The first time I left home, I was 11 and headed to boarding school. I remember feeling like I was going to prison and that my family didn’t love me anymore.
It took one day amongst other children in the same situation as me to shake that feeling. Since then, I have embraced new surroundings and places. But nothing prepared me for Zaria.
The ancient city of Zaria is famous for its brave Queen Amina who led men into battle to save her people at a time when women were not regarded as equal to men. History has it that she is one of the greatest female warriors of all time. But things have changed since the time of Queen Amina and heroes are now few and far between.
I come from a country that is divided along the lines of religion, ethnicity and countless other boundaries that we ourselves do not know. It was one thing for me to leave home at age 11 for high school in the South which is inhabited by people with whom I shared a similar language, religion and culture. It was another thing altogether to head for a university in the North where the people had little or nothing in common with me.
Still it was a time of excitement for me. Getting into one of the best universities in the country was a big deal. Heading into the ‘wild, wild North’ was even scarier, especially for my family who worried about my going into the unknown.
My first year at university passed without incident. One night during my second year, religious riots broke out all over the Northern region of Nigeria. The hardest hit city was less than 45 minutes away from Zaria. I remember that night like it was yesterday. I can still remember vividly, the fear that lingered on campus as we sought shelter in groups. But something even more amazing happened that night that changed my life forever.
In order to keep their fellow students safe, young men from different tribes and religions stood guard and watched the gates of the school all night long. Among them were men I went to class with but hardly talked to because I didn’t understand their strange accents. I caught glimpses of boys I had previously avoided because they answered the Friday call to prayer while my day of worship was Sundays. In those moments we were human beings; scared but brave young people, not Christian, not Muslim, not Yoruba, not Hausa. We each were our brother’s keeper and all the prejudice I had ever harbored against the people of the Northern part of my country disappeared with the darkness of that night as dawn approached.
I have never been more proud to be a member of the human race than I was that night. I have never been more proud to be Nigerian.
It has been eight years since that incident and I and my country have come a long way since then. The lines that separate my people are still evident for all to see but for me, it is easier to see past them. I believe in Nigeria because of that night. I believe in the goodness of others because one night, a Muslim boy, barely 17 years of age, watched while I slept.
People ask me all the time if I think there is hope for my country with all the daunting problems it faces; from corruption to religious intolerance. Over the years, it has gotten harder to say ‘Yes’ but that answer has not changed. Those teenagers and young adults that were ready to give up their lives for each other on that cold night in Zaria are just about ready to take over the country. We are at the age when we can lead our country from the brink it forever seems to be teetering on. I strongly believe that when the baton of leadership is handed on to us, we will be the ones to close the gulfs of intolerance and prejudice that have kept us behind for too long.
Damilola Ashaolu is one of ten finalists for the International Student Voice Magazine scholarship sponsored by International Student Protection. She is from Nigeria studying for an M.B.A. at The College of William and Mary.