“Don’t go. I swore I would never go back there,” came the voice of my friend Jay Smith on a trans-Atlantic Skype call. “I’ve been in over sixty countries. I’ve been all over Africa. I lived there, and I’ve never felt unsafe the way I did in that country. There is something especially terrifying about that place.”
“Good to know,” I replied. “Alan said that he goes there all the time. He said he even takes his children.”
Alan was a British politician who had recently attended one of my lectures in London. To hear him tell it, Nigeria was like Club Med.
“Alan?” Jay was incredulous. “Did Alan also tell you that when he goes he’s traveling with the British government and is accompanied by heavily armed guards? You? You’re going to have an entirely different experience.”
This was my introduction to Nigeria. Jay’s opinion was not acquired from Trip Advisor. He had been there more than once. During a 2008 visit, he spent nine hours hiding in the wheel well of a car while a mob went up and down a blocked highway looking for Westerners to victimize. Nigeria was, in his view, unique to the African experience. It wasn’t that terrible things didn’t happen in other countries; it was the sheer magnitude of them in Nigeria. Even other Africans are afraid of Nigeria and its well-earned terrifying reputation.
I had been invited there by my friend, Jwan Zhumbes, the Anglican bishop of Bukuru. Jwan and I had done our doctoral work together. He had asked me some years ago to come and teach the members of the diocese on issues of faith and culture. Jwan is shepherd to a diocese that has been attacked by the Boko Haram and another Islamic group, the Fulani Herdsmen Militia. He was, in my estimation, a great man doing a great work.
Now, months later, the mission was complete and it was time for me to leave the country. My time in Nigeria had been one of great blessing. The experience defies a simple description or even a simple narrative. These are Christians whose churches, homes, families and friends have been bombed, burned, and persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, just last month, 20 Christians were slaughtered by the Fulani only a short drive from where I was staying. This is not uncommon. And yet, optimism prevails with them where self-pity and a spirit of defeat might rule a lesser people.
Packing-up for the journey ahead, I noticed Jwan at my door. He looked upset.
“What is wrong?” I asked.
“It took the housekeeper a long time to answer the door,” he began. “For a moment, I feared something had happened to my friend during the night.”
“I’m fine,” I reassured him. “I slept well.”
Jwan, ever pastoral, inspected the mosquito bite on my upper arm. “It does not look good. You are taking your malaria medication?”
This interaction is a neat summary of the dangers of Nigeria—they come from both man and nature. To quote one Nigerian writer, “Unfortunately, much like traveling on our roads, life and living in Nigeria is becoming alarmingly cheap, brutal and unpredictable.”
And, oh, the roads. Jwan and his driver, Moses, were here to take me back to the airport. The journey from Abuja to Jos had been harrowing. Now it was time to do it again, but in reverse. A long, perilous drive, it is not for the faint of heart. Going to Nigeria? Gird your loins.
Moses, our driver for this real-life version of “The Fast and Furious,” is a sturdy, quiet fellow in his mid-twenties. Being a bit prone to car sickness on these brutal Nigerian roads, I had opted to drive or sit in the front passenger seat during much of my visit. But when we were about an hour out of Jos and at the front end of this long, lonely highway, Jwan ordered Moses to pull over.
“We must now move you to the backseat,” he explained to me. “We know not what evil lurks for you in the bush.”
This sentence, spoken as it was in Jwan’s James Earl Jones-like baritone and in an older, more sonorous British English that is extinct in all but former British colonies, had an ominous quality to it. I moved to the back where the windows were tinted. Jwan reclined my seat slightly to conceal me further. He then gave Moses a uniform like that of a traffic cop and told him to put it on.
“He will look official,” Jwan explained. “The checkpoint guards are less likely to give us trouble.”
Sketchy people are not unique to Nigeria. But Nigeria’s sketchy types tend to be heavily armed, and that makes things a bit dicey. Moses, who clearly liked wearing the uniform, pulled the Toyota Sequoia back onto the highway and took aim at the far horizon. The engine roared as he pushed the RPMs into the gauge’s red limits just as the driver had done when we traveled this road a week before. I have never seen a vehicle endure such punishment, and I have punished a lot of vehicles. It wasn’t merely that we were going fast, it was the duration of it, the pounding of the road, the constant hard braking and re-acceleration. Five and a half hours is a long time to push a vehicle, any vehicle, so hard. I feared the engine might blow or …
“What happens if we blow-out a tire?” I asked, already knowing the grim answer.
Jwan’s reply was typical of the man’s penchant for the eloquent understatement: “It would be a very bad day for us all.”
What Nigeria’s Christians accept as normal is, for the typical Westerner—or even the typical African—extraordinary. Some accept it because they don’t know anything different. Others accept it because they have no choice. Intelligent Travel, an independent group providing risk assessment to travelers, rates Nigeria a 97 percent travel risk. Meanwhile, life expectancy in Nigeria is a mere 53 years. Regardless, God’s grace was evident in how these good people managed it. They didn’t worry about those things they could not control. They simply did the best they could and left the rest to God’s sovereign mercy.
