Reminiscences With Rev. Fr. Raymond Hickey
Father Raymond Hickey was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1936 and ordained a Catholic priest in February 1960. He came to Nigeria in October 1960, as a Catholic missionary and served in Borno and Yobe states for 28 years. The 82-year-old Reverend Father speaks Hausa fluently and says he is both Nigerian and Irish. He watched Nigeria transform from independence through military coups and civil war, to the years of military dictatorship and now democracy. Fr. Raymond has lived among the people of Zaladava of Pulka, the Karekare, Ngezim and Ngamo of Fika division, the Kanakuru and Bura of Shani. He also served in Bekaji, Jimeta/Yola, as well as Jos, Lagos and Mararabar Ngurku, outside Abuja. He is currently a priest of the Jos Diocese.
What motivated you into becoming a priest and why did you come to Nigeria?
That is a very personal question. It was a fundamental decision, just like the person you would agree to marry. It is a commitment to which one is bound to God and something that needs preparation, prayer and absolute conviction that this is the right thing in the eyes of God. It is something that one wishes to use one’s life to do what is right, or use one’s ability to serve God, our neighbours and others.
As far back as I can remember as a boy, I wanted to be a Catholic priest. I saw priests and their lives, which urged me on. At that time, my country, Ireland, was a very Christian country. When I was growing up, there was a great commitment to the missionary apostolate, and I wanted to bring to others, what was the most important thing in my life. I wished to share that conviction and faith with others.
I never had any doubt, and I was helped by my family, the school I attended, the priests I knew and by missionaries who returned from Africa. In the Catholic Church, there are different brotherhoods in a way similar to the Tijjaniyya and Qadriyya families of a certain tradition.
Again, the founders of these brotherhoods in Islam, for us, are those who founded the family of St. Francis of Assisi; Franciscan order, St. Dominic of Spain; Dominican order, the Society of Jesus; the Jesuits and my own particular family, the Spirituality of St. Augustine of Hippo in North Africa. That was the family I had an uncle who was a priest and had worked as a missionary in North Queensland, Australia.
It was my wish to become a priest and missionary because the Province of Adamawa was confided to the Irish Augustinian of St. Augustine family. Our first missionaries came to Yola, Jimeta, Sugu, in Chamba-land in 1940. In 1953 they were asked to extend their work to Borno Province as it was called.
I arrived here in October 1960. I was ordained priest in Rome earlier that year. I came out first to Yola, where our superior was in Bishop Street in Jimeta, St. Theresa Cathedral and I was sent off to Maiduguri, a rather new place. That was where I spent 28 years. I lived in the centre of Maiduguri, near the Federal Secretariat by the right and St. Patrick Cathedral on the left. All the Catholics there were migrants from southern Nigeria. There was no indigenous Catholic in Borno Province at that time.
I had to learn the Hausa language because we used it, not Kanuri, to communicate. The people of Kanuri were 100 per cent Muslims; secondly, Hausa was stronger and a widely spread indigenous language.
How long did it take you to learn Hausa language?
It was difficult in Maiduguri. I learnt the language in the course of my work and by friendship with other priests senior to me. I spent three and half years and took a six-month holiday, I went home in March 1964. When I returned, I was posted to a new place near the borders of Cameroon, called Pulka. It was part of the former United Nations Northern Cameroon Trust territories, which later became Sardauna Province. I was there for the UN plebiscite, by which a majority of the people in Northern Cameroon voted to join Nigeria. So I went down to Pulka, and there was only one other Catholic in the whole area, a catechist with me, nobody else. And a priest goes down to mix with the people, know the people, love the people, help the people and to pray. A priest also tries, as a human being, to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ (Yesu Almasihu) and pass on his message as we have in the New Testament (Linjila).
I had the privilege to baptise the first three indigenous Catholics, who were not from Borno State. Some people from Karekare in Potiskum had been baptised in 1962 but were christened in 1964. One out of the first three, Peter Zadva, went on to become a member of the House of Assembly of the North-East State, He is still alive up there in Borno. We met last year. Their language was Mandara, not Hausa, so I had to learn a little Mandara. I was also teaching in Hausa. It was a case of the blind leading the blind, if you like. Mandara is a very strong indigenous language in Cameroon, as well as Mora and Bama. I spent some time there, and all the time, we were on the fringes because we were told from the beginning to respect the Kanuri people because they had been Muslims for 900 years and had a very rich tradition and history. So I had good friends but we never went out to evangelise. There was respect and I was respected too as it happens in true religion. I had good friends up there, such as Shetimma, Kashim Ibrahim and a very young Ali Mongunu. I learnt a great deal.
