“Go about this trip confidently and being friendly, but never betraying yourself as a first timer [to Nigeria],” my friend, Jwan Zhumbes, the Anglican Bishop of Bukuru, had warned me. “Do not ask questions that will sell you off as someone who has never been here before … And answer, if you must, only questions you consider necessary to answer. It shall be well with you.”
With that sober advice to guide me, I exited Abuja’s Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport into the African heat. I was startled at the rapidity with which the other people on my flight, many of whom were white businessmen or mining executives, disappeared into an array of armored cars and security details until I stood alone on the curb. Gradually, a Hank Williams song crept into my conscious being, until I realized that the music was emanating from a distant airport speaker, adding a surreal element to it all.
Soon, I saw Jwan, smiling broadly, coming to greet me. “You are here, my brother!”
We embraced and hurried to a waiting Toyota Sequoia with a prominent decal in the front passenger-side window reading “BISHOP.” Jwan’s driver, Alex, also an Anglican priest, put my luggage in the back of the car and we sped-off.
“You are the proud owner of a record, my friend!” Jwan exclaimed, squeezing my hand.
“What record?” I asked.
“You are the first! You are the first to come!” he said with a chuckle. Then, wistfully, he added, “I was beginning to wonder if I had ever really made any friends in America.”
Nigeria was a country of civil war, violence, corruption, child trafficking, kidnapping, and Islamic terrorism long before there was anything worth fighting over. A former British colony, the British had left the country at the time of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), never to return. But now, with a booming oil industry, the problems were exacerbated as factions fought for control of the country and the oil fields. In 2001, 2008, 2010, and 2014, armed Islamic groups attacked Christians throughout the country. Jos, the city where we were going, had been a hot spot. According to Jwan, since 2008, even Christian missionaries had ceased coming. In terms of Westerners, the country was like Easter Island—signs of them remained, but they were gone.
Alex, weaving his way through the chaotic traffic and a shanty town of sorts, turned the Toyota north onto the open road and the 5 ½-hour drive to Jos. Alex, I would learn, is a quiet, steady support to the bishop. A humble man, I would come to value his presence and friendship. On this occasion as often on others, his role was that of the ferryman taking us across the River Styx. That’s because the open roads are where the real dangers lie. The Boko Haram, active in the north, had been pushed back in the last year, but the Fulani Herdsman Militia remained a serious problem, to say nothing of other criminals looking to capitalize on vulnerable travelers.
A nomadic people, The Fulani, recognizing no borders and no private property, drive their cattle all over northwest Africa in search of pastureland. Their cattle can be seen blocking roads, grazing in the medians of public highways, and eating the crops of farmers. The latter has brought them into violent conflict with Nigerian farmers who, understandably, wish to protect their property and produce. The Fulani are regarded as a violent people who are ready to take what is not freely given. Converted to Islam about 1,000 years ago, they are often more than ready to use terrorist tactics against any who oppose them. Attacks on the open road are not uncommon, where rocks, nail strips, and burning tires are used to slow drivers and ambush them. One dare not even stop for stranded motorists for fear that it is a trap.
To reduce the prevalence of these attacks, the government has established military checkpoints along scattered sections of the highway. Armed with AK-47s, the soldiers manning these forced stops are often of a benign nature, taking a quick glance into the vehicle before waving traffic through the sandbag barriers or, as is often the case, crude obstacles of whatever is close at hand—concrete blocks, stones, or logs. Other times, however, the soldiers extort drivers for “dash,” that is, a bribe. The International Business Times calls Nigeria’s roads the most dangerous in the world for a reason. One never really knows who to trust.
Alex had his own method for avoiding the Fulani or any other potential hindrance: move fast. With darkness rapidly approaching, Jwan pressed Alex to pick-up the pace. From the backseat, I watched as the Sequoia’s RPMs regularly topped 6,000, then plummet as we braked hard and swerved to avoid rocks or crater-sized potholes, before surging to the gauge’s red limits once again. Jwan, accustomed to these trips, chatted casually as the car shot across the deserted African plain.
“Next time you come, you can teach us on…” Jwan said in his James Earl Jones baritone.
I interrupted. “Did you say, ‘next time’?”
