“Good morning, Sue,” Hamsatu says, shuffling into my San Diego kitchen the day after the 2016 presidential election.
I’d invited “my PeaceMaker” to have a home-cooked dinner with me and my husband after we went to the polls. The plan was that the three of us would watch the returns from the family room couch and celebrate the election of the first woman president of the United States. In the morning, I’d drive Hamsatu back to the campus of the University of San Diego.
But things didn’t work out quite as planned. Hamsatu, an early riser, said goodnight before all the results were in. When she headed down the hall to the guestroom, the tally of electoral votes had Trump with a slim lead, but key battleground states were still too close to call. Whether she stayed up and stressed out with us or not, Hamsatu reasoned, the outcome would be what it would be.
“So, Hillary won? Yes?” she says.
I look up from the fruit I’m slicing for breakfast smoothies, slowly shake my head, and see Hamsatu’s expression melt to match my own. We stare at each other glumly.
Hamsatu, like me, is at a loss for words. But the motherly hug she soon enfolds me in says, “I know. I know.” And if anyone knows what it feels like to be afraid for the future of one’s country, it’s Hamsatu Allamin.
Over the course of the Women PeaceMakers’ residency, we spent a lot of interview time talking about the peacebuilding initiatives Hamsatu had played a lead role in and planned to continue. In the main dining room of the PeaceMakers’ campus residence, I’d turn on my little digital recorder, place it on the table, then listen and take notes as Hamsatu talked about what she’d accomplished so far and what she still hoped to do.
High on her list was the establishment of a narrative to counter the current one that says Western education is at odds with the precepts of Islam. Back in Maiduguri working with the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership, in partnership with Jama’tu Nasril Islam and the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria, she’d produced a 15-week radio show that featured noted Islamic scholars — women as well as men — shedding light on what the Quran and the Prophet say about things like tolerance, forgiveness, and the importance of universal education. Other topics discussed on-air included Islam’s perspective on promoting peace, with respected scholars showing how true Islam espouses non-violence and doesn’t teach Muslims to kill innocent people in the name of politics or religion. Funding for the project came from DFID.
“My idea was for people to get these knowledge-based messages from those who are well-versed in the Quran,” Hamsatu told me. Radio, she said, was an effective medium in her area of Nigeria, and the station the show aired on reached all the way to Niger.
“Everyone listens to the radio. It’s very common. Even the cattle rancher in the bush, you will see him holding a transistor radio. And for women who don’t get out of the house much, it’s their friend.”
Because of the popularity of the 15-week program, Hamsatu told me she has plans to look for ways to expand and enhance it when she gets back to Nigeria.
I also learned of the educational manual she helped create, working with the same partners and funding as the radio programs. Prior to publication, the manual’s approach and content — based largely on the topics covered on the air — received approval from scholars and representatives of many Islamic schools, as well as the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. Designed as a tool for peacebuilding, conflict analysis, and conflict resolution in Muslim communities, it will be used, initially, by teachers and students in Islamic schools. Copies — 2,000 so far — have been printed, but implementation awaits. Hamsatu has said she envisions developing a short training program for the project soon after she returns to Maiduguri.
Another cause close to her heart is one she refers to as “the realignment of social norms.” In Kawar Maila, for instance, the cycle of violence and retribution, killing and more killing, had unraveled the very fabric of that society — close to completely. Cabbies refused to drive there. Security forces wrote the place off. Social services all but stopped. The community’s links to Boko Haram turned all who lived there into pariahs, sometimes even to each other.
Enter Hamsatu. She reached out to what was left of the community. Set up meetings. Got people talking with one another again. Reminded them of the values they all shared as Kanuri and as Muslims. Working with a small grant, she also helped parents get their children back in school. And thanks to a philanthropist, even managed to supply the kids with uniforms and new backpacks.
Hamsatu admitted that the funding she had to work with wasn’t much. “But in this context,” she said, “no intervention is too small.” And then, giving me a glimpse of her work to come in communities like Kawar Maila, said, “We are just beginning.”
Now we sit in the breakfast nook, talking of billionaire Donald J. Trump, a man who said he’d issue a ban on all Muslims, build a wall to keep out Mexicans, and deport millions. A guy who bragged about sexual assault. Like all the pollsters, neither of us expected him to become the 45th president of the United States.
Hamsatu asks about the electoral college. I try to explain how someone can win the popular vote and still lose the election.
“I don’t understand,” she shrugs. And I have to admit, neither do I.
“Whatever situation we’re in, we must take it as a trial from God,” Hamsatu tells me. She doesn’t glibly say, “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be OK.” She’s far too wise for that. And her wisdom has been hard won. I think about all she and her country and her people have endured. How sometimes after sharing with me a particularly difficult story driven by people divided by hate, she’d sadly add, “It’s terrible, Sue. Terrible.”
And yet — and yet — she hasn’t given up or given in. In a few days, she’ll pack her suitcase, tuck her ever-present diary into her carry-on, and fly back to Nigeria. She’ll continue talking with all parties in the conflict there, including the boys of Boko Haram. She’ll advocate for victims and the vulnerable. She’ll seek and speak the truth — even if it gets her in trouble. Even, she says, if someday it costs her her life.
“Peacebuilding is a process,” she’s told me many times. Now she reminds me, “We just do what we can do, Sue.” And if there’s a lesson in Hamsatu’s life, it’s that if hope is to prevail, we must.
Section title photo: Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice