I have a confession to make: I have never read the Bible or the Koran. Now, I have called myself a Moslem or a Christian—whenever I have been asked to state my religion—but I can recite no more than two suwar in Arabic, Al-Fatiha and Al-Kauthar, and have been unable to get past the “begats” in Genesis.
My mother is a Christian and my late father was a Moslem. My first memories of Christianity were Sunday mornings at home in the 1960s. My family lived in Ikoyi,
When I was seven or eight years old, I began to attend Koranic lessons with my brother and sisters on Fridays. The lessons were given by a Syrian couple who lived down the road from us. They taught us to recite the suwar in Arabic and at break time would serve sickly sweet pastries. I associated religion with food. On Sallah holidays, I looked forward to eating fried goat meat and, at Christmas time, jollof rice and turkey. My only other connection to Christianity and Islam were hymns like “Jesus Bids Us Shine”, which I sang at
I used to think that I was blessed to grow up in a family where I could celebrate both Christian and Moslem holidays and considered myself fortunate to have been spared the burden of choosing between the two. However, I have been conflicted occasionally. For instance, when I took Koranic lessons as a student at Queen’s College, or when I was confirmed at Wells Cathedral in
It is odd that I have never feared for my fate after death. I have considered my daughter’s though and, a year after Temi was born in the
Before we joined
Gboyega and I eventually withdrew Temi from the Catholic school because we were worried about the messages she was receiving. She once came home in tears because a classmate had said she would go to the devil for calling God’s name in vain. Another day, she asked if it was true that homosexuality was a sin and at first I said “No,” then I said I didn’t know, but nor did whoever told her it was. Recently, she has been asking me to take her to a
Temi is a descendant of Anglican priests: Reverend Josaiah Ransome-Kuti (circa 1855-1930) and Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, Gboyega’s great-grandfather and grandfather. They were renowned musicians and Reverend Josaiah Ransome-Kuti translated Christian hymns to Yoruba. There is a family story—which I have not been able to substantiate—that he invented the tonic sol-fa method (Do-Re-Mi) to teach his Yoruba parishioners vocal sounds, but the British missionaries he came into contact with appropriated his work. The tonic sol-fa method is identical to Yoruba sounds but, from my research, it was founded by Reverend John Curwen (1816-1880). On my side of the family, the Attas, my great-great-grandfather, Atta Omadivi, and grandfather, Atta Ibrahim (circa 1884-1964), were traditional rulers of the Igbirra people. Atta Ibrahim was a Moslem and responsible for the spread of Islam in Igbirraland. He also welcomed Protestant and Catholic missionaries, but he fell out with the Catholic missionaries and, as a result of this and other conflicts with his people and the colonialists, he was driven into exile in 1954.
I rarely talk to Temi about my faith, but I can get preachy over religious intolerance. She knows I have been terribly disturbed by the bigotry and extremism I have witnessed since September 11, on both sides, Christian and Moslem. In the
All this has informed my writings. Religion featured in my first novel, Everything Good Will Come, and my second novel Swallow, which I finished in 2001. In the summer of 2002, I started writing short stories, some of which may seem anti-religion, but I saw them as psalms, an attempt to petition God, just me in my usual confused state about religion saying “Lord, what on earth is going on?” They are included in my short story collection Lawless.
This year, I have been reading biographies of my grandfather, Atta Ibrahim of Igbirraland, and Gboyega’s great grandfather, Reverend Josaiah Ransome-Kuti. In these biographies, I came across excerpts from their journals, which are strangely similar to some of my stories in Swallow and Lawless. I could almost believe that both men had somehow communicated with me while I was writing, but these stories are fairly common in Nigerian families. My grandfather chronicled his pilgrimage to
I believe in God, but I am still without a religious denomination. One would think (for all my talk about narrow-mindedness) that would prompt me to read a holy book, but it doesn’t. Instead, I read and write books, hoping that I might be able to process my experiences. I write under my birth name, Sefi Atta, which I had decided to do before September 11. After September 11, Atta became one of the most hated names in the