What I Learned from the Yoruba

By Patrick J Ryan, S.J.

Leaving Africa and returning to New York has not been entirely easy. I first went to Nigeria as a regent in 1964 and have spent 26 years since then in Africa. I have engaged in several apostolates over those years: high school teaching, university teaching and chaplaincy, service as Socius. Most recently I have been the president of our coeducational boarding high school in Nigeria (1999-2005). But beyond whatever work I was able to do, I learned a great deal in Africa, especially from the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, Muslim and Christian.

I came to Nigeria with a Masterís degree in English, but after one year of regency I realized that Islam was going to be a major factor in the future of Nigeria and the future of Africa. What I came to realize only much later on was that Islam was also going to play an enormous role in the future of the entire world.

While I was studying theology at Woodstock in preparation for ordination, my mind was always on Africa and I began to take an interest not only in Islam as a future topic for graduate studies but also in the complex historical and cultural development of Africa. I supplemented my courses in theology at Woodstock with courses in anthropology and political science at Catholic University and at Columbia. After ordination, I pursued a doctoral program in the comparative history of religion with a stress on Islam and Arabic at Harvard. I then taught comparative religion with an emphasis on Islam for nine years at the University of Ghana.

At the invitation of the New York provincial, I returned for the first time to New York and Fordham University in 1983. I was fitted, somewhat uncomfortably at first, into a fledgling program in Middle East Studies. Although I knew Arabic from my graduate studies, I was more specialized in the study of Islam in Africa and its interaction with traditional forms of faith and Christianity. My first year of teaching at Fordham reminded me very much of my first year of graduate studies: I had a lot of catching up to do.

I have never regretted moving into the study of the Middle East. In the 1980s, theology departments had little or no interest in Islam. Then came September 11 and suddenly a degree in Islamic studies became a hot ticket.

For me, however, the Islamic world first began to take hold of my imagination in a more friendly setting, among the Yoruba. Most of the students at the school where I did my regency (not a Jesuit institution) were Yoruba Christians, but a few were Muslims. About half of the 20 million Yoruba today are Muslim and half are Christian. In most Yoruba families, there are Muslim and Christian members, and all of them get along quite well because of the Yoruba cultural disposition to solve differences of orientation by amicable compromise. So intrigued was I by the Yoruba that I eventually wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Muslim Yoruba and their participation in both the Islamic and the Yoruba traditions.

I learned something from the Yoruba that I think the rest of the believing world, Muslim and Christian, needs to understand. It could be summed up by the old Latin adage: primum est vivere, the first thing to value is living. The Yoruba Muslims and Christians, despite some efforts by a handful of fanatics on both sides in recent years, have learned not only to tolerate each other but even to join in each otherís moments of sorrow and moments of conviviality. Weddings and funerals, baptisms and naming ceremonies, Christmas and Easter, ĎId al-fitr and ĎId al-kabir find everyone in a festive mood in Yoruba cities and villages.

I often think that the wider Muslim world and the wider Christian world could learn something valuable from the Yoruba. In the United States, where I find today so much hatred of Muslims and their faith, I think we need to learn to live together as the Yoruba, Christian and Muslim do. We need to share each otherís celebrations, to share each otherís sorrows, to share each otherís ceremonies of the life cycle.

I am joining the Muslim Studentsí Association here at Fordham University this year in one day of Ramadan fasting in solidarity with the suffering people of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the wake of the recent earthquake. I will also share with them in the iftar, the breaking of the fast, at the end of that day. The more we share each otherís joys and sorrows, the less likely we are to give into the hatred that surrounds us.

Ryan (NYK) is vice president for university mission and ministry at Fordham University. He has spent 26 years in Africa.

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