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Thirty years ago SGI President Daisaku Ikeda predicted that Africa would be the continent of the 21st Century. In a recent  interview with This Way Up, the inspirational leader of SGI Buddhists in Nigeria, Dr Bamgboye Afolabi, claims that the happiness-making machine is roaring into life across Africa

 

TWU: Dr Afolabi, thank you for agreeing to talk to This Way Up. Please tell us something about yourself and your work.

 

Dr A: Thank you very much for having me in your midst. Well, basically I am a medical doctor living in Lagos. For many years I worked as Chief Medical Research Fellow at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research and after that for the World Health Organization where my primary responsibility was to support numerous African countries with their malaria control programmes. In 2005 I started an NGO called Health, Environment and Development Foundation (HEENDEF) to fulfill my desire to care not only for sick people but also to conduct research into childhood illnesses such as malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition. My organization also trains young health researchers, medical doctors and nurses in health research methodology. We also help young girls to pursue an education rather than be exploited for sex or for child labour. One such young woman we have sponsored is about to enter a Nigerian University for a course in International Relations. 

 

TWU: Haven’t you ever been tempted, like many African professionals, to seek more lucrative work in other countries?

 

Dr A: In 1994, two opportunities were given to me on a platter of gold. Firstly, I was awarded funds by the Acute Diarrhoeal Diseases Research (ADDR) programme of the Harvard Institute of International Development (HIID), USA, to conduct research on childhood diarrhoeal diseases on the Atlantic coastal area of Nigeria. The Supervisor of the project later offered me the mouth-watering prospect of moving to Guyana, South America, to head a department in a university there. The second opportunity was when my uncle recruited me to King Faisal Hospital, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with another mouth-watering offer. However, I refused them both because my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, President of SGI, had earlier tutored me and instructed me to return to Africa to achieve there what he himself was achieving in Japan.

 

TWU: So in Buddhist terms you believed that it was your mission to remain in Africa?

 

Dr A: Yes indeed. I have met President Ikeda on several occasions. The most memorable encounter occurred when he treated the General Directors of various SGI organizations in the world to a dinner in Tokyo. I was fortunate to be among the invitees. As the dinner progressed, President Ikeda asked, “Where should we meet again?” I responded, “Ikeda Sensei, we should meet on Sado Island.” Sensei seized the opportunity to give us a brief lecture on Sado Island, how he and some members had gone to that Japanese Island, and how everybody was throwing up due to the rough sea except him. He concluded by saying “As it is on Sado Island, nothing grows in the lives of those who harass the Votary of the Lotus Sutra.”   Thereafter, he brought over a big bottle of wine and gave it to me saying, “Afolabi-san, this is the finest wine in Japan. Drink this all by yourself.” I expressed my gratitude to Sensei and told him that I would be drunk if I drank it all myself and that I’d like to share it with others on my table. Sensei said I should go ahead. He came again and gave me a bucket of ice-cream saying “Afolabi-san, this is the best ice-cream in Japan. I know the manufacturer. Eat it all by yourself.” Then it occurred to me that Sensei was preparing me for a great teaching, that you do not live by yourself but your life is connected with the lives of others. Sensei then brought a pair of mechanical, artificial shoes and gave the pair to myself and to the SGI-Ghana General Director Bobson Godonu. He said to us. “You two should dance together with this pair of shoes.” The message I got from this is that members of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) in Africa should unite for the happiness of their people and that I should support every member because we are all one. We all should wear just one pair of shoes and dance with it. After this Ikeda Sensei turned on a mechanism in the conjoint shoes and Chubby Checker’s song ‘Let’s twist again, as we did last summer’ oozed out of the replica shoes. I started dancing for Sensei and Mrs Kaneko Ikeda remarked “Afolabi-san dances well.” Finally, Sensei brought some gold rings which he gave me and said “Afolabi-san, give these rings to women who are upright in faith in Nigeria.”

 

TWU: Does your family also practice Buddhism?

