By Fortune Onyiorah
Boko Haram has dominated much of the religious news out of Nigeria for the last couple of years. While it is undoubtedly important to #bringbackourgirls, the conversation about Nigeria and about religious life there deserves to be more nuanced. I put this piece together in hopes of adding a more intimate perspective of Nigerian religion to that conversation. The country is extremely divided, roughly in half, both geographically and demographically: the north is primarily Islamic and the south Christian, though there is some overlap. Constantly at odds, a reoccurring news story is the bombing of mosques and churches at the hands of the other. When the opportunity arose, I travelled with my father to the country of his birth and though the primary purpose of this trip was to visit family, I felt the need to document and share my experience. This was my second time in Nigeria, the first was when I was a young teenager and looking back, there were many things I took for granted on that first trip, so many details I had missed. People had always been interested in my experience of a country that is both foreign and home. The last time I visited, I could only tell my friends a story when I got back, now I can show readers what I saw.
Once in Nigeria, my father and I drove almost 1,000 miles from Lagos to Enugu and back, visiting a few villages in between, all within the predominately Christian south of the country. As a consequence, there is a running theme of roads and cars in this essay – many photos are of cars, or taken from inside them of other vehicles or roadside buildings. Religion in Nigeria is about the travelling message that glory must always be given to God on more than just Sundays, in more than just church. It journeys down these roads on bumper stickers and commercial vehicles, making pit stops at construction sites and gas stations. Though these roads are rough in reality, the message is able to travel smoothly far, wide, and fast, reaching even the most remote of places. Most of the religious imagery I saw on my trip was Christian. Christian piety has become so conspicuous thanks to the foundation laid over a century ago by British colonizers and missionaries, Now, their legacy is carried forward in the influence of foreign faith-based aid. Though I have also seen Jesus bumper stickers and roadside churches in the United States, Nigeria’s history means that religious expression has a very different feel – one cannot deny that its origins are marked by foreign justifications and restrictions, a very different story from the one we tell in the US about religious expression’s birth in opposition to such strictures.
That history of Christian nationalism was among the many the stories and comparisons I thought about as we drove and photographed. Now, I hope that they will help others to think more critically and widely when they think about religious life in Nigeria today.
Travelling down a crowded highway in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, one sees an abundance of bumper stickers proclaiming drivers’ religiosity. They adorn private cars and vehicles used for public transportation alike. Though some stickers are just preset sayings, other drivers use individual letters to spell out custom messages.
While briefly stranded at a gas station, I saw a family in a nice SUV pull into a corner away from the pumps. They did not come to get gas, but to “spread the word of the Lord.” After handing me this paper, the man, his wife, and two young boys urgently crossed the street to continue spreading their message. The passage makes an analogy wherein each condemned building marked with a red ‘X’ signifies a sinner likewise doomed. It extends the metaphor, advising that those who take the time and effort to rebuild will be forgiven, but those who do not will remain condemned and suffer the consequences. The pamphlets are produced and distributed by Grace & Truth, an American evangelical ministry and publishing company in Illinois.
Problems with Nigeria’s infrastructure can seem endless. Well-travelled roads go unpaved. Those that are paved, unmaintained. But the sheer amount of active construction sites along the roads tells a different story. A significant number of these sites will become churches, their construction often funded by U.S.-based international church groups that give grants to groups looking to build a self-sustaining house of worship. Church planting websites offer advice and support to those in Nigeria who have undertaken this mission given to them by God. Often times, aspiring Nigerian pastors initiate these new developments.
Elected governor of Enugu State in April 2015, Lawrence Ugwuanyi (affectionately known as Gburugburu, meaning “one who rules over all” in Igbo) is a Roman Catholic who likes to invoke this quote in his speeches. Roughly half (49.3%) of the Nigerian population identifies as Christian and lives primarily in the southern part of the country. Phrases explicitly invoking the name of God are often heard in conversation in a way that removes the possibility of human agency and gives all credit to God. “Glory be to God,” “In Jesus name, Amen,” “God is good all the time. All the time God is good,” are just a few of these refrains. Religion is such an integral part of life that most Nigerians cast their political vote based on the religious backgrounds of political candidates during an election.
Bus stops are a common place to post bills. Plastered on these walls are numerous advertisements for Restitution Chapel (aka Lion of Judah’s) three-day sermon. Underneath are more bills for past religious gatherings as well as messages from Governor Gburugburu.
A common form of public transportation, yellow kekes are the equivalent of yellow taxis in the U.S. and are often covered with religious allusions. Here they are parked in a designated area outside Ogbete Market, Enugu’s main and largest outdoor market, waiting to pick up passengers. Behind them are mirrored figures of a crucified Jesus, the Catholic image of Jesus and the Sacred Heart, and the Virgin Mary. The market itself is densely packed and full of venders selling everything from TVs to goat meat to tobacco. But also within these narrow rows of stalls are numerous preachers with microphones who each draw small crowds, bringing religion into a place of commerce.
This door, visible on the balcony of my grandfather’s compound, was meticulously hand carved with religious images that are replicated on the left and right. From top to bottom: The hands of God as he created Earth, The Holy Bible, the cross on an elevated platform, a dove that signifies peace, and a plant that represents all things living.
Each door in my grandmother’s compound has a wooden cross hanging over its center. They have withstood the harshest of monsoons and the scorching sun for nearly a decade. Plastered on each door are at least two religious bumper stickers indicating a particular belief or belonging to a particular church group. In addition to the cross, both doors in this photo have a square sticker with a white dove in flight encircled by a blue ring that says “The Catholic Prayer Ministry of the Holy Spirit.” It is interesting to note that each portrayal of Jesus falls line with the convention: a supposedly Middle Eastern man depicted as a white savior.
Paintings in Nigeria can regularly be spotted on roads and highways. Large commercial trucks are more often than not hand-painted with religious imagery: in the south it is primarily Christian, in the north Islamic. On this tank truck is an interpretation of the Last Supper, but paintings can range from representations of Jesus to quotes and phrases praising the Lord or shunning Satan.
God is Good Motors is one of Nigeria’s most successful transportation companies with a reputation for excellent service. Its name draws upon the common Nigerian phrase “God is God” and though the full name can still be seen on most of their transport vehicles, their website says “a landmark” for the company was changing their name to GIGM.com.
Fortune Onyiorah is a Master’s student at NYU’s Religious Studies Program. She is currently writing a thesis on the subject of intersectionality in the Black diaspora.