The Importance of Acceptance: Award-Winning Author Talks Nigerian Religion and Politics

October 26, 2018

By Haley Johnson '19

Helon Habila, an award-winning novelist, journalist, poet, and professor at George Mason University spoke at Saint Anselm on Wednesday, October 17 on "Religion, Politics and the Literary Landscape in Contemporary Nigeria." More than 150 students, faculty, and staff gathered in the auditorium of the Roger and Francine Jean Student Center Complex to listen to Habila shed light on the current political climate in Nigeria. As a Nigerian native, Habila has witnessed first-hand the political dysfunction and religious divide within the country, and offered a unique voice on issues such as political corruption, violence, and religious extremism.

Habila spoke about his most recent book, The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria, a work of non-fiction about the Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram. Founded in 2002, the group aims to overthrow the Nigerian government and create an Islamic state; their mission to eradicate Christianity and western education has resulted in suicide bombings, kidnappings, and destruction of property, particularly in schools.

Habila’s book focuses specifically on the terrorist attack that resulted in the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria in 2014. He traveled to Chibok to visit the escaped schoolgirls and their families, document their stories, and offer the most accurate and intimate narration of the tragedy.

Habila started the event by stating, “The best stories are those you write with tears in your eyes,” immediately setting the tone for the thought-provoking discussion. During his visit to Chibok, Habila witnessed the grief and despair of the community. As for the families of the missing schoolgirls, “many had died from stress-related diseases, like stomach ulcers and heart failure,” said Habila. He also mentioned the millions of Nigerian children without schooling, as their schools have been shut down or burnt by Boko Haram. The auditorium was silenced by the raw and heartfelt details of Habila’s story.

Through his presentation, Habila offered a better understanding of the religious wars that have devastated Nigeria and the importance of freedom of expression, love, and acceptance. “Religion is as powerful as a nuclear weapon,” he stated. He further explained that he dreams of a day when Nigerians can choose their religion based on their moral beliefs and not have to fear political implications. Further, he dreams of a day when Nigerian women can pursue an education without being taken by force.

English and communication double major Alexander Dooley ’21 attended the event having read Habila’s book, Oil on Water, in his Contemporary West African Fiction class. Dooley said hearing Habila speak extended his knowledge significantly. “His [Habila’s] experiences alone allowed for more of a connection to the stories that we hear in class, even if those stories are realistic fiction,” said Dooley. “Overall his lecture deepened my understanding of more than just a singular story. It was about culture, religion, and the struggle of the Nigerian people as a whole, not just one person.”

The event was made possible with support from the Bean Foundation and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics as well as New Hampshire Humanities, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Many Saint Anselm College groups provided additional support including the English, history, politics, and peace and justice studies departments, as well as the Conversatio Program, the College Writing Program and the Intercultural Center.