‘The minds of the children are the future of Africa’: Writers Elnathan John and Mahi Binebine on the importance of youth
The Nigerian writer Elnathan John stands in contemplation at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, taking in a portrait of alcoholic ruin. “I know these people,” he laughs. Edgar Degas’s canvas depicts the working class as they take refuge in absinthe, with the pressures of industrialisation tearing at France’s social fabric.
We are a stone’s throw – and 10 minutes – away from a meeting of minds with Moroccan author and painter Mahi Binebine, at his flat in Paris. The pair discuss kids, history, poverty, the nostalgia of Salafism, and the urgent need to find something more nourishing to supplant it.
Each writer has a novel that speaks to the theme. John’s debut book, Born on a Tuesday, unfurls in Nigeria’s north-west. We follow Dantala, a child sent for a Koranic education by his father, but who falls in with street boys and quickly gets caught up in a political maelstrom. He eventually flees to Sokoto where he gets taken under the wing of an imam who gives him some stability, but this, too, is taken away, as a clash between Shia and Sunni communities ends in a massive army crackdown.
“My intention was to track the beginnings of what we have now as Boko Haram,” says John. “To explain how it is possible in a place like Sokoto, or a calm city like Zaria, for young people to get involved with these kinds of movements.”
Binebine, an impish character with a hair-trigger chuckle, published The Stars of Sidi Moumen in 2010 (in 2012 it was released as a film, Horses of God, directed by Nabil Ayouch). “In 2003 we had 12 kids who came out from the Sidi Moumen slum – 300,000 people living in really bad conditions, without water, without toilets, without anything,” says Binebine. “They blew themselves up in old Casablanca, 45 people died. A big surprise for us. Everybody woke up and the kids were gone”.
What was shocking for Binebine was that this slum was physically hidden from Moroccans, behind a wall on the road between Casablanca and Rabat. It is where his novel starts, this physical barrier to prevent the poor spilling out, and to screen misery from the eyes of the rich.
With policemen and journalists scouring the slums immediately after the blast the residents were scared to talk, but Binebine persisted, visiting Sidi Moumen a dozen times in 2003/2004. He recalls: “The kids are playing like me when I was young, because I grew up in the middle of Marrakech, I was playing football without shoes and my mother was a secretary. She had seven kids with nothing, my father left. […] I met these people: they were like me, they were really like me. And I started to write a novel about how these kids became a human bomb. I wanted to understand – the youngest was 16, these are kids. And each time in Europe when we talk about terrorism, you would think the terrorists are monsters. Nobody wants to know who these people are.”
The state is the terrorist
For John: “The Nigerian state weaponised Boko Haram.” By violently attacking what was originally a minor sect, the Nigerian authorities created the very creature they claimed to be bringing under control.
This violent state, and the lack of state nurturing in terms of education, health, or channelling young people into productive roles, creates spaces for other actors. “The state is the terrorist,” says Binebine, “for letting people live in that condition.”
Both authors clearly label Salafist teachings as a key part of radicalisation, often broadcast via satellite from the Gulf, but also home-made.
It was Abubakar Mahmud Gumi, says John, who popularised Salafi rhetoric in northern Nigeria. As private secretary to the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, Gumi travelled with him to Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and ’60s, making connections there that he then brought to bear on his audience. “He was on TV a long time,” says John. “He would do public conversions – ‘My name was Joseph, now my name is Mohammed’ – he would declare people infidels, it was very popular.”
From there on these movements became more conservative, splintered, and eventually became Boko Haram – which roughly translated means ‘Western education is bad’. John recalls a sermon of Abubakar Shekau, the current leader of Boko Haram, who tells people to take their kids out of school, “and it sounded very logical, because he was saying: ‘At what age do you think that these agents of Jews and Americans want to catch our children? When they start to attain puberty, between 8 and 12 years old, when they are impressionable,'” he says. “And in turn, when Boko Haram started their militia movement, they started kidnapping boys at that same age – because in two years you indoctrinate the boys, you can brainwash them.”
