17 February 2013

Nigeria: What Happened to African Hospitality?

I feel nostalgic for the African village setting. The things I took for granted as a child make so much meaning to me now. Even with all the technological advancement, I have come to realise that our fathers and mothers were heroes in the past. I am grateful to God for enabling me witness the time when visitors were accommodated in our homes without having to pay rent.

I witnessed the time when land was never a commercial commodity in our villages. Land was joyfully given to those who had resources to build houses. Land was leased unconditionally to those who had the energy to farm. Marriage was not dictated by religion otherwise, I would not have seen the light of day if my maternal grandfather who was a Muslim did not allow my mother to marry my father who was not a Muslim.

Even when the drums of the Nigeria/Biafra war echoed very loud, my father did not allow the Igbos in our house to go home. When soldiers invaded our house with the booming frightening question, "where are the enemies you kept in this house?" my father responded: "We do not have enemies in this house. The Igbo people in this house are members of this family". I wonder where he got the courage to do this. Perhaps he was lucky that his elder brother who was a soldier in the Nigerian Army was home that very day.

At the end of the war, one of the Igbo men married my cousin. When he was leaving finally, he prayed: "May whoever comes from this family find favour with any Igbo person anywhere in the world". I dare to say that today, God is still answering this prayer for members of my family. Where a person comes from should really not make a difference to us. What should matter to us is that we share, a common humanity and a common destiny.

The report by Hamza Idris and Yahaya Ibrahim on Sunday, 27 January 2013 that the Shehu of Borno appealed to the fleeing subjects to return to Maiduguri reveals the need to recapture the African tradition of hospitality. The statement of His Royal Highness, Alhaji (Dr) Abubakar Ibn Umar Garbai Al-Amin El-Kanemi, the Shehu of Borno and vice chairman of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Nigeria captured the fact that the value of hospitality in Africa calls for a fresh appraisal.

The Shehu said: "If we go back to the traditional system of administration, a situation whereby a stranger comes to your domain, his first port of call is the palace of the village head who will know why he comes, what his occupation is, for how long he will stay or has he come to stay permanently? This is done before the visitor is allocated a place to stay and a land to farm. If we have a register that we keep all these things, you would know who your subjects are. If such powers were given to the village head, and district heads, most of the challenges will be over. I feel if we can go back to that era, things will augur well."

This is particularly important to me because what the Shehu narrated is not different from what obtained in Edo State where I come from. This will also confirm the opinion of those who believe strongly in the unity of Africa in general and Nigeria in particular.

Today, things have changed drastically because almost everything is valued in money. In the past, the value of money was what money could buy yet it was not everything that could be given in exchange for money. Children are gift from God. In the past, children belonged to the whole community. Today, children have become victims of religious, communal and ethnic violence. In the past, even snakes respected children. In Africa it was unheard of that a child was bitten by a snake. What has gone wrong with the African sense of human value?

I still remember what happened when I was young. When a person died, the news spread like wild fire. It did not matter whether the person was a Christian or a Muslim, everybody would begin to return from the farm. The community would be at a stand still until the person is buried. Today, it is "to your tent". When did things really fall apart? What actually happened to African sense of community? How and when did we drop our values of unconditional generosity, the unconditional readiness to share, the willingness to give, to help, to assist, to love and to carry one another's burden without reward? What exactly was the African driving force to create a celestial community out of a terrestrial family?

It is a scandal that some of the violence we suffer today in some parts of the African nations and Nigeria in particular bothers on "who owns the land". When Sony Okosun sang "I want to know who owns the land", he was fighting for the emancipation and liberation of the blacks from the white dominated South Africa. I wonder if today the relationship between the whites and blacks in South Africa is not better than the discrimination and ethnic tensions we experience in some parts of Africa today. I hate to think about the recent news that people who speak the same language are being disengaged from work because they do not come from the state where they are working. The introduction of "non indigenes" syndrome in some states is a systematic way of dismembering a people who once lived together as brethren. What do we do with the pledge that"though tongue and tribe may differ in unity we stand?" Time has come for us to identify the elements that are further tearing us apart as a nation in order not to contradict our nature as Africans.

I pray that those who have turned terrorists in some parts of Africa may have a change of heart. May we have the courage to endeavour to sustain the desire to do "good" to all who come our way! Otherwise, we may not know when God's angels will pass us bye. Whatever good you do to assist a person, you do it to God who will surely reward you (Matthew 25, 40). In the Qur'an, hospitality is obligatory. "They feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan, and the prisoner, for love of Him, saying, "We wish for no reward nor thanks from you" (Qur'an 76.8-9). May we recover that which has passed us bye!

Father (Prof) Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja, and Consultor for the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (CRRM), Vatican City

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