Moses, whose named seemed perfectly suited to his task on this day, led us on at high speed through the African desert.
“Get me to the Promised Land, Moses,” I joked. The young man smiled and, having connected his smartphone to the car stereo, he started his playlist that began with something unexpected.
“You like Rascal Flatts, Moses?” I asked. He grinned and nodded enthusiastically in the rearview mirror. I just shook my head, wondering if Rascal had ever imagined a scenario like this when he—or whoever—wrote this piece of music. I cannot now recall the song, but it surely must have been “Bless the Broken Road.”
“Now that you have been with us, my friend,” Jwan began, “how does the reality of our country compare to your expectations?”
“A South African friend of mine had told me that Nigerians were a huge people,” I said. “He has never been to Nigeria, but he told me that Nigerians were like the actor Michael Clarke Duncan, the big guy in “The Green Mile.” Huge. So, I had expected to feel like a grasshopper in their sight.”
At this, Jwan and Moses roared in delight.
“Instead you discovered that it is you who are of the tribe of Anak!” Jwan joked, completing my biblical reference. “We are more like Asians in size. You saw how you were bigger than almost everyone you met in this country! But that myth is part of the reputation of Nigeria in Africa. Nigeria and Nigerians are feared. Even by other Africans. Nigeria is like a scarecrow—you only need see it from afar to be afraid.”
That, I knew, was true. Later, without exception, when other Africans learned that I had been in Nigeria, they practically shivered. “Other Africans don’t go to Nigeria,” one man told me. The reasons, I heard, ranged from drug trafficking to witchcraft, but violence was the most common theme.
That said, Nigerian Christians are remarkable. Tough, charismatic, and possessed of an irrepressible joy, no one could ever conquer a people of such spirit. Not the Boko Haram, not the Fulani Herdsmen, not a corrupt government, and not the liberal policies that the West has tried to force upon them. The unrelenting pressure of violence, corruption, and pestilence have combined to produce a pearl of a people.
But the West has failed them. Abandoned them, really. Deep into the country, away from the operations of oil companies with their heavy security and guarded compounds, Westerners are almost non-existent.
Even so, the anti-Western narrative of colonialism was not reflected among the Nigerians I met. Quite the opposite. I don’t mean to suggest here that Nigerians think British colonialism was all peaches and cream. But these are a sophisticated, educated people who recognize that the British, particularly the Anglican Church, brought many good things to Nigeria—education, hospitals, infrastructure, and, most importantly, Jesus.
Speaking at a conference in London some years ago, Peter Akinola, the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Nigeria, boldly chastised the West:
“You came to my country and told us there is only one God through whom we could be saved, Jesus Christ, and we believed you, and followed Him. You told us there is only one true book to know him, the Bible, and we believed you, and read it. Now you tell us Allah of Islam is also god, and that we can use the Qur’an to learn about God. You invited the Muslims here as guests, and they have now become your hosts. So now I come to your country to remind you of what you have forgotten.”
Wow. A friend of mine who was present at this occasion said it was one of the most powerful talks he has ever heard. You see, to Nigerian Christians, there are two manifestations of the West:
The good one that brings freedom, education, health care, and the eternal hope of Jesus Christ; and the bad one that uses every coercive power it possesses to bully the Third World into implementing permissive policies on abortion and homosexuality. Regarding the first, they want to know where that West went. Why did the Western church start something and not finish it? Regarding the second, to say that they deeply resent it is a gross understatement.
Prior to President Obama’s 2015 visit to Kenya, his administration attempted, unsuccessfully, to force that country (and other African countries) to change their laws on homosexuality. Many Africans deemed this both arrogant and unwanted, which, of course, it was. For them, this is America at its worst. More than once I was asked if American churches were all gay.
“What’s wrong with the American church?” One man asked me. “On television, we see so many people in church”—they all get TBN and DayStar on satellite—“but then we read they are all liberal [his word], approving of gay marriage. Don’t they believe in the Bible anymore?”
Watching CNN International and BBC as their news sources, it is no wonder that they think this. But they have a point. Western churches, Western Christians, have gone soft. This is because they have confused Christ’s command to love others with being likable, as if that were an attribute of God. (It isn’t.) As such, they endeavor to be, above all else, inoffensive and polite. This doctrinal malpractice has given us a generation of men who are what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests.”
And yet, in spite of ourselves, these Nigerians were a people who felt an affection for America. Jwan’s brother-in-law, a minister of agriculture, said: “Not only do we think that America should be first, we think America should lead the world.”
Given the narrative we hear in the United States, chiefly, that America is bad for the world and is hated by it, that statement surprised me. San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich recently made headlines when he said that “America is an embarrassment to the world.”
That may be, but not for the reason Popovich might suppose. America’s current identity crisis is one that makes people like those that I met in Nigeria (and elsewhere in the Third World) nervous. If America isn’t leading the world, the alternatives look grim. Who now? Russia? China? They hope not.
“What is wrong with America?” is a frequent refrain.
To Popovich’s point, I was embarrassed to have to answer such questions, but for precisely the opposite reason than he meant. Most embarrassing of all was having to answer questions about the West’s position on Islam.
“Why do they think Islam is a religion of peace?” another man asked me. “These people have been killing us for decades and your media just ignores it. Now they are killing you and still your President Obama called it a peaceful religion. We see Western leaders saying that over and over again. Why?”
I could do little more than shrug and hold my palms up in resignation, because the question is all too valid. It isn’t bad enough that these people should be murdered by Muslim militants, but their suffering is compounded by the West’s willful blindness to a religion that bears a striking resemblance to a war strategy.
Yes, I was embarrassed by these manifestations of bad America. That I have written and spoken so forcefully about Islam is an encouragement to these persecuted Christians. Watching a clip from my debate on Al-Jazeera with atheist Daniel Dennett and Muslim cleric Zaid Shakir, Nigerian clergy practically cheered. You’d never get that reaction in the West, and that’s because Westerners prefer the false narrative that comforts them to the truth which frightens them.
Approaching a military checkpoint, Moses slowed the Toyota. The guard, spotting the uniform Moses was now wearing, saluted and waved us on. Moses, loving every second of the respect the uniform garnered for him, smiled to the point of laughter.
“Moses,” I warned, “you’ve got to act like you get saluted every day. To them, this must appear old hat for you. If you look like you’re enjoying it too much, they might get suspicious.”
He tried to suppress his smile, but it was no use. Much to my amusement, the salute thrilled him. Punching the accelerator, we were once again blazing a dusty path across the African plain.
The World Health Organization considers Nigeria the most dangerous country in the world to travel by road and, brother, I can tell you they are right. Each year, there are roughly 615 fatalities in Nigeria for every 100,000 vehicles. Compare that astonishing figure to the United States: 12. That’s before you factor in terrorism and the constant threat of roadside ambushes. Nigeria is leading the world in all the wrong categories.
A few hours later, we reached the international airport in Abuja. I thanked Moses for his driving and I thanked God for Toyota. My heavens, did that Sequoia take a beating, and so did I. My multitude of formerly broken bones ached from the journey.
Jwan walked with me into the terminal until airport security permitted him to go no farther. We embraced as friends and brothers in Christ. Watching him leave, I again thought of what a great man he is and the task before him.
Turning to making my way to the Lufthansa check-in counter, I realized that Phil Collins’s “Take Me Home” was playing over airport speakers. Fitting. I took one more fleeting glimpse at the figure of Nigeria’s great Christian bishop in the distance.
Minutes later, I was through passport control and in line to board the plane. I approached the woman checking tickets and passports.
“Your ticket, please.”
I handed it over. Raising her eyebrows, she said, “Double-o-seven?” She then examined me dramatically from head to toe and added flatly, “Yes, I think so.”
Having no idea what she was talking about, I looked at my ticket for clues:
“Seat Assignment: 007.”
I gave a wan smile and joined the enthusiastic rush that always possesses passengers boarding a plane. Elsewhere, such enthusiasm baffles me, but here it made sense. Since the Nigerian crisis began, not even Lufthansa remained in the country a moment longer than was necessary. The planes land, unload their passengers, refuel, reload, and leave in just over an hour with the same crew.
Seated next to a Nigerian woman from Lagos who now lives in Atlanta, she asked me where I had been.
“In the north?” she exclaimed. “Did you drive that road?!”
“From Abuja to Jos and back again?”
“You had armed escorts, I suppose.”
She looked at me wide-eyed over her reading glasses. “No? I would never do it! Lagos is, hmm, okay, but the north? Even I, a Nigerian, would never go there! What company lets you do that? I’ve not heard of it being done!”
“It was for ministry.”
“Ah!” she said with a knowing look. “Then the Lord was your protection!”
After a momentary pause, she added: “Still, I would never do it.”
Her delivery, perfectly timed, and with just the right intonation, was classic. I laughed out loud.
Soon thereafter I received a text from Jwan:
“You are an awesome and a wonderfully daring figure, my friend. You have proved to me that you are a beloved brother and a friend indeed…. May the Lord be with you. Anticipating the news of your safe arrival.”
As the plane lifted-off, I thought about my courageous Nigerian friends and the extraordinary work God is doing through them and all that we, in the West, could learn from them. With a full heart, I reclined my seat and minutes later I was sleeping more deeply than I had in a very long time.