In a Nigerian melting pot, living – and loving – despite Boko Haram

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Aisha and Vincent Anibueze – she is Muslim, he is Christian – married in Maiduguri, Nigeria, a decade ago. They say that their city, known to many outsiders as the 'birthplace of Boko Haram,' has long been a welcoming place for people of all backgrounds.

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Vincent was new to Maiduguri: a Nigerian city whose faded welcome sign proclaimed it the “home of peace.” After arriving in 2005, he joined a local soccer team – and, at a teammate’s house, locked eyes with his friend’s sister. “Pretty soon my friend got the feeling I wasn’t really coming to visit with him anymore,” Vincent says. “He was right.” The fact that he was Christian, and Aisha Muslim, wasn’t a problem for most Maidugurians, they say, though her mother protested at first. For decades, the city had been a melting pot: a brusquely cosmopolitan trade hub and occasionally raucous college town. But it is also the birthplace of the radical Islamic group Boko Haram and a frequent victim of its attacks, including Vincent’s shop. Maiduguri’s tolerance and vibrancy have been tested. But the couple, and their city, are trying to carry on. “People were surprised that our marriage worked,” Aisha says. “But I told them that when you come from different places, you have to be open to understand each other. You can’t have any secrets. It makes you stronger.”

Why We Wrote This

Maiduguri is often known these days as the birthplace of terror group Boko Haram. But one interfaith couple’s determination to carry on with normal life highlights a tradition the city was known for long before, and which still persists: its tolerance.

It was April 7, 2012, and on the dusty floor of his tiny pharmacy, Vincent Anibueze was waiting to die.

Outside, gunshots came like bursts of static from an untuned radio. He heard screams and heavy footsteps. “Gashinan!” someone yelled. There he is.

Inside the little tin store, Mr. Anibueze lay face down where he had dived to the ground when the first shots rang out. Inches away, a man was slumped across the consultation table. Not long ago, that same man had walked brightly into the shop, gripping the hand of his young son, asking about this and that treatment.

Why We Wrote This

Maiduguri is often known these days as the birthplace of terror group Boko Haram. But one interfaith couple’s determination to carry on with normal life highlights a tradition the city was known for long before, and which still persists: its tolerance.

Now, he was motionless. Only his lungs moved.

Anibueze thought of what Aisha would do when he was gone. She was quiet, his wife, but she was determined. Back when they first met and her mother had forbidden her to marry him, a Christian, Aisha had stood her ground. She wouldn’t let this destroy her.

A mile away, Aisha heard the gunshots too. It sounded to her like they were coming from the neighborhood of Gwange, the direction of her husband’s shop. Before she could register anything else, a neighbor ran up and gripped her arm. “Boko Haram shot someone in his store,” she said.

“Whose store?” Aisha asked.

“Vincent’s,” the neighbor said, and Aisha’s vision went black.

***

This wasn’t how things were supposed to end. Not in Maiduguri, whose faded “Welcome to…” sign proclaimed it “the home of peace.”

For decades, Maiduguri had been northeastern Nigeria’s melting pot: a brusquely cosmopolitan trade hub and occasionally raucous college town on the edge of the Sahel. Ancient bug-eyed Mercedes cargo trucks rumbled through the city carrying peppers, fish, charcoal, and cow hides from as far as the Central African Republic and Sudan. Along Babban Layi, the city’s main commercial drag, traders from Lagos, Lebanon, China, India, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon hawked everything from bananas to Samsung fridges, flicking through wads of naira notes under the awnings of their small shops. And on the campus of the University of Maiduguri, students from across Nigeria and beyond threw parties, crammed for botany exams, and debated feminism.

Karen Norris/Satff

Though the city had always been mostly Muslim, for most Maidugurians, religion was never a social divide.

“It’s always been said of Maiduguri that you can come in the middle of the night as a stranger and no one will fear to give you a place to sleep,” says Muhammad Muhammed, a local Muslim cleric.

For Vincent, that reputation was alluring. A devout Anglican from Nigeria’s southeast, he had worked for years in Kano, a mostly Muslim city in the northwest. But a series of violent religious riots in the early 2000s had begun to wear him down. “I wanted to live in a free place and I heard Maiduguri was that,” he says.

Not long after he arrived in 2005, he joined a local soccer team. At the house of one of his teammates, he locked eyes with the man’s younger sister.

“Pretty soon my friend got the feeling I wasn’t really coming to visit with him anymore,” Vincent says.

