The following piece was written by Bill Maakestad, a Benedictine Oblate of St. Mary Monastery from Macomb, Ill. He plans to contribute posts occasionally. Welcome, Bill!
Sara and Stephanie, my nieces who had traveled with their father to his homeland of Nigeria, were trying their best to prepare me for my impending trip to that African nation, but they always seemed to return to “it’s a whole different world there,” “watch your back,” and “it’s going to be very obvious you’re a foreigner.” Mine would not be a typical journey for an American heading to Africa. Virtually everyone I had talked with who had visited that continent went as a tourist, missionary, or service worker of some sort. In contrast, I had been hired to speak to a selected group of oil executives and attorneys and provide them with a primer on corporate and white collar crime in America. Well aware of their country’s reputation for corruption, Nigerian businesses were looking to become familiarized with American laws in order to prepare them to develop more economic ties with U.S. companies.
A Nigerian author recently branded his country as “a nation of quarrels.” Not only are hundreds of languages spoken throughout the country, but deep divisions exist within its religious and ethnic cultures. Roughly 50% of this very religious country’s population is Muslim and 40% Christian (heavily Catholic), while the remainder mostly follow the traditionalist beliefs of their ancestors. The country is similarly fragmented by its dominant ethnicities, each with its distinctive cultural heritage: the Hausa and Fulani in the north (about a third of the population), the Yoruba in the southwest, and the Igbo in the southeast (each about a quarter of the population). Additionally, Nigeria gained its independence only in 1960, then endured a brutal civil conflict (the Biafran War) less than a decade later which in turn led to much suffering under military dictatorship. Finally, the corruption at all levels of government is legendary, leading to an undeveloped infrastructure, poor public health and safety conditions, and a wide disparity of wealth. In short, conditions simply have not allowed a more tolerant, civil society to develop, and each religious or ethic group tends to lay the blame for the country’s ills at the feet of another group.
Though my trip was short (just eight days) and my accommodations relatively luxurious (a Hilton Hotel), I did have the opportunity to glimpse the fascinating and diverse culture found in Lagos (the largest city, estimated at 18 million) and Abuja (the capitol city, about 2 million). When I returned to the U.S., it was with a profound—and deeply spiritual—sense of gratefulness, connectedness, and inspiration.
My gratefulness was two-fold. First, I was grateful for the gracious and generous hospitality of my hosts, who daily welcomed me into their lives and their homes—and gave me respite from the predictable rhythms of hotel life. I was particularly struck by their “mellowness of heart and spirit” (to borrow Ronald Rolheiser’s phrase), especially as it was expressed through the almost constant presence of good humor and laughter. For instance, one memorable prayer I heard at the dinner table asked the Lord “for peace and laughter!” It reminded me of Anne Lamott’s quip that “laughter is carbonated holiness,” and that as a means of dealing with adversity and hardship, laughter can serve as a powerful antidote. Second, I returned home grateful for the many blessings I have in the U.S., including things easily taken for granted—such as clean, safe drinking water—that are still rare in many parts of Nigeria.
My heightened sense of connectedness came as a result of the time I spent not only with my hosts, but also with the business and legal professionals with whom I interacted for three days. Somehow, though we were from countries and cultures with very little in common, our discussions became more open and honest with each passing day. For example, discussions of Nigeria’s reputation concerning corrupt and fraudulent practices—including the seemingly endless supply of emails from “Nigerian princes” seeking personal bank account numbers worldwide—led to spirited yet civil debate concerning the challenge of developing and maintaining moral and even religious boundaries in conducting our daily lives, both professionally and personally. Such conversations cannot help but to increase appreciation of the depth of our common humanity.
Finally, I came away inspired by the depth of commitment demonstrated by the Nigerians I met who are attempting to address serious problems that afflict their country, including poverty, human rights abuses, and corruption. In the daily rhythms of two of my hosts, both attorneys, I witnessed courageous commitment to taking actions aimed at making things better for their fellow Nigerians–including women who had been battered by abusive husbands, citizens who had been cheated by corrupt government officials, and even children who had been declared witches and separated from their parents by traditionalist religious leaders.
Richard Rohr once wrote that a visit to another country can jar us awake, if it is truly a visit to another culture—that is, some sort of personal transformation can occur only if we’re open to seeing that others don’t see things the way we do, and to having our fundamental assumptions challenged. While it is too early to tell whether my all-too-brief experience as an oyibo in Nigeria (oyibo is Yoruba slang for “white person,” and is heard everywhere!) will be truly transformational in a spiritual sense, it did serve to broaden and deepen my appreciation for the common humanity of the people in that fascinating and absorbing west African nation.