Christianity vs. the old gods of Nigeria

Achina, Nigeria - Born in a family of traditional priests in southeastern Nigeria, 52-year-old Ibe Nwigwe converted to Christianity as a boy. Under the sway of born-again fervor as a man, he gathered the paraphernalia of ancestral worship — a centuries old stool, a metal staff with a carved wooden handle and a carved god figure — and burned them as his pastor watched.

"I had experienced a series of misfortunes and my pastor told me it was because I had not completely broken the covenant with my ancestral idols," said Nwigwe of that bonfire three years ago. "Now that I have done that, I hope I will be truly liberated."

Generations ago, European colonists and Christian missionaries looted Africa's ancient treasures, art still coveted by collectors around the world. Now, Pentecostal Christian evangelists — most of them Africans — are helping to wipe out remaining traces of how Africans worked, played and prayed in the distant past.

As poverty deepened in Nigeria from the mid-1980s, Pentecostal Christian church membership surged. The new faithful found comfort in preachers like popular Nigerian evangelist preacher Uma Ukpai who promised material success was next to godliness. Ukpai has boasted of overseeing the destruction of more than 100 shrines in one district in December 2005 alone.

Achina is typical of towns and villages in the ethnic Igbo-dominated Christian belt of southeastern Nigeria where this new Christian fundamentalism is evident. The old gods are being linked to the devil, and preachers are urging not only their rejection, but their destruction.

The Ezeokolo, the main shrine of Achina — a community of mainly farmers and traders in Nigeria's old rain forest belt — has been ransacked repeatedly in recent years, its carved god figures disappearing. While no one has been caught, suspicions range from people acting on Christian impulses to treasure thieves.

Recently, members of an age grade — village civic association formed around people of similar ages — volunteered to build a house meant to keep burglars away from a giant wooden gong decorated with carved male, female and snake figures in the market square. The gong is reputed to be more than 400 years old and was only beaten in the old days to mobilize the community in times of emergency.

"We feared it may be stolen or destroyed like so many of our traditional cultural symbols," said Chuma Ezenwa, a Lagos-based lawyer who is a member of the age grade.

The move to protect a communal symbol has not stopped people from taking private action.

Ikechukwu Nzekwe, a 48-year-old Achina farmer who was initiated into the masquerade cult as a boy, rues the unilateral action of his younger brother, a born-again Christian who last year destroyed the family's masquerade costume, pieces going back seven generations.

The masquerade cult was partly traditional theater, appearing during festivals to perform songs and dances, and partly traditional police, helping enforce mores and customs. Currently its role is largely restricted to theater featuring performances and races by men in costumes acting as ancestral spirits during festivals.

Ukpai, the Nigerian evangelist, said during a crusade gathering last year the destruction of the symbols of the old gods was "a continuous thing." Efforts to speak to Ukpai were unsuccessful and e-mails to his office asking for an interview received no reply.

Early missionaries to Nigeria had condemned most traditional practices as pagan. The two mainstream groups, the Catholic and the Anglicans, gradually came to terms with most of them, even incorporating some traditional dances into church liturgy. But there was no room for the local gods, which were left stranded and unprotected once their erstwhile worshippers became Christians.

Similarly, Muslim preachers in the predominantly Islamic north of the country forbade any interaction with figures and figurines dedicated to local idols. But many cultural dances featuring traditional masks are still tolerated in the north.

Most converts are in constant tension over how much of the old beliefs can be taken into the new faith, said Isidore Uzoatu, a specialist in the history of Christianity in Africa affiliated with Nnamdi Azikiwe University in southeastern Nigeria.

"Where the older Catholic and Anglican denominations are more tolerant, the Pentecostals reflect more strictly the idea of a jealous God that would brook no rival," said Uzoatu.

The changing attitudes have not escaped the attention of art dealers.

"This work you see here is from a shrine. It was brought to me by one woman who said her pastor had asked her to get rid of it," said Wahid Mumuni, a dealer at Ikoyi Hotel, in the commercial capital, Lagos, gesturing toward a carving.

Mumuni said the price was the equivalent of US$1,500 and he expected a European visitor to take it away soon.

Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which is charged with protecting the country's cultural antiquities, is responding with a sensitization campaign.

"We are ... telling the Christians that they can't detach themselves from their past, that there is a beginning to their history," said Omotosho Eluyemi, a senior official of the commission.

The commission urges those who do not want to keep sacred objects to take them to their local chiefs. It also was seeking stricter enforcement of the law prohibiting export of artifacts.

Okwy Achor, a Nigerian archaeologist, fears the government's response so far has been weak compared to the fervor of the evangelists.

Achina is part of the region where the famous Igbo-Ukwu bronzes were discovered in a private compound in 1958. Older and more sophisticated than the better known Benin and Ife bronzes, the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes dating to between the 8th and 10th centuries provide proof that a unique form of metallurgy evolved in Nigeria independent of Europe and other parts of the world.

While Achina had few Christians 60 years ago, they now constitute more than 95 percent, says Emmanuel Eze, a retired school teacher in the town.

"There is hardly anyone around these days to speak up for tradition," said Eze.