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‘The Disturbances’

“The Disturbances” tells the story of the 1966 genocide outbreak in northern Nigeria by the Hausas against the Igbos.

An estimated 30,000 Igbos were killed over a few days in September with hundreds of thousands fleeing to their traditional homeland in eastern Nigeria.

Robert Parham was a missionary kid (MK) in Nigeria during this time. He tells this disturbing story from the perspective of his missionary parents and other missionaries serving in Nigeria during this outbreak of genocidal violence and murder.

“The Disturbances” offers one snapshot of the larger tribal conflict that would ultimately lead to the Biafran War in Nigeria from 1967-1970. Parham focuses on the missionary accounts, understandably devoting little time to the events prior to and following the disturbances of 1966.

Many readers will come away with questions and interests in learning more about the greater conflicts and tragedies surrounding this part of Nigerian history.

Parham begins by offering a brief historical context for the events of 1966 and the political, social, religious, educational and economic tensions between the Hausas and Igbos – particularly in the northern regions of Nigeria, the traditional home of the Hausas.

He recounts the arrival of missionary groups in Nigeria and their particular success in reaching the Igbos, resulting in educational opportunities that would provide economic advantages over the Hausas, one of the contributing factors to the violence.

“The Disturbances” is written as a documentary, allowing missionaries to tell their stories while Parham works to organize and order them effectively.

The testimonies and horror of events as they unfold are unimaginable. Repeatedly, these missionaries reflected on how unprepared they were, how unprepared anyone could have been as the violence and killings escalated.

Yet, they told stories of incredible courage and faith. Stories of hiding Igbos until they could safely flee, of transporting Igbos at the risk of their own lives, and of caring for the fleeing, wounded and dying at a police compound.

While the description of events is quite powerful, Parham also gives voice to the important questions asked by these missionaries during and after the “disturbances.”

As a whole missionaries worked to save lives and care for the dying, but could they have done more? Should they have done more? As guests in Nigeria, what was the moral responsibility and obligation during the violence? Should they become politically involved to bring about justice and reconciliation?

Ultimately, these missionaries determined not to speak openly on matters related to the genocide.

They did not want to risk expulsion from the country, believing their ongoing presence in Nigeria would allow them to continue to serve, comfort and even protect those in need and being oppressed.

Likewise, MKs were told not to talk about their experiences, believing that the hurt and pain would simply go away.

At the risk of their lives, these missionary families willingly stayed to be the presence of Christ, keeping silent as they understood their tenuous position as “strangers and aliens.”

Parham’s book and the DVD documentary are important historical and missiological works.

They offer a unique perspective on the complex questions surrounding missionaries as they live and work cross-culturally in places where violence, injustice and even genocide occur.

The questions these missionaries struggled with are questions that missionaries continue to struggle with today. Their answer to love, serve and risk their own lives provides a powerful witness and example.

It is lamentable that it has taken 50 years to tell this story and credit is to be given to Parham for the research and interviews conducted to uncover and allow these missionaries to unpack and tell their stories.

For many reasons, this is a story that needs to be told and quite possibly was within a few years of being lost to history.

Because of the decision not to discuss and process their experiences in a healthy manner, many missionaries and MKs have carried the scars and burdens of this horrific event for years.

As they told their stories for “The Disturbances,” you could sense healing taking place. Scars and wounds, unattended for decades, finally finding the healing salve of God’s grace.

“The Disturbances” also challenges Christians as racial, political and religious divisions and polarizations escalate in our nation and world. Genocidal acts can and do still take place.

The questions that missionaries ask in their context are the same questions that all Christians should be asking as “strangers and aliens” in this world.

Let us not forsake our prophetic voice for justice and reconciliation, nor forsake our call to love and serve those who are suffering and in need.

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Wade E. Smith is pastor of First Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma. His writings can also be found on FBC Norman’s blog. You can follow him on Twitter @PastorWadeSmith.

Editor’s note: “The Disturbances” documentary DVD is available here, and the companion book is available in paperback and e-book.