This afternoon, my younger brother sent me this picture of a sketch I made when I was 14 years old.
On the left is a Muslim clergyman. The figure on the right, with a giant cross on its dress, represents a Christian clergyman. Between the two huge figures is a teary-eyed baby who cries as the clergymen smile. I was that baby.
Religion controls the psyche and actions of the average Nigerian – even the self-proclaimed sinners. At a time in the history of Nigeria, Nigerians abandoned their traditional religions and adopted Islam and Christianity. Today, you will find at least three churches and two mosques on most streets in Nigeria. While in the typical Nigerian family, everyone practices the same religion, mine is different.
A few years before my parents had me, my mother joined the army of Jesus Christ, leaving my father in the camp of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Marching behind my mother’s decision were arguments, ego trips, threats, and emergency family meetings. I was born in the middle of that well-meaning mess.
By the time I was 6 years old, I was used to the Imam of our local mosque speaking highly of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as he declared that Christians were only playing themselves. At my mother’s church, pastors would roar that because one must accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior to enter heaven, Muslims are doomed. Each side professed that the other was fooling me, and both sides demanded my solidarity at the front – where my socialization as a young child was wounded.
When I was 8 years old, a Sunday School teacher who knew my father called me “Abdulahi” – my Muslim name – during a church service. The familiar sound of the name exposed me in that setting. Immediately I heard it, I shrunk in my seat and prayed no one else had heard the teacher, but it was too late. The kids I considered my friends were already giving me stinky eyes. I was an Abdulahi amid Matthews and Mathiases. From that day onward, the kids at church would tell me, out of the blue, that I was not really one of them. Apparently, my Christian name – Joseph – did not count.
The kids at our local mosque and Arabic school were even more obnoxious. Because I lived about a hundred feet from the mosque, they knew my story, and they constantly shamed me for practicing two religions. So, when I could, I avoided giving them ideas. For example, I would hide my Bible under my shirt when I walked home from church every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday.
Immediately I started secondary school, I stopped attending Arabic school. The Arabic school started at 4 p.m. and ended at 6:30 p.m., but I got home from my new secondary school at 5:30 p.m., so I had a solid excuse for my father. The Arabic school had a fluid attendance policy, so I could have continued attending if I wanted, but I withheld that detail from my father because I could no longer endure an inhospitable atmosphere just to learn a beautiful language.
When my brother sent me the above picture, he wanted to know how I coped. I told him that making the sketch helped because, although I had felt like the teary-eyed baby for a long time, I did not express the feeling to myself or anyone else until the day I made the sketch. I also told him that writing about the problem helped me realize I was not responsible for how those kids treated me. I celebrated four religious holidays instead of two, so I collected more new clothes and gifts. Also, I did not have to pretend to enjoy starving during Ramadan because my Muslim father was barely around, and my Christian mother did not care for Ramadan. Of course, I concluded that the poor kids were just jealous.
I ended my conversation with my younger brother by telling him how I found power in the religious tears of the teary-eyed baby.
I had spent years dealing with Christians and Muslims (and studying the Bible and the Quran), therefore, I knew their biases. So, whenever I needed to persuade someone, I appealed to their religious biases. Sometimes, I would drop a “Praise Jesus!” or an “Alhamdulillah!” to establish ethos. Some other situations required bigger guns, so I would quote relevant passages of the Bible or the Quran. I easily saved a few bucks on a few purchases, and I avoided getting slapped and flogged by emotionally stunted adults.
Because I was raised in two cold-warring religions in a religious country, I developed the ability to blend into different groups of people, and in that, I have found solace.