For the discerning eye, the evidence was too particular to ignore. The young men paraded before television cameras as the killers of the Europeans held hostage in Zamfara State last month looked nothing like ardent foot-soldiers of a fundamentalist sect. Taking even a cursory look at them, I beheld the tragic image of boys who could have been in school where, with the right amount of care and foresight, they would come to understand their places in the world.
They could become creative individuals with an open attitude to that world, whose limitless potentials they would enrich with their unique gifts. They could become thinkers, administrators, professional dreamers or perfecters of the dream of others. Instead, they had been brainwashed into thinking that they could with violence turn the minds of millions to a lost cause. Their slogan, Boko Haram, which is also the name by which they are known, is a neutered contradiction. The Quran is a book, first and last.
To negate this heedless virus of a fundamentalist creed forsworn to violence, think of a living, high-minded educational ideal right in the heart of Northern Nigeria: a school named Hauwa Memorial College. Located in Funtua, Katsina State, this model college was the brainchild the late Dr. Tajudeen Abdulraheem, one of the most imaginative human beings Nigeria has known.
Both in some details of his personal biography and in his decision to establish the school, the late Abdulraheem, clearly represented an unusual example of the success of the Nigerian ideal, hard as that is to imagine. A graduate of Bayero University, Kano, Abdulraheem was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England where obtained his doctorate in 1992. Right from his college days, he developed a unique vision of a community of creative individuals—whose multiple identities as Africans, Nigerians, Hausas, or natives of Funtua were a means of self-actualization, not seed-beds of destructive dogmas. He was a Muslim, a Pan-Africanist, a radical organizer, a master-builder, a father, a husband, a brother, and a great creator of laughter. I met him only once, in a small American city. Our meeting lasted for three short hours, but we clicked right away and continued as friends until his tragic death in a motor accident in Nairobi on May 24, 2009.
I referred earlier to “some details of his personal biography.” What I mean by this is that in a not-so-distant past, he could trace lines in his family to a part of what Nigerians think of as Yorubaland. His younger brother, Sikiru, whom I knew during the National Service in the former Gongola State, goes by the surname Ayilara. Whatever the true contours of this detail, the relevant fact is that Abdulraheem was a true Nigerian who identified the needs of the poor in Funtua as his own and rose unflinchingly to the challenge. For him, Hauwa Memorial College (named after his mother) was a means of meeting the needs of the children of the poor who may otherwise not have had a chance at education. He set up this model secondary school where many children of the poor could receive subsidized but quality education. He was so interested in the education of the girl-child that he organized special adult literacy for women who might have missed the chance of acquiring good education as a result of poverty or early marriage. Here, without a doubt, was a man with firm local and global commitments. He understood clearly that to be a useful Pan-Africanist was to be a useful denizen of Funtua.
Since his death, however, the school has been in dire straits. His friend and fellow master-builder, the poet Odia Ofeimun, who sent me information about the school, recently set in motion the Tajudeen Abdulraheem Education Trust Fund. The aim of this trust fund is to revive and reconstruct the secondary school. Ofeimun writes: “Operating from rented classrooms, the school had the best School Certificate results in Katsina State in year 2005 and 2008.” Although dependent on volunteer staff, part-time teachers and auxiliaries, “the students of the school proved it that their school could match the standards of any other in the state.” Sadly, since the death of its founder, the school has come under the threat of closure.
Here we are, at the mercy of a band of seemingly intractable fundamentalists who hate Western education, possibly any kind of books, including the Quran. But there, in the benighted air of Funtua, the dream of a school by a Nigerian with the luck and talent to imagine a better world for all is gasping for air. We owe it to idealism to ensure the survival of Hauwa Memorial College even if for the instrumental purpose of negating the virus of Boko Haram.
*Akin Adesokan, a poet and essayist, practiced as a journalist in the early to mid nineties and is currently a professor of comparative literature at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, in the United States.