Left, IDP Settlement in Borno; second, “There are mosques everywhere in Adamawa and Borno State. It is considered your duty if wealthy to build one, so I saw many small mosques in gas stations and also as an extension of homes;” Sister Mumbi Kigutha photos. Third, Sister Mumbi with beautiful Hausa women who are members of a nomadic tribe. They were selling a type of homemade yoghurt; right, the team at the end of the assessment at Yola Airport returning to Abuja (clockwise from Sister Mumbi): Nahenda, Charles, Ayo, Tamara, Diana and Michele; contributed photos.
Nigeria has been at the forefront of my mind over the years. Being by far the country with the largest population in Africa, the chances of bumping into Nigerians no matter where you are in the world are very high. Many are the times when different people, upon learning that I am African, will mention their Nigerian friend as a possible point of connection — this notwithstanding the thousands of miles that separate Kenya in the east from Nigeria in the west. It was for this and other faux pas that tend to oversimplify the vastness, diversity and beauty of Africa that the hashtag #AfricaIsNotACountry was born.
In more recent days Nigeria was brought to mind when African countries and immigrants from Africa were disparaged by the president; the ensuing pushback brought some interesting things to light. For instance, Nigerian immigrants have the highest levels of education in the nation, according to a study done in 2018 by Rice University. All of these points, plus the scintillating entertainment brought to me on Netflix from Nollywood, had me eager to visit this country and experience it firsthand.
My desire to continue working with refugees and immigrants — especially the very large majority who do not get resettled — was answered in a number of very serendipitous occurrences. An invitation to attend a presentation by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and an ensuing conversation led to a few more conversations before the Reconciliation and Social Cohesion department of their international office offered me the opportunity to come on board as a consultant.
My first assignment from JRS was to conduct a conflict assessment in two different regions of Nigeria. As the leader of the team, I was excited but also had a healthy amount of trepidation. Not at the task itself per se, but more that I would honor those that I met during the course of the assessment and reverence the sacredness and pain of their journey.
I visited three states in the eastern and northeastern regions of the country. Even though the two regions host displaced people from Cameroon and Internally Displaced Nigerians, there is a marked difference in the populations. In Cross River State, where I spent the first week with a team composed of both international and local JRS staff, we were assessing the needs of Cameroonian refugees who have emerged out of the Ambazonian conflict in Cameroon.
During the colonial period, a smaller part of Cameroon was under British control, and the larger part under the French. This led to the establishment of different forms of leadership, education systems, etc. After independence, the Anglophone southern part had a choice to unite with Nigeria, which it bordered — but they chose to unite with the French-speaking majority and became the Federal Republic of Cameroon.
Over the years, the Anglophone minority in Cameroon has claimed oppression by the French-speaking majority; this — together with many other political and economic factors — came to a head in 2016 with some Anglophones calling for complete secession. As it always happens, the average citizen suffers the most in such situations, and it is they who have found their way to Nigeria over the past months seeking asylum. Being that all African borders are colonial constructs, many Anglophone Cameroonians had the same ethnic and tribal roots with their Nigerian kin right across the border. These are the areas where they sought refuge. Competing for scarce resources like firewood and water; different belief systems and cultural norms; and the trauma of conflict tend to be things that create and exacerbate conflict.
Imagine having lived in an area all your life with all your finances tied to local investments like land, a home and an occupation. Then one day you hear of trouble brewing in the area, and the only option you have left is to pack up as much as you can physically carry and flee for your life. Over the journey, which may take days or weeks, the belongings that you had put together become a burden as you struggle to keep up with others. Hungry, thirsty and tired, you leave your possessions along the way piece by piece, as your only purpose now is to make it to safety alive. When you arrive in Nigeria, the border police allow you to enter, since their country is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. You proceed and depending on the border crossing point, you might find that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has established a reception center a few miles inland. At this point you undergo a registration process and your biometrics are taken. You are then issued an asylum seekers card, a sleeping mat, a tarpaulin to create a tent, a few basic cooking utensils and some meager food portions to begin your life once more.
For the young and more resilient types, they adapt slightly faster and start looking for ways to supplement their food by looking for work, usually as laborers for members of the host community, or by starting very simple businesses. For the elderly, unaccompanied minors and those that have been separated from their families while fleeing, it takes longer to adjust because it is very difficult, almost impossible, to rebuild your life with no basic foundation or without guidance and support. This scenario can be replicated in multiple countries around the world and was the case for some of the Cameroonian refugees.
Other refugees, after crossing, arrived in small Nigerian villages and were offered shelter in the truest sense of Ubuntu — an African philosophy and principle of community and hospitality. But over time, their Nigerian hosts — who were barely getting by before the refugees’ arrival — became stretched to the limit; shared resources like schools, waterpoints, ablution facilities and health care centers are unable to handle the number of people in need.
The assessment sought to investigate such challenges, competing needs and ongoing initiatives to combat them in both the refugee and host communities. This would inform the JRS Nigeria office as it rolled out programming in coming months.
My second week in Nigeria was spent in the states of Adamawa and Borno, where the insurgency by Boko Haram has resulted in many Internally Displaced Nigerians (IDPs). Boko Haram literally translates into “Western education is forbidden” and touts itself as an Islamic Jihadist group who want to bring about an Islamic State. They have claimed ties to Al Qaeda. Please note that I said touts itself, because Islam is a religion of peace, but all religions have had times of religious extremism similar to this over the course of history.
Many of the displaced Nigerians have been in this situation for more than four years, and in many ways, they seemed to have been abandoned to their own ingenuity and resilience. As in Cross River State, some of the IDPs are living amongst the host community, but we also visited a camp specifically set up for IDPs, which broke my heart because of just how desperate the situation was.
When the insurgency happened, people fled from a vast geographic area. Over time, some of these areas have become relatively safe, and people have returned to their homes. But they’re also currently still in the process of rebuilding their lives, in addition to hosting their sisters and brothers who still cannot return to their home areas. This puts the community in a precarious situation, as all community members are needy to a certain extent.
My experiences in Nigeria, alas, cannot be contained in one story, because of the richness and diversity I experienced in such a short time. I am so grateful for the opportunity and privilege to have spent time amongst such a beautiful and resilient people. I was also very impressed with the Gospel values-driven approach to humanitarian response by JRS, and the camaraderie and real sense of community amongst the staff members. It was a joy to work amongst such compassionate and dedicated people who went above and beyond to ensure that we were comfortable and safe.
My prayer is that, after you read this article, you will say a prayer for the many displaced people all over the world. Perhaps this might pique your curiosity enough to learn more about displaced people the world over, but also more about what makes up Africa — because #AfricaIsNotACountry.
– Story by Sister Mumbi Kigutha