These Were My Father’s Muslims

 

Sardauna and Girls EducationAlmost half a century ago today, on January 15, 1966, two of my family’s dearest friends were murdered.

Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello (pictured above) was the Premier of Northern Nigeria and Sardauna of Sokoto.

Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (ATB) was the first (and so far only) Prime Minister of a Nigeria that had achieved its independence from Britain on October 1, 1960.

Both men had come to their political careers after training for, and teaching in, Northern Nigerian schools, but their backgrounds were very different. ATB was a “commoner,” and not part of the ethnic or religious hierarchy of the North. Sardauna was from ethnic royalty, a member of the family of heirs to the large Sokoto caliphate.

Both men were bright, articulate, and spoke flawless English. ATB was a serene man of immense personal dignity. Sardauna was ebullient and jolly, although he was shy and could be standoffish or brusque with strangers. Both men were Northerners to the core, and had dedicated themselves to bridging divisions among the Northern ethnic groups and to keeping the large Northern region’s controlling interest in the national political system. Doing so proved difficult for many reasons, and probably had a direct bearing on later events.

Each man was devout in his religious observances, and both had completed the Hajj to Mecca, as indicated by the title “Alhaji,” which always preceded the one given them by Queen Elizabeth when she invested them both as Knights of the British Empire.

Sardauna, and his head wife, were shot in a massacre at their home.

I don’t know where ATB was when he was shot. His body was left by the side of the road and found six days later, having been chewed upon by (one can only hope, in these circumstances) wild dogs.

I was enjoying the Christmas break from my boarding school in Malvern at the time, and I remember my mother sitting on the stairs at our home in Worcestershire, listening to the news on the radio with her head in her hands and tears streaming down her face.

I remember the solid silver ring that Sardauna had made as a gift for her. There were two of them cast. One for my mother, one for Sardauna. Then the mold was broken.

I remember Sardauna jabbing my father playfully in the ribs and telling him that I, at the age of about seven, already spoke better and more fluent Hausa than Dad (a huge exaggeration, but one which made the two of them roar with laughter and my heart swell with pride).

I remember understanding that both men had been killed in such a way that made it harder to fulfill the ritual funeral observances of their religion.

Because they were Muslims.

I spent almost all of the first nine years of my life in Northern Nigeria, in and around towns with names that resound today to anyone who follows the news—Maiduguri. Kano. Mubi (where my sister was born). Gwoza. Kaduna. Sokoto. Biu. Numan.

My father administered large swaths of the country on behalf of the British Colonial Service until Nigerian independence in 1960. He then stayed on for almost another three years, working for the Nigerian government itself, with a mandate to clean up some rather unsavory doings by an influential regional chieftain. Dad’s work resulted in said chieftain ‘abdicating’ and going into exile, after which we stayed in Nigeria for a few more months before returning to England, and then moving — permanently in my case — to the United States.

I remember my early childhood as idyllic. I suppose we were the ‘oppressor’ in a strange land. We had servants, and the servants were Nigerians. Dad was doing the work of the imperialist Brits.  The natives were supposed to be seething with resentment

But I saw none of that. No doubt there were colonial administrators who regarded the Africans as inferior and their own jobs, with their heel on the natives’ throats, as somehow divinely inspired. But my father wasn’t one of them. And he didn’t teach his children those things either.

I only remember, with love and respect, my friends.

Ahmadu, and his chief wife, Gwama, who traveled with us from place to place, who kept the house in order for us, and who were always ready for a game of hide-and-seek. Yusufu, only a year or two older than me, who taught me how to climb trees. Amina, the daughter of Ahmadu and Gwama, who was particular friends with my younger sister. Adamu, the rather eccentric cook, who always had a lit cigarette dangling from his lip with the ash about to fall off, who made the most spectacular bread in a wood-fired oven, and who also did wondrous things with the mangoes and paw-paws that we picked off the trees growing in the garden. Gabby, who worked in that garden, and Ango, who saw to  the horses.

