A Peculiar People Christianity and Nigerian Public Life

Nothing was untouched by the practice of religion in Nigeria. You could not pour sand in your ears to drown out its demands. We carried on with the assumption that the spirit world was a place of dynamism where things happened before they reached our plane. I loved this about us... Yet I came to see how our approach to religion and spirituality wounded us.

I arrived in Lagos that Easter morning in 2022 with swollen feet; it was the day of my resurrection. There was neither stone nor sepulchre but a plane from which I emerged. God was here. He was everywhere. On the lips of the customs official who first called me her daughter, thanked Him for journey mercies, and then extorted me; in the churches filled to the brim and overflowing this Sunday morning; and with the man who sat beside me and made a sign of the cross when the plane landed and we clapped.  

People milled about the airport waiting for suitcases to appear, renting carts, calling family to say they had arrived. Arms akimbo, we hovered around the conveyor belt. Three feet from me stood a man whose pot belly bestowed an air of importance he wore as an accessory. One look at him and you just knew that he worked for government. Beside him was a tall white man wearing a linen tunic and wiping sweat from his forehead. Airport staff offered help with a fervour the uninitiated could not refuse. Here, in this land of compatriots and forebears, I was seen. Ordinary incidents presented themselves as occasions for my joy. The official who looked at my documents called my name in a manner so laden with familiarity that I could well be a distant cousin from his village. I had returned to this place where a cavalier kind of confidence presented itself in things like business names. A ‘lounge’ could be a small shed cobbled together, furnished with plastic chairs and strobe lights. If not a lounge, in fact, it was a lounge by prophecy. A business owner could also be an arbiter of God’s justice on earth. I saw a bus that belonged to Goodness and Mercy Mass Transit; its motto was, ‘No peace for the wicked.’ 

We attended Mass the following Sunday at a Catholic church in Ikeja, Lagos. I had missed the swinging censers, the enrobed lectors, and the processional cross lifted high. The women glittered in their sequins and headscarves of varying colours and dimensions were duly represented. Brocade, Ankara, Adire, George wrappers; clothes handmade, embroidered, starched, and ironed. This was the Nigerian way. Nigerian women were indomitable in the business of glamour. We walked into a room and people turned to look. We knew they would. Ten years ago, a Catholic church in Enugu in South East Nigeria banned the ícháfù, the crowning glory without which an Igbo woman’s traditional outfit was incomplete. After bombings by Boko Haram in the early 2010s, the parish priest said that these giant headscarves formed a barricade when women sat side-by-side. This was true. During Mass, you never wanted to sit behind a woman whose ícháfù towered two feet or more, defied gravity and your convenience, and made you crane to see the priest raise the host during the liturgy of the Eucharist.  

The general disposition that Sunday was reverential. Trousers were scarce, heads were bowed, and arms were covered. We genuflected at the name of Jesus and said the Prayer for Nigeria in Distress, which we had prayed every Sunday since I was a little girl. ‘All powerful and merciful father, you are the God of justice, love, and peace. You rule over all the nations on earth. Power and might are in your hands, and no one can withstand you…’ we proclaimed in unison. There were multiple collections and we sat, knelt, stood, and swayed for over two hours. In my parish back in Charlottetown, Canada, a sea of grey heads presented itself on the walk down the aisle. Mass was finished in an hour, trousers were fine, and you covered your head out of personal devotion, in the winter or if perhaps your outfit needed a bit more panache.  

At a wedding we attended a week later, the church wardens wore skirts that grazed at their ankles, put scapulars around their necks, and scanned the congregation for errancy. They turned women with uncovered heads away at the door and hounded those who made it inside until they left and returned with handkerchiefs, if they returned at all. The priest would not continue with the Eucharistic Prayer if all present—including the photographer and other non-Catholic guests—did not kneel. This aridity of spirit saddened me. Although the 1917 Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church made it mandatory for women to cover their heads at Mass, this canon was removed in 1983. But I was in Nigeria, and we were more Catholic than the pope.  

A Yoruba hymn from the Baptist church on top of the hill near our estate filtered in one evening and I sang along to the words I knew. ‘Mà kójà mí, Olùgbàlà. G àdúrà mí.’ Pass me not, o gentle saviour. The seamstress who mended our dresses as young girls had closed her shop. When she still ran it, her husband started a church in their living room. When we went to drop off or pick up clothes, a light breeze would lift the curtain to show him pacing the floor, raised to realms beyond our material world, with a microphone in hand and a speaker at the altar. On the opposite wall was a bigger church; it was said that the pastor beat his wife. When they held their vigil services simultaneously on Friday nights with loudspeakers facing the street, I wondered whose prayer reached heaven first.  


Nothing was untouched by the practice of religion in Nigeria. You could not pour sand in your ears to drown out its demands. We carried on with the assumption that the spirit world was a place of dynamism where things happened before they reached our plane. I loved this about us. We were people who bound spirits and spoke to them as with intimate friends. We sent angels on assignments, brokered with heaven to have lightning annihilate enemies, and returned arrows to their senders. How did you touch that which no eye had seen? How did you cage the wind? How did you barter words with formless beings? My secondary education was at a Christian private school in Lagos. We prayed morning and evening and were each given engraved Bibles on graduation day. Our parents were called up to lay their hands on us and pray. When my anthropology professor at university in Canada said that he attended church on Sundays only so that if it indeed was that heaven existed, he could set foot on the streets of gold, I could not understand. It had never occurred to me to doubt. In Nigeria, God’s existence was the most basic premise from which you operated. You accepted as settled fact that evil spirits prowled the world; that spoken words could fetter a person’s destiny; that a person’s fortune was something you could look into as if it were a mirror; and that a person’s blood, hair, and fingernails had power.  

