked why? I figured this would be a pretty good joke to play, with the vice-pastor outing me as indeed the devil incarnate.
Rather, Richard convincingly and unfortunately replied they were talking about my visit, and that I needed to demonstrate my presence to the church. I demurred and asked ‘really?” about half a dozen times with as many horrified facial expression as I could manage, hoping by the time I started getting up, it would be over. But he repeatedly affirmed positively, so I reluctantly did so very slowly – only to see the entire congregation of about 500 eyes turning their heads to stare back at me. So much for staying undercover.
I had no idea what the vice pastor was staying, so I quickly started to sit down only for Richard to motion for me to say upright as he was still talking about me. I awkwardly stood there for a few more minutes, before deciding I had enough and sat down. Richard then told me that I should go to the front, but I whole heartedly decided against that – apparently the vice pastor had asked, but got the hint that I wanted no part of any such thing, and moved on to bigger and better Jesus-related issues.
Some more music followed, and then it pastor’s turn to speak – the very same individual I had attempted to charm the previous day. He also talked mostly in Hausa, which mostly went above my head (i.e. all of it). But he then switched into English and began talking about a ‘special visitor.’ Richard motioned for me to stand up again, and this time given that I understood what was being said (though I should admit after 12 straight days in 100+ degree weather, my English was a little rusty), I felt I had no choice but to oblige.
The pastor noted that this Easter, the church had a visitor from Ethiopia (not sure if everyone expected to see my face at that point). He noted how I was a Muslim (the crowd gasps!), but I was married to a Christian. At this point his story started to divert from reality, but he went on to state that I go to both churches and mosques on a regular basis in Ethiopia, and thus wanted to come celebrate Easter with them since I was traveling (half of that is true – your guess which). It was a nice little story about religious tolerance, however, in a part of the world that has suffered from communal violence (as case in point about how such tensions can be stoked – this incendiary magazine, part of a series, is frequently handed out at church).
In any case while not completely accurate, considering that I work in the peacebuilding field, it was nice to use my own story as a symbol of tolerance and a lesson for Nigeria – so I’ll consider that a solid day’s work (or really my impact for the whole year). The pastor of course closed with the slightly more directed and proselytizing remark, “we hope to see you in church more often!”
With that I could finally sit down. I had kind of started halfway already given the pastor’s speech droned on and I had no desire to be the subject of everyone’s stares (again), so I had been in an awkward and slightly uncomfortable pose for the second half of the pastor’s speech, assuming it’d be done any minute (my sporkasaurus was really poking into my back). In any case I was relieved that part was over, and I could just sit there and take in the rest of the Maiduguri gospel scene.
Not too long after, there was the ‘offering’ period. This time we had to go to the front – I initially resisted, until I realized everyone would be doing it. We all went up single file and dropped some money in a box – since this church had been so welcoming to me, I thought it was only fair to partake and deposited a small bill (though it was a newly-minted mobile money Omar-buck zcash bitcoin, not sure if that is accepted currency yet in northern Nigeria).
However, shortly after the offering, there was another round of offerings! I hadn’t realized there would be two rounds, and had given all my offering in the first (i.e bitcoin account was dry and no time to engage in additional mining). I told Richard I didn’t need to give anymore, and he suggested instead we use the movement as an excuse to exit the church and beat the crowd, as the service would be over soon. That I could definitely agree to (skipping out early on church in my first session!).
We hung around the courtyard a bit to meet back up with Richard’s sister, before exiting the compound and making our way back to the car. A few people shook my hand on the way out, obviously recognizing me as the ‘visitor,’ or perhaps just because they thought I was a famous Bollywood/Lollywood/Nollywood star (I often confuse myself with such people as well).
We returned to Richard’s house, where his sister prepared a delicious meal of egusi soup and semovita (translated to chicken stew and a yam-type blob you dip in chicken stew, for those of you not conversant in the truly delicious Nigerian culinary scene). I spent much of the rest of Easter hanging out with his family, similar to how my family gathers for meals during religious holidays (though the biggest difference is I am usually not there). It was comforting to know that not too much differed, though later that afternoon I took Richard and his sister out for pizza at a new establishment in Maiduguri. They had never eaten the delicacy before, so I thought I should share some of my culture with them as well, even if it is one of the more unhealthy aspects – all the more so since that shipment of diabetes-inducing Easter bunnies I had arranged never arrived.
In short, Easter in Maiduguri was a good showing, and at least one marked by a spirit of religious tolerance. It went off without a hitch (even if the city itself suffered an incident on the outskirts that evening). It was also a nice chance to bond with Richard’s family. Not sure if I will adhere to the pastor’s advice to go to church more often (has he ever told anyone the opposite?), but perhaps next time I’m in Maiduguri during Christmas or even Candlemas, I will oblige!