In-Between Two Worlds


My father is an enigma. Growing up, the little I learned about him I gleaned from listening to snippets of conversations between my siblings. Even now, after all these years, he is still a bit of a mystery. Hence, in writing about his childhood, I take on the role of an unreliable narrator. 

My father was born sometime in the early 1950s in Alor Agu, a village in Southeastern Nigeria, a few kilometres from Nsukka. From what I have gathered, the village was formed in the 19th century when migrants from Alor Uno fleeing the marauding Arochukwu slave traders ventured into the forests to form a new home. In the beginning, the villagers were mostly animists who worshipped the goddess. As time went by, some converted to Christianity following years of preaching by missionaries, while others continued to worship Adoro. At the turn of the twentieth century, a Muslim community emerged. The origin of this Muslim community could be traced to the influx of Hausa Muslim traders from the North who managed to convert some people to Islam. The religion then spread from the few converts to other villagers. Alor Agu is considered unique today because it is one of the few communities in the Southeast where one will find animists, Christians and Muslims all coexisting peacefully. 

My father was born into a Muslim family. He is amongst the third generation of Igbo Muslims in the community, the first generation being his grandfather who was amongst those that had accepted Islam when the religion first made its foray into the region. In Egodi Uchendu’s book Dawn For Islam In Eastern Nigeria: A History of the Arrival of Islam in Igboland, she writes that the Nsukka area “was the place where Islamic influence in Igboland first began to be felt”. The three elderly Igbo Muslims that Egodi interviewed for her study, one of whom was my great-uncle, all admitted that they were born into Islam to fathers who had recently embraced the religion. 

Even though my father grew up in a large polygamous household with sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters, the only person he was close to was his brother. I could imagine my father and his brother, coming of age in the village, strolling through the dusty streets of Nkwo Ero and Elukoro, picking oranges and playing with palm fronds. 

As it was with the children of that time, my father relocated to Nsukka sometime in his teens to earn a living for himself. I have heard him say several times that his early years in Nsukka were hard, and he said this to remind us that we should always be grateful for the little we had. My siblings furnished my mind with stories of how our father toiled in the scorching heat of the sun carrying heavy loads, undeterred by the tediousness of the labour. They told me these stories in a way to explain his stern behaviour, to make me understand that if he occasionally used harsh words, it was because he had had a harsh life. 

What were the facts of his life during those early years in Nsukka? Was it made more difficult by his identity as an Igbo Muslim, a minority in the predominantly Christian region? What were his experiences? Although he lived through the civil war, and was probably in Nsukka when the war broke out, he never spoke about it. As a child, I heard whispers about “aya Biafra” but generally there was a cone of silence around the subject.  

In her book, Uchendu writes that “the civil war pitched Igbo society against the emerging Igbo Muslim group, then a very insignificant minority amidst an overwhelming non-Muslim population that exceeded 14 million.” She also writes that “the civil war was a difficult time for the Igbo as a group but was tougher on Igbo Muslims.” She cites the example of an Igbo Muslim family that escaped to Cameroon during the war because “in the North, they were killing the Igbo while in the East they were searching out Muslims.” The ones that stayed behind faced persecution and discrimination. The war years were a watershed period between the Hausa Muslims in the North and the Igbo Christians in the South. Igbo Muslims found themselves hedged in between the two camps, caught in between two worlds at war with each other. 

I do not know what my father went through during those tumultuous years. What I do know is that after the hard years came better times as my father went from doing menial work to establishing a tailoring shop. By the time I was born, he already had several people working for him. At what point did he travel to Kano to attend an Islamic school? I’m not sure, but I know he did. In his bedroom, in the apartment where we had moved to shortly before I was born, there were several Islamic texts which he had brought back from Kano. The books were written in Hausa, a language he had learned during his stay in the North. I remember him studying those Islamic texts at night or early in the morning, squinting his eyes as he carefully leafed through the pages, as though to glean some hidden wisdom. One of those texts was a collection of prophetic sayings by the renowned Islamic scholar Imam An-Nawawi. 

I have often wondered why my father chose to name me after Imam An-Nawawi. There Is a story, probably apocryphal, that An-Nawawi so loved reading that when he was exhausted he would sleep on his books and when he woke up he would begin reading again taking short breaks only to eat and to pray. Did my father know, as soon as I was born, that I would grow up to love books as well? I have often thought of myself as An-Nawawi’s double, except I don’t have his religious zeal, a fact which, over the years, would cause a drift between my father and me. 

