Arit Okpo: What Zamfara taught me [NEW VOICES]

by Arit Okpo

I did my National Youth Service in Zamfara right around the time that Sharia started in the state. Getting my call up letter threw me into a blind panic that lasted until I actually got to Zamfara and realized that it wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. On the contrary, my period there was filled with encounters and experiences that I would never have had otherwise.

I would walk from my lodge to the market where I would haggle with the sellers in Hausa, ably helped by my corper’s handbook and pleased by the surprised happiness on the faces of the people I spoke to, as they saw my efforts to learn their language. I saw caravans of camels walk majestically down the road on the weekly market days, bringing goods from far away towns and villages. I spent 8 hours in a truck on a trip to one of the farthest points in the state as part of an outreach program and I got to engage with people who were as curious about me as I was about them. One day, in the middle of harmattan, my co-corpers and I climbed up a little hill for a time of laughing, singing and playing. Some of us leased farmlands and planted cotton, another corper bought a cow. It was a beautiful time and one that I am always grateful I didn’t reject.

It’s been a few years (12 to be precise), and those memories had somewhat faded until a chance conversation only last week. I was talking with someone at an event and the conversation turned to the fact that more and more, people are focusing on the things that separate them, instead of the things that unify them. We talked about the lack of trust that seems to be growing almost everywhere we look – race relations in the United States, discrimination based on colour in Brazil, xenophobia in South Africa and tribal and religious suspicions in Nigeria.

These days, barely a week goes by without a Whatsapp message from someone or the other, decrying either a religion or a tribe. On Twitter, I am guaranteed to read at least one post per day on a racist encounter. It seems that the things that divide us are increasingly more visible that those that unify.

Sometime recently, I came across a story from a Northerner who faced a bad experience from her Eastern employer, the majority of responses went along the lines of “it serves you right/that’s how we are treated in the North/now you all know how it feels” It broke my heart because Zamfara taught me about another culture and way of life and these people who were so quick to be cruel had either not experienced what I had experienced, or had not given themselves a chance to.

I understand that we cannot all come together in a big circle, sing Kumbaya and wish our differences gone, but I do wonder how things have degenerated to the point where they now are.

In the United States, black people are becoming more vocal about the changes that they expect to see. At the same time, crimes against black people are increasing, hate speech is on the rise and tensions seem to simmer just under the surface.

In Cameroon, Anglophone citizens are complaining about being marginalised and undermined by Francophone Cameroon. The feedback from that is an internet shutdown and more and more reported deaths.

In Nigeria, hate speech is becoming more and more prevalent, especially in online spaces.

My time in Zamfara was filled with beautiful memories that coloured my perceptions and opened my eyes. I learned, and in learning, I grew. As unrealistic as it might be, I honestly wish there was a circle big enough and a song powerful enough to give everyone the same heart opening experience that I received.

Arit is a highly versatile Content Producer, Presenter, Writer and Speaker. She currently produces and presents The Crunch, the flagship news show for the Ebonylife TV platform, where she discusses and analyses current affairs issues and stories. Arit has also presented travel show Destinations Africa; politics show Naija Politics and cooking show Chefrican, also on the Ebonylife TV platform. She is passionate about telling the African story from a positive and powerful perspective


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