A column about Nigeria’s attitude to religion and culture (1)
What do a Nigerian Agnostic, a Czech Christian, a Japanese Shintoist, a Norwegian Atheist and a Bangladeshi Bahá’í have in common? Well, apart from bipedal movement, opposable thumbs and breathing oxygen, very little to be honest. So when I found myself sharing a student house at 4, The Newlands, Cottingham Road with these four characters a decade ago in the tiny city of Hull, I expected the year to be filled with lots of hilarious Dharma and Greg type occurrences, as five distinct cultures struggled to coexist.
Instead, that year turned out to be the most instructive insight into human nature that I could ever have wished for. Rather than peering through a window of my comfortable Nigerianness into the exotic, foreign ways of my housemates and picking up juicy tidbits of exotic culture to bring home with me, it turned out that we were far more similar than we could have ever imagined. By the end of our second month as housemates, we were doing everything together, be it acting as each other’s wingmen, playing football, fighting over whose turn it is to fry plantain, or who ate Varqa’s chicken tandoori.
I thought about our multicultural little group of bandits recently when I read the responses to a thread on Twitter asking Nigerians why they go to church and pray despite decades of evidence that their prayers have yielded nothing both individually and as a country. A number of responses to this thread took me back to a time when a certain religion was all I knew, and even my inborn spirit of rebellion was not enough to ask certain questions of it. It took exposure to a world far outside of everything I knew to break free of that conditioning and appreciate the true size of the world – which also meant understanding that the world I grew up in was extremely tiny.
Getting past our assumptions
Almost as soon as we are able to talk and read, one of the first things we are taught about ourselves as Nigerians is that Nigeria is a Big, Important Country™. “Giant of Africa,” “most populated Black country in the world,” “Hope of the Black Race” – these are just some of the phrases we grew up hearing about our country and its yuuuge, incredible size and importance. The inference many of us took away from this information is that we are the African top dogs who get to decide what normal is. Everything beyond Seme border is foreign, exotic and somewhat unimportant because within our 993,000 sq. km and our (alleged) 200 million people, there is more than enough to keep us occupied.
Despite our alleged propensity to travel, the numbers actually show that only about 2.2 percent of Nigerians travel internationally every year. From this, we can deduce that the number of Nigerians who have ever left Nigeria is actually not very much. For most of us, this country is all we have ever known, and we will live out all of our lives here. So when it comes to the question of religion, there is very little question about variation from the norm that exists around us – everyone in Nigeria is expected to be a Christian or a Muslim. Nothing else exists, even according to our constitution, which repeatedly mentions Islam and Christianity, while making only a passing reference to ‘freedom of worship’.
By the time I left Nigeria at 18 though, I self-identified as Agnostic, which marked me out as either a silly stronghead trying to prove a point to my parents, or a candidate for hellfire, depending on who was passing unsolicited judgement. For much of my first year in the UK, the experience was similar because I surrounded myself with other Nigerians. Again, everyone either went to church on Sunday or the mosque on Friday – or at least pretended to. At the start of Year 2, I decided I wanted a change of scenery, and here is where the story gets interesting.
Nothing else exists, even according to our constitution, which repeatedly mentions Islam and Christianity, while making only a passing reference to ‘freedom of worship’
Religion is a product of circumstances
Growing up in Nigeria gives you the idea that the world is exclusively made up of Christians and Muslims. Even worse, it defines Christianity and Islam within a set of extremely narrow parameters that often hold no currency whatsoever outside of West Africa. For example, if one were to ask any reader what catchphrase comes to mind when they think of a church service, they would probably say something like, “Pra- pra- praiiiiiiise dee lawwwwd! Halleluyah!” Outside of Christian spaces influenced by Nigerian and American-style evangelism however, this is not the case.
I remember I met a girl from Turks and Caicos Island whom I wanted to impress, so I accompanied her to her church, even though I had no interest in attending a church service. It was a Caribbean church, so I expected the usual high-octane concert fare of a Black church, with a heavy side of collection baskets and exhortations to “Open your pocket and give to da laawda!” Instead, it was the most laid-back, intimate and enjoyable session, almost like a group chat where everyone discussed spirituality, faith, love and life. No mention was made of money at all. It never happened with the girl, but I still went back a couple of times just to enjoy what was a brand new experience of pentecostal Christianity without any of the creepy, scammy stuff.
I later had a similar experience when I met a cab driver in Sheffield who engaged me in a conversation about religion. He was a Muslim, and because of my own impression of Islam from Nigeria, I was not really interested in listening to him. Based on the way Islam is practised in here and my social conditioning, I had a subconscious image of Muslims as either the knife-wielding zealots from the front page of the newspapers or the loudspeaker-at-4AM public nuisances in Lagos who blocked certain roads at prayer times. This guy however, described himself as a “Sufi,” something I had never heard of before. When I got home and did some research, my mind was blown as I learned for the first time that Islam also has different schools and sects like Christianity.
I learned that my entire contact with Islam in Nigeria was restricted to just Sunni Islam, meanwhile out there, hundreds of millions of people were also Shia, Sufi, Wahabbi, Ahmadiyya, Ibadi and many others – these are all Muslims too! In my final year when I somehow convinced my parents to pay for a deluxe flat, Sham, my next door neighbour from Bahrain then showed me that even Sunni Islam is practised differently outside of our West African space. From my close and continued friendship with him, I was able to understand that there is a key difference in the way it is practised between those who consider it to be their cultural heritage and those who were introduced to it by adoption or conquest.