Yet I came to see how our approach to religion and spirituality in post-colonial Nigeria wounded us. We had cast off the deities our ancestors venerated, at least publicly, but had not quite rid ourselves of that desire to see the object of our worship. Clerics filled that gap; our reverence for them was at par with our belief in God. Our upbringing made it such that we implicitly deferred to authority. We focused on semblances of worthiness before acceptance. We were easy to deceive by false appearances of piety. We sometimes thought that science negated faith.  

Before my parents built our house, we lived in a block of flats and were the neighbours of a Muslim couple from Maiduguri, Aunty Fatima and Uncle Ahmed. It was in their house that I first tasted kunu and tuwo shinkafa. They gave us mutton during Sallah, and we gave rice and chicken at Christmas. Twenty years later, this sort of interaction between Muslims and Christians, especially in northern Nigeria, had dwindled. Distrust had opened a bigger window and climbed into the Nigerian union.  


We crossed the River Niger on our way to visit my grandmother in Owerri. There were fishing boats, men casting their nets, and three bobbing heads of swimmers in the distant shining waters. A díbià, an Igbo traditional healer and diviner, walked past cars and lorries sitting in traffic like broody hens. Watching his bare feet, his determined gait, and the medicine bag under his arm, my mother joked that his Chí had sent him on an errand. Before long, we entered Onitsha and then Owerri. We turned into the roundabout before Assumpta Cathedral and saw a little girl who lay lifeless by the road, her wares splayed a few metres from her. Blood flowed from her nose. She was one of the children who hawked plantain chips, ọ̀kpà, walnuts, and cold soft drinks to travellers under the hot sun. A few men redirected traffic until her body could be taken to a mortuary. My father had us stop at the Cathedral, with its manicured hedges and sprawling grounds, to give thanks for a safe journey. The Civil War delayed its building, and the Nigerian side mistook the dome for an observation post and fired at it during the war.  

Under the present government, incident-free trips have become more unlikely. In March 2022, a train was attacked in Kaduna by domestic terrorists whom local media had designated bandits, a rather benign appellation. Over 160 passengers were on board, ten of them were killed and many were kidnapped for ransom. Among the slain was a dental surgeon, Chinelo Megafu, who was due to travel abroad that very weekend to begin her master’s degree. Barely two weeks later, Rotimi Amaechi, the transport minister, invited the press to witness him jogging around a stadium to show his fitness. He planned to run for the presidency in the next election and was counting on our short collective memory.  


There were many reminders of our devotion to the divine even if our society left much to be desired. We seemed to have adopted the state religions of Europeans without the accompanying interest in building a society that worked for ordinary people. One could say that we adopted them under duress and that Europe had no choice but to evolve in a more egalitarian direction since the Bubonic Plague and the Hundred Years’ War set their societies on a much different course than intended. Their feudal system began to give way to modernity in the 1850s and the colonisation of Africa began in the 1880s. That is to say, they rejected subjugation but needed someplace else to put it. Africa, it was. Interestingly, for Africans captured by enslavers, their indigenous religious practices seemed to have won them freedom. When Yoruba slaves were taken from the Oyo Empire in the 18th century, they were ferried to South America and forced to adopt Catholicism. They took with them the gods of their ancestors, relating the divinities in the Yoruba pantheon to saints in the Catholic Church. Behind the statue of Saint Anthony of Padua, one might find a carving of Ògún, the warrior god of thunder. This sleight of hand enabled the retention of their identity and eventually, revolts for their freedom. Syncretic religions remain common among Afro-Brazilians, for instance, even today.  

Nigerians are a people of joy that passeth all understanding. We look hardship in the face, say ‘welcome’, ask after its children, and offer it water. In Benue State, six years ago, a sales clerk with the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board told auditors that a snake swallowed tens of millions of naira, proceeds from the sale of scratch cards with data for verifying applicants’ identity. The snake opened the office safe and ate the cash. All things were possible indeed. The clerk was dismissed, we laughed and we moved on. What more could we do? The Nigerian state’s default response to protest was brute force. We tasted that bitter medicine once more on 20 October, 2020. What we had was not optimism but hope. The latter required us to acknowledge the grim nature of our circumstances and yet press into the evidence of things unseen.  

Little children came to my parents’ house once a week to pray the rosary and read the Bible. I was at their age when I was taught during catechism that a sacrament was ‘an outward sign of an inward grace.’ There were usually biscuits and soft drinks at the end, and questions from my parents about the homily last Sunday or who had come first in class. This was part of what kept our fragile national constitution together: uncles and aunties with no bearing on your family tree who cared that you turned out right; commitment to a God that you could neither see nor touch but who you knew was closer than your own breath; and a tacit agreement with tomorrow to deny us problems on credit. With worsening socioeconomic and political conditions, the church has become a place of hope and aid, if not answers. It has stepped into big shoes. God and his human face are husband to widows, father to orphans, and government to Nigerians. God works overtime for us; we glory in this arrangement. But dumping our duties at his feet has made us feeble. If we are truly his people, where are our collective exploits?

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