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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Tenth Parallel

Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam

Eliza Griswold





Wase Rock is a double-humped crag that towers eight hundred feet above the green hills of Nigeria’s Middle Belt. Wase (“wah-say”) means “all- embracing” in Arabic, and it is one of Islam’s ninety-nine names for God. Majestic and odd, the freestanding stone is smack in the center of the country, which, with 140 million people, is Africa’s most populous. It is the largest in the world to be almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims. There are forty-five to fifty million members of each respective faith, but no exact figures, since the Nigerian government deemed questions about religion too dangerous to ask during the most recent census in 2006.1 As in Sudan, fifteen hundred miles to the east, Nigeria’s Muslims live predominantly in the desert north, and its Christians, to the swampy south. (There are some important exceptions, including the southwest, where the ethnic Yoruba have adopted both religions.) For the most part, Christianity and Islam meet in the Middle Belt, a two-hundred-mile-wide strip of fertile grassland that lies between the seventh and tenth parallels (from five hundred to seven hundred miles north of the equator) and runs from west to east across most of inland Africa.

This pale grassland belongs to the Sahel, which means “coast” in Arabic. The Sahel forms the coast of a great sand sea: the north’s immense Sahara Desert. And the Middle Belt sits on a two-thousand-foot-high plateau of russet tableland; as the ground rises, the air freshens and cools. Depending on the season, the terrain ranges from bone-dry steppe to luxuriant green bush. On most days, a mild breeze blows down from the Middle Belt’s knobby escarpments, over the savanna’s glossy burr grass, and across a patchwork of small cassava and dairy farms, which produce milk that is an ambrosia of butter, honey, and sun.

The Middle Belt could be an earthly paradise, but it is not. I first arrived there in August 2006, to visit a local Muslim king called the Emir of Wase. As I approached Wase, the plateau became blistered with ruins. Almost every village had been burned to the ground, both the round thatched huts of the Christian farmers and the square mud houses that belonged to Muslim traders and herders. Since 2001, Nigeria’s Middle Belt has been torn apart by violence between Christians and Muslims; tens of thousands of people have been killed in religious skirmishes. Almost all of these began over something other than religion—from local elections to fights over land, to mob violence that broke out between Muslims and Christians in reaction to America’s invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Yet these small street fights, infused with deeper hatred, have often given way to massacres in churches, hospitals, and mosques. With each side determined to eradicate the other, the skirmishes have assumed the rhetoric of faith-based genocide; one Christian writer called Nigeria’s Muslims “cockroaches,” a deliberate reminder of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

* * *

Blessed with some of the world’s richest oil reserves, Nigeria is sub-Saharan Africa’s major petroleum producer. It is America’s fifth-largest supplier of oil, a factor in the pronouncement by the U.S. assistant secretary of state Johnnie Carson that Nigeria is “undoubtedly the most important country in Sub-Saharan Africa.”2 But if Nigeria is one of the continent’s wealthiest and most influential powers, it is also one of its most corrupt democracies. Since the end of military rule in 1999, politicians have reportedly embezzled between $4 billion and $8 billion annually.3

Despite the country’s vast oil wealth, more than half of Nigerians live on less than one dollar a day, and four out of ten are unemployed. Being a citizen in Nigeria means next to nothing; in many regions, the state offers no electricity, water, or education. Instead, for access to everything from schooling to power lines, many Nigerians turn to religion. Being a Christian or a Muslim, belonging to the local church or mosque, and voting along religious lines has become the way to safeguard seemingly secular rights.

Nigeria’s population is also growing at a rate of 2 percent a year—dramatically faster than the global average. This growth is particularly remarkable for Christians; high birth rates and aggressive evangelization over the past century have increased the number of believers from 176,000 to nearly 50 million. When it comes to religious competition, population is an undeniable asset. Due to these staggering numbers of new believers, many African Christians argue that, as the Middle Belt Anglican archbishop Benjamin Kwashi would tell me, God has moved his work to Africa.

* * *

To visit the emir, I had borrowed a gold minivan that belonged to a one-armed pastor and an imam, former sworn enemies who had started an interfaith organization in the nearby city of Kaduna. Decals on the rear window read, “PEACE IS DIVINE.” The minivan’s driver was bald, barrel-chested, and in his mid-forties; Haruna Yakubu had formerly led Muslim gangs in Middle Belt clashes. Now he was seeking to deprogram the young men he had taught to fight in defense of their religion.

Wase lay on the far side of a river of the same name, and the only way to reach the tiny Muslim kingdom was to cross a narrow, one-lane concrete bridge. As we drove along the devastated floodplain toward Wase, some of the Christian farmers were beginning to rebuild. Tethered awkwardly outside the Christians’ huts were muddy white cattle. Before the fighting, the farmers had hardly any cows; they belonged to the Muslim herders. The cattle were war booty.

When we reached the bridge, an orange truck was jackknifed across the lane, listing over the edge. A man in a Mylar suit and a matching peaked hat—like the tin man from The Wizard of Oz—pantomimed a traffic cop, but he was only playing at order. Cars were backed up behind the accident for several miles. The truck’s heavy cab dangled off to the right and over the cataract rushing below, like a huge steel creature lowering its exhausted head for a drink. A market had sprung up: among the jam of people and cars, women sold peanuts and blackened corn from tin trays on their heads, the commerce of daily catastrophe. Radio chatter drifted from the open doors of trucks and cars. Nobody knew how long the wait would be—a week, maybe more. It would take a special winch to lift the truck, and it was days away. Until the winch arrived, all travel—to work, to the hospital, to buy clean water from the nearby town (Wase had none)—stopped dead. But the emir was not a man to be kept waiting, so we had to find a way across the bridge. Savvy Yakubu, the minivan’s driver, quietly gathered a group of teenage boys hanging around—more than half of Nigeria’s population is under eighteen—as I heaved open the van’s sliding door and got out to walk. Somehow, the boys managed to lift our gold Toyota van, inch it around the jackknifed truck, and place it safely back onto the rickety bridge.

Copyright © 2010 by Eliza Griswold

Map copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey L. Ward