Growing up, I often heard my father speak about religion but never about ethnicity. We spoke Igbo of course. We are Igbo. But we did not feel any sense of contradiction within ourselves for being Igbo and Muslim. These identities were meshed in us. 

It’s hard to explain to someone now what being an Igbo Muslim means. It’s even harder to explain it to people who do not believe that there is such a thing as an Igbo Muslim. “All Igbos are Christians” I have been told. “So how come you are a Muslim?” This is a question I have had to contend with most of my life. To simple-minded people, Northern Nigeria is made up of Hausa Muslims, while the South is made up of Igbo Christians. It does not occur to these people that there are Hausa Christians and Igbo Muslims. Their minds cannot fathom this. 

In her book, Egodi Uchendu begins the study by posing the question: Are Igbo Muslims worth studying? This question arose from the summation that the number of Igbo Muslims was “insignificant”. Uchendu goes on with her study nonetheless, tracing the history of Igbo Muslims from the early conversions in the 1930s through the years of the civil war and the aftermath to the present time. It is a thorough study, certainly the only one ever done on Igbo Muslims. But I could not help bristling at some of her suppositions, particularly the point where she suggests that some Igbos who converted to Islam did so to gain financial favours from Hausa patrons. There’s also a complete lack of emotion in Uchendu’s analysis. Even though it is a book laden with vital history, the humanity of Igbo Muslims is not fully portrayed. To the scholar, the subjects are nothing more than specimens under a microscope. 


According to my siblings, I was just a few days old when we moved into a new apartment at 33 New Anglican Road in Nsukka. It was in this house, huddled in a flat with brothers, sisters and distant relatives, that I grew up. The apartment building was one of three cramped into a small acre, home to about twenty families. We were the only Muslims.  

From what I have been told, right from my early years I had wanted nothing more than to be left alone. My room was my domain, the place where I was cocooned, as though in a hermetically sealed box,  separated from the aggressions of the outside world, the collision of human contact. It wasn’t a large room to speak of, not much square footage and when a new cupboard was put in, it became even smaller. The walls were green. It was an otherwise static space, the only other disruptions being the few times when they had to change the sheets or put in a new carpet.

Out in the world, I felt a sense of disquietude. This feeling was compounded when I started school. I was told that I was so obstinate that I insisted on not finishing nursery school. In primary school, my reclusiveness alienated me from others. My identity as an Igbo Muslim didn’t come up at this time. Perhaps we were too young then to even know what that meant. I know that it was when I started secondary school that my religious identity made me feel a sense of apartness from my mates. I remember our first day in Integrated Science class where everyone was asked to introduce themselves. When it came to my turn and I said my name “Nawawi”, everyone started laughing. It was a name they had never heard before. How to explain to them that I was named after an Islamic scholar? If I had told them that I was an Igbo Muslim, it would have made them even more bedazzled. 

I would come to learn that the Igbo Muslim identity would always be an identity that evoked disdain among Igbo Christians. I once heard my uncle tell the story of how he escaped Onitsha with his family during the Danish cartoon crisis because of the spate of killings of Muslims by Igbo Christians in the South (in retaliation to the Christians that were being killed in the North), Igbo Muslims were not spared. In my uncle’s narration, I particularly remember the detail about him donning a shirt and a pair of trousers, instead of his usual jabaliya, because he did not want to be identified as a Muslim. 

In Nsukka, there was no eruption of violence but there was still that sense of alienation, of not belonging. In school, I would often have to explain what exactly it meant to be an Igbo Muslim. Some wondered whether I had converted from Christianity and when I told them that my great-grandfather had been an Igbo Muslim too, they were even more befuddled. Whenever I went to an empty classroom to perform salat, the other students would observe me with a look of bewilderment on their faces. They would call me “onye Hausa” in a tone intended to mock and to demean. Some continued to call me “onye Hausa”, even after I had explained to them that I was not a Hausa boy, that I was Igbo. Once, a senior at the school slapped me because he assumed I wasn’t being truthful when I told him that the reason I couldn’t attend Moral Instructions, the Thursday gatherings of Christian devotees, was because I was an Igbo Muslim. It seemed as though all around me, my identity caused friction. It was a friction I began to internalise with time. So much so that I started to feel adrift.

I can’t remember talking about these experiences with my siblings. At home, what mattered was offering salat when due and completing your chores. My father paid attention to my grades but it never occurred to him that being ostracised in school because of religion would affect me in any way. I don’t know exactly how my siblings’ experiences affected their lives but I imagine that it must have. How could it not? I knew that people ogled at my sisters when they stepped out with their hijab. And I also knew that my elder sister was denied a job because she refused to uncover her head. 

