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(Here is an excerpt from an essay originally written in circa 2009. The full essay made it as a chapter into my 2010 book, You’re Not a Country, Africa. Memories of my childhood inspired by the Islam that is chopping off heads in Northern Nigeria. Seven years after I wrote the essay, we are back to why I wrote it: a woman’s head was chopped off in Kano the other day by Islamists…)
Hijacked by some of the worst criminals Nigeria has to offer among her prurient ruling class and turned into a political weapon that consistently instrumentalizes deliberately pauperized youths to deadly ends, what once passed as familiar Islam is defamiliarized beyond recognition. Yet you cannot deny knowing this Islam for you are bound by the cultural warrant of the Yoruba proverb: “oju to mo eni ri ko le l’oun o mo eni mo” (people or things once known cannot be unknown). If, according to this Yoruba proverb, you cannot now unknow Islam because you once knew her, you are at least at liberty to acknowledge the disconnect between what you knew as Islam and what now passes for Islam in much of northern Nigeria.
The Islam that I knew was already in full swing decades before my head kissed the earth of Isanlu, my home town in Yagba East Local Government Area of Kogi State. As is the case all over Nigeria and Africa, life in Isanlu was suffused in colourful forms of traditional spiritual expression until Christianity arrived in the late 19th century and things began to fall apart. Of the scores of Isanlu rituals and traditional festivals my maternal grandfather told me about as a kid, I met only the Ogun, Sango, Egungun, new yam, and a handful of other festivals and they were all in Intensive Care Unit at the hospital after life-threatening injuries sustained from contact with Christianity.
I still have vague recollections of the severance of the neck of that propitiatory Ogun dog and the subsequent procession through the town by Ogun adherents whom my outraged Catholic parents dismissed as idol worshippers and pagans. Sadly, Ogun and Sango festivals did not make it. They perished in Isanlu somewhere in my teenage years. Somehow, I still think that Ogun and Sango festivals were lucky to have died peacefully in the hands of orthodox Christianity like Catholicism and ECWA. Imagine what manner of undignifying death prosperity Pentecostalism – which came later – would have visited on them.
To survive, Egungun (masquerades) and new yam festivals had to devise ways of dealing with Christianity, the impertinent mosquito that elected permanent residence on their scrotum. Egungun had to “de-spiritualize” or “de-paganize” itself and become an annual Isanlu Day cultural festival in order to be left in peace by Christians.
Today, the annual Egungun festival in Isanlu has zero connection with spirits and ancestors. It is just a secular aesthetic ceremony meant to entertain people (one month before Easter!) and to tease the camera lenses of curious European and American visitors. I have only just launched a private initiative to find, buy, and save some of the masks before they are destroyed by Enoch Adeboye’s Pentecostal soldiers in Isanlu. Or before an enterprising European or American beats me to it! I don’t want my two-year-old daughter to have to pay to see Isanlu Egungun masks in a European or American museum in the future. That is why I still cannot visit Africa Collections in museums in Paris and London. I cannot pay to see my own stolen property.
The new yam festival took more radical steps to survive the onslaught of Christianity: it simply passed (like African American ‘passing’) and became a Christian ritual! I wonder why scholars of Africa have devoted scant attention to this interesting phenomenon of an ancestral ritual passing. The new yam festival simply became part of the annual harvest and thanksgiving activities on the calendar of every Christian denomination in Isanlu, especially my local parish of the Catholic Church. In fact, I knew it exclusively as a Christian rite until I became a serious student of my culture and history. In Isanlu, you took the first and choicest yam harvest from your farm to the Christian altar – Chinua Achebe’s readers should bear in mind where the people took their yams to after the fall of Ezeulu. That is why Achebe is more than fiction for some of us. In essence, nobody born in my generation in Isanlu and other parts of Yagba land has any memory of the new yam festival as a traditional ritual. For my generation, it is an important feature of the Christian calendar!
In essence, the people of Isanlu are predominantly Christians whose grandparents and great grandparents followed the familiar script of encounter with European missionarization. I would put Isanlu at 95% Christians. The regular denominations held sway – Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, and ECWA. There were also the Africanized white garment aladura denominations. The hurricane of Pentecostalism would breeze in ferociously only in the 1980s.
I have yet to study how Islam crept into this almost seamless shift from Yoruba spiritualities to Christianity in Isanlu but my home town has always had an indigenous Moslem minority, located mostly in the Bagido/Mopo axis of the town. By the late 1970s, itinerant Fulani herdsmen, who used to guide their cattle annually through our farmlands – causing significant damage to crops but allowing us to feast on kilishi, wara, fura, and nono – requested land to settle. Kabiyesi and his council of baales deliberated and actually gave them land and space close to the Oba’s palace. Thus was born in the early 1980s the part of Isanlu we now call Sabon Gari or Sabo for short – with its typical Hausa-Fulani suya market layout – swelling the Moslem population of Isanlu. The children and grandchildren of these Hausa-Fulani settlers now speak mostly Yagba dialect and Yoruba.
