Saturday, 12 September 2015

Crime and Christianity are killing off our religious traditions - Chika Unigwe

A masquerade dancer in Abuja



Once a year, around the time of Afia Olu, the Igbo new yam festival, my father, who is a knight of the Catholic Church, “sacrifices” a chicken to his ancestors so that – in his own words – they too might enjoy it like the ancestors of those who still do things “in the old way”. He lets the blood of the animal soak into the ground outside our family home, then, unlike people who observe the traditions the colonisers called “paganism”, my father cooks and eats the chicken. As a second-generation Christian, the son of an adult convert, my dad is still close enough to the old ways to feel guilty at the thought of abandoning them, and so he compromises. He wants to be a good son but he also wants to be a good Catholic.
In the 1970s and 80s, many in Osumenyi, my father’s village in Anambra state in south-eastern Nigeria, performed a similar balancing act. They initiated their sons into the masquerade cult, with its secret language, on Friday nights – and on Sunday morning those sons volunteered as altar boys at the local church. The church then was understanding. There was Christianity and there was tradition; the two were not mutually exclusive.
In those days Afia Olu, held at the end of the rainy season in August, was an exuberant, colourful affair celebrating not just yam but a successful harvest. Families dressed in their finest clothes travelled from afar to take part in all the festivities and ate to excess: yam and chicken fried incandescent gold; spicy goat meat which would make your nose run; jollof rice and salad soaking in cream.
These days hardly anyone from outside the village bothers to make the trip, especially not the wealthy, who are afraid that they or their children will be kidnapped and held for ransom. They have good reason to be reticent. Kidnappings in Anambra have become so prevalent that foreign travellers are warned of the risks, and a clampdown by the state governor has been met with praise by Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari. A friend of mine has armed security to watch over his children. Though he fondly remembers his own experiences at Afia Olu – running freely as the masquerades chased him and other kids – he cannot see his children taking part. “You cannot run with a security guard behind you,” he says. “Afia Olu is no longer what it used to be.”

What the threat of violent crime has not destroyed, the evangelical church is finishing off. Across Nigeria there has been an explosion of a fervent brand of evangelical Christianity which is ardently opposed to local traditions and culture. In Igbo land, shrines have been destroyed, and converts abandon traditional names that sound as though they might have “pagan” links in favour of biblical names. In Osumenyi, some churches are discouraging their congregation from taking part in Afia Olu rites and festivities.
Still the festival continues, albeit a version sanctioned by the church. Afia Olu now officially ends with Christian services in those churches that are respectful enough of tradition to still permit it.
Sometimes I worry that when my father’s generation passes away this beautiful celebration of rebirth will die with them. Yet I take solace not only in the fact that there are churches willing to find a good marriage between Christianity and Afia Olu, but also in the fact that the new yam festival is a common denominator in all Igbo societies. So perhaps it will continue to survive. After all, as the Igbo say, when a group urinates together, it foams.

4 comments:

  1. It's a balancing act for writers now to try to be both controversial and accommodating. Thats a dangerous trend. The way I see it is that one is either a christian or a pagan. There's no middle ground.

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