My father’s presence always evoked an aura of apprehension in the house. And no one was much more aware of this than me. Each time I heard his car pull into the driveway (as children we already knew what his car sounded like) I would feel my heart skip a beat. Like most fathers, he was mostly absent, leaving for work by 8 a.m., and returning in the evening just in time for Maghrib prayers. After the prayers, he would regale us with stories from the Quran. I listened ardently and was entranced by those tales but I also remember that apart from the time we spent poring over the stories from the Quran, those hours when he was around was always discomforting for me. What was it about him that terrified me? And was it really full-blown terror with heart palpitations and cold perspiration, a paralysing feeling of fear? Probably not. I can remember him hitting me only once or twice. What was more terrifying was the brutality of his words. My siblings and I were well aware that he could tear us to shreds with his words and we used to dread that charged moment when he would call one of us into his room for a talking to. 

There was always darkness, or shades of darkness, in his room. I remember the thick brown curtains that were always drawn, the fragrance of his perfume that wafted through the air, and the coffee-coloured tabletop with hardback books, magnifying glasses and scented products all on top of it. I can recall rummaging through these paraphernalia when he wasn’t around, studying them, as though they held some secrets about the man who owned them. 

Of all my siblings, I suppose I am the one that is most distant from my father. I can’t remember sitting down to chat with him or to exchange ideas. But the irony here is that I am the one most like him in temperament. It took me a while to see this. My siblings used to joke that one could sit with our father for hours without him saying anything. He wasn’t the type to raise his voice, or to speak unnecessarily and even when he used abusive words his tone was always tempered. He chose his words carefully as though to maximise their impact. He tended to be taciturn. At night, after Isha prayers, he would only spend a few minutes in the living room before retiring to his room, quietly shutting the door, just like I would retire to my own room. In retrospect, I imagine that just like me, what he most longed for was solitude. 

Despite our seeming similarity though, my father had always seemed unknowable to me. He was like an impenetrable fog. There was no way to make an incursion into his interior world. There was no way to surmise what he thought without him saying it. I remember his expression always being deadpan. Except for the few occasions where he chuckled or frowned, he rarely revealed his emotions. He mounted a closely guarded barrier around himself. The only time I saw that barrier come down completely was when my grandfather died. Seeing my father mourn his father, watching tears streaming down his face, he became human to me. 


I was nineteen when I left home to attend medical school at the University of Nigeria. The varsity wasn’t far from home but it still felt like another world. The towering buildings, the students who were always in a rush, and the classes which seemed to come in quick succession, all of these made me feel rudderless.

During my years at the university, I tried hard to fit in. My shyness had begun to wear off and I even managed to make a few friends. But then I was quickly made to realise that my religion was still something that set me apart from the other students. It’s hard for me to think about those years now without thinking about the unpleasant encounters I had. There was the student who accosted me to inquire why it’s permissible in Islam for a man to marry more than one wife. Then there was the pro-Biafran secessionist who told me that if Biafra came into existence, all Igbo Muslims would be bundled up and sent to the North.

In his brilliant essay aptly titled Islam Is Not a Monolith, Mohsin Hamid writes that “there are more than a billion variations of lived belief among people who define themselves as Muslims, one for each human being”. He also writes that prejudice against Muslims “represents a refusal to acknowledge these variations, to acknowledge individual humanities.” Still, some people believe that all Muslims are innately dangerous. A lecturer once asked, half in jest, whether I had a bomb in my backpack. A guy I ran into at a conference started calling me ISIS, just a few minutes after I had introduced myself as a Muslim. Of course, he said he was joking but still I didn’t understand why he felt the need to brand me with the name of a terrorist organisation. Would it have made any difference if I had reminded him that not all Muslims are suicide bombers, that a preponderance of Muslims practice their religion in peace and that it doesn’t seem remotely fair to judge the many by the monstrous actions of the few? All around me this prejudice persisted. People still assumed I was dangerous because I was a Muslim. When the Boko Haram insurgency in the North escalated, my roommate expressed his opinion that all Muslims were prone to violence and that he believed that it was a matter of time before I became violent too. The experiences in school were so disconcerting that for much of my time there, I didn’t stay in the hostel, choosing instead to live at the school mosque with other Muslim students. 