(My father, who had been in Nigeria since 1948, brought my mother out as a new bride in 1950, to a little house in Katabu. Shortly thereafter, it burned to the ground, a victim of an out-of-control fire that spread from a prison gang’s efforts to clean up the roads and burn the resulting brush pile. My parents were on ‘tour’ throughout the region at the time, but Dad never tired of telling of Ango’s bravery in rushing headlong into the burning building, heedless of his own personal safety, to retrieve what he thought Mum and Dad would regard as the most valuable object inside–the mosquito net that covered the bed).

I remember their laughter, their kindness, their hard work.

I remember their love of children, and their horror when my mother spoke sharply to one of us, or corrected our behavior in a way they thought was too harsh.

Of course, some space, and some time, had to be allocated  for our friends’ religious observances.

Because they were Muslims.

I remember, the year after independence, attending the Kaduna Capital School (for the equivalent of second grade). The teachers (both men and women), and my classmates (both boys and girls), were almost all Northern Nigerians, and almost all, Muslims. I felt very much at home.

(Two years later I learned what it was to be a fish out of water when my teacher at Edward Devotion School in Brookline, Massachusetts, sniffed and made a disparaging comment when I told her how I’d been schooled up to that point. A few weeks later she deposed me from my office as class ‘secretary,’ to which my new fourth-grade schoolmates had elected me, because I’d had whooping cough, and had missed a couple of weeks of school. She appointed her favorite in my place. As must be evident by now, I’ve never forgotten her meanness of spirit towards a little girl who was desperate to belong in what was, to her, an alien land).

And I remember an entire cavalcade of tribal leaders and government officials who dropped in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night, sometimes openly, sometimes oddly surreptitiously.

Some came for the parties that my mother organized. I may be the only person still alive who remembers the ‘Emir of This,’ the ‘Waziri of That,’ and the ‘Sultan of The Other,’ enjoying hearty games of Charades and Pin the Tail on the Donkey, laughing uproariously, and dancing cheek-to-cheek with my mother, to music (Glenn Miller and Guy Mitchell were particular favorites) played on the old blue wind-up gramophone.

Of course, no alcohol was served.

Because they were Muslims.

Some came quietly to discuss political matters. Coup attempts. Corruption. Tribal and ethnic infighting. Election reform. The road to independence. Difficult, and sometimes dangerous, jobs for Dad.

When I was three, in a ceremony that followed local ritual and custom, Sardauna formally adopted me. I had already been given a Hausa name ‘Hawa (the Arabic word for ‘Eve’) Numan,’ named for the Nigerian town in which my father was stationed when I was born. In 1957, my father was engaged on one of those ‘difficult and dangerous’ jobs, and Sardauna wanted everyone to know that the family was under his protection in case something went wrong. Seven or eight years later, when the above-mentioned, extraordinarily unhappy and bitter, exiled chieftain put it about (falsely) that he’d had Mum and Dad killed in a car crash in England, Sardauna was one of several people who contacted my grandparents to make sure that someone was taking care of me, and of my three-year old sister.

I remember.

At the time of their deaths, Sardauna and ATB were the most powerful men in Nigeria.

Were they perfect? No, they were not.

Did they conform in all ways to our ‘enlightened’ Western ideals and beliefs, and might we find some of their views problematic today? No, they did not, and yes, we might.

Would Nigeria have prospered over the last half-century if they had lived? I don’t think it’s possible to know.

But I do know that the Northern Nigeria of the early 1960s was a place in which slavery, and most of what we regard as the more barbaric aspects of Sharia, had been all but consigned to the ash heap of history, one in which the traditional was beginning to meld, peacefully and effectively, with the modern, and one in which all the young country’s young Muslim citizens, both male and female, were enthusiastically encouraged in their education by the two most important Muslim leaders in the nation, the Sultan, and the Sardauna, of Sokoto.

And I’m certain that both Sardauna and ATB would have been horrified by the events in their beloved North today.

While Dad enjoyed a close friendship with both men, he and Sardauna forged an almost brotherly kinship that continued, after we left Nigeria, through a lively letter-writing exchange that ended only a couple of weeks before Sardauna’s death (the last letter Dad received from him, in December of 1965, was written on a Christmas card.  Ponder that).

Shortly thereafter, Sardauna, along with his good friend Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was murdered.

