Surprise! Traditional African spirituality is regaining ground among young Nigerians

The first time I found out about African spirituality was not in a Social Studies class. That deliberate less than adequate excuse for education did little for me.

Rather than build on the little I learnt from dismissive conversations about distant relatives stuck in the village and ‘ignorance’ left me with nothing more than a new term for a group of people some of whom are family – traditional worshippers.

It is said with a calculated air that seemed to suggest these are things of old, something that happened a distant time ago before human civilisation. I was not alone in this miseducation.

Many Nigerians, particularly those born after the civil war, have a story of a distant grand-something – an aunt, uncle or a parent, who never accepted either Christianity or Islam depending on the imported religion their family happened upon. Unless you’re a Hausa-Muslim person.

Majority among the Hausa-Fulani have perfected the art of cleaving off chunks of their history preceding the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate. It’s a thing of marvel therefore, that people like one of the subjects of this piece were able not only to maintain their raw identity but the religion of their ancestors whose practitioners now number in the dozens.

Sada, who when he finds himself in Kano town answer Ibrahim, still bows to the power of Tsumburbura. He is usually in the town because he needs to buy farm essentials like fertilizer and medicine for his animals.

Unlike Sada, Enitan was raised in a culture whose own legacy is the perfection of the art of blending the new and the old – she is a true daughter of Ijebu land. Yet, for all her awareness of Ifa practices, she found steadiness in Christianity all her life until she neared 30. Something changed with the birth of her daughter and thereafter a messy divorce with the child’s father.

“For a while I could feel myself – my core, slipping away.”

She lost the steadiness Christianity gave her. Thankfully, something she wasn’t aware had been looking out all along was close at hand.

“I was an unusual child, my mother told me that the circumstances surrounding my birth were strange but she prayed hard over it and her initial worries went away as the years went by. Those strange circumstances visited again when I was seven. My grandmother died and I began to see and talk to her and when my mum found out she called her pastor for help, again.”

There were Christian rituals for that kind of thing and her mother’s pastor pulled out the bible and anointing oil and went to work.

“Years later I think we all forgot it like it never happened, but I continued to feel presences around keeping a respectful distance. Until my life was turned upside down by an abusive marriage and a child I was determined to shield.”

Something happens when your soul is ground into fine nothing. You become ready to seek any way for renewal.

“I started feeling for the presence after I couldn’t stop it. Opening myself up to connection, seeing the many signs littered everywhere.”

The signs she said are feathers of birds in strange places, strong palpable energies in new places, and her grandmother frequenting her in dreams.

“The dreams are about the same, always her trying to guide me to something. I didn’t know then that she was guiding me back to their protective embrace. Willing me to let them help. It took a hard knock before I finally let them in.”

When she let them in, a flurry of spirits began revealing themselves to her.

“It wasn’t just my grandma. What I have learnt in the 3 years I have been open to connection is that we live in a world filled with spirits ready to share the preternatural powers at their disposal, but only if you allow them in,” she said, “the thing about spirits you see is that they will not cross their boundary without your explicit allowance.”

If she wishes to delve deeper even beyond her personal relationship with the spirits of her ancestors and that of others in an interconnected spiritual realm, Enitan could easily access the wealth of wisdom at her disposal. Yoruba Land unlike Hausa Land did not become hostile to traditional African spirituality to the extent of driving it to the periphery of modern society.

Sada (Ibrahim) doesn’t have that luxury. The 19th century and the arrival of Dan Fodio and his hordes drove the cult of Tsumburbura and its spirit possession practices of Bori out of larger society.

“I only learnt about the extent of our ancestral spiritual worship through stories of hay days when our people once ruled Kano,” he said.

My grandmother used to tell those stories with heartbreaking passion. She still sacrificed a fowl every year to Tsumburbura till her death, but each time she did so in our backyard, she will chant and pray and fall into trance then emerge in tears.”

His grandmother, like him, could no longer enjoy the full extent of the spiritual tradition.  An annual pilgrimage to Dala hill where ordinarily the sacrifice is made at the site of the God’s shrine. The shrine, like the spiritual practice, has been driven aground by the Islamic empire that rules from Sokoto to the river; northern edge of the Niger. Sada remains devoted to the God and seeks Bori every now and then.

“It is not enough, but it sustains me. The world you see is full of malevolent spirits and the best way to mitigate them is through these spiritual practices. I see the impact of that in my everyday life.”

Whether by accident or as a natural course of time believed by certain spiritual traditions to be a circle that goes around unto itself, African spirituality appears to be gaining ground among young people. It is slow going but it is happening.

When Enitan poured a capful of the gin we were about to drink at a get-together of like minds on the ground; in honour of our ancestors, it was met with reverence. I had expected derision, at best.

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