Sunday, March 21, 2021

Nations of the World: Nigeria

"Truth is like a baobab tree; one person's arms cannot embrace it" (African proverb)

Nigeria is an old, complicated place. As the most populous country in Africa, and with the largest economy of African nations (20th largest economy in the world), Nigeria is an important world power. Culturally, Nigeria is growing in importance, too - for example, Nigeria's film industry Nollywood is now the second largest producer of films in the world.

Like so many other modern nations, Nigeria struggles from the lingering effects of colonialism. The southern part of the country, more influenced by British control in the 20th century, is largely Christian and practices common law, while the northern part of the country is largely Muslim and officially practices Sharia law. There are huge differences in wealth and influence, deepened by ongoing government corruption, and fueled (pun intended) by the oil industry. But more than that, Nigeria is a country of multiple ethnic and linguistic groups who have been vying for influence for at least a thousand years. There is bound to be conflict.

I found a great thread where Nigerians were swapping myths and superstitions from different parts of the country. The common themes are fascinating, and resonate with similar myths from all over the world. But there are some interesting differences, too, such as the proper response to a snake in your house. Some people say you should kill the snake, and bury its head separately from the body. But others say you should pick it up with a stick and carry it far from your home.

In 2002, a 21-year-old journalist named Isioma Daniel wrote an article for the fashion section of a paper about the upcoming Miss World contest to be held in Nigeria. In addressing the grumblings of some Muslim Nigerians about the inappropriate nature of the contest, she quipped that the prophet Mohammed would probably have married one of the contestants. Her comment became the catalyst (or excuse) for riots in the country, ultimately resulting in the deaths of over 200 people. A Muslim leader in the North issued a fatwa saying she had blasphemed and that her blood could be spilled. Daniel fled the country, and has been in Norway ever since.

As a country rich with cultural heritage, Nigeria is of course rich in mythology, too. But one story I particularly like is about the baobob tree. The tree has adapted to conserve water by not having leaves for nine months out of the year. It's a huge, long-lived tree that looks like a normal tree that has been pulled up and shoved back in the ground again upside down. In fact, one story has it that the god Thora did not like the baobob tree in his garden, so he threw it down to earth, where it landed upside down but kept growing. Thus the baobob tree represents strength.

Trees were important to my nordic ancestors, too, so this story really resonated with me. Resilience is certainly a trait we humans associate with trees, and I think we are a little jealous of them for it. I hope that the people of Nigeria can survive the struggles they are dealing with now, and continue to be the great and vibrant nation they have been for over a thousand years.