I must say there was never tension, and I found that all over. But where I worked was always on the fringes among the non Muslim people like the Karekare of Fika and the Ngizimawa of Ngamo; then I worked in Shani and Buma, among the Kanukuru and the Bura of that area.
Did you have any knowledge of Nigeria before coming in 1960?
I learnt as much as I could before coming. I came at the age of 24, and now, I am 82. I remember buying a book, a paperback: the Giant of Africa by Sam Ebele. It was written for Independence in 1960. There were very fine books available, written usually by colonial officers who worked and served here, especially Michael Crowder: the Story of Nigeria and the Historian; and Anthony Kirk Green, who died this year.
We have to know a people to appreciate their culture and respect it. And for a Christian missionary to have the conviction, this is something the gospel of Jesus Christ, which passes on lasting values to a society and which those who have received the gift of faith as Christians, would wish to share with others, but always with respect for their identity and background.
There was a lot of euphoria in 1960 when you arrived Nigeria, but it was followed by coups and the civil war, how did you feel when all these things were happening?
I watched the Biafra-Nigeria war with great sadness because there were much potentials and hope at independence. The hope turned to a huge sadness as ‘things fell apart,’ Chinwa Achebe was quoting from an Irish author, Willam Butler Yeats, when he wrote “Things Fall Apart,’’ talking about the Irish situation, its Independence from Britain. Things fell apart, and the next words were, ‘the centre cannot hold.’ So Nigeria was falling apart, it was a weak federation.
There were only three regions when I arrived, but each region had a great deal of autonomy. Each region had a premier; its own education and laws were different. It had its own courts and legal system. The North had the Sharia courts, so it was a very weak federation. The massacre of the Igbo in the North following a decree which abolished the federation and declared Nigeria a unitary state was a great mistake, Nigeria can never be a unitary state; it is too diverse, too big and different. It has to be an agreed
federation. It was Aguiyi Ironsi’s great mistake.
Nigeria could have settled down after the 1966 coup because military governors in the four regions, including the new MidWest, had been accepted and trust was returning. There could have been an orderly return to democracy. The counter-coup, the pogrom of the Igbo in the North and the tragedy of civil war could have been avoided if the federal structure of Nigeria was maintained.
The lesson for today is clear. The balance between the regions, now 36 states, and the six accepted non-political zones, is essential for a stable Nigeria, held together more by economic selfinterest than a ‘national identity.’ Look at other African countries: Look at what happened after the federal structure of Cameroon and of Ethiopia-Eritrea, was abolished. Fragmentation is no solution either. Look at South Sudan today. Federation with Sudan was the answer, as John Garang wanted.
Where were you during the first coup?
I was in Borno, among the Karekare in Potiskum carrying out my work. I learnt about the coup on the radio. I listened to the Nigerian radio and the BBC world service. The newspaper then was the Daily Times; a Federal Government-owned daily. In the North, there was a weekly newspaper in Hausa language - Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo; and for English, there was the Nigerian Citizen. And just before the first coup, the New Nigerian came. Charles Sharp was the man who started it in Kaduna for the Northern Region, and within a week or two, the coup took place.
I have been in every state in Nigeria. In fact, I am more Nigerian than you, unless you are more than 58 years old.
The church played a vital role during the civil war, were you involved?
I presume you are talking of the role of the Caritas, a Latin word for charity. It is an international body that helps in situations of wars. Today, Caritas would be in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. They were flying in relief supplies to Biafra. It was controversial at that time, but people understood that the Catholic Church was international. It does not lean to any country, tribe or group. Wherever there is distress, human dignity demands that we help those who are troubled.
You have spent almost 60 years in Nigeria, which of the cultures in the country has fascinated you?
There are so many different cultures in Nigeria. And it is not as if it is a single people forming a nation with the same background; there are so many groups coming together and they have to work at living together. The principle is that when you are in Rome you do as the Romans do, so as a Catholic you try to integrate as far as you can. It is the same for a Nigerian who has lived in England for about 60 years his family will become English. So I am a Nigerian, shi ke nan.
Are you saying you feel more Nigerian than Irish? I think I am equally at home and happy with either. How often do you visit Ireland?