Also: “He was right.”

“I didn’t notice him, not like that,” Aisha says. “He was just the pharmacist, honestly.”

But after a few months, she began to realize she was lingering in his small shop long after she had paid, filling him in on what customers were saying in Kanuri, the local language, and offering bits of advice about his new city.

“Hello, baturiya,”  he called her teasingly each time she walked through the door, using the local word for white person – a nod to her fair complexion. He got her to laugh, “and she could really laugh,” he says.

Soon, both of them realized where this was headed. But for their families, a Muslim girl and a Christian boy was uncharted territory. At first, Aisha’s mother told her no – absolutely not. He’d try to convert her, she said.

It was Aisha’s grandparents who finally convinced her mother. This girl knows what she wants, they told her. Without her family’s blessing, she’d simply run away with him.

In 2008, the couple got married. And then, as if waiting for its cue, Maiduguri began to fall apart.

The rumblings of trouble had started several years earlier, when a local cleric named Mohammed Yusuf had begun preaching an angry, anti-establishment brand of Islam. Northern Nigeria had been abandoned by the country’s government, he said, and poisoned by Western education. It needed its own Islamic state. In a poor region with many listless men, that message quickly took root. Local observers dubbed Mr. Yusuf’s new group “Boko Haram,” often translated as “Western education is forbidden.”

At first, the movement was largely nonviolent. But in 2009, Nigerian police opened fire on a group of sect members, ostensibly after they refused to comply with a motorbike helmet law, setting off a bloody retaliation. Eight hundred people died in the fighting, and soon Boko Haram was flogging the city of its birth, indiscriminately attacking public spaces and bombing schools, hospitals, and mosques.

And in the middle of it all, Aisha was pregnant.

“That was when I started begging Vincent to leave,” she says. She’d heard rumors that Boko Haram was targeting pharmacists, and thought being Christian alone seemed like wearing a target on your back.

But the community had always treated Vincent as one of its own, he reassured her. Their business thrived. Aisha gave birth to their first child, and then, two years later, their second.

“People were surprised that our marriage worked,” she says. “But I told them that when you come from different places, you have to be open to understand each other. You can’t have any secrets. It makes you stronger.”

***

Fifteen minutes after the first shots, the men came back. This is my last moment in the world, Vincent thought as he lay on the cold cement. But then the attackers seemed to notice something. Hunched on the floor, weeping quietly, was a little boy. The son of the man slumped across the table.

Wordlessly, the two men with guns turned for the door. Vincent heard the throaty rattle of a motorcycle starting up, and then they were gone.

And a few seconds later, Vincent was too. He started running and didn’t stop until he reached a friend’s house.

Meanwhile, two police officers were knocking on Vincent and Aisha’s front door. It wasn’t him, they told her. The man shot inside the pharmacy, it wasn’t him.

She began to cry.

But it wasn’t over. The next day, Vincent left town, and then looters carried off what was left of his shop.

When he finally came back, a year and a half later, in late 2014, Boko Haram was mostly gone, driven out by the army and a civilian militia. But the couple was broke. And they were scared. When her grandparents asked them to send their three small children to stay with them in their village in Chad, they reluctantly agreed.

They had always promised, they reasoned, that their kids would one day live in all the places their families had come from.

“We always agreed, the kids won’t have to make a decision about what they are until they’re grown,” Aisha says. “Our job was just to expose them to everything.”

And so, back in Maiduguri, the couple tried to carry on.

Vincent opened a new pharmacy. Aisha had another baby.

And the city around them seemed to be rising again too. The streets, once deathly silent after dark, filled again with shopping women and loitering teenagers. Freed from military curfews, families queued up at a Chinese-run bakery to buy sweating tubs of ice cream for dessert on hot Sahelian nights. On weekends, chaotic, colorful Kanuri weddings once again filled the streets.

Boko Haram still sporadically lashed the city, and many of the roads in and out of Maiduguri remained littered with explosive devices planted by the group. In other parts of the northeast, meanwhile, attacks and kidnappings continued, despite the government’s insistence that it had defeated the insurgents. Visiting the children was nearly impossible.

But still, it was something.

By last year, Aisha had begun to think of bringing the older children back. Vincent imagined that when the insurgency was over, he would train to become an Anglican priest and open his own church here.

“I’ll preach tolerance,” he says. “I’ll tell people, marry who you love.”

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