The Isanlu of my formative years was thus an interesting theatre of non-violent coexistence between dominant Christianity, minority Islam, and whatever was left precariously of Yoruba spiritualities. The relationship between Christianity and Islam in Isanlu is even more interesting and will detain me for the rest of this essay. Virtually every Christian denomination and the Moslems founded a primary and secondary school in Isanlu. For instance, the Catholics owned the local cottage hospital, two primary schools, and Saint Kizito’s College. My father reigned supreme as Principal of Saint Kizito’s College in the 1970s before he was transferred to head Saint Augustine’s College in Kabba in 1978. The Moslem community in Isanlu owned Ansar-Ud-Deen (we called it Ansaru) primary school and Oluyori Muslim Comprehensive High School. My first teenage exploratory kiss with my one true love in fact took place in the corridors of Ansaru.
For some reason I need to study seriously now that I am assessing Isanlu closely, none of these educational institutions discriminated in their admission policy. Parents enrolled their children freely in any school of their choice without religious considerations. Thus, the Catholic primary schools had lots of ECWA, Anglican, and Moslem pupils. Ansaru probably had more Christian than Muslims students, given Isanlu’s dense Christian population. Christian teachers taught at Ansaru; Moslem teachers taught at the Christian schools. The ECWA mother of my first true love was once Headmistress at Ansaru. My best friend, a Pentecostal, attended Oluyori Muslim High School.
These constant flows between faiths did not stop at the level of educational institutions. The faiths worked out unwritten codes of collaboration and mutual co-presence by sharing one another’s celebrations. I remember our annual Catholic thanksgiving in September. Donation time and our Catechist, Mr. Alegbemi, would mount the rostrum and make a roll call of every Christian denomination in Isanlu. Each delegation – Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, ECWA, CAC, etc – would rise up when announced and dance to the altar with their envelope to the accompaniment of inspirational choruses by the host choir and a generous shower of holy water by the officiating priest, with yours truly holding the water bowl as altar boy. Dewdrops of memory…
The last on Mr. Alegbemi’s list were always representatives from Isanlu Mosque. The Moslem delegation would also approach the altar with their envelope. The following week, it was the turn of another Christian denomination and the scenario that played out last week at the Catholic church would be repeated. Thus, from September through November of every year, the entire Isanlu community moved from one church to another, celebrating the host church’s annual harvest/ikore festival. And these celebrations always included a delegation from the Mosque. Dewdrops of memory…
The celebrations rolled into Christmas and New Year festivities which the Moslem community also celebrated with us. Christmas day, after Mass, my mother would dish out the rice and chicken and load the steaming plates on trays that we the children must carry to designated partakers of her Christmas largesse. I still recall my resentment and bitterness that, after my father, the choicest parts of the chicken went to the white Catholic priests. I would grumble all the way to Church with that tray of rice and chicken meant for Reverend Fathers Léo Leblanc and Gérard Fournier on my head. Dewdrops of memory…
I had more reason to be unhappy if Bishop Alexius Makozi (now Bishop of Port Harcourt Diocese) happened to be around. That meant a definitive death sentence for two cocks (roosters) that I had been told belonged to me and that I had fed conscientiously throughout the year – I would be lucky if I got the intestines, legs, and necks of the unfortunate fowls! My cousins and nephews carried similar trays of food that my mother had dished out for an Alhaji here, an Alhaja there, and other members of the Isanlu Moslem community. Dewdrops of memory…
The Moslems too had their celebrations and festivals that involved the Isanlu Christian community. My favorite was the return from pilgrimage by any Isanlu Moslem who had been privileged to go to Mecca. What a feast! We the children, Christians and Moslems alike, would form a long procession through the town with the new Alhaji or Alhaja, singing and dancing:
Barika re oh eh
Barika re oh ah
Alhaji to re Mecca to boBarika re
To the faithful
Who went to Mecca
And is back among us
The procession ended at the new Alhaji’s or Alhaja’s house with eating, drinking (not alcohol o!) and merriment. We the Christians joined in Islamic choruses offering thanks and praises to Allah for the safe return of that son or daughter of Isanlu from Mecca. The entire Isanlu community celebrated every Moslem festival. Between inter-denominational and inter-religious festivities and trans-religious educational institutions, growing up the way I did in Isanlu meant encountering Islam as a member of the family even though no member of my immediate or extended family was a Moslem. Dewdrops of memory…
There were of course minor tensions. The occasional flash of anger when, as children playing football after classes, a Christian mocked the faith of the Moslems as imo lile (difficult religion) – a contraction of which is the popular Yoruba cognomen for Islam, imole. That was the most serious denigration of Islam that I knew growing up. To put the impertinent Christian kid in his place, we would join our offended Muslim playmates in singing:
E ye pe Musulumi loni mole
Elesin Isilamu ki se mole
Elesin alafia ki se mole
Eni ba pe Musulumi l’oni mole
Ko kewu ri, ko bere
A lai mo kan ni
Call not the Muslim
An adherent of a difficult faith
A Religion of peace it is
If you have never prayed, never inquired
Yet label the Muslim faithful
You are just ignorant
