AFRICA: War and car insurance are God's business

by - 4th April 2012

Eliza Griswold

You cannot know the real causes of conflict until you throw away your preconceptions and narrate the stories you hear as they are.

That was the message to journalists from award-winning author and poet Eliza Griswold for whom getting the story meant a journey of nine thousand miles from West Africa to Southeast Asia along the tenth parallel, seven hundred miles north of the equator.

Griswold spoke at London’s Frontline Club (28 March) about the fault line where Christianity and Islam meet in this region.  While there is interfaith conflict in many regions, the two religions have a history of coexistence, while what is massively underreported is the conflict within religions themselves, she said.

Her book, The Tenth Parallel, published in 2010, was inspired by the existence of this place where Islam and Christianity have lived together.

She travelled for seven years, from Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, reporting about religious coexistence and conflict, crises of identity and economy, sectarian trouble and militancy.

‘I wanted to go where such lives are actually led, where wars in the name of religion are not internet media campaigns to control a global narrative, but actually wars fought from village to village, street to street, corner to corner,’ Griswold writes.

She wanted to deconstruct the oversimplified notion of a clash of civilisations, to see what conflict and coexistence looks like on the ground, and understand what causes both.

‘Conflict is not caused by religion, but by power and the many identities foisted upon people in this region’, she explained after her talk at the media’s favourite watering hole in London’s Paddington.

She told Lapido: ‘When people choose to define themselves against one another, competition can lead to violence before you know it. Hate speech, remarks about ethnicity or religious beliefs can lead to actual physical violence faster than you can imagine.’

As the daughter of Frank Griswold, the 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, she grew up in a house where faith was taken seriously, and learned to take people of all faiths seriously.

People rely on faith in economic ways she explained, which is difficult for many in the West to understand, especially editors who say time and again that the issues of trade or security for instance are not linked to religion.

‘Where there is no insurance policy they believe God is their insurer, who am I to say what they believe is irrelevant?’

Griswold found an advantage in being a Western woman who dressed modestly in that it caused people to open up.  Even in dangerous situations, her gender was an advantage.

‘For instance, if somebody stopped your car, they would look in and be surprised there’s a woman in the back seat and that would give you a few seconds to speed away. It is also expensive to kidnap a woman; she needs her own room, and you need a woman to look after her.’

Griswold read out two poems, one dedicated to Seamus Murphy, a photographer she worked with who was attacked alongside her, and another that she read aloud for the first time about her last trip to Afghanistan.

There she discovered that foreign journalists are now given a tracking device, and the poem captures her experience on the road alongside tanks and soldiers, her ‘new heart’ sending signals saying she’s okay, while her other heart cried, ‘hello, goodbye.’

She doesn’t believe in purely objective journalism, but discovered that all her prior beliefs were thrown up in the air and her head was spinning so much that she could only tell the stories as she heard them.

She learned on the field that you don’t go in search of answers, but aim to experience and learn.

Where the faultlines of faith are concerned, she may be onto something.


The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold is published by Allen Lane.

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