 

Dr A: Yes. My wife Akua and I have three children who are no longer children. When our first child was born in 1985, I reported her birth immediately to my mentor who, within a few days, gave her the name Mitsuko. I learnt later that the name signifies a ‘bright lady’. Three years later, we had a set of twins – a boy and a girl – and President Ikeda immediately gave then the names Masashiro for the boy and Masako for the girl. Masashiro graduated as a Civil Engineer and Masako as a Sociologist. They both live in Ghana where they are currently practising. Mitsuko recently graduated as a Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of Tennessee in USA where she was the Young Women’s Division Vice-Chapter Chief before she moved to Minnesota.  My 90-year old mother chants too, but not as vigorously.

 

TWU: I believe you met Buddhism in the States?

 

Dr A: That is correct. Prior to studying medicine in Nigeria, in the 1970’s I took a degree in Genetics and Molecular Biology at Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Missouri. I was in New York for the summer holidays when a friend of mine called Akui visited me and asked me “What is the Law of Life?” I replied that he was drunk again, that life had no law. He said I should go and look for the Law of Life and when I found it I should let him know about it. Shortly after that another friend, called Frank, asked me to help him move from Brooklyn to an apartment in uptown Manhattan. And it was there, on the staircase of that apartment building, that I heard a sonorous and heavenly symphony of voices. I was so captivated that I sat there, not having a care for any other thing in the world except to soak in these heavenly voices. Then a young lady, who looked like an angel, came out of the room where the voices were coming from.  She asked me if I would like to join them in chanting and I told her that I wouldn’t mind. She took my hand and led me to where the voices were coming from. I didn’t know any of these people but I melted into them. To my surprise, they were chanting strange words over and over again for about three to four hours. At first I faltered in the pronunciation but I was guided with friendly smiles and gentle touches. After about four hours, the chanting was explained to me as the Mystic Law of Life, which is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.  I was asked by the person leading the chanting, “Would you like to receive the Gohonzon?” Without hesitating, I replied “Yes”.

 

Strange things were to follow. Immediately after I left the room for my own apartment, I forgot everything about the chanting. I was out of a job, I couldn’t go back to school to graduate because I had not paid my school fees, I was all alone in the world and I was so confused that I decided to commit suicide. Just then, on my way to the Hudson River, determined to end it all, an event happened that saved my life. An elderly black woman, called Beatrice, was walking in the opposite direction. She approached me directly and without any niceties asked, “My son, where are you going?” Startled, I responded directly, without hesitating, “I am going somewhere but I do not know where I am going.” Beatrice took my hand and said, “Well, come with me” and that was how I followed Beatrice to the Horizon District Discussion meeting on a Friday evening. In an instant, my eyes opened to the fact that I had chanted a few weeks earlier. How could I have forgotten? What had blanked my mind? I’ve never understood, but immediately I sat down to chant a voice that I hadn’t heard before opened up within me saying “This is what you’ve been looking for all along. Sit down, calm down, be patient. You will know everything.” Again, I was asked if I wanted to receive the Gohonzon and again I said “Yes”.

 

After I found the Law of Life, I would never see my friend Akui again. He returned to Nigeria shortly thereafter and passed away. This was a painful moment for me as I could not give him what he’d said I should look for.

 

TWU: Twenty-five years ago SGI President Ikeda predicted that Africa would be the continent of the 21st century. Now Africa contains six of the fastest growing economies in the world and is expected to be the next boom continent. What are your thoughts about this?

 

Dr A: President Ikeda first noticed the African delegates to the United Nations Assembly in 1960 during his visit to the US. These leaders were calm but resolute. They might have had the gift of seeing the future, although they could not have known whose future they were looking at. At that time, nobody was chanting on the continent of Africa which would soon convulse and erupt into a series of conflagrations and civil war. Many rich nations exploited Africa for her gold, diamonds, petrol, rhinoceros horns; for her elephant skin, for her medicinal plants. They also exploited Africa for cheap labour. Heads of States were cajoled into saving ill-gotten gains in rich nation’s banks. Africa’s best brains were lured away by higher wages. However, gradually the tables are turning as new leaders read the writing on the wall. New cities are being built, wages have improved and so has the living standard of people in general. Globalization has engulfed most, if not all, African states, as internet facilities, electricity, major highways and high-speed railways emerge.

 

TWU: Some people attribute this economic upswing to the fact that the Chinese are investing in Africa.

