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Anglicanism, animism, atheism and assessments. In Nigeria

News of my atheism seems to have spread. 

I’ve not exactly been evangelical about it – in fact I’ve barely mentioned it.  But when a colleague with whom I have never even had the conversation  brought me a copy of “Miracles are Real: Receiving Instant Healing by Revelation” yesterday morning (“just for you to read”) it was clear that there were plans afoot to convert the heathen. I’ve mentioned the fact that I don’t believe in God twice, both times only when directly questioned.  The first time, Elizabeth asked me what an Anglican was (I have no idea why), and as I gave an unusually vague answer (I mean, is it just a fancy way of saying Church of England?  I haven’t got a clue), the conversation turned to religion.
She asked if I was an Anglican, I said no.  She asked if I was a Christian, I said no.  So what was I?  I refrained from saying that this made it sound like a lack of faith made you a non-person, as I didn’t think it would help.  I don’t believe in God.  Not at all?  No.  Not even…?  No.  What about your parents?  Well…
At this point it started to feel like the scene in Everything is Illuminated where a Ukrainian waitress is unable to even understand the concept of vegetarianism.  At any moment I’m expecting Elizabeth to say, “not even ze sausage?!” and tell me that you can only get the potatoes with the meat, not on their own. Instead, Tominyi looks up from where she’s been resting, face down on the desk (again, I’m not sure why) and says “atheist”.  It sounds more like “eight-ist”, but I’m getting used to that, because a lot of Nigerians aren’t good with the “th” sound and, for example, always say “de” instead of “the”.  Equally, everyoned says “ax” instead of “ask”, both of which just make me think of someone pretending to be black, so I have to ignore it or things just get metaphysically onerous.

Back with the conversation, I am subjected to 5 minutes plus of questions along the line of “but what if God did something really, really good for you?” or “but what if God showed himself to you?”  This just calls to mind images of god-as-flasher, so I don’t think my laughing reaction is the expected one. I respond with questions like, “Is God a man or a woman?”, and “what if something that was incredibly unlikely and impossible happened out of the blue but was really terrible – we wouldn’t call that a miracle would we?”  From here I expostulate that it seems like god has got a pretty good deal – anything good he gets credit for and anything bad is put down to the devil/sin/some sort of divine test or ineffable plan.  When I also add that it annoys me that people suggest that I need a beard in the sky to tell me what’s right or wrong, I think they’ve got the idea that I’m not an easy convert.  Elizabeth says it is her duty to try and change my mind.  And whilst this is at least 50% a joke, there’s also a lot of sincerity in that claim.

god has got a pretty good deal – anything good he gets credit for and anything bad is put down to the devil/sin/some sort of divine test or ineffable plan

The second conversation was with Jessica when I was making a cup of tea.  This time she brought it up out of nowhere, and I’m not going to lie about it, so again I said no, no higher power in my universe.  Went easily enough after that, but clearly they were just warming up.

The next step is obvious, and in a way I’m surprised that I was surprised.  Bring on the literature.  And the “Miracles are Real” newsletter is an impressive piece of work by any standards.  Apparently “as a child of God redeemed and sanctified by the Blood of Jesus, your body is no longer susceptible to satanic oppression of sicknesses and diseases”.  Which basically means that if you just “understand” the bible well enough, you’ll never get ill.  Examples of god healing people through revelation include the relief of “three years body itching”, “frequent urination”, “changing my genotype” and, I shit you not, god delivering “the car I wanted”.  How exactly the last one is “healing” I’m not sure, but I can see it swaying the unconvinced.
I am tempted by all sorts of responses to this gift.  These include emailing the guy who writes it and asking why, if god has given him understanding of the scriptures sufficient to heal the sick, he hasn’t also offered him understanding of how to spell? Or, whilst we’re at it, the ability to use prepositions, articles and the possession apostrophe correctly?  The second is to ask whether he really thinks it’s advisable to tell women with breast cancer that “the Word of God is quick and powerful…It can go right inside your body to conduct surgery and chase out every devil tormenting your body?”  And therefore it’s better to just ignore the lump and pray, as god will make it go away.

