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Lessons from an African village. (At Large).

The old woman came m dressed in a white and blue boubou. Her headtie was so elaborate, none could compete with it. "Salaam Alaikum," she greeted me, with an unfamiliar voice. "Wa Alaikum Salaam," I responded.

That was N'na Sanneh, the Mother of the non-believers in my Gambian village, Sintet. After two decades abroad, I was visiting home and N'na, like the rest of the villagers, had come to greet a long lost, but not forgotten, son of the soil me!

Of all those who came to see me during my visit in February 2002, N'na struck me the most. The last memories I had of this old lady were in the mid-1970's and they were of a half-naked, viciouslooking priestess, screaming at the foot of an ancient oak-like tree in the middle of our village, pouring palm wine on the stem, surrounded by a group of chanting women.

Then, in February 2002, there she was; a Muslim, calm, modest and polite. Yet N'na is very much representative of the spirit and character of this unknown little village, tucked away in an unknown little country, in a continent many people love to ignore. At a time when the world is infested with the virus of religious intolerance and violence, this woman and this little village offer many a big lesson for the rest of the world.

Sintet is a relatively big village, of about 3,000 inhabitants. I was born in this village at the dawn of the 1960's. My Either was a devout Muslim, who prayed nearly 24 hours a day. Sintet's population was divided almost equally between Muslims and animists, flanked by a handful of Christians.

A Christian Muslim?

I was sent to Qur'anic School at an age so young that I can't remember when exactly. Although I ran away from the school because of the teacher's whip, my father kept me on my toes for my five daily prayers. One of my father's best friends in those days was Father McDonald, an Irish priest who ran our Catholic missionary school, St. John Boscoe's Primary. It was this school that I attended. I used to join the rest of the pupils in occasional masses, led by the Irish priest. The priest and nuns sometimes shared our very modest meals with us at our very humble home.

We began every day at school by calling on, "Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name...". At Christmas, every year, I walked with my school mates to Bwiam, more than 10 miles away from Sintet, where the missionary headquarters were. We spent most of Christmas eve and the night that followed in church.

Like many of my school mates, I prayed at home as the Muslim that I was and at school like the Christian that the priests and nuns were. Diabolic, many may say, but our dads would not agree, for they knew but never made an effort to stop us. Father McDonald, his predecessors and successors never made an effort to stop us either. The reality that, apart from the teachers, all their congregation were Muslims and animists never seemed to have bothered the priests for they never attempted to convert us. There was a general acceptance, although unstated, that prayer was good for all, in spite of religious orientation, and that God will lead the pupils to their respective lifelong faiths, eventually.

Divine wisdom in divine hands

There was a general acceptance too that our differences were not important enough to warrant spiteful attention. As a child in Sintet, I never knew there were any major differences between Islam, Christianity and animism. I do not recall anyone talking to us (the kids) about the differences between the three religions and asking us to stay away from each other. The concept of religious intolerance was either unknown or simply ignored as too silly to bother about.

My dad once told me, when I asked him who would go to heaven: "Only Allah knows," said he. The villagers of Sintet preferred to leave matters of divine wisdom in divine Hands. No one tried to influence one or the other in the village. It was as if these mostly illiterate Muslims had read one of the most striking surat from the Holy Qur'an: "To you be your religion and to me my religion" (108:6).

By the time of my recent homecoming, the world had long changed, and dramatically so. Continuous reports of religiously-oriented violence have aggravated hatred and pushed mankind backwards along the path of deadly confrontation. But has Sintet changed? In one very interesting respect, yes. The animists and Christians have become Muslims and religious minority groups no longer exist. The incredible aspect of the conversions is that they were voluntary, gradual, spontaneous and endogenous. No one went to a potential convert to make a case, violently or peacefully.

Therefore, even after the transformation of the village now, nobody seem to care about, to have taken notice or made a big deal out of, it. This is obvious in the unemotional reaction of my sister when I expressed my surprise at N'na's conversion: "What Allah wills must happen," said she. If my simple, illiterate, little village sister could know this, I wonder why so many of us, who should know better, don't seem to.

Unfortunately, followers of all religions are guilty of the sins of personal interest and hatred, which create the confusion of man's interest with God's will. As far back as 'prehistoric' times man has used the name of God/gods to pull the reins of power and privilege over a mostly gullible population.

Although the large invading armies of history are now stories of the past, religious intolerance and hatred of our modern world is no less prevalent than in the so-called 'dark ages'. People continue to die in the name of one religion or the other. Examples are numerous. Even apart from the popular examples of September 11, the Crusaders and the Pharaohs, there are the Hindu-Muslim and Hindu-Christian clashes in India, church massacres led by priests and other religious leaders during the Rwandan genocide, the Srebenica massacre, Oklahoma City bombing by a right-wing Christian-American, the civil war in Algeria, church-sanctioned violence under apartheid, etc.

Mainstream versus extremist

The causes are multiple. Firstly, the religious intolerance of today is largely an expression of political activism, arising sometimes out of legitimate political frustrations, and sometimes out of hate-fuelled social biases.

Secondly, the religious violence of today is both a conflict between religions as it is within religions. The murderers of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Itzak Rabin, Algerian civilians, are extremists not from without, but within, their own religions.

Such violence is the result of intellectual pluralism, expressed through conflicts between mainstream and extremist viewpoints, which has been a characteristic of human society throughout history.

However, modern intellectual pluralism is extremely complicated, because it is never unidimensional, no matter how sophisticated, or unsophisticated, it may appear to be. Thus, religious extremism, may be violent not because, or only because, of religion/God/gods, but other factors, such as tribalism, racism, ethnicism, personal hatred, economic exploitation, political oppression and or repression. Therefore, actions may be conducted in the name of gods, which may have nothing to do with divine injunctions.

Ironically, modern education (both secular and religious) is not automatically correlated, positively, with spiritualism and tolerance. Sophistication, even at its apex, simply means sophistry. This is why a little, unknown, mostly illiterate, African village seems to know better than those who should elsewhere. This is why I am proud to be from this unknown village called Sintet.
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Author:Dr. Sonko, Karamo
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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