 

Dr A: I personally believe the gradual improvement in the quality of life in Africa is in direct proportion to the number of people who have started to chant. Almost all the countries in West Africa have people chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and practicing Buddhists are emerging in Eastern and Southern African countries too. In my call of duty, I have had the opportunity to travel widely in Africa. I have gone by road across Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, The Gambia, Senegal, Ghana, Togo, Egypt and my own country Nigeria. I have also been privileged to visit Zanzibar and Cape Verde. I have witnessed, firsthand, agony and misery being replaced by joy and happiness.   It seems as if a happiness-making machine is roaring into life across Africa. Many people are making efforts to escape, honestly, the claws of poverty. Old religious ideas are being thrown overboard, people are yearning for peace, for education, for improvement in the quality of their lives. Not everything is rosy as there is still a lot of work to do. Many people are still hungry, ill, deluded, on drugs; some have given up while others are confused and in their state of stupor are living recklessly, blindfolded by greed and corruption. But then, a handful of people are turning the tides. Unfortunately, wars being fought in other parts of the world are robbing Africa of her gains directly or indirectly. However, there is still hope and I believe things will get better for everyone when war stops. I also believe and probably predict that within the next ten years people in the Arab worlds, especially in Africa, will begin to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and start to know what real happiness is.

 

TWU: That’s an exciting prospect.  What do you think the rest of the world could learn from Africa?

 

Dr A: Ah! This is a strange and difficult question. Historically, Africa has been known as the ‘Dark Continent’, populated by a group of people who were deemed not ‘equal’ to other world citizens who looked down on Africa. However, there is a saying “Behind the suffering of a large number of people lies wisdom.” Africa as a continent and Africans as a race are very close to the Earth. Our forefathers did not wear shoes so they were directly in contact with the mystic powers and rhythms of Mother Earth. They had their own philosophies where they kept the secret of the creation of life, the ancient inhabitants of the world, their science, education, medicinal herbs and surgery. Maybe technology has modernized many things but it would be nice if further archeological expeditions could bring about new findings attesting to languages used in the past, bone setting, how poisons were extracted from victims and so on. I’ve also heard that there is an incantation to release the impacted placenta after a woman has delivered. Furthermore, the foods consumed by Africans were not as they are today. My maternal grandfather was about 126 years old before he passed away. He never used glasses to read; he never drove a car but walked from his house to the palace of the traditional ruler. His food was simple and didn’t contain meat or sugary substances. Africans knew very well the law of cause and effect, for history tells us that one of their famous sayings was (as translated into English) ‘You cannot sow yam and reap bananas.’ Care of women and children was also very central to the lives of Africans, who developed their own social network in the form of the extended family. Africans live together and take upon themselves the problems and sufferings of other members of their immediate or remote families. This might be what has helped Africans survive the traumas recorded in history. President Ikeda trusts and respects African people. He tells us that those who have suffered most should become the happiest.

 

TWU: After so many years of struggling to establish SGI Buddhism in a challenging environment, can you offer some advice on how we can sustain a strong Buddhist practice?

 

Dr A: Unity is extremely crucial in every aspect of life. It has been said that no man is an island and a tree does not make a forest. Even in inanimate things, we find a symphony of unity. Carbon atoms, for example, must be well arranged and aligned to form an unbreakable diamond. Blocks that make up a building are equally arranged in perfect order before they can be called a house. Cells in our body are in constant communication with one another, despite the fact that there are trillions of these cells. They are all united to perform their specific functions. The same is true of our practice for oneself and practice for others in the SGI. The unity of practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism is underscored by the passage “All disciples and lay supporters of Nichiren should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the spirit of many in body but one in mind, transcending all differences among themselves to become as indivisible as fish and the water in which they swim” (WND, p. 217).

There is something eternal in each and every one of us, though this eternal aspect of life is hardly ever noticed. Instead we gravitate towards the temporary. Each one of us should be able to see the eternal within every person we meet. This requires training and self discipline.  The practice of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism affords one the opportunity to plumb the depth of one’s life and find the eternal therein.

 

TWU: Dr Afolabi, thank you very much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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