Saturday, August 30, 2008

Religion: A "Public " Way of Life & Competition for the Soul

One question I am asked repeatedly is "Which church do you go to?" In India, my response to that would have been,"I believe in something larger than me, but I don't believe in one God. I believe in myself and the people that I love." That is not the answer I can give in Nigeria if I want to save myself from a long unrelenting sermon! It is easier to just say, I am a Hindu! I got first hand experience when I was living with my host family for a month when I first came to Lagos. Pastor Samson used to hold the services in their backyard!

With over 200 tribes, Nigeria has a rich history of traditional religious beliefs and practices which are visible today in museums, "juju" (black magic) stalls in the markets, currently prevalent practices of ancient masquerades (living connecting with the dead) and few "well-preserved" sacred places across the country. The Yoruba religion, for instance, mirrors Hinduism with the multiple functional Gods and Goddesses and idol worship. I have also heard of instances "cannibalism" and opposing belief systems. In the east, twins were considered evil and hence killed until the practice was stopped by a Swedish missionary; whereas in the west, twins were considered a special omen and actually worshiped!

The arrival of Christianity and Islam has converted most Nigerians and marginalized the traditional religious systems. Today, Muslims and Christians alike, religious practice is very public and is taken very very seriously. In the Christian-South, the signs are everywhere. They all know the Bible. People go for Bible Studies and you keep hearing verses being sited in articles, quoted in speeches and not just in church. The hundreds of churches are an highly organized social institution with branches who work to attract parishioners to their parish through large billboards, flyers, bumper stickers. You can become a part of various "groups/ clubs" like singles, youth...(remember the talk I gave on personal development to 200 singles). They even have sports tournaments! It is an intense feeling of belonging to something larger than yourself.

Pastors are not shy of starting a sermon in the bus or on the streets with a loudspeaker. Meetings and workshops always start and end with a prayer. Attending the service at church is a must atleast typically once or twice during weekdays, all night on Friday's and always always on Sunday mornings (a good day to catch soul stirring music and the best of Nigerian fabric). Paying tithe (the religious tax) is a public event during the Sunday service. I witnessed one where all the parishioners danced their way forward with an envelope to a box near the altar.

Though I don't know much of the Muslin north, but with sharia laws in practice, the intensity of belief is the quite similar. On our visit to Kano, all traffic stopped when it was time for the Friday prayer with all the men coming out of their cars and prayed in the middle of the road! Like India, religion is a common cause for conflict with frequent riots at slight provocation. From what I have heard of the sermons, the pastors and imams could do a little more to preach unity and harmony!

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