Because they were Muslims?

Many believe so. It was a fact, widely reported at the time, that their assassins, members of the Nigerian Army, were not.

What is indisputable is that the events of January 15, 1966 set in motion what was to become the Nigerian Civil War, continued through what was perhaps the world’s first real-time, socially-networked ‘humanitarian crisis’ — the Starving Biafran Children — and eventually led to the basket-case nation that is Nigeria today.

And we could argue vigorously about what happened, why it happened, who was responsible, who interfered and why, and whether things could have turned out differently. That is a fight that I am almost always willing to pick, and rarely back away from if others start it without me.

But not today.

Today, I remember my friends.

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  1. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    Excellent.  Thanks for sharing.

    • #1
  2. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    No surprise to hear that the teachers in Massachusetts in 1966 were less civilized than those in Nigeria.

    I read a wonderful story in the Atlantic Monthly years ago about the Shakespeare festival that is held annually somewhere in central Africa–perhaps not anymore. It was a three-day event, and the reporter described the mood of the audience as one of utter devotion to the plays. They knew all of the words to the plays and would often say them along with the actors.  The reporter wrote that at one point, it started to rain hard, and the audience simply took out their black umbrellas and would not move from the field.

    • #2
  3. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    She,

    You have a way with words. Thank you.

    • #3
  4. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Thanks.

    • #4
  5. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Powerful, beautiful – and much-needed….Thank you, She!

    • #5
  6. Podkayne of Israel Member
    Podkayne of Israel
    @PodkayneofIsrael

    Well, that was wonderful. Thank you.

    • #6
  7. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    I don’t have the words to complement this piece fully. But thanks.

    • #7
  8. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    How incredibly powerful. Thank  you, She, for this excellent essay. You have insight and grace. You honor your friends and you share them with us. What a gift for us. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    • #8
  9. Boomerang Inactive
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    A beautiful tribute.  I am so glad to know this, and to remember these people with you.

    • #9
  10. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Great post, thank you for sharing.

    And with MarciN, I find it amusing that your first personal experience with a corrupt bureaucrat was in Massachusetts.

    • #10
  11. She Member
    She
    @She

    Tuck:Great post, thank you for sharing.

    And with MarciN, I find it amusing that your first personal experience with a corrupt bureaucrat was in Massachusetts.

    She was extraordinarily nasty.

    Thanks, everyone, for the kind comments.

    • #11
  12. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Someone should write a post, “These Were My Father’s Democrats.”

    I have enjoyed the company of many liberals. I have witnessed great kindness from them. But I still object to their ideology and criticize the general history of liberal organizations. My estimation of Islam is similar.

    Honestly, I hate to bring the cheer of this thread down. It’s a heartwarming story. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that our cultural opponents can only be detestable individuals or that friendships between dissimilar citizens signal that our philosophical differences don’t matter.

    If for no other reason, I bother to argue over disagreements with friends because, as a friend, I am saddened to believe they do not see truth.

    • #12
  13. TG Thatcher
    TG
    @TG

    Thank you, She.

    • #13
  14. She Member
    She
    @She

    Aaron Miller:Honestly, I hate to bring the cheer of this thread down. It’s a heartwarming story. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that our cultural opponents can only be detestable individuals or that friendships between dissimilar citizens signal that our philosophical differences don’t matter.I

    If for no other reason, I bother to argue over disagreements with friends because, as a friend, I am saddened to believe they do not see truth.

    I have absolutely no idea where you find that point of view in my story, which happens to be true in every respect.  Nor do I understand why you apparently think I’m a fool.

    Thank God for dissimilar citizens.  It would be a dull world indeed, if everyone were as perfect as thee and me.

    • #14
  15. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    She: Because they were Muslims.

    It was the heart of your story, repeated throughout. You were implying that they were good people and good neighbors because they were Muslim. I proposed that people are often noble in contradiction to the beliefs or heritage they claim.

    I befriend liberals but do not refrain from criticizing the beliefs so important to them. Likewise, I befriend Muslims but believe Islam itself is mistaken and historically destructive.

