An Alhaji is a person who has made the haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, one of the Islamic holy places. My friend the Alhaji Guni made the pilgrimage earlier in his life.
When I met him in 2008 he was already an older man, very well-respected, old-fashioned, and set in his ways. He was a Muslim, but open to hearing about the Christian claims about Jesus. When our friends had been made refugees back in 2002 he was the one who arranged for them to come and settle back on the Mambilla Plateau, where they are now.
I think it was the second or third time I came to preach at the village that the Alhaji Guni was there to hear me (he is the middle one in the picture here). Afterwards he did not have too much to say about what I actually said, but he did note that I had used my Bible while I was preaching. “We do not allow that here,” he told me. You can use notes to preach with, but not books – either the Bible or the Koran – because books had caused too much violence and hatred.
I told him I respected his position, and since the “word has been hid in my heart” I could easily comply with his request. Since then I do not use a book when I preach in the Fulbe communities, or when I preach in front of Muslims generally.
The Alhaji and I became friends, and I visited him in his home several times. When I brought my two youngest children, Cari and Daniel, to the village he wanted us all to come to his home and meet his family, including his wives. I had never met his wives before, and this was a big honor for us. We did not meet them in the parlour where we normally visited, however. To see his wives we had to go back into the recesses of the compound, to the women’s quarters – because they were not allowed to venture outside that area when strangers were there.
Alhaji Guni became a Christian a few years ago, and his life underwent a dramatic change. Whereas before he would not allow his daughters to go to school to be educated (and discouraged others from allowing their daughters also), now he confessed that he had been wrong about that, and encouraged his and others’ daughters to get all the schooling they could.
The last time I saw him at his home, his wives were outside in the front – a huge change. We went in to visit in the parlour and sat all together. They were not exactly happy, though, because my friend was failing in his health, and it was clear he was not well.
I was just told that he died this past Wednesday, so I am grieving his loss today. He was a good man, and was becoming a good Christian leader. He was what we might call a “man of peace” in his community.
It is with the events surrounding his widows that we are now concerned. I do not know all of the traditions surrounding funeral and mourning ceremonies among the Fulbe; my friend Aminu says it would be too hard to teach me over the phone. He did say a few things though. The widows of my friend (he had four wives) will not be able to leave their compound for forty days. In the meantime they will have many visitors come to condole with them – with the problem that these friends and family members will literally eat them out of house and home.
Long story short – all of the traditional Fulbe customs surrounding the condolence period will bring hardship to these poor women now, and the Christian leaders are looking at ways that they can carefully navigate change so that the hardship can be lessened as much as possible. My friend Aminu will begin, on his part, by not coming to condole with them in the first several weeks; rather, he will wait and then bring a gift to them when he arrives (two new procedures).
A couple of posts ago I wrote about some of the early NAB missionaries in Cameroon and Nigeria: Carl Bender, Paul Gebauer, and George Dunger. They did not want to come and bring NA culture to a place where culture and civilization already existed. They just wanted to bring Jesus – knowing that with him whatever change is needed will come on its own.
That is basically what is happening here. Our Christian brethren are in the process of looking critically at their own culture (pulaaku is what it is called), and seeing how the presence of Christ urges them to change it for the benefit of the people.