“Two years is nothing”, says Binebine. “They take them from the garbage and they make them clean. And they find them jobs, they stop the contact between them and their own families, they become the family.”
Representing this kind of hopeless disenfranchisement that leads to terrorism – drawing clear lines between poverty and violence – is not without its pitfalls. Speculating on the way to meeting Binebine, John wonders “whether a book like [his] could be written in the anglophone world, today.” For some, like the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it is symptomatic of what she describes, in a celebrated TED talk, as ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. In essence, stories that stereotype the peoples of Africa: violent, criminal, or worse, pitiable and rudderless.
Binebine is bemused by the suggestion: “I have no problem to say that Africa is in the shit,” he says. “I can tell you there are 50% of people who don’t know how to read, so this is a shitty situation. And I want to scream it, I am not ashamed to say.”
“My government doesn’t like me because I say this,” Binebine continues. “They say you are giving a bad image to our country. I say: ‘No I am telling the reality of the thing. Take care of your people and I will shut my mouth. Give them school.'”
Learning to beg
And school, in its broadest sense, seems to be the pivotal institution. John talks about the nine million almajirai in northern Nigeria – children sent out to beg by malams who are supposedly giving them an Islamic education. “It used to be a great system of scholarships, people would leave the northern part of West Africa all the way even to places like Saudi Arabia, they would travel to go and look for scholarships. It used to be a great thing, Koranic education,” he says. “But now it’s basically a way for poor people to send their children away.”
Speaking to The Africa Report last month, the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, said: “Millions of children study the Koran and Arabic, understand the language – but on paper they are illiterate because they don’t speak English. That means there is no opportunity for them to become medical doctors, to become engineers, to become economists, to become historians. If you study Arabic, you can study Arabic phonology, you can study the hadith, you can study the Koran, you can study Islamic law – which is fine,” continued Sanusi. “But you do not have other areas of knowledge that open opportunities for you in a modern economy. Now, the result is you have disgruntled people who end up in the hands of some radical scholar who sets them against the system, and they become extremists and terrorists.”
“The minds of the children are the battleground for the future of Africa,” says Binebine. Along with Ayouch, who directed the film version of his book, he has built a community centre in the heart of Sidi Moumen, to give the kids music, drama, books and sporting activities. “And the Islamists [who are still in Sidi Moumen] are fighting us, because we are stealing their kids.”
One afternoon, 300 Islamists started to mass in front of the centre. “We were very afraid,” says Binebine, “but after three to four hours the mothers came to drop off their kids, and they chased away the Islamists! It was our first victory”.
They have opened another centre in Tangier, and are trying to raise money to open another 20, and even expand the programme into other African countries. “It’s the only solution to this, to go to the place where the Islamists work and to open cultural centres and to teach the kids life, not death, not this nostalgia for some golden age that never was.”
Shouldn’t politicians do more, too, to better populate the minds of the youth? John is pessimistic that Nigeria will move closer to that in the short term. In the north, he believes, rulers prefer the lack of education.
“When there are uneducated people the only thing they think of is their ethnic group or their religion, and it’s easy to divide people like that, and that’s why it’s important for them [rulers in the north] not to have education, not to have development, not to have real progress, because that way you can split people along religious lines and ethnic lines,” says John.
For Binebine, the hardline Islamists arrived in North Africa because rulers, like in northern Nigeria, were concerned about genuine opposition: “They were afraid to have somebody who can debate with them, some political party who can be an alternative to that power”.
The colonial hangover can be felt here, both authors say – from the British who used the feudal elite politics of northern Nigeria to their advantage, to the local nobility leaned on by the French in their carve up of Morocco.
“Ultimately the upper class are all friends,” says John. “They shop in the same shops in Paris, they have houses on the same streets in London, they go to the same clubs to sleep with prostitutes, in the same place, they get cocaine from the same people, same dealers. Their children hang out and party together in New York. But then when they come back home, they split people and they divide them.”
This article came from the Dec/Jan 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine