Revd Paul Obayi – Meet The Nigerian Priest Saving Igbo Deities from the bonfires

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When the Nigerian government expunged history from its school curriculum in 2007, we all lamented the unfortunate decision as if it was something new.

Revd Paul Obayi – Meet The Nigerian Priest Saving Igbo Deities from the bonfires
Reverend Paul Obayi ©️BBC

Maybe because it is easier to talk about the errors of government than individuals. Or maybe because the government offers itself as a good place to lay blames with fingers pointing away from our guilt.

Yet a time comes when we cannot deny our contribution towards the death of our history. But it remains to be answered, if we will repent when we learn the errors of our ways. And if we do repent, how far are we willing to go to make things right?

This repentance is currently the case of Rev. Fr. Paul Obayi, a catholic priest of the Diocese of Nsukka in the eastern part of Nigeria where he runs a museum of Igbo deities after years dedicated to destroying them.

Through his museum Fr. Paul, also known as Fr. Okunerere (The Fire that Burns), is taking actions to save these deities; a necessary step for someone who helped to endanger them in the first place.

Christianity arrived in Igbo land and like all other religions that came to Africa, it gave us what we already have, a God. We accepted this gift with both hands and swallowed it whole. Either out of ignorance or foreseeable personal gains, or both, we learned over the years that true Christianity meant the destruction of our divination shrines.

Revd Paul Obayi – Meet The Nigerian Priest Saving Igbo Deities from the bonfires
A Catholic Bishop burns objects that he believes are against Christian teachings. ©️BBC

The gods of our ancestors became obsolete. It was not long until Igbo deities started skirting the borders of extinction. And then came the fires. With a single stroke of the match, Christian preachers like Fr. Okunerere, set ablaze a pile of history as old as time itself. Like every flame stoked by ignorance, Okunerere’s fire burned from one shrine to the next. It was an era of dark poetry witnessing gods in hell, damned by their own creation.

At the time when the burning of shrines was rampant at the little town of Nsukka, Fr. Okunerere and other Pentecostal preachers tagged their acts as deliverance from evil spirits. Usually, families or villages who have given up their traditional worship systems for the much-trendy Christian faith would invite the priest for deliverance. After prayers intended to cast out evil spirits, he would burn the shrines or take the divination artefacts with him.

Saving Igbo Deities from the bonfires
Various forms of Ikenga and other Igbo religious items collected by French Catholic missionaries, presumably given up by Igbo Catholic converts, many Igbo (and other African) artefacts ended up in European museums and private collections this way, not directly looted, not bought, but freely given up by Africans and priced in the thousands in Europe. From: Friederich, R.P (1916). “Le Fétichisme chez les Ibos.” Les Missions Catholiques: Bulletin Hebdomadaire Illustré de l’Oeuvre de la Propagation de la Foi, Vol. 48, No. 2474

Over the years, entrepreneurial Pentecostalism took root in Nsukka, and one of the products it peddles is family deliverance. While the monumental historical losses of Fr. Okunerere’s era could be blamed on overzealous faith and ignorance, the new wave of Pentecostal attack on the few surviving shrines is powered by money. Self-ordained pastors and bishops are springing up at every corner and every alleluia comes with a price tag. Christianity, all of a sudden, became an expensive religion both in the money paid to invite the pastors and the permanent loss of whatever they would burn when they come for deliverance. They always burn something, especially something old, something reeking with a stench of irrecoverable history.

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The gradually extinction of the Igbo religious history is not particular to the town of Nsukka. It is common across the whole Igboland where modern Christianity has become the major religion preaching that anything our ancestors handed to us is pure evil. In all of this, the most pathetic tragedy was that few people are worried that the coming generations will not know their history.

However, a tiny ray of hope lies in St.Theresa’s Cathedral, Nsukka where Fr. Okunerere currently runs a museum housing the remainder of the artefacts he did not burn. The museum is made up of three rooms with different totems littered on the floor. The museum, which receives only a handful of visitors cannot be called a museum in the strict sense of the word as there are no official records kept about each artifact, its history or the village from which it was taken.

Revd Paul Obayi – Meet The Nigerian Priest Saving Igbo Deities from the bonfires
Most of the artefacts at Deities Museum are wooden carvings. ©️BBC

Also, the museum has no form of preservative measures in place to ensure that these artefacts are protected from the elements. If the churches intention in keeping these items was actually to preserve them, it remains to be seen in deed. At this rate, it will only be a matter of time until termites eat through the fibers of history that Fr. Okunerere’s fires did not take.

Already, it is undeniably shameful that most of the histories about Africa were not written by Africans. Yet we have not done much to salvage the situation even in areas of our lives where it seems we can. Almost every African below 20 years of age cannot speak of his history with any sense of authority. We can blame this on the fact that we never really cared much about anything, but the blame lies more on how we have adapted the religion that was given to us.

Christianity was another man’s song yet we danced ourselves lame on it. You would think that having no legs anymore, we would stop. But now, we dance with our hands, we float in the air, and at the sound of every alleluia, something authentic is lost forever. The irony is that if you consider it properly, even Christ will be disappointed in Africa.

The time will come when in talking about Africa, no one would be interested in hearing from the horse’s mouth. Because even the horses will not be able to tell the difference between what was true, and what was made up in his own history.

Chiedozie Omeje
Chiedozie is a writer and a reader. He is also a firm believer that man's idiocy is the reason he claims he's a higher animal.

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