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One or the Other: An Essay by Sefi Atta

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 Igbira people. Atta Ibrahim was a Moslem and responsible for the spread of Islam in Igbiraland. 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 Igbiraland, 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 pen name. 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.

From Josaiah Ransome-Kuti, The Drummer Boy Who Became a Canon, by Isaac O. Delano

I was born between the years of 1855 and 1857, the exact date being unknown. My father, Kuti by name, is the grandson of Likoye, a woman of note at Igbein whom God blessed with many children. He was a staunch heathen of Igbein Township; a weaver of cloth and a town musician by profession; and as every male here is supposed to be a warrior, he used to go to war with the Balogun of Igbein, in one of which wars he had a very narrow escape. He did not like Christianity. He used to say that the white men make everything dear, such as palm-oil, palm kernel and shea-butter because they export them to Europe; he would be glad to exterminate Christianity and the white men but he had no power; he died of a guinea-worm sore in 1863.

Our present remaining family belongs to the war department of Igbein Township. I inherited my father’s farm. What seems the cause of separation from my heathen family is nothing but Christianity, and I am proud of it.

My mother’s name is Ekidan Efupeyin. She belonged to the royal line of Igbein and Imo Township. Her family idol is Orisa-Oko, one of the most costly idols. She became a Christian in about 1848 and took the name Anne. To her I owe my Christianity today, for my father lived and died a heathen. She was a Wesleyan convert, but a difference between the late Reverend Beckersneth of Obge and Reverend King of Igbein brought her over to the Igbein church. The cause of the matter was simply this: not knowing that the two brethren were not on terms, she, in her ignorance, one Sunday attended Igbein church on a visit to her sisters in the Lord. She was dismissed and, of course, Reverend King received her gladly.

She suffered terribly from her uncle, the Balogun of Igbein. She used to pray much for me because her uncle threatened to kill me if she did not change her faith. She also prayed that I may become a prophet of the Lord. I quite remember her prayer then, and I quote it. She used to say in prayer, thus: “Lord let this my son Josaiah become thy prophet”. Of course, she meant a teacher. This simple and heartfelt prayer used to ring in my ears—after years—and she lived to see me sent into the Training Institute and thence into the field as a teacher.

In 1864, my mother took me to the principal of the Training Institute to serve as his houseboy. I attended day school for some time. I stayed about a year there and then sickness forced me back to my uncle’s farm. He was an emigrant from Sierra Leone by the name of Thomas Cole alias “Kajero”. Staying some time there, I returned home again but, soon after attending school, I was sick with measles which nearly proved fatal.

The late Reverend Allen was then taking charge of Igbein station and the Training Institute. That kind Reverend gentleman took good care of me, nursed me, prayed for me, attended me always at my mother’s place. It was this kindness which made me want to stay with him, but my father refused.

In my mother’s absence in the farm, Papa would give me food offered to idols, would take me to Obanifon Grove and to all other sacrificial feasts, he being an efficient drummer. He would shave my head and leave a tuft of hair in the center and would call me Oso or Likoye and not Josaiah, and he would also not allow my schoolmates to come to call me to school, and would fight any Christian who called me Josaiah outside.

Of course, under such a father I became fond of sacrificial feasts, and naturally I liked my father for giving me nice things to eat. But when my mother arrived from the farm, she would take me to church, take me to school and not allow me to partake of things offered to idols. But as soon as she left for the farm, my father would resume his former practice and this went on for years until my father died in 1863. Then my mother took me altogether to herself.

My youth was glorious and prosperous. I enjoyed excellent health and a good physique, and suffered only from accidents brought upon myself in doing my share of youthful pranks. I was a healthy boy. I can now judge that I was not a good boy. I liked the white men’s teaching, but more did I like the sweet things they gave us to eat. I always refused my father’s injunctions not to follow my mother to church. I liked going with her. She made it pleasant by buying me new dresses. We attended Bible Class, Sunday School and the church services together. I could claim to have eaten the idol meat and the missionaries’ biscuits on the same day.

From Alhaji Ibrahim Atta, A Visionary Traditional Ruler, by Albert Ozigi

On 26 March 1930, we left Marseilles for Port Said, arriving there on 31st March. One day was spent at Port Said and then we proceeded to Cairo. Cairo is a wonderful city. It appears to be populated entirely by Muslims and there are innumerable mosques.

