"We were so happy, we are still happy and will continue to be happy," exclaimed Daharatu Ahmed Aliyu. "And now we are international superstars!" Elizabeth Majinya Abuk added, laughing.
The two women arrived in Germany from Nigeria two days before they will receive the Aachen Peace Prize on behalf of their organization, the Women's Interfaith Council (WIC).
The organization is being honored for its work in the Nigerian state of Kaduna, where Christians and Muslims stand together for peaceful coexistence.
"A society that neglects women can never develop, can never advance," said Sister Veronica Onyeanisi, who took over the general management of the WIC in 2019.
"So we try to give women a voice so that they can make a positive contribution to society."
Kaduna, in the northwest of the country, is the third-largest state in Nigeria with an estimated 8.3 million inhabitants, according to data from the national statistics agency. About 60% of the population is Muslim and 40% Christian.
Kaduna: Once united
"Life in Kaduna was once very beautiful," said Sister Veronica. "People lived together peacefully, partying together, until religious fanatics and politicians decided to use religion to divide people."
Religious fighting had forced many Muslims to settle in the northern part of the state and Christians in the south. Attacks, acts of violence and kidnappings occur regularly.
Just a few months ago, schoolchildren and students were kidnapped during several incidents, which happened in quick succession, sometimes involving more than 100 young people, sometimes a dozen. Bandits also tried to extort ransom money.
WIC was founded in 2010 to counter the effects of the escalating violence. The organization's women visit victims of attacks, providing them with personal support and organizing further training for other women and young people.
WIC also offers support through a community, ensuring that women of both religions unite and celebrate important holidays together.
Religion used only as a pretext
According to the WIC, the terrorists and bandits use religion to exercise power.
"The Holy Bible and the Holy Quran speak of peaceful coexistence. Why don't the leaders teach what is in the Scriptures?" Sister Veronica asked.
That particular question prompted the WIC to organize seminars in which the basics of Islam and Christianity are explained to attendees.
"Then when people tell them the wrong thing, they can say, 'No, that's not what the Scriptures say,'" Sister Veronica added.
The WIC is made up of several thousand women who are organized in 23 individual associations. Many are personally affected by violence, such as Elizabeth Majinya Abuk, who coordinates the Christian organizations in the WIC.
Before the WIC was founded, Abuk worked with Christian women's associations in Kaduna. When WIC approached her to join the group, she initially hesitated. She had just been dealt a severe blow. Her sister and her family were brutally killed in a robbery.
But Abuk has a "passion for peace," as she put it. And this helped her not to give up, not to lose faith in the good cause, although further strokes of fate followed in the following years. Most of her family members are currently displaced in their own country, she said.
"I don't want what happened to my family to happen to another person. And that's why I pursue with all my strength, with all my thoughts the goal that we have to live together peacefully," said Abuk.
Daharatu Ahmed Aliyu — who represents the Muslim associations — never doubted her work: "Everything has its time. It is not easy, there are so many challenges," she said.
Aliyu remembers the early days when, as a journalist, she initially reported on the development of the WIC. A colleague in the editorial office thought it was a joke that Christians and Muslims wanted to unite. "When the time comes for the crisis to end, it will end," said Aliyu with confidence.
In order to achieve their goals, they also have to bring on board some men, who usually have the main say in Kaduna's society.
Before they start any project, the women visit traditional and religious leaders.
"We are concerned about some of us because of their experiences with other non-governmental organizations," said Sister Veronica. But the women at WIC can be very convincing: "You know, God has given women a gift that no one else has. Women can be there for anyone, no matter how tough the person is."
Elizabeth Abuk added that the WIC starts at an early stage by working with young people in order to break down prejudices between religions and genders. Abuk is certain that if young men could take on leadership roles, they would do better.
From the point of view of the board of directors of the Aachen Peace Prize, the commitment of women is "very worthy of the award," as Lea Heuser, board member and press spokeswoman for the association, told DW.
Heuser emphasized the "great solidarity of self-affected women towards other women who are exposed to massive violence and a massive patriarchal system, but who, despite their own traumas and experiences of violence, stand up against it, support each other in very solidarity and live this solidarity across all borders."
And the result of the work speak for itself: Other states have already contacted WIC and asked for help because they too want to create interreligious women's councils, said Sister Veronica.
This article was adapted from German by Abu-Bakarr Jalloh.