My oldest paternal uncle died in July. He was probably almost 100, and was born long before we began to keep written records. He was the oldest man in my extended family and also one of the few people in my hometown – in Anambra State, southeastern Nigeria – that had not converted to Christianity but continued to follow the religion of our ancestors.
For a long time the fact that he was a ‘pagan’ in the eyes of his Christian relatives had been unremarkable. They respected his right to worship whatever he pleased and he in turn respected theirs. But in recent years he had come under extreme pressure from younger members of our family who are adherents of the revivalist Christian doctrines so popular in Nigeria these days. They held that his refusal to become a Christian endangered not just his soul but the lives and material prospects of all of us. His link to the pagan past, from which Christianity had delivered everyone else, ensured that deadly spiritual covenants which had been entered into between our forebears and various deities remained in effect. According to my evangelical Christian relatives my ageing uncle was somehow responsible if someone in our extended family died in a car accident or failed in business.
Blind and infirm, he allowed himself to be dragged to the Anglican Church in Osumenyi and baptized just a short while before he died. When I arrived in my hometown from Lagos for my uncle’s funeral a few weeks after his death, the drumming of the Anglican Church’s band filled his compound. The music was joyful, triumphant. I felt a little sad that my uncle, who had spent a good part of his life defending the faith of our ancestors, had been practically shoved into Christianity. But I could also understand the source of my cousins’ anxiety.
The belief that ancient spiritual covenants are responsible for death, disease and childlessness is one that continues to gain ground as perfectly avoidable death and economic distress become ever more common in Nigeria. Disappointed by the modern State, many people cannot resist the idea that powerful unseen forces are responsible for the tragedies that surround them.
After my uncle was buried, the men of the family gathered under a shed roofed with palm fronds outside the fence of his compound to receive other families, societies and individuals who had come to mourn with us.
Our guests arrived with cartons of beer and soft drinks, brought kola-nuts and garden eggs, and were in some cases accompanied by groups of drummers and dancers. So while my uncle had been forced into Christianity and had his funeral conducted by a pastor, the ceremonies that followed were a modern version of those that my people, the Igbo, had been practising for centuries.
Disappointed by the modern State, many people cannot resist the idea that powerful unseen forces are responsible for the tragedies that surround them
In this way decisions as to which traditional values are maintained or modified or rejected are being made all the time. Most of our guests tended to greet my late uncle’s third son with special respect. He has earned this respect because he is one of the wealthier men of our generation.
From where we sit receiving our guests, we have a good view of his newly completed two-storey home, with a sloping roof of patterned tiles and powder-coated aluminium windows finished in a striking pink. The Igbo have always valued individual achievement and today the most admired form of achievement is acquiring material wealth, the modern equivalent of being a great warrior. The new fiercer Christianity is also very enthusiastic about material prosperity. For some of its preachers, poverty indicates a lack of faith.
The successful are expected to help lift up other members of the Community. Indeed the sacrifices the Igbo and other nationalities throughout Nigeria make to provide education for their relations or set them up in business are amazing. As I take a stroll down the road that runs in front of my late uncle’s compound I run into two young men in ragged clothes, who look stoned out of their minds. They start an impromptu dance around me for which they ask me to pay them the equivalent of a dollar each. These are my distant relations who have tried their hands at various businesses, failing each time, and have now dredged up in our hometown as drug addicts and beggars. They have fallen through the net of our impressive extended-family welfare system. People like that are increasing in number.
Probably because they rely primarily on themselves and their relatives, the Igbo have often asked or expected very little from the State. Our newly redeveloped hometown market (described exaggeratedly as ‘ultra modern’), our little post office and our two secondary schools have all been financed by contributions from within the community. Elections are viewed as occasional dramas through which one or two people in the community earn political office and move up in the world. And people are bemused by the posters of candidates for the 2007 elections which cover every wall in the market.
In discussions with my townsfolk I argue that we must organize to engage the State. We can help our relatives, we can build schools for ourselves, and maybe even one day pave our terrible roads, but we cannot create an island of normality in a misgoverned and dysfunctional State.
To make our nation function better (so that we stop blaming ancient covenants for everything from road accidents to the effects of the economic policies fashioned for us by the World Bank), we must work with others for change.
There are those who look at me and smile, and then go on to suggest that acquiring too many university degrees has given me strange ideas. But there are also those who listen very intently to what I have to say.