In my first year, I got the news that my father was taking another wife. This news saddened me because the person he was about to marry was the same woman who’d been an assistant at his shop for a long time and it pained me to imagine that he’d been carrying on an affair with her all those years. In my second year, my parents’ marriage imploded. This was also the year that my sister died from a tragic incident in the house. In my third year, I spiralled into depression. It was like a swift unravelling which I couldn’t corral. It ate away at my mind. This depression was catalysed by the sudden death of my sister, and my parents’ divorce, but it was intensified by the alienation I still felt. I found succour only in reading and in writing. I read a lot then, burrowing through memoirs and history and poetry. These were dark years, sure, but they were also years of enlightenment. Perhaps I will always remember the years I lost to this depressive illness, perhaps remembering my sister’s death will always move me to tears. Even now as I move through the world, I am vaguely aware that I am moving at a slower pace, enfeebled by this ailment, the weight of the agony that I carry, and the melancholy I sometimes feel knowing that I will probably carry this agony till the end of my life. 

In school, I often called my father to ask for money but never to inquire about his well-being. I rarely travelled home and on the few occasions that I did travel home, I avoided him. It was as though he was a black hole and I an object in space just outside the event horizon. I did not want to be sucked into his orbit. Once, I called him to ask for money and after he chided me for calling only when I needed something, he told me that he could not send the money immediately because he was at a funeral. His brother had died. I remember weeping after this call, not for the death of an uncle who I barely knew, but for the estrangement between my father and me. Thinking about this now, I try to imagine the possible reasons for this estrangement. Perhaps it was because I felt he always saw me as a weakling. Perhaps it was because I could always see the disappointment in his eyes when he looked at me. I envy men who have a good relationship with their fathers. Once, I was with an old acquaintance as he was speaking with his father over the phone and when he laughed, I was genuinely surprised. I realised I had never laughed with my father. 

The longest time I have ever spent with my father was when he fell sick and had to be hospitalised. I was in my fifth year and the hospital he was in was the same hospital I was training at. I was there during his initial visits with the consultant where he was diagnosed with  “osteomyelitis with sequestrum”. I was there when he was told that he’d need surgery—a sequestrectomy. I remember feeling scared that I’d lose him. I remember worrying for him. I can remember being surprised as well because I had never imagined that anything, let alone a sickness, could wear him down. I waited anxiously outside the theatre during his surgery, leaving occasionally to procure the drugs that the surgeons would need. In the days following the procedure, I visited him every morning to see how he was recuperating. During these visits, we would sit for some time without saying a word to each other, until I would finally stand up and leave. After he was discharged and he went home, I called frequently to find out whether his scars were healing well. When he made a full recovery, I went back to avoiding him. One’s relationship with one’s father can be a thorny thing, love and apathy are both wound up in it. 

After medical school, I spent a few months in Abuja before moving further North to start my internship at the Federal Medical Center in Jigawa State. When I relocated, I had no idea that I had unwittingly become part of a growing number of Igbo Muslims who were migrating to the North, mostly because of the discrimination that they faced in the South. My stay in Jigawa wasn’t without some challenges. The culture was somewhat alien and I struggled to learn the language. But I will admit here that despite the hurdles, it was in Jigawa, amidst fellow Muslims, that I first experienced the depth of true friendship. I was not unaware of the insurgency raging on in other Northern states, the senseless shedding of blood. But then Jigawa was different. There was a calmness about the state. I am reminded of the verdant terrain, a soothing lush of green, on my way from Birnin Kudu to Dutse, a trip I made several times, always with some level of glee. I remember strolling down the streets of Birnin Kudu garbed in my jalabiya and the sense of ease I felt knowing no one would ogle at me. I remember the kindness of people during Ramadan, the colleagues who occasionally surprised me with dates and fried yam and fruits. In Jigawa, I made a home out of a strange land. 

I was a few months into my internship when I heard that the General Mosque at Nsukka was set ablaze. The provocation, I was told, was that an Igbo Christian had gotten into an argument with a Hausa Muslim. The Igbo Christians then felt that an appropriate response would be to attack such a vital symbol of the Muslim faith. But that mosque was not just a symbol. For years, before I left for school and then for internship, I prayed in that mosque. For years, my father prayed in that mosque. There is a sadness, and a rage, in knowing that if there had been anyone in that mosque when it was set on fire, it could have been my father. 

There is a picture of my father online, taken in the aftermath of the torching of the mosque. In this photograph he is seen standing in front of a young man with a recording device, undoubtedly a reporter, my father’s facial expression conveying the gravity of the matter. Behind him, the ruins of the mosque looms like a haunting image: the collapsed roof, the charred walls, the ashes on the ground. 

