What do a Nigerian Agnostic, a Czech Christian, a Japanese Shintoist, a Norwegian Atheist and a Bangladeshi Baha’i 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 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, or fighting over whose turn it is to fry plantain, and who ate Varqa’s tandoori chicken.
I thought about our multicultural little group of bandits 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.
It’s a Great Big World Out There
I had decided to live with my coursemate and best friend Jacky, and when he introduced me to our three new housemates, my first impression was “two Chinese guys and an Arab dude – looks interesting” In reality, it turned out to be a Chinese guy, a Japanese guy and an Iranian dude who grew up in Bangladesh. So much for my assumptions. Wei, the Chinese guy (or Allan as he liked to be called) was born and raised in China, but moved to the Czech Republic when he was 15, where he converted to Christianity. His was a type of hard rock Christianity that I had never seen before, involving lots of black trench coats, orchestral music, candlelight and gothic jewelry.
Jacky, who identified as Chinese, was actually from Hong Kong, and he grew up in Norway where he went to an American school, hence his noticeable American drawl. He was this thing called a “3rd culture kid,” which means his parents are from one culture and he lives in another, while experiencing a third one daily. Jacky was an Atheist and he spoke English, Norwegian and Cantonese, while Allan spoke English, Czech and Mandarin. It was a source of constant bafflement (and sometimes mirth) to me that two Chinese people who both spoke “Chinese” had to communicate in English with each other because in actual fact, Mandarin and Cantonese are as mutually intelligible as Isoko and Gunuvi.
Varqa, whom I thought was the “Arab” guy was originally from Iran, but he must never hear you say that. He insisted that he was “Persian,” because the word “Iran” is apparently something of a dirty word to a lot of people who fled the country after its revolution. This good-looking ‘Persian’ guy grew up in Bangladesh, so I assumed that he must be Muslim, only for him to identify himself as something I had never heard of in my life – Bahá’í. When I googled it, I discovered that the Bahá’í faith is actually a fairly large one, with at least 5 million adherents around Asia.
Kenta, the Japanese guy was born and raised in Kyoto, and identified as a Shintoist. Growing up in Nigeria, I had only heard of Shintoism in passing so it was again a shock when I googled it and discovered that it is Japan’s traditional religion with no fewer than four million adherents. It was quite an experience, having so many of my expectations and assumptions about the world shattered in a few minutes. The ensuing year taught me a very valuable lesson as well.
Your Parents and Surroundings Gave You What You Think is Your Religion
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 practiced 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 practiced between those who consider it to be their cultural heritage and those who were introduced to it by adoption or conquest.
The big takeaway from all this was that people profess the religions they do and practise them the way they do primarily because of environmental factors. We all learn our religion from our parents and immediate environments. Give or take a few strong-willed exceptions like myself, people generally grow up to emulate their surroundings. Kenta would never have grown up in Kyoto and decided all of a sudden one day to become a Christian, just as Calistus or Titilayo in Lagos would never wake up and decide to worship Shinto. The way they would look at Shinto as an exotic false god, is exactly how Kenta would look at their Christian god.
We Need a Major Cultural Reboot
The second major thing I picked up from my time within this motley crew was that there is nothing inherently different or special about being Nigerian, as we are brought up to believe. All those stories we like to tell about our incredibly pushy parents, our difficult day-to-day lives, our spicy food, our corrupt government and our “resilience” – other cultures have those things too. Whether it is a desire to see our children do better than us, or a fear of letting down our parents, or persevering in the face of difficulty, these attributes are not “Nigerian.” They are simply human – everyone has them.
This means that the behaviours that we excuse due to these things are actually unjustifiable. For example, we are not the only people living in difficulty who want our children to be better than us, so we do not have to be the ones that use that difficulty as an excuse to carry out child abuse masquerading as “discipline.” If we pay a bit of attention to how other people live, particularly in other parts of the developing world in Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, we will see that despite several cultural similarities, these people manage to get by without doing many of the things we do that complicate life for us everyday.
The actions that we take in the name of our religions in particular are examples of geographically localized things that do not actually represent the religions outside of Nigeria. My experience of Christianity in the land of the people who introduced it to Nigeria was one where the church is not used to defraud and exploit people. Despite living in one of the wealthiest societies on earth located just a few hundred kilometers from Mecca, most Bahraini men marry only one wife and have just two children on average.
So If a subsistence farmer in Kebbi marries three wives and has 17 children that become almajiri, that is not actually a religious matter (though he will no doubt insist it is), but a cultural habit that needs to be attacked as a matter of national security. If a pastor uses his female church members as his personal harem, that is not a religious issue to be covered by the infamous “Touch not my annointed,” but rather a cultural issue to be rooted out with extreme prejudice. Our religions in themselves are not what is killing us, because other people practise these religions without causing the kind of damage that we do. Our Nigerianness, masquerading as faith is what is killing us, and we need to get rid of it – fast.
To modify our toxic culture, we need to acknowledge that there is a world out there much bigger than Nigeria where people who don’t have two heads are doing things differently to us and seeing different results from us.
If we’re looking for new ideas to feed a cultural revolution, we can probably start with a map of the world.