“What Should Your Father’s Funeral Have Been Like?”
Lifting the burdens of children's trauma in Nigeria
In this article, we meet Martina, one of a group of children participating in the Open Doors Trauma Healing Program in northern Nigeria. Throughout all of 2000, Christians in this African country (#12 on the Worldwide Watch List #WWL) have been subjected to riots and violence (many of which are considered massacres) targeting Christians. In 2004, during the Yelwa massacre, an estimated 250 people (mainly Christians) were killed.
While the other children in the classroom drew, Martina began silently folding a blank piece of paper to form a box, a symbolic coffin.
On one side of the box, she wrote her father’s name. Martina’s box was a makeshift coffin for her father–her attempt to give him the burial he never had.
In this Trauma Healing Program, all the children had been asked to draw something that worried or scared them, but the tragic creativity of Martina’s project captured the attention of caregivers with Open Doors. In talking with Martina, they learned the all-too-common story of her father’s death.
Dumped Into Unmarked Mass Graves
Martina’s dad was a Christian and a policeman serving in Nigeria’s Kano State during the 2004 riots. Gangs of younger men swept through the area killing anyone suspected of being a Christian. The casualties of this brutal assault were so high, and the government so quick to move past it, that bodies were dumped into unmarked mass graves.
Nigerian culture dictates that when the husband dies, the extended family should look after the widow and children, but this tradition is often ignored. When Martina’s father died, his Muslim family wanted nothing to do with her, her two older siblings or her mother. Martina’s mother had to fend for herself and her three children. It’s not easy for a poor widow to manage a household alone, especially when this includes coming up with school fees for her children.
“She was the one to feed us, pay the school fees, everything,” Martina remembers, her eyes welling with tears, her voice trembling. “My daddy’s brother didn’t even care about us.”
“I used to ask God to give me a father.”
She breaks down, covering her face, crying. Any connection to her father, even his family, has been erased from her life because of their faith in Jesus.
“I was two months old when my daddy died. I have never really known him. But I have missed him so very much. Since I have grown up, I’ve wished I could have gone to the burial. I’ve wished that I could have seen and known him. I’ve wished to know the exact place of the grave where they buried him.
“I used to think about my dad. Sometimes I asked my mom to take me to the place where he was killed. She would bring me there, but I never stopped thinking about him. When I went to school and heard my friends talking about their daddies, I used to ask God to give me a father.”
The Open Doors caregivers asked Martina to draw a specific scene.
“What should your father’s funeral have been like?” they asked Martina.
Her drawing was simple: her two sisters, her mom and Martina, two months old and strapped to her mother’s back–all holding flowers and staring at a coffin with her father’s name on it.
Mr. Joseph M. Agdo—printed in precisely spaced, carefully crafted letters.
The details are sparse but meaningful: Martina’s drawing gives her father the funeral he deserved–one where his life, death and the family left behind matter.
“Martina was able to get to the point where she could bury her father in her own way,” said Patience,* one of the caregivers who worked with Martina. “In her mind, that was what was preventing her from really believing that her father was dead. She had to bring out that expression from her mind and unload the burden she had been carrying for a long time. After that, she felt very relieved. She finally accepted the death of her father.”
“Since the first day I came here for the Trauma Healing Program, I felt at rest,” Martina said. “I felt normal. I felt the heavy load lifted from my heart.”
Stories like Martina’s are why Open Doors is building a trauma center in northern Nigeria. The center will have offices, a conference hall for trauma sessions, sleeping quarters for men and women, a kitchen and a dining hall. Outside, there is more than enough room where guests can play games that will help children and adults work through the traumas they’ve endured and find the healing and rest that Jesus offers.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Open Doors USA’s Presence magazine. Click here to download a PDF of the issue.