    • #15
  16. Rob Long Editor
    Rob Long
    @RobLong

    Wow.  Goosebumps.  Seriously.

    This is a wonderful — and heartbreaking — memoir.  I demand many more.  I demand — and notice here I’m not asking; I really insist, because even though I’ve traveled extensively in that region, I’m really an idiot when it comes the the 20th century history of central/north African political and cultural history — more stories and insights from you about what’s happening there.  What went wrong, and what it’ll take to put it right.

    Meanwhile, thanks a million for this.  I hereby nominate you to be Class Secretary of Ricochet.

    • #16
  17. She Member
    She
    @She

    Rob Long:Wow. Goosebumps. Seriously.

    This is a wonderful — and heartbreaking — memoir. I demand many more. I demand — and notice here I’m not asking; I really insist, because even though I’ve traveled extensively in that region, I’m really an idiot when it comes the the 20th century history of central/north African political and cultural history — more stories and insights from you about what’s happening there. What went wrong, and what it’ll take to put it right.

    Meanwhile, thanks a million for this. I hereby nominate you to be Class Secretary of Ricochet.

    I’m touched.  And you’re on!  (I’m editing my dad’s memoirs, which have yet to be published.  His prose style could best be described as exclamatory!  And more exclamatory!!  But there are some lovely stories there.  Are you interested?)

    • #17
  18. Rob Long Editor
    Rob Long
    @RobLong

    She:

    Rob Long:Wow. Goosebumps. Seriously.

    This is a wonderful — and heartbreaking — memoir. I demand many more. I demand — and notice here I’m not asking; I really insist, because even though I’ve traveled extensively in that region, I’m really an idiot when it comes the the 20th century history of central/north African political and cultural history — more stories and insights from you about what’s happening there. What went wrong, and what it’ll take to put it right.

    Meanwhile, thanks a million for this. I hereby nominate you to be Class Secretary of Ricochet.

    I’m touched. And you’re on! (I’m editing my dad’s memoirs, which have yet to be published. His prose style could best be described as exclamatory! And more exclamatory!! But there are some lovely stories there. Are you interested?)

    Of course!  We all want to hear them.  But I also want to know about what you think can be done about the contemporary mess that is Nigeria.

    • #18
  19. She Member
    She
    @She

    Aaron Miller:

    She: Because they were Muslims.

    It was the heart of your story, repeated throughout. You were implying that they were good people and good neighbors because they were Muslim. I proposed that people are often noble in contradiction to the beliefs or heritage they claim.

    I befriend liberals but do not refrain from criticizing the beliefs so important to them. Likewise, I befriend Muslims but believe Islam itself is mistaken and historically destructive.

    Aaron,

    Last comment on this:

    I implied nothing.  I stated facts.

    First use of “Because they were Muslims.”  They couldn’t be buried properly (according to the tenets of their Muslim faith) because of what they had had done to them.  The same thing occasionally happens to adherents of other religions in the case of unexpected or untimely death.

    Second use of “Because they were Muslims.”  Our servants needed the time, and the space, to pray to Mecca.  Because they were Muslims.  My mother and father gave it to them.

    Third use of “Because they were Muslims.”  They didn’t drink alcohol.  As a courtesy to her guests, my mother didn’t serve it.

    Last use of “Because they were Muslims?”  It’s a question? As evidenced by the question mark? I don’t know the answer.  The historical record indicates that it’s more than a possibility, though.

    They were good people.  No qualifiers needed.

    I think you are reaching.  And missing the point.

    • #19
  20. She Member
    She
    @She

    Rob Long:

    She:

    Rob Long:Wow. Goosebumps. Seriously.

    This is a wonderful — and heartbreaking — memoir. I demand many more. I demand — and notice here I’m not asking; I really insist, because even though I’ve traveled extensively in that region, I’m really an idiot when it comes the the 20th century history of central/north African political and cultural history — more stories and insights from you about what’s happening there. What went wrong, and what it’ll take to put it right.

    Meanwhile, thanks a million for this. I hereby nominate you to be Class Secretary of Ricochet.

    I’m touched. And you’re on! (I’m editing my dad’s memoirs, which have yet to be published. His prose style could best be described as exclamatory! And more exclamatory!! But there are some lovely stories there. Are you interested?)