I nestled in Jigawa for about 13 months and when the time to leave came, I was crestfallen. It was when the moment of embarkation finally arrived that I realised I had become attached to the place and the people. Steeling myself though, I journeyed back home. On traversing the borders of the South, I remember feeling like a lot had changed since I left and this filled me with a sense of foreboding. I knew that there had been a spike in the number of what people called “murders by unknown assailants”. I also knew that a separatist group called the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, now exerted more influence in the region. During my trip back to Nsukka I remember having to halt at Enugu because there was a mandatory “sit-at-home”, a form of protest where people are enjoined to stay at home and not step outside for any reason. This “sit-at-home” was enforced by IPOB to protest the incarceration of their spokesman. There has been a lot of talk lately about the separation of the South from the rest of Nigeria, but what most Southerners fail to grapple with is the precarious situation this would put Igbo Muslims in. Where would we go? As Muslims, we have never been completely accepted in the South, and as Igbos, we have no place in the North. 

There is a willful ignorance amongst Igbo Christians about the plight of Igbo Muslims. Chinua Achebe’s memoir of the civil war, There Was A Country, is a great book indeed but it says nothing of the Igbo Muslims who fought as soldiers during the war, nor does it say anything about Igbo Muslims who, Egodi Uchendu tells us in her book, were forced to renounce their faith out of fear of persecution. One can easily forgive Achebe for this. We can only write the history we know. At the start of the civil war, there were only hundreds of Igbo Muslims. Today there are thousands. The fight for secession would wreak even more havoc on Igbo Muslims today than it did then. 

I have been moving around a lot since I finished my internship, succumbing to an almost itinerant existence. From the South, I moved back to the North then to the West and then back to the North again. Perhaps this is the plight of the deracinated, an endless quest to be rooted elsewhere, searching in the outside world for the solace we cannot find at home. Perhaps what I am searching for is just a place to feel grounded, to feel connected. But this place eludes me. I am writing these words now in Abuja, which is literally between the North and the South, aligning with the dilemma I feel, hemmed in between the two regions, oscillating, but never fully settling. 

I recently came across an article, published by Sahara Reporters in 2021, cataloguing the personal experiences of Igbo Muslims and the marginalisation that they faced in their homeland. When I read the responses to this article I was shaken by the hatred. One of the responses was this: “Igbos are not Muslims. The fact that this article is using Igbo and Muslim in the same sentence pisses me off.” Another person suggested that Igbo Muslims should be “gathered like logs and quarantined for nine months for re-indoctrination into the mainstream.” Sadly these comments represent the prevailing sentiments of Christians in the South when it comes to Igbo Muslims. 

In the Charles Norton Lectures which she delivered in Havard in 2016, Toni Morrison spoke about the concept of the “other”, the villainy and vitriol that are often meted out to those we consider as “strange”. When Morrison was speaking about people “not being at home in their homelands,” about “being exiled in the place where they belong,” she was talking about race, but this “othering” also applies to those who have been excluded and pilloried because of their religion. It is exasperating to always be considered an “other”, particularly in the place where one was born, the place where one grew up. It is tiring to always be required to explain your identity and to always have to deal with the disaffection that this engenders. No one understands this feeling more than the disaffected.

I discovered Egodu Uchendu’s book, Dawn For Islam in Eastern Nigeria, too late in life. Perhaps if I had read it during my younger years, it would have served as an anchorage, solidifying my place in the world, because despite its defects, it is still a book that is quite illuminating on the history of Igbo Muslims. It is a book I think about gifting my father now. It is a book I know he would have loved to read, if only to criticise its flaws. Except now my father can no longer read. Recently, I was told that his eyesight is failing, that he is almost blind.

I have thought about him over the years and what I have come to admit is that he did his best. He made sure that I had a roof over my head and that I was well-fed. He saw to it that all my school fees were paid including medical school which was no small feat. He wanted me to succeed, to aim higher than I could ever imagine. Even though it’s been years now since we last saw each other, I will forever be grateful to him. My greatest fear is that he will pass away before I’ve had the chance to make amends. 

How much time do we have left? My father is an ageing man and his failing eyesight is a complication of diabetes, a disease he has battled with for years. Even though my father had always seemed immortal to me, I am thinking of his mortality now, and I am also beginning to think of my own mortality. The Quran tells us that every soul shall taste death. Orhan Pamuk writes that “every man’s death begins with the death of his father.” Death hovers over us all like an ominous cloud. Who knows when it will come?


*Photo by Anis Coquelet on Unsplash

Nawawi Sani-Deen

Nawawi Sani-Deen is a writer from Nigeria. His work has been published in The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper and Isele Magazine.