ANGOLA — Before coming to America and settling in Steuben County, Sunday Mahaja grew up amid a backdrop of poor governance and religious violence in his homeland in western Africa.
Sunday Mahaja, president of Nigerian Association of Michiana and local artist who graduated from Goshen College, grew up in Nigeria, the former British colony that later became known as home of violent Islamic group Boko Haram.
Mahaja shared about his youth and his home country recently, culminating in his arrival in Steuben County where he’s now a contributing artist to the community.
Nigeria, which is the largest economy in Africa and the most populous state, is a multinational country inhabited by approximately 250 ethnic groups that speak more than 500 different dialects.
Nigeria’s official language, however, is English — reflecting its days as a colonial holding of the British Empire. Three languages also recognized nationally are the languages of three main ethnic groups — Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba — that together account for more than 60% of the Nigerian population.
Mahaja is an ethnic Hausa, and he was born in Festac Town in Lagos State, which is the most populous region in the country. Festac Town, a federal state housing estate near the Gulf of Guinea, was founded to host the Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture that was held in 1977.
Festac remained in Mahaja’s memories as a small artistic town that grew to become home to a lot of expatriates from all over the world, who came to Nigeria to work for an international paper production company that was situated nearby.
Mahaja grew up in a large three-bedroom house with his six siblings – five brothers and one sister. He says that the things he remembers best about his childhood are those extended Nigerian families and Nigerian afternoons in his small town where he and his siblings used to pluck fruits from the trees in the afternoon and greet monkeys on their way to school.
Public school that he could attend with all his friends was one more of his best childhood memories, Mahaja said. The Nigerian public education system allowed Mahaja to become a sound engineer in Britain at the age of 23. Most of his childhood friends have also emigrated, and they now live either in Britain or here in the U.S.
“My teachers were white, which is now unusual, but I lived in a developing town, there were a lot of westerners who came to work in the international company,” said Mahaja.
The artist believes that the artistic atmosphere of his native small town and developed Nigerian educational system contributed to his artistic development. However, not everyone in Nigeria could appreciate arts. Arts were just for the people of a certain social stratum, and those social strata were almost as rigid as Indian castes.
“In Nigeria you have to work five times as hard as here to get where you want to be,” said Mahaja.
Poor governance, he said, was what was spoiling everything from public education to societal structure and vertical mobility. Poor governance was also what accounted for constant ethno-religious conflicts raging across the country.
Although growing up Mahaja did not witness those violent clashes, he was always aware of them, and he had family members who lived in the disputed regions. The clashes, said Mahaja, were never truly about religion or ethnicity despite Nigeria’s diverse ethno-religious landscape.
The three predominant ethnic groups in the country live compactly in different regions. Yorubas are in the west, Igbos in the east, and Hausa in the north, and in between their historic lands lie the regions inhabited by smaller tribes such as Edo, Fulbe, and Igala that speak different dialects, as well as some which worship the old gods, said Mahaja.
“So, you will have the people in the southeast, northeast that all speak multiple dialects, but the three major languages that are recognized are Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo,” he said.
The three main ethnic groups compete for power, and those struggles fire up local nationalism with the most prominent example of which being the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra associated with Igbo nationalism, which supports the recreation of an independent state of Biafra that existed briefly from 1967 to 1970 on more than half of Nigerian modern territory.
Religion underpins power struggles, but it is not because of the religion that the conflicts usually start, said Mahaja, who has both Christian and Muslim family members. He remembered that when he was growing up one of many religious conflicts happened in Adamawa State where his cousins lived.
That conflict, although eventually it was deemed an inter-religious Christian-Muslim conflict, started as a land dispute between newcomers and locals who belonged to different religions.
“It wasn’t because of religion, this conflict started because of land ownership,” said Mahaja.
From that experience, he draws a conclusion that Boko Haram’s religious war is also not primarily about religion, either. First Boko Haram mainly targeted Christians, but later ended up assaulting those Muslims whose idea of Islam differed from that of Boko Haram.
“When they started, they could keep pushing the narrative that they were the Muslims fighting non-Muslims, but eventually they were killing people on both sides of the spectrum,” said Mahaja.
Along with Christianity and Islam, a sizable share of Nigerian population practices idolatry, “worshipping the old gods,” as Mahaja’s parents used to say. Both Christians and Muslims could worship the old gods along with going to a church or a mosque.
One of the most well-known rituals of their religion is Ogun, named after Yoruba God of Iron, said Mahaja. During Ogun celebration, Nigerians, especially in Yoruba regions in the East, make sacrifices of dogs to the god of thunder to protect public bus drivers from possible accidents.
“They believe in the god of iron. you drive the car, and it is made of metal,” said Mahaja.
Another popular native celebration is called Shango after the name of the Nigerian God of Thunder, said Mahaja. Shango is also mostly a Yoruba deity, who is claimed to be the royal ancestor of Yoruba, but whose influence spreads as far as to Latin America where he is known as Changó or Jakuta.
Growing up in such a religiously diverse landscape, Mahaja — originally Catholic, but from a family where both Christians and Muslims holidays were celebrated — got an interest in religion, and at some point he started to read the Quran to understand the roots of the conflicts tearing apart his motherland.
As he was working through the Muslim scripture, he was starting to realize that he was reading it differently from the adherents of some of the Islamic currents in his country, so differently that he could not even identify the exact places in the text where the prophet said that Muslims should fight for their God. All he could see in the Quran was the message of peace.
After dedicating his time to religious studies, Mahaja became a Mennonite Christian.
“Like in any society there would be a group who call themselves conservative extremists,” concluded Mahaja.
He said the thing he missed most about Nigeria was the food, especially pounded yam, which is similar to mashed potato and which is eaten with the hands.
Mahaja, who has now lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years, is still sure that Nigerians are the world happiest people.
But there is one thing he did not expect before coming to Indiana – the fact that he would like cold weather and snow.