    Of course! We all want to hear them. But I also want to know about what you think can be done about the contemporary mess that is Nigeria.

    It’s a deal.  But not today.  Today, I remember my friends.

    • #20
  21. danys Thatcher
    danys
    @danys

    Thank you, She. I know so little about African history but have been aware of the chaos since the late ’70s when a middle school teacher insisted we follow current events.

    • #21
  22. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Aaron Miller: Honestly, I hate to bring the cheer of this thread down. It’s a heartwarming story. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that our cultural opponents can only be detestable individuals or that friendships between dissimilar citizens signal that our philosophical differences don’t matter. If for no other reason, I bother to argue over disagreements with friends because, as a friend, I am saddened to believe they do not see truth.

    Aaron, a gentle reminder: Not every chair is a soapbox, and the shards of memory are often too fragile to be nails.

    • #22
  23. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    She,

    Congrats on being recognized by Rob Long.

    The beauty of Ricochet is the ability to give a place for people to express themselves. The unlocked experiences can be truly amazing. The hard and shiny pieces of wisdom are gathered and locked away in our our hearts.

    • #23
  24. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    She: I think you are reaching.  And missing the point.

    I apologize.

    Clearly, I’m jumping from one Ricochet discussion to another too quickly. I came back to comment on this after listening to the GLoP podcast, which was indeed a different topic.

    • #24
  25. user_124695 Inactive
    user_124695
    @DavidWilliamson

    The wonderful prose style clearly comes from Malvern, Worcestershire (the same place where Mr Delingpole discovered his). Something that is not in the water, I guess.

    It’s very poignant because of what has become of Nigeria – indeed, the whole Islamic World.

    How’s #bringbackourgirls working out for ’em?

    The only glimmers of hope come from the President of Egypt and Bobby Jindal – an awakening, maybe, but much more darkness to come before the distant end of the tunnel.

    • #25
  26. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    She,

    I finally had time to read it all. My parents were missionaries to Japan. They had a servant too in the 1950s. It was not to lord over anyone as to give people work. There is a bond that takes place. As remembering the love for family friends while reading your memories moisture fell on my cheek.

    My brothers who were older had their first steps, words, and friends in Japan. One brother wanted to fight another kid because he was told that he was not Japanese. For a young blond haired child that would make sense.

    At that time ships were the cheapest way of getting back to America. In particular dual use passenger carrying freighters. Did your family use ships or were airplanes in use during your period?

    • #26
  27. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Off topic.

    Help.

    • #27
  28. Ricochet Thatcher
    Ricochet
    @VicrylContessa

    Absolutely wonderful.

    • #28
  29. She Member
    She
    @She

    10 cents:She,

    I finally had time to read it all. My parents were missionaries to Japan. They had a servant too in the 1950s. It was not to lord over anyone as to give people work. There is a bond that takes place. As remembering the love for family friends while reading your memories moisture fell on my cheek.

    My brothers who were older had their first steps, words, and friends in Japan. One brother wanted to fight another kid because he was told that he was not Japanese. For a young blond haired child that would make sense.

    At that time ships were the cheapest way of getting back to America. In particular dual use passenger carrying freighters. Did your family use ships or were airplanes in use during your period?

    Wow, Japan.  Those would be some good memories.  Do your brothers remember much of the language?   I find myself remembering more Hausa, as I get older.  (That’s probably not a good sign).

    We traveled on both ships and planes.  The ships were all Elder Dempster Lines, which pretty much had the Liverpool-West Africa market covered.  My favorite memories of the ships are the swimming pool (which was filled with sea water a couple of days out of port), and stopping at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, where my mother and I would shop for beautiful, incredibly detailed, hand made dresses.

    Planes, of course, were BOAC, later British Airways, or BA.  We travelled first class (I’m not sure if there was any other class at that time).  The most exciting part of that, for me, was locking myself in the ladies’ room, where there were free vials of perfume and drenching myself with Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass.  My mother was mortified.

    • #29
  30. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    I really enjoyed this, and was moved. Thank you!

    • #30
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