From Fargo to Nigeria, father-son ties still bind

Editor’s note: Minnesota Public Radio’s Nate Minor is spending two weeks on a reporting fellowship in Nigeria as part of a program to study and become involved in journalism as it is practiced in other countries.

Left: Siji and Tarsi Saula at their home in Fargo, N.D. earlier this summer. Right: David Saula, Siji’s father, in Lagos, Nigeria last week. (MPR Photos/Nate Minor)

Though they aren’t in the same room very often anymore, the resemblances are striking between David Saula and his son Siji. One the surface, they both speak in the same quiet drawl. Looking at David, one gets a good idea of what Siji will look like in the future.

But going deeper, both men share strong convictions that continue to shape their lives from worlds apart. The Saula family is native to Lagos, Nigeria, where David and his wife still live. Siji left Nigeria for college at North Dakota State University a decade ago, and still lives in Fargo today.

I met Siji and his wife in Fargo earlier this summer, and had the opportunity to meet David in Lagos last week. Their ongoing bond is a good example of how leaving your home to start a new life — halfway across the world in this case — can change important relationships. It’s an even better example, though, of how those relationships remain strong.

LETTING GO

Lagos and Fargo, it should be said, have very little in common. Lagos is a megacity estimated to be twice the size of New York City. The streets are packed with cars, street hawkers and just about anything else you can imagine. While Fargo certainly is growing, a town of just over 100,000 people on the Great Plains is nearly the opposite of the bustling economic capital of West Africa.

Downtown Fargo, N.D. on a summer evening. (MPR Photo/Nate Minor) Lagos is the bustling, monstrous former capital of Nigeria. It’s now the largest city in Africa, having surpassed Cairo in population last year. (MPR Photo/Nate Minor)

“It was a leap in the dark,” David said of sending his first-born child off to America. “It was literally like offering him over to God. To say, ‘we are trusting into your hands. Take control.’ ”

While Siji settled on NDSU early on in the college search process, David needed more convincing. Even after he agreed with Siji’s decision and his son left home, he booked a flight to visit his son – in December.

“I wanted to have a feel of what it would be like in the cold season … to be able to know how he’s coping,” David said. “And in fact that was a good experience for me. I’d never seen snow before.”

Siji did well at NDSU. He completed his four-year degree and then finished his Master’s in engineering. But there were lonely, homework-filled nights along the way — all made more difficult by the distance from family.

On some of those occasions, Siji would sing to himself a song he remembered from his childhood. His father used to sing to him:

There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus
no not one, no not one
He knows all about our struggles
he will guide until the day is done.

“I always remembered that song and I’ve sung it in my lowest of times,” Siji said. He now works at Noridian in Fargo and doesn’t plan to leave the area anytime soon. David has accepted his son’s decision.

“Our perception, as parents, is that every child is a trust,” David said. “We are more or less trustees of children, as parents. And all that we do on our own is to prepare the child, equip the child, and then let the child move on in life.”

SHARED FAITH

Though he was raised as a Muslim in Lagos, David is now a Christian pastor. He decided to convert to Christianity as a young man — a New Testament verse on Christianity being the only way to salvation was the clincher. It was a decision that caused big waves in his family.

“My dad threatened that he was going to reject me as a son,” David said, adding that he knew what the risks were when he left Islam. Still, he said he was able to sleep peacefully after his conversion for the first time in years. He said until that moment, he would feel intense physical pressure when he tried to rest.

David’s mother was ill at the time of his conversion. And though he said she was “nominally” a Christian herself, he never told her about his switch of faith before she died.

Eventually, relations between David and his father improved to a point where they could discuss matters of faith – even in his father’s final hours.

“The very last day that I saw him physically, I had the opportunity to share with him the gospel of Christ and I asked him to accept Jesus. He wasn’t able to talk, but he was nodding his head and I prayed with him, and that was it.”

That string of events made a lasting impression on Siji; he would think about it on long winter nights in Fargo, he said.

“It always resounded throughout boarding school, high school, coming to the U.S.,” Siji said. “I remembered how faithful and persistent he was, and how determined and committed he was to God. And that always struck me very strongly. And I believe that that impartation, that commitment to God … I believe I received that from the same God that sent him out to preach to his father.”

FINDING LOVE

The commitment to God, Siji said, lead him to his wife, Tarsi. But it was a long and bumpy road. Though he’s lived in Fargo for 10 years, Siji is still a Nigerian man through and through. And while his wife says he has many fine qualities including an inordinate amount of patience and thoughtfulness, it got him into trouble right off the bat.

They met at a parish outing in Fargo a few years ago. Tarsi, who has children from previous relationships, was having a difficult time corralling her kids. So Siji walked over and “handled the situation,” as Tarsi put it.

“I’m like, ‘hold on a minute. First of all, around here, you don’t just go handle someone’s kid. No, he handles my kid, then sits down and asks about my business,” she said. “I was so irritated.”

Not realizing he was treading in dangerous waters, Siji then told the single mother that she “needed a husband.”

“But I didn’t ever think it was going to be me,” he recalled.

“I didn’t either,” his wife added. “I didn’t really like him; I thought he was a snot.”

Life went on. Siji was dating another woman at the time, and Tarsi said she was not ready for another relationship. Then the dreams started.

Siji said he would have visions where he heard God telling him to be with Tarsi. “He said, ‘Keep on pressing. Keep on trying to reach her,’ ” Siji said. “I couldn’t get away from it.”

Tarsi was having none of it. They had become close friends, but she didn’t understand why he kept insisting they deepen their relationship. “What was going through my head was: ‘No. Leave me alone. And don’t come around me,” she said.

So Siji took his problem to – who else? – his father. They prayed about it together, and eventually Siji told David that he intended to marry Tarsi. She didn’t take it well, and broke off their friendship for a month. But as the days and weeks went on, Tarsi began to miss him.

“All of a sudden I realized I wanted my friend back. He talked about my children, he understood. There were just these things that we connected with. And I didn’t realize it. It took me a whole month, and I was stubborn,” she said. “One night, he just came up to the van as I was leaving for ministry, and just came up nicely and just started talking and I didn’t shut up. I was telling him everything. And from that point on, I think I called him the next day and said ‘I want to do this as a relationship.

“I had never been able to feel that way about anyone, or trust anyone, or love anyone. And I didn’t know what it was because I had never felt it. It was love.”

WEDDING BELLS

They decided to get married, and were this past May in Fargo. But because Tarsi had been married before and had children, Siji’s parents did not approve of the wedding. Deciding to move forward was a difficult one for Siji.

“I had made a commitment to God that I would carry on what he had spoken to my heart. And it was very tough, you know, but I had made that choice in my spirit,” he said.

Eventually, the Siji and Tarsi hope to have another ceremony when his parents “come around.” It’s a sensitive subject, but David made clear that the love he has for his son remains as strong as ever.

“There’s only one house where you can be let in without any questions being asked, first and foremost. Come in. And that’s your father’s house.”

Find more photographs and dispatches from Nigeria on Nate Minor’s website.

  • moffitt

    I would think it would take a lot longer than 2 weeks to get a real feel for Nigeria…but, dang, what an experience for Nate. I believe I have been educated and enriched by every minute I have spent in other lands, other cultures, and yes, other parts of this big, diverse country of ours. Keep ‘em coming, Nate. And thanks to MPR and others for making this happen.