One or the Other

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, Lagos. Every Sunday, we had akara and ogi for breakfast, neither of which I enjoyed. Afterwards, I would play in my underwear until it was time to go to church, when I would change into a dress. Our church was Saint Savior’s in Tafawa Balewa Square (Now, Our Savior’s). I married my husband, Gboyega Ransome-Kuti, there.

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 Corona School, and the Islamic chants I often heard on the radio like “Innaa a’atainaa kal kauthar”.

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 England as a student at Millfield School. If I accepted the Holy Prophet Mohammad, what did that mean for my mother? If I accepted The Lord Jesus Christ, what did that mean for my father, who died when I was eight years old? According to both religions, people who didn’t accept their doctrines were damned.

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 United States, Gboyega and I had her dedication (to God) ceremony in a gospel church in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The pastor of the church was Canadian and a former Mormon; his wife was Trinidadian and she came from a Pentecostal background and the congregation was racially mixed.

Before we joined Fort Lee Gospel Church, I had not been to church in a long while because I was ambivalent about my Christian faith and I found the Church of England, to which I belonged as an Anglican, colonial. In 1997, my family moved from New Jersey to Mississippi, and I began to attend church services again, this time at the Catholic church affiliated with Temi’s school. I received communion there once, only because Temi wanted me to. I had stopped taking communion because I was put off by the thought of sharing a cup with strangers and by the idea of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. I don’t understand the symbolism and, for me, religion still comes back to food, which is why I have never fasted during Ramadan: I can’t go without a snack from dawn till dusk. I can’t even give up chocolates for Lent.

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 United Methodist Church where most of her friends go, but Gboyega and I don’t go to church anymore. I often say that is because churches in Mississippi are segregated, but the truth is that we would rather just laze around on Sunday mornings, to Temi’s chagrin. She wants to go to church so she can meet up with her friends. If asked, she would call herself a Christian. She reads—in her own words—one to four books a week. When she was younger, she read her children’s illustrated bible over and over, but she has never read an adult bible and knows nothing about Islam.

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 United States, Mississippi is part of the Bible Belt. After September 11, Islam was denigrated in churches here, by people who believed that Moslems prayed to a different God because they called on Him in a different language. In Nigeria, there was a resurgence for a while of Islamic fundamentalism in northern states like Zamfara. Under Sharia law, adulterers were sentenced to death by stoning and thieves were punished by having their hands cut off. At the same time, down south in Lagos, there has been a proliferation of Pentecostal and other churches that originate from the Bible Belt in the United States. They offer an alternative type of Christianity to Nigerians, egalitarian and commercial in the sense that anyone can be a pastor and pastors preach about prosperity.

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 Mecca in 1930 and Reverend Josaiah Ransome-Kuti his conversion to Christianity in the mid 1800s. The excerpts from their journals show how dedicated they were to their faiths without being narrow-minded, a capability that is rare in this day and age in Nigeria.

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 United States (on account of Mohammad Atta) and Gboyega jokingly suggested that I might want to reconsider my penname. I told him I would stick with Sefi Atta and live with the consequences. I feel the same way about my lack of denomination. I see no reason why I should choose between Christianity and Islam, except eternal damnation. From where I stand, I might be damned either way and, with choices like that, I would rather live with the consequences of not making one, for now.

Written by
Sefi Atta
Join the discussion

  • Its like T.S Eliot propounded: Sef is both tradition and individual talent. And she is just beginning!

  • Sefi Atta has an amazing background that others only ever get to read about. she then marries into a family with a history as rich as hers. and through all this, remains focused, humble and neutral. a talented writer indeed, Everything good was really as interesting as its title.

  • I am an OGQC (1988-1993) and Sefi writes about QC in 1975. Everything Good Will Come is about middle class Nigerian experience. I loved it and nice article.

    Up Sefi ! Up QC !

  • Interesting and cultural article. I read Everything Good Will Come and the sister can write. I give her that. I found out about her on Village Square. Her website has some information about here next novel. Sounds interesting to me. Will be looking out for it.

    Good luck to her.

  • Some fun family history here. I am Hausa and Muslim. Sefi is one of my favorite Nigerian writers. I LOVED Everything Good Will come and will look out for her next novel. Congratulations Sefiya you are a voice of my generation!