Léopold Sédar Senghor was unable to reconcile the contradictory identities of France. There was a France that proclaimed Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity but was at the centre of slavery and colonial brutality. There was a France that gave Senghor everything, including the opportunity to become the first African writer to narrowly miss the Nobel Prize for Literature even before Wole Soyinka became a probable Nobel and sentiments of Chinua Achebe’s continuous omission gained currency, but at the same time organized colonial forced labour and massacres in Africa, especially the massacre at Thiaroye in Senegal, Senghor’s homeland. Faced with these agonizing contradictions, Senghor penned these famous lines in one of his Négritude poems: “Oh Lord, put away from my memory France which is not France, this mask of pettiness and hatred over the face of France”.
France which is not France! The France that captured and sold slaves; the France that colonized and neo-colonized; the France that piled up corpses from Haiti to Algeria via Vietnam; the France of hatred and pettiness. That is the France that Senghor couldn’t recognize in the France that he knew: the France that made him one of Africa’s most famous Polymaths; the France that made him one of the world’s greatest poets. Every time I think about the Islam that came into my consciousness during my formative years in Nigeria, the Islam I related to because of its unavoidable presence and alterity in my world, I feel an overwhelming sense of the Senghorian dilemma. Recently, I experienced the full weight of Senghor’s anguish as I contemplated Boko Haram’s mountain of corpses displayed all over the net – the contemptible rulers of Nigeria still largely underestimate the evidentiary power of the internet. A religion whose ubiquitous presence defined part of my youth insists on turning the Nigeria of my adulthood into one vast necropolis.
Hijacked by some of the worst criminals Nigeria has to offer in 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 and what now is. Hence my own Senghorian lament: what is this Islam which is not Islam? What is this thing wearing a mask of pettiness and hatred as it rages annually through northern Nigeria, swimming in a river of Nigerian blood?
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 early 20th 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 Ogun and Sango were lucky to have died peacefully in the hands of orthodox Christianity like Catholicism and ECWA. Imagine what manner of undignifying death 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. With the wild theories of non-Yorubaness one encounters in respect of Lagos by ferocious appropriators of other people’s patrimony these days, let’s hope that these Hausa-Fulani children of immigrant
parents will not wake up one day and declare with postmodern fiat that Isanlu is actually not Yagba land!
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. 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. 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…