In 1996 my sister Faith and I revisited North Eastern Nigeria for 2 months. Our father, Dr Laurie Chandler OBE, had been a pioneering missionary doctor for over 30 years, establishing two new hospitals and countless clinics in Bornu province, an area the size of Belgium, which had received almost no medical services until then. Starting from the Plateau State he moved ever northwards until his last clinics were established on the shores of Lake Chad. Faith and I wanted to revisit our missionary past, to meet people and places from our childhood. It was a very happy experience. We basked, (especially I as “the Doctor’s son”), in the reflected glory of our parents’ good works. Wherever our car stopped, old people were likely to emerge out of the “bush “to show off some operation scar or to reminisce about the magic medicines of the “Ligitur”. We were feasted with chicken and cans of Fanta and festooned with robes and presents. I even brought back a ceremonial sword. Most of all we got used to hearing fulsome speeches of welcome, – from the official fly-whisking praise singers of the Muslim Emirs as well as from the many little Christian communities. Our longest stay, in the town of Gwoza, was organised by an inter-faith group called “Gadamayo”, who worked together to ease religious tensions as well as to provide books and writing materials for the local schools. Another Gadamayo group was trying to establish a computer school re-using second hand pcs from Europe. One lively group of young men, mainly Muslim, took us touring in the strange volcanic hills behind Gwoza – more like heaps of giant boulders than hills. We felt entirely safe with them, despite the dangers of journeying. By night our camp fires were lit up by real African laughter – so much more generous than our Western sense of humour? – and by story-swapping.
Terrible then to hear, from local contacts as well as from the BBC overseas news service, about the devastating guerrilla raids being waged by Boko Haram and its laughing leader in the very area of Northern Nigeria that we visited in 1996. Many thousands have been kidnapped and massacred – far more than the UK media and government seem to acknowledge. Gwoza town itself has been intermittently occupied by Jihadists in Toyota pickups, machine guns and rocket launchers slung over the tail boards, as part of their would-be Sharia state. We hear of friends, moderate Moslems as well as Christians, escaping to the hills. Many more have been murdered. All schools and medical dispensaries have been systematically destroyed as part of the “death to westernisation” process.
Who to blame? Obviously the murderous extremism of Boko Haram, intolerant to all forms of education and especially to the rights of women (thousands of girls, not only from Chibok, have been forcibly enslaved in multiple marriages to these“holy warriors”) must be fought against by all possible means. But I would also blame fundamentalism and intolerance of all kinds and from both sides – from evangelical Christians as well as from extremist Muslims. Several times I was embarrassed by an over-fervent welcome from the small Christian communities we visited; in one mainly Muslim town a deputation arrived from the Emir asking us to tone down the volume of hymn singing – it was late at night and people needed to sleep. But mainly I think that our European insistence on our right to absolutely free speech, to criticise or even cartoon the Holy Prophet as a goat or donkey, is so deliberately disrespectful, so grossly insensitive to a religion that eschews idolatry and all visual images, as to invite righteous indignation and trouble. As such Pope Francis’ recent warning about the careful limiting of our free speech privilege is apposite.
At a recent funeral service I was struck by the words, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you.” Am I totally wrong in hearing this as an indication that in the perfect kingdom there will be room for many different kinds of mutually respectful faiths? (It sounds to me like another version of the Buddha’s“Light that is one although the lamps be many”.)
Meanwhile I am left to fret helplessly over the grievous news coming from Nigeria…and to wonder about my parents’ part in pushing pioneering Christian missionary work in a predominantly Muslim province..