• International of the Month: Mustapha from Nigeria

    ‘Here you can be, who you want to be’

    Christians and Muslims coexisted peacefully in Nigeria when Mustapha was a child – but now? ‘The conflict in my country makes me reconsider religion. I’m experiencing a crisis of faith.’

    ‘If jihad broke out in Nigeria, would I kill my mother?’ Master’s student of Nanoscience Mustapha Abde-Aguye (26) uses this rhetorical question to counter criticism by his Christian friends. ‘Is this what Islam teaches you?’ They refer to churches blown up by Boko Haram, a militant organization fighting for an Islamic state in North-East Nigeria. Mustapha was born to a Christian mother and a Muslim father – in his eyes an example that this is not a sectarian conflict.

    But Mustapha has no answer as to why churches are being demolished, even though he’d very much like to have one. Muslims and Christians are virtually equally divided, both geographically (North and South) and demographically (50.5 % Islamic, 48 % Christians). An estimated 3,600 Nigerians have been killed since 2009 in attacks mostly targeting Christian institutions. However, most of those killed have been Muslims.

    ‘How can I explain why a human being kills other human beings? The conflict in my country makes me reconsider religion. I’m experiencing a crisis of faith. This is not what I thought Islam was about. It is quite depressing.’

    Conspiracy theory

    For Mustapha, the conflict is about politics rather than religion. ‘I am angry, worried and ashamed, and I don’t have answers, because everything I say will sound like a conspiracy theory’, Mustapha says calmly. ‘But it makes me think. Muslims and Christians have always coexisted peacefully in Nigeria, and nothing has changed in that relationship. The only thing that has changed is the political landscape. But I am scientist, not a conspiracy theorist.’

    ‘I am angry, worried and ashamed, and I don’t have answers’

    It was nanoscience – the study of the fundamental and functional properties of matter on the nanoscale – that brought Mustapha to Groningen. At the time he applied, he was already working on his PhD in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, but a friend convinced him to try Groningen. A three-day visit to – and paid by – the University of Groningen made him fall in love with both the city and the Master of Science (MSc) in Nanoscience. Mustapha decided to leave Nigeria for the Netherlands.

    Here in Groningen, Mustapha is particularly interested in adaptive material science. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have clothes that repaired themselves?’ Ultimately, he would like to return to Zaria, his home town, to teach physics – which isn’t a strange dream, considering his roots.

    Talking to people

    Mustapha grew up on the campus of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Africa’s second largest institute of higher education after Cairo University, because his father used to be Professor of Medicine there. His choice of physics was quite special. Nigerian education is focused on teaching rather than research, so practical studies such as Engineering, Law and Medicine flourish, while research-focused studies are scarce. After obtaining his Bachelor of Science in Physics, Mustapha moved to Abuja to start his MSc in Theoretical Physics.

    He’s had a steady academic career, but there’s one thing Mustapha likes more than science: talking to people. He even wants to write a book about his conversations in a poetic format. The most profound piece of knowledge he has unearthed so far in Groningen? A conversation on the dance floor.

    ‘I feel happier here because of the kindness of the Dutch’

    ‘Tango is a traditional male-female dance, so your task as a dancer is well-defined: you are either a leader, which is the male’s typical role, or a follower, which is the female’s typical role’, Mustapha explains while browsing through his notebook. ‘The tango community in Groningen is quite small, so the balance between leaders and followers is often tricky. For that reason, I asked a dance partner whether she had ever thought of training as a leader. Her reply was very profound: in my life, she said, I do everything myself, but on the dance floor I just want to follow.’

    How did Mustapha get involved with tango dancing and writing? He believes we’re often too scared to try new things. ‘What if I can’t write? What if I can’t dance? It is easy to think that and then just stick to Physics because I’m good at it. As a result, though, the things I like would then suffer. So I started taking classes in Argentinian tango, because every African already dances hip-hop since we’re good at it.’

    Many possibilities

    He is extremely happy with all the opportunities Groningen has to offer. ‘You have so many possibilities to do things. If I feel like I want to do photography, writing or fashion design, I just look around and there is someone or something that I can visit or do. You have the opportunity to be who you want to be.’

    Nigeria is no longer The Lion of Africa, as it is often called. The West African country has lots of land, a massive population – Africa’s largest – and plenty of natural resources. Nigeria used to export products like cocoa and pack oil, Mustapha explains, but nowadays even the crude oil is not refined domestically. ‘If Shell wasn’t there, we’d most probably be screwed. The Government is not doing a good job.’

    Corruption and nepotism – among other issues – are preventing the country from developing. It’s not simply the curse of oil. ‘It is easy to blame large multinational companies, but the Nigerians themselves limit Nigerian development too. We are suspicious of each other at home, but when we go abroad and meet up, we love each other.’

    Variety of people

    ‘We should celebrate the diversity a lot more’

    Recently, Mustapha attended a welcoming ceremony for international students. South Africans, Romanians, Nigerians and Venezuelans, among others, were there – and that, Mustapha feels, is very special.

    During the first sixteen years of his life he hardly had any contact with non-Nigerians or even other ethnic groups within his country. However, the sheer fact that such a variety of people exists should make us want to celebrate, he believes – not only in Nigeria, but also in Groningen.

    ‘Sometimes I am enthusiastic and think that we will. However, on other days I think when will this happen? We should celebrate the diversity a lot more. The fact that we don’t makes me sad.’