Sharing my thoughts and putting my message accross
RA: Though you were born in Nigeria, you have spent much of your life away from home. What urged you to pursue an education abroad?
FL: It was the constraints of the country. Prospective university students were made to go through a central examination system that ultimately decided which university they ended up attending and what subject they studied. Many like me failed this examination repeatedly and could not get into national institutions. It was not uncommon for better placed people who were not lacking in the so-called “vitamin C” — the connections necessary to make it through life — to have better access to such institutions without the strains of the examination. So I made up my mind to travel outside the country for my education.
RA: A blessing in disguise! Given your time spent in the Western world, some might say that you have been influenced, perhaps negatively, by a life away from home. What would you say to these people?
FL: That it’s not necessarily true. I would say I have tried to integrate a hybrid value system; a mix of what I’ve got here and what I’ve learned from home. When you mix the two together I wouldn’t say that there are any negative influences from what I’ve learned abroad. The alternative would have been to end up as the proverbial traveler who passes through the world and refuses to let the world pass through him.
FL: That is the focus of my book. Basically, it is because of declining economic fortunes. In the “good old days” when things were better in Nigeria — the 70s and early 80s when the overall economy of my country was quite good — I had a good number of friends and associates who were at home bearing the consequences of not following familial customs. I remember a sizeable number of Benin City residents who resisted shaving their head as demanded by tradition when the traditional ruler of the old Benin Kingdom died. People did not feel as though it reflected their identity. There was a sense of self-sufficiency in financial terms and the need to reach out to peripheral values was largely reduced. Today I would say that there will be many more people willing to shave their head than back in those days if the traditional ruler were to die today. Many more people turn to the spirits of the ancestors to seek protection and guidance in confronting the hardship of daily lives dictated by unemployment and poverty. The confidence in those days, of seeking treatment from hospitals when one fell sick is now replaced by seeking traditional alternatives and the protection of invisible forces. The more financially stable people were, the less they felt compelled to follow the dictates of customs and tradition as such.
RA: You bring up the issue of economics. In your book when discussing witchcraft you mention that children and the elderly are common targets for accusations. Do you think there is any correlation between the financial burden of caring for children and the elderly that makes this fact so?
FL: In March I met former president Olusegun Obasanjo in London and discussed this issue with him. He was telling me that we have an inherent tradition of caring for elders. There is no such practice of confining elders to old people homes and he highlighted this as a distinctive good in African tradition. Caring for children and elderly is not strange to African thought. Financed or not, there is an inherent attachment to this system. What is playing an adverse role today is the belief that the elders and younger ones are more clairvoyant and therefore have more to do with witchcraft. In my book I cited examples of elderly people cared for by their younger ones being accused of witchcraft due to one misfortune or the other. In the end you find elders ostracized, tied down, maimed and even lynched. I believe the deeply rooted belief system plays more of a role in this regard than finance.
RA: How divisive do you think religion is in Nigeria?—Africa as a whole?
FL: I think that is self explanatory. Although, one should have expected a division along three lines—Islam, Christianity and Traditional religions—what you have is a division largely along the lines of Islam and Christianity. However, the reason why division has escalated to the degree that it is today is more political than economic. It has been exacerbated by influences from foreign countries and this is particularly true as far as Islam is concerned.
RA: Much of the depictions of Catholic and Christian deities and revered figures are white. Jesus is often depicted as white, the pope has historically been white and until recently, European. Do you think that this has an impact in the psyche of young black children who practice these religions?
FL: A very farfetched impact I would say. In Africa, young people do not live in the same environment as those in the West. They have more daily issues to contend with than whether or not the pope is white or black. There may be more of an impact on the intellectual class who has the means and opportunity of truly assessing the situation and even in this class I’d see the psychological impact as very minimal.
RA: A lot of people seem to be apologetic towards the nature of the introduction of Christianity and Islam into Africa citing these religions have actually benefited the continent. What would you say about those who claim that colonial religions have enlightened or benefited Africans more so than they have done us harm? Do you think that the benefits associated with these religions would have otherwise been left unrecognized?
FL: Yes and no. It is a very tricky issue that I address in detail in my book. Let me talk more about Christianity because Islam actually began in the Middle East and was brought in through the Trans Saharan trade into North Africa. In contrast Christianity was introduced into the south through missionaries. One benefit of the introduction of Christianity was the eradication of human sacrifices. In my book I gave the example of the Calabar region in Nigeria where there was a practice of killing twins. You could say all across the continent, religion came in and helped move us past all of those things that we thought were helpful means to appease or to please the ancestors or other spirits. Even in ancient Egypt, servants would be buried with the pharaohs whom they served following the belief that possessions and such follow one into the afterlife.
The abolition of these practices and awakening of the consciousness that the practice is inherently wrong is one huge benefit of the introduction of Christianity into black Africa. Never mind that human sacrifices have crept back into the continent these days in different guises as elaborated in my book, the overriding consciousness of evil beclouds the act. You can see such stories in most newspapers in Nigeria. I believe that these colonial religions did help Africa move away from particularly dark days. Yet the same colonial project did a lot of injustices to black Africans with the instrument of religion. The inferiority of the black man to the white man and thus his enslavement was often justified by the quotation of passages from the Holy Bible. More than I do in my book, former United States President Jimmy Carter provides more details in this regard in his book “Keeping Faith”
RA: What would be your advice for Africa’s closet non-believers?
FL: My advice, the reason I wrote my book, is to encourage as many people as possible to embrace rational and scientific thinking. When I last visited Nigeria I was chatting with a few friends of mine. What people often tell me is that we as Black Africans are more spiritually advanced than others. What we claim is that we know these imported religions better than those who brought them to us! However, the practice of religion does not encourage growth in belief. What you see is that material gains are at the center of what is characterized as belief. People who make a commitment to a particular religion in Africa—specifically in Nigeria—have one goal in their minds, “How do I get out of my current economic predicament?” Consequently, there is always this haste to attribute the inability to do so to evil powers. When I returned to Germany my wife noticed I was showing symptoms of malaria. I was prescribed medication but when it did not set in as it should, my wife called the nearest hospital.
When I got there I shared a room with a German guy who had been there for some time. The morning after my first night he called the nurse and asked for a skin cream. I looked at this man and noticed that he was scratched to redness over his entire body. I presumed that his skin had dried and in the night he relieved himself of itchiness and this resulted in the condition which he found himself in the morning. If this had happened in Nigeria the only conclusion one in the same position would come to is, “I was attacked by witches in the night!” And I, as a newcomer in that room, would have been accused of witchcraft. Will any nation move forward on the basis of this low mentality? No. What I’m trying to say is that if there are people who are non-believers, I don’t think that they have anything to lose. To me, the most important tenets that are common in religious teaching are that of equity and to do unto others that you would want them do unto you. Unfortunately, this is not the case in modern Africa where pastors exploit the poor to afford private jets and set the wrong example of an easy path to wealth. As it stands today, religion is not doing much good to the progress of black Africa at all.