While I was in Cairo, an Egyptian (he seemed an official of sorts, I cannot recall his name) engaged me in a conversation. He asked me various questions regarding Nigeria and especially of my own country there. He asked me if we all paid tax. I answered that certainly we did and explained to him how the tax was divided, half to the government and half to the native administration. He then asked me what we thought of the British. I told him we thought very highly of them. He informed me that a lot of the big people of Egypt were at present in London to attend some conference that no British soldiers were to remain in Egypt. After that he said to me that it would be a good thing if Arabic was taught in all the schools. I replied that I would consider the matter and talk to my District Officer about it, as I had no desire to hide anything from the government. He then went away, leaving me with the impression that there was not much difference between the people of Lagos and the Egyptians.

Proceeding to Mecca by car (charge one pound per head going and thirty-five shillings per head returning) we lodged at the house of a Hausa name Shehu Tukur. A certain youth had noticed my party greeting people from Lagos whom we had traveled with and who lodged in a different quarter. This youth followed us to our lodging and asked me if I was not an Arab. I replied that I was not, whereupon he seized hold of my gown. I ordered him to let go at once and depart, and he went. Next day he complained of being assaulted to Shehu Mai Su Taafi, who sent one of his messengers with the youth to my lodging. He came into my apartment and my servant Musa turned him out. We then went before Shehu Mai Su Taafi and there the youth declared that my servant and a son of my host (Shehu Tukur) named Haruna had beaten him. He (Shehu Mai Su Taafi) then picked up a stick and proceeded to beat Haruna. I interfered and said there was no need to do such a thing. I was then told to call my servant Musa. I refused. He then said I had to leave my present lodging and go and live at the youth’s place. Again, I refused and said he could kill me if he liked, but I certainly would not go on my own accord. I went on to say I had come a very long journey to make the pilgrimage, but if this was the way I was going to be treated, I would return at once to my own country. He said “go then” and I walked away but, after I had gone some little distance, he called me back and apologised and made the youth kneel and kiss my hand. He then forbade Haruna to ever enter the sacred precincts of Mecca again.

Next day, Shehu Mai Su Taafi called me, and he, I and an old Hausa name Dan Kanye (who had lived forty years in Mecca) had a long talk. We conversed amicably. He asked whether we had unbelievers. I said, “Do you mean in my country?” Then Dan Kanye told him that all the Europeans there were unbelievers. I was then asked if we had courts of justice. On my replying that we had, I was asked if there were any thieves in my country. I told him there were plenty and he asked if we cut off their hands. I informed him that we did not do that sort of thing. He said it seemed a pretty poor place and enquired what was our custom as regards adultery—if the guilty ones were killed. I told him that they were not killed. We either flogged them (the men only) or fined them and, if they could not pay the fine, they were sentenced to imprisonment for one month or two months or even three months as the case may be.

He then said that the Europeans are spoiling everything and that if one went by the Koranic law, a thief should have either his arm or his leg cut off. I replied I was aware of that but this practice is not followed these days. Dan Kanye told me there was a slave market in Mecca and suggested I should go and have a look at it. I declined. He then asked me did I not want to buy a slave? I said “How much?” He replied that one could be bought from thirty pounds to eighty pounds. I then informed him that I had no desire to see the slave market, far less to buy a slave. Even had I so desired, where could I take him? One does not put fire on one’s own head. Dan Kanye then went on to tell me that the King had issued an order some seven years ago that no person was to be captured and sold to slavery, but if a slave was brought to Mecca by one making the pilgrimage, this slave could be sold there.

Mecca is very unsanitary and the water is bad. The houses, however, are good. The heat is very trying and the mosquitoes are very troublesome. There are a great many Hausas (I should put the number at some thousands—probably six thousand) in Mecca. These would like to return to their own country but lack the necessary means. They live by begging and working as labourers and the women are mostly prostitutes. They are despised by the Arabs.

Sefi Atta
Sefi Atta
Sefi Atta is a Nigerian writer. Her first novel Everything Good Will Come was awarded the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature. She is also the author of a novel, Swallow, and Lawless, a short story collection.


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