But as angry as the content of the newsletter makes me, my main response to actually having been given it is obviously one of amusement and actually being a little bit touched.  After all, it shows they at least think I’m worth saving.

“Miracles are Real” also solidifies a few of the impressions I have about Christianity in Nigeria. Much of it is basically a weird mixture of a form of catholicism and the indigent animisim.  Belief in magic and people transforming themselves into animals and so forth, and the power of spirits alongside an incredibly literalistic belief in the scriptures.  Hence, the newsletter contains a “Prophetic Blessings” column – somewhere between your horoscope and a fortune cookie, which ranges from the fairly trite “this week you will receive goodnews [sic] from far and near in the name of Jesus” to the impressive “Every spell against your marital breakthrough is terminated in Jesus name” (see what I mean about the apostrophe?).  Hence also goats being arrested for car theft, and cats being widely distrusted because they’re believed to be witches’ familiars, or just straight witches.

Christianity in Nigeria. Much of it is basically a weird mixture of a form of catholicism and the indigent animisim

There’s also an advert for a “Harvest of Miracle Babies” event, which I don’t even want to speculate about, and a public health warning style advert that begins, “If you are not saved, you are not safe!”  It’s all a far cry from the Church of England and “cake or death”.

I’m being facetious, to an extent, in mocking all this – but there’s a serious side here.  The guy that writes “Miracles are Real” isn’t doing it just for the Lord, I don’t think, and neither are the huge numbers of preachers that host the incredible number of “miracle” events here. They always seem to sell out, and and someone, somewhere is making an awful lot of cash.  Hate to be cynical, but that suggests to me that someone is getting ripped off, and it’s probably the person being told that if a dodgy guy in a shiny suit and a terrible tie touches them on the head their prostate swelling will go down.  It’s nauseating to see credulity exploited, and it also reminds me of many of the “reilgious” men (both Christian and Muslim) I’ve met here, who talk a good game, but play a completely different one.
Hypocrisy, I defy hypocrisy… There’s one at the gate.  Etc.

In other news, the bollockings seem to have done the trick.  Mainly in terms of class discipline, where I’m definitely held in a bit more awe, which is no bad thing.  Most importantly, the students seem to have realised that there is actually some work to be done here, and also that I’m not scared to fail them.  I think that last message came as a bit of a shock to the system.  It’s not hard to see why.

For example, the students on the “Foundation Certificate” programme, which I do not teach, but that comes under my department, took the JAMB test 10 days ago.  The performance was remarkable.  Some might even say suspicious.  The exam is scored out of 400, and a pass score (for entry to this university) is 180.  200+ is seen as being excellent.  One of our students got 290.  Which given that he’d got less than 130 in a mock the week before and hadn’t done any work whatsoever according to his tutors, doesn’t smack of pure academic excellence.

Similar transformations occurred, particularly among the students that went to Kano to take the test.  Given that this was the excuse they gave as to why they weren’t bothering to do any work, it’s clear that they’ve just bought the grades.  What I’m waiting to find out is – will we admit them on to the degree programme next year?  Because if we do, I feel, to maintain a tone of ironic understatement, that this is somewhat inappropriate on our behalf.  If we implicitly condone such blatant corruption and cheating, how are we supposed to start lecturing them on good academic practise a few months later?

the bollockings seem to have done the trick 

Unfortunately, I almost guarantee that I’ll be teaching these kids come September, and that they will be completely useless in every academic area, as they have never actually had to study before, and manifestly don’t care.  I’m not just basing that assessment on the fact that they bought their JAMB scores (people here just regard that as common sense) but their all round attitude as described to me by the other teachers.  Also on the fact that they were too stupid to go for a nice unobtrusive 190, but paid for an almost impossible score instead. None of this will matter though, because it’s all about the money.  Plus ça change.

“British style, British standards” indeed. 



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