I go home every year and spend six weeks. I stay with my younger sister. I am a priest, so I am not married. And my parents, may God bless them, went to God after they were married for 58 years. I thank God that I came from a good and stable family. I have an elder brother who has been very ill for some years and is permanent in a nursing home. I also stay with my fellow priests of the Augustinian family.
Is there any similarity between the Irish culture and that of Nigeria?
We are all human beings, and human nature is the same. So you will find the same weaknesses of human nature. We believe in sin from the very beginning from our first parents - Adamu and Hauwa. There isn’t that much difference.
How would you say the
church has evolved in Nigeria, especially with the rise of Pentecostalism?
The rise of sects is a huge problem; it has destroyed a great deal of trust. I remember when one of the sects invited a German evangelist, Reinhard Bonke to go to Kano to conduct a crusade. There was nothing more provocative or destructive of trust between Christians and Muslims as that. They even wanted to convert Catholics.
In the Middle East, trust has been destroyed between the ancient Christian communities and the stronger Muslim presence in Iraq and Syria. Extremism is destructive. An ill advised and overzealous or fanatical Christian or Muslim can destroy what has been built over the years in 24 hours. It was not so in the past, but I am still hopeful.
How do you think we can fix this?
We can fix this by each person doing their best, such as a newspaper like yours. For example, Daily Trust on Sunday can take a moderate, responsible editorial line as much as possible. But you will always find some extremism, though by very few, but they can do a huge amount of harm.
What’s your best food?
Everything, but I don’t like sweet things. I like savoury bitter things like kunun tsamiya and tuwon dawa with miyan ganyen yakuwa, not taushe but yakuwa,
An ill advised and overzealous or fanatical Christian or Muslim can destroy what has been built over the years in 24 hours. It was not so in the past, but I am still hopeful.
akwai tsami . But now, it is easier to buy semovita in the market, or pounded yam. I also like talia, which is also known as pasta.
What do you do in your spare time?
I used to be very active, especially in lawn tennis. I played lawn tennis until last year. In fact, even though I was 81 then, I continued to keep myself fit. But it is wise to give it up and I have given it up. I was into swimming, which I loved. I also played a bit of golf when I was in Abuja for some years. I am not strong enough for football or rugby, or anything like that. I did that at school, but I don’t have the physique for that. You can imagine; rugby? I would be buried; shi ke nan.
Which part of Nigeria gives you the fondest memories?
Absolutely, it was at the beginning in Borno and Yobe. I told you about Pulka and the early days, and the baptism. I still have great contacts among the Karekare. I meet people and they tell me: “You baptised my father or mother,’’ My name up there was Ali Garga. I have good memories of Potiskum, with the old Emir of Fika who had been emir before the British came. I think he was born in 1888 and he was Emir of Fika until 1970. He was very friendly.
Why did they name you Ali Garga?
Ki tambaye su (You have to ask them). The people in Potiskum gave me the name while others called me Kurege (squirrel). For Kurege, as far as I know, it was the Sarkin Fika, the Ajiya of Nengere. Ajiya is a Kanuri word for district head, Hakimi in Hausa, Ajiya in Barbarci and Ardo in Fulfulde.
How many languages do you speak?
We concentrated on Hausa, so I was never fluent in another Nigerian language. But when you go to a people you have to respect them. So I would learn about 100 words of Kakekarence, Mandara, Bura. But I understand Italian and French also; shi ke nan.
How many states have you visited in Nigeria?
I have visited all the 36 states. Ni dan Arewa ne (I’m a northerner), so I have lived mostly in Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and Plateau. I also spent seven years in Lagos, helping out at the office of the Jakada Paparoma Nigeria.
Having lived and worked most of your life in the NorthEast, how do you feel about the menace of Boko Haram and the number of killings in that region?
It is terribly sad, especially as the tradition there was always moderate Islam. Usman Dan Fodio thought the Kanuri were heretics, so he went to conquer Borno. The Emir of Missau had a flag to establish his kingdom in Damaturu, but they drove him out, so he established it in Missau. The Kanuri were always very welcoming; they never practised purdah, so their women dressed moderately but elegantly in their flowing gowns. That’s their culture.
Relevant authorities must do their best to stop the terrorism.
Fr. Raymond Hickey
Fr. Raymond, somewhere around Borno
Fr. Raymond Hickey, with some of his students during the early days in the North East