The tenth parallel North seems to be just a simple landmark. It runs straight through Africa from Guinea in the west through countries like Ivory Coast and Nigeria up until Somalia in the East. But the tenth parallel is more than that: It’s an ideological front line where Muslims and Christians collide. Nowhere in the world Muslims and Christians confront each other so directly. Nowhere the two religions are growing more fast. Nowhere – as polls show –  there are more people who believe so fervently in their god. And nowhere you can see so clearly what happens when too scarce resources meet too passionate believers.

The history of this line goes back centuries. Islam came to Africa in the seventh century. Slowly the Muslim traders moved further South. But at the tenth parallel the expansion stopped. Here, the pale grassy savanna thickens to bush, and the bush gives way to a mire of swamp and jungle. And it’s here where the tsetse fly belt begins. The flies carry sleeping sickness and by infecting the camels and horses of the Muslim traders these little insects virtually stopped Islam’s southward spread. Much later, in the 19th century, Christian missionaries reached the coasts further South. They started to proselytize, moved to the North – until they reached the area which Islam already had conquered: the tenth parallel. A fault line had been created.

Benedicte and I set out to explore the tenth parallel. It’s a fragile area: the growing number of people and an increasingly vulnerable environment are sharpening the tensions between Christians and Muslims over land, food, oil and water. In Nigeria we met an Imam and a Priest who are trying their best to ease those tensions. Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye have been militia fighters. Today they reconcile Muslims and Christians, in a region where thousands of people have died in religious clashes in the last years. In South Sudan we went to see one of the biggest refugee camps in the country. More than 70.000 people have fled to Yida, many of them Christians from Sudan. The camp is so close to the border you can almost see it. They are being helped by Christian organizations like “Samaritian’s Purse“. They give both shelter to the people as well as bibles – at the tenth parallel there’s religious competition even in refugee camps. In Ethiopia we visited a man who has chosen a rather different approach: Zumra Nuru has founded a community based on the abolition of religion. Scientist come to study his little village. Mainly, because Awra Amba is more successful than all the other settlements around. “Why?“, we asked Zumra Nuru. His answer was straightforward, and perhaps it sums up the whole experience of our trip: “It doesn’t make sense to always think of the paradise you may enter once you have died. You have to try to build it in this world.“

Text by: Marc Goergen, STERN magazine

[April 2013]