Children sat, watching, under a shady tree. Women in colorful Nigerian dress, carrying babies on their back, wandered by to greet us. The sound of hammers filled the air at the site of the building site, on the north edge of Abuja, shortly after I arrived in Nigeria, in late March. Men were nailing sheets of metal roofing on the three-room houses that would make up the Gurku Interfaith Camp for families who fled the violence of Boko Haram and lost everything. Near the houses were latrines and small block structures for kitchens that two families will share. Families moving into the camp have done much of the building, from making mud bricks, cured in the sun, to building the walls and roofs.
Markus Gamache, a Christian and member of the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN), or the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, spoke about the vision he and other members of the Lifeline Compassionate Global Initiatives (LCGI) have—to bridge the growing divide between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. In a country where the militant group, Boko Haram, has generated a new wave of horrific Muslim-Christian violence, what better way to resist the growing religious tensions, than to start a new community of displaced Muslims and Christians, representing many tribes, villages and languages, to live mixed together as a model for inter-religious reconciliation?
Since Boko Haram escalated their violence against Christians in northeastern Nigeria, but also against Muslims who won’t cooperate with their goals, Markus, and other members of LCGI, have been responding to help those affected, often at risk of their own lives. He travels to the northeast where Boko Haram is attacking and meets with Christians and Muslims under threat. He has given money to Christians and Muslims to help them escape, and pay for rent and food where they resettle. He has helped young men, who had been forced into the Boko Haram army, to escape and start a new life. He and his wife, Janata, has taken many displaced families to stay in their home, and are currently caring for 52 men, women, and children.
Markus told me, “It is especially important now, if we are ever to have a peaceful society, that we work together to try to bridge the gap of mistrust and hatred between Christians and Muslims and work for reconciliation…. Christian and Muslim leaders must come together and acknowledge that terrorism is our joint problem, and not just point fingers at Muslims. There are always two sides. But we must also work with the local people at the grassroots level. People must meet face to face and participate from the heart. Otherwise it will not work.”
A sister-organization to LCGI is the Adamawa Peace Initiatives, an interfaith group based in Yola, which has also worked together to help people displaced by the violence. In March they sponsored an Interfaith Youth Peace Workshop, which has prepared secondary school youth to sponsor interfaith projects in their schools. Other NGOs, such as Center for Caring, Employment and Peace Initiatives (CCEPI), have been distributing material aid to both Christians and Muslims in need.
With a joyful celebration on May 12, with music and dancing, the Gurku camp officially opened. Most of the families have now moved into the 62 completed three-room homes. Families are already starting to farm on the small plots of land they’ve been given. In a few weeks they hope to start building the new medical clinic, and after that, a school. In the fall, they hope to add more housing for another 71 families.
What may seem like a small project in the whole picture of what is happening in Nigerian society, is actually a bold step. LCGI hopes this will become a model for others to work for peaceful relations in their communities.
As with other peace and social justice movements in the U.S. and around the world, actions and movements here in Nigeria, fostering interfaith peace and reconciliation, start with a vision—perhaps like a small seed—and, with nurture and action, have the potential to grow.
By Peggy Faw Gish, 2 June, 2015