Olayemi Olusola Talabi Fatusi stood as he always stands: broad shoulders forcing his thick frame into a slight hunch, his face exhibiting ritual scars from his childhood, and a mouth turned upwards in a wide smile. That Fatusi’s smile always stays with him hides the inner turmoil of separation in a foreign country while his wife and children face religious persecution back home. But Nigerians like to smile, even when loneliness and fear may dominate their thoughts. When asked what he’d like to order for breakfast, he offers his only condition, “Anything but low-fat.” Toying with the natural order of food, it seems, might make him frown.
Separating a forty-year-old man from his family and home in northern Nigeria to move him to study at a Texas seminary requires supernatural intervention. While studying genetic engineering at the Federal University of Agriculture in Abeokuta, Fatusi dreamed of obtaining a Ph.D. in animal genetics in the Netherlands. But during those undergraduate years, he came to believe that God wanted him to serve as a missionary in Africa. Such job aspirations tend to limit the number of potential suitors.
Fatusi recalled the difficulty as a single man in his late twenties after he graduated from university. “I tried all I could to get a girl to marry. The difficult point would be when I would share my vision for the future and tell the girl, ‘I believe God wants me to be a missionary.’ And all the beautiful and wonderful girls would just be quiet and say, ‘No thank you, I don’t want to do that.’”
Torn between wanting to follow his vision and wanting to get married, Fatusi went on a three-day personal retreat and prayed. He believes God put two important impressions in his heart during the retreat: that God had prepared a wife for him, and that God would kick him out of Nigeria when he became forty for further education.
"Someone You Need to Meet"
Some months later, he visited his old school and met with the Christian fellowship he belonged to as an undergraduate. There, a friend grabbed his hand and said, “There’s someone you need to meet,” and introduced him to a woman he remembered from his days at the school. Unbeknownst to him, two years prior to the reunion that day, the young lady confided in their mutual friend that she inexplicably felt that Fatusi would one day become her husband. At that moment, she was engaged – an odd time to have such strong ideas about another man with whom she never had romantic involvement.
Years after they married and had three children, the second impression would come true. Working as a missionary in northern Nigeria, where Christmas-day bombings against Christians made recent headlines, Fatusi received an offer from his Anglican bishop to study at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS).
“Sincerely, I knew nothing about Dallas or DTS,” admitted Fatusi.
But at thirty-nine years of age, Fatusi visited the campus just north of downtown Dallas and loved it. By the time he arrived for his studies, Fatusi was forty. But moving halfway around the world without his family comes with fears.
“I had some quiet fears that I didn’t express to many people except my wife. One fear was how I would adjust to loneliness. I had never been away from my family before and was scared of loneliness, how to handle it, and all those challenges.”
The recent violence in Gombe, where Fatusi lived, further complicated matters. The escalating religious persecution forced him to return to Nigeria in December, 2011 to evacuate his family to the mostly-Christian south. While his family escaped direct harm, Fatusi counts acquaintances and friends among those recently killed.
He had another fear as well: “The second fear I had was that I would not be convinced to return back. Coming to the US is like coming to a better place, like coming to green grass, you know?”
Considering the unrest in Nigeria, his fear of returning to Nigeria and fear of staying in America continued to wrestle in his heart. Recently, he received an offer to bring his family from Nigeria, visas included, so that they could live with him as he worked in New York. It brought Fatusi to tears to decline such a tempting offer.
Now, as he finishes the final semester of his studies, he ultimately fears a return to the north.
“I think my greatest fear now is going back to Gombe. The rise and increase of Islamic extremism puts you on the endangered list all the time. I do some work in the local media at home, so I am well known among the Muslims there. Even the Muslims there call me ‘pastor.’ So I’m not that hidden. Now if I go back, people will know I’m coming back from America, and the most likely thing is that your profile in the community will have increased. More people will know you and you will be more likely to be considered a threat to the Muslims.
“It is a fear, but I strongly believe there’s a quiet voice in my heart that says, ‘Olayemi, go back to Gombe. I will be with you.’” For Fatusi, such a quiet voice cannot be silenced by loud bombs.
When he returns, he hopes to mobilize the church in Nigeria to develop missionaries for Africa. Of the seventy-million Christians in the country, Fatusi estimates only nine-thousand full-time missionaries. He dreams of mobilizing many more.
"It is Going to Get Better"
Even after he returns to Nigeria, Fatusi holds a special place in his heart for Texas and its residents.
“First of all, I would like to thank all the Texas people for welcoming Nigerians. The state of Texas is like a second home to Nigerians, and they feel very much at home here. I don’t think there’s any major town or city in Texas that doesn’t have Nigerians.” Indeed, major Texas cities like Houston and Dallas boast one of the largest concentrations of Nigerians in the U.S. He regrets the recent notoriety Nigerians gained for fraud and insists that such aberrations misrepresent his people.
Despite his separation from family and home, Fatusi continues to smile. For two consecutive years from 2009-2011, Gallup polls indicated Nigerians as the most optimistic people in the world. Nigerians seem to look through the violence and poverty in their country towards another day.
“I think Nigerians realize that you are not the only one, that if the world is going to collapse, it’s not going to collapse only on you. So why try to carry the world on your head? And Nigerians believe that if there is life, there is hope. All they need to do is to sustain that life. Something will happen tomorrow. We have a common saying in Pigeon English in Nigeria: ‘Igobetta.’ It means, ‘it is going to be better.’ I believe that is something that brings hope, and it is that hope that makes us optimistic. It is that hope that makes us a happy people. The hope that, when there is life, there is a better tomorrow.” After sharing a full-fat breakfast with Fatusi, one can’t help but smile either.