Some of these boyhood quarrels ultimately ended at home with parents on all sides enjoining all parties to respect one another’s faiths and to remember that we were all omo Isanlu. Dewdrops of memory…
Boyhood passed, young adulthood came. Location: University of Ilorin mini-campus. My undergraduate years came before the era of sanguinary campus cultism in Nigeria. Apart from our studies, all we knew were the excitement of aluta, police tear gas, and the menace of campus Pentecostal fellowships. Campus born again Christians (SUs) could never be content to assemble for fellowship in one or two large groups in consideration of other members of the campus community. Dewdrops of memory…
Rather, following the bad example of the public nuisance value of their parent organizations on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, scores of little sub-groups answering every name from Tabernacle to Maranatha, from Deeper Life to Rhema, from Redeem to Mountain of Fire via Living Faith and Christ Embassy, would take over every available lecture room, the one trying to outscream the other, as they spoke in tongues and invited the Lord’s fire on powers, principalities, dominions, and other enemies all night long. Dewdrops of memory…
A group of five fellowshipping students could take over a 100-seater lecture room, screaming in tongues all night. This made the campus very hostile for those of us who needed to study to pass exams. Those wailing all night were already assured of the Pentecostal miracle of passing without studying. Dewdrops of memory…
The Islam I met as an undergraduate at this Pentecostalism-infested mini-campus of the University of Ilorin was not the Caliphal Islam of the town of Ilorin proper. I remember it now only as an Islam of early morning feasting and celebration during the Islamic fasting season. Dewdrops of memory…
That was a season of early morning largesse and abundance that my friends and I, all Christians, looked forward to! The fasting Muslim students had to wake up every morning to break their fast. They called it sari in their local Islamic parlance. I guess there is something in their religion that enjoined them to share that meal happily with their friends and neighbours, irrespective of religious differences. Dewdrops of memory…
We waited for the early morning call of their muezzin who would scream in the hostel corridors every morning: “Wake up! Wake up! It’s time for sari!” We the Christians would be the first to wake up and start the rounds from room to room, inviting ourselves to the meals of Muslim students! You only need to remember the financial precariousness of undergraduate life to appreciate the importance of this awoof (free) Moslem breakfast that I never missed in my four years of undergraduate life. Dewdrops of memory…
The Islam I encountered from Isanlu to Ilorin in my formative years was not just about awoof food and festivities. That Islam also fed my mind and expanded my world. I have written about my father’s vast family library in one of my longer biographical essays. Alfred Oludare Adesanmi despised a mind that didn’t devour books daily and he never stopped buying books and expanding his personal library till he died in 2007. Dewdrops of memory…
I tearfully recall now the hours I had to spend reading in his company in that library – with a rap on the head if I forgot what he told me about the Almoravids or the Hamitic hypothesis yesterday – while regretting the five-a-side football game of “set” I was missing with my friends, hoping he would let me go before the end of the game and spare me the exaggerated accounts of my friends the following day at school. “Ah, Pius, game ana yen gbona!” Very hot game! You missed o! Dewdrops of memory…
That expansive library became my most precious inheritance as his only son when he died. Dad was also a trained historian, with a B.A and an M.A in African history. He was half way into a Ph.D in African history at the Ahmadu Bello University, focusing on the trans-saharan trade, when his health failed him and he abandoned the programme in the mid-1980s. He never really recovered from that illness. Dewdrops of memory…
Because he was in the ABU tradition of African history, his library contained impressive materials on Islam in West Africa, especially the Islamic scholarship that emanated from Timbuktu. He subscribed to the journal, Tarikh, collected material on Islamic poetry and philosophy. My fascination with the travels and writings of Ibn Battuta started in my father’s library at home. That was where I also encountered names like Rumi, Ibn Khaldun, and Al Maghili. Dewdrops of memory…
This is the Islam I knew. This is the Islam that fed my belly and my mind. Now I watch in horror, in stark contemplation of a faith gone awry. How did what Islam has become arrive at the conclusion that it was okay to sever the head of Gideon Akaluka, mount it on a spike, and chant Allah Akbar triumphantly in the streets of Kano? What about Christianah Oluwasesin, clobbered to death in the name of this Islam by high school boys? What about Grace Ushang, raped and beaten to death also in the name of this Islam?
Why has the educated elite from this part of Nigeria pretended thus far that it can do nothing about this nonsense for which they must all be held responsible without exception? Have they given a thought to forming alliances and embarking on sensitization campaigns to wrest Islam from the control of their deadly and opportunistic political elite? Again, we must ask that question inspired by Senghor: what is this Islam which is not Islam?
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Pius Adesanmi is the director of Carleton University’s Institute of African Studies, Ottawa, Canada. In 2010, he was awarded the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing. A widely-cited commentator on Nigerian and African affairs, he has lectured in African, European, and North American universities, and also regularly addresses non-academic audiences across Africa.
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