He smiled slyly. “Yes. You’ve cracked the nut now, coming back should be easy. I am picturing it for you.”
Jwan is not the bishop for nothing. A man of great faith and courage, he is also a clever man as a bishop in Nigeria must be. A visionary, his program for his people is broad, encompassing much more than a sermon series or potluck dinners. In this part of the world, a minister of the Christian Gospel must minister to the whole person, the whole community. Jwan’s vision includes agricultural initiatives, medical clinics, and educational opportunities. The hospitals, once owned and well-managed by churches, have been ruined by the government that took them over. Jwan hopes to see them returned to the church for the sake of a suffering people.
“These are areas that have been recently attacked by the Fulani,” he said as we passed through a village.
Apparently, the Fulani often strike in a drive-by fashion. To prevent this, villages create makeshift road blocks and speed bumps, slowing traffic so that villagers can take careful aim at their attackers from positions alongside the road. Not unexpectedly, the area looked like a warzone with burnt-out ruins and signs of violent struggle. We would see several villages of this kind as we continued our northward trek.
I was reminded of a line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
“Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares.”
The landscape, sparsely populated, reminded me of West Texas, Arizona and Nevada. At times, the road stretched to the disappearing point on the far horizon. Villages exhibited homes of every type: little more than sheet metal lean-tos, walled-in mansions for the wealthy, and mud huts with thatched roofs.
After a tense journey, we arrived in Jos. Jwan had decided the safest place for me was a compound near the city center. A bored uniformed security guard wielding the ubiquitous AK-47 inspected the car and then signaled for the barrier to be raised. I would be staying alone in a ranch style house with rebar protecting every window. Architecture can tell you a lot about a place, and this architecture—the walls, the razor wire, the rebar, and sturdy locks—spoke of a past terror.
Thomas, another priest I would come to admire, joined us for a hearty dinner prepared by a housekeeper who would come each day. Jwan, ever the gracious host, saw me to my room and checked to see that I had everything I needed. When the three of them left, he gave me a key to the house and waited while I locked the door behind them.
The next morning, Jwan and Thomas came to get me. My stay here, only one week, is brief, so the schedule is packed. We attended a wedding for a couple in Jwan’s diocese. The reception, held outdoors, was remarkable to me, an uninitiated American. Full of singing, dancing, and feasting, it was a joyous occasion of biblical proportions. The groom danced toward the wedding cake as friends and family showered him with money. It’s a symbol of prosperity. Before the cutting of the cake, the husband was told that he is to provide food for his wife. She was told to prepare it and feed it to him. He then cut the cake and she served it to him. The amount she feeds to him is a sign of things to come: does she feed him well or not so much? From the looks of things, that couple should do alright.
As one finds the world over, the whole ceremony seemed to be organized and run by women. Nigerian women are quite beautiful. They have fine features, captivating smiles, and dress colorfully from head-to-toe, embracing the feminine. The women seemed to be the props and pillars of their families and of the local churches. Although a visitor unknown to all, I was immediately given a chair and plate after plate of delicious food.
From there we visited friends and relatives, the hospitalized and the homebound. “You are the pastor today,” Jwan said. The people we met were hospitable under the circumstances and pleased to see their bishop. Slowly, a picture began to form in my mind of the vast responsibility Jwan carried as bishop of these people. More than a pastor or even a high church official, he was a community leader. Though slight in stature, he is nonetheless great in the eyes of this community, and for good reason.
Throughout it all, I reeked of Deep Woods Off! insect repellant. 90 percent of the world’s malarial deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and 50 percent of those occur in Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Nigeria. In all, some 300,000 Nigerians die of malaria each year. Physicians had advised me to wear long sleeves and, putting aside social awkwardness, practically bathe in the smelly substance. But no one seemed to mind my chemical aura. Jwan, ever concerned for my safety, would inspect me each day for mosquito bites.
“You have been bitten,” he said one morning with grave concern. “That is not good. We must watch that [bump] for the next few days.”
Returning to the compound, I bathed—splashed about really—in cold bottled water and, exhausted, went to bed. I drifted off as stray dogs howled. My last semi-conscious thoughts were of a hit song from my youth with the line:
“Wild dogs cry out in the night …”