His Daughters Begged: ‘Let’s Go Back to America’

When 41-year-old Gopar Tapkida left Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in August 2001 after spending two years earning a masters degree in conflict transformation, he never envisioned the kind of welcome he would receive on his first day in his home city of Jos, Nigeria.

On September 7, 2001, Tapkida, his wife Monica, and three daughters (then ages 9, 5 and 3 months) heard gunfire outside of the guest house where they had planned to stay for a night before heading to their own home. They were quickly joined by 10 other friends and relatives. All 15 of them hid in two small rooms for six days with no food and little water as Christians and Muslims rampaged outside killing each other.

By the time the Nigerian government sent in troops to stop the killing, at least 3,000 people were dead, including three cousins of Tapkida’s wife, Monica, and the man who had printed the wedding invitations for the Tapkidas.

My daughters had no food to eat for six days. They begged me, ‘Let’s go back to America,'” said Tapkida.

“When the dust settled, Monica and I drove out and we were shocked at the destruction. In the first mile, we counted more tan 10 cars burned. There were six roadblocks. We could see smoke from houses. We couldn’t stop weeping. We were stunned.”

The more they learned about the rampage, the worse. The Christian-Muslim conflict had started in Jos, but it had spread through the whole central plateau of Nigeria and to some of the other 35 states in Nigeria. Tens of thousands had been hurt, and millions of people were at risk.

“That is the bad thing about religious conflict,” says Tapkida, who has a divinity degree from a Nigerian seminary. “It is highly contagious – it spreads like wildfire. Even when George Bush attacks Iraq, it has effects on Christian-Muslim relations in Nigeria.”

Tapkida says he had no idea what to do in the face of such widespread hatred and devastation. He had a job, being the “peace coordinator” for the Mennonite Central Committee in Nigeria. But where does one begin as the sole professional peacebuilder in a country 14 times larger than Virginia, with a population that is 18 times greater?

“I thought I would come from Virginia and hit the ground running,” said Tapkida in a recent interview while visiting friends at EMU. “Jos was where I planned to plant the seed of peace I had learned here. But every knowledge I had about peace disappeared completely. When a conflict is life threatening to you and to people you know – to your entire family – you don’t know where to begin.”

It took Tapkida four or five months to deal with the trauma of the conflict and to figure out a peacebuilding strategy. Christians and Muslims each number about 40 percent of the population in Nigeria, but both groups have access to enough arms and supporters to inflict major damage on the other.

The military, he said, were brought in and stopped the killings and then the government issued statements saying, “Normalcy has returned and everybody should go about their lives.” But as soon as the troops began to withdraw, revenge killings started again. “They (the government) were able to freeze the conflict with troops, but they weren’t able to deal with the feelings that started it in the first place,” he said.

Tapkida realized that he had to do what the government perhaps couldn’t do.

“We started with people who know us best – the Christian constituency,” he said. When Tapkida speaks, he usually says “we,” meaning himself and the relief organization that supports him. But when pressed to explain “we,” he will admit that for many months he was working entirely alone, until he was able to train volunteer helpers.

Tapkida started with visits to the seminary where he had earned his degree, the churches where he was known, and the school his daughters attend. His first task was to listen, as he had been taught at EMU.

“They were talking about self-defense. Some said these are signs of the end times. Some said ‘God is punishing us.’ Many said they were praying for their people and organizing food and shelter for those who had none.”

After listening and affirming the positive steps being taken by church and school leaders, Tapkida carefully suggested: “Have you made any effort to bring together these people? I would suggest that the psychological effects need to be addressed – they last for years – and are almost as intense as the physical ones.”

Indeed, the leaders of the Christian community had not thought about the psychological effects – Tapkida had been taught that unhealed trauma can lead to cycles of violence – and they proved receptive to his offer to lead interactive workshops on the subject.

Within a year, Tapkida was receiving more requests for workshops than he could handle. He started training the leaders of religious and service organizations, who in turn trained their followers.

Muslims began to attend five-day workshops with Christians. By the fourth day, most were extending forgiveness to those from the other religious group, despite having lost family members and livelihoods in the conflict.

Today, Tapkida teaches conflict transformation and peace theology in two seminaries, reaching about 85 future church leaders each semester. He has also formed a warm personal relationship with “a good number of Muslim leaders.” He continues to be in hot demand as an inter-faith mediator and trainer in peacebuilding for both government and non-government organizations.

“There is no longer a cycle of violence,” said Tapkida. “But the tension is still there. Our job is to continue to build trust and lay the foundations to sustain peace.”

Article originally published in Peacebuilder magazine, Summer/Fall 2005.