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Emissaries of an iconic religion

‘You must be so proud of your husband.’ My friend was talking to the wife of Adolphus Opara, the photographer whose work hung on the walls around us. We were at the opening exhibition of his collection of photographs at Lagos’ Centre for Contemporary Art.

‘Yeah,’ she said, with a joking scowl. ‘And he didn’t even thank me!’

My friends and I were a bit confused by her apparent lack of enthusiasm for her husband’s success. The exhibit was of Adolphus’ portraits of priests and priestesses of the Yoruba religion. Of the fifteen large photographs, five – mounted on black frames and backlit producing a dramatic, other-wordly effect – had hung at the Tate Modern in London. Surely this was a huge accolade for a photographer?

‘While he was out with these people, I was praying. I saved his life!’

…?

Nothing is ever as it seems in Nigeria. When I looked at the exhibition through the animated crowd, I saw stunning pictures of dignified men and women, proud and self-assured representatives of their faith. But many Nigerians fear their traditional religion. For them, these were not just photographs but a window into a dark world where their souls were in danger.

In his speech, Adolphus explained that this collection of images was his attempt to explore the gap of understanding between modern Nigerian beliefs and their ancient way of life. His initial attraction was simple, open-minded curiosity. He wanted to discover why, for as long as he could remember, he was made to fear his indigenous religion. What was it, exactly, that was so evil?

Adolphus Opara

It is hard for me, an outsider, to understand this gap between the new and the old. How is it that two imported religions have so successfully displaced ancient belief systems? Islam arrived in the north of Nigeria around a thousand years ago; Christianity came to the south nearly 400 years ago. Today, only around 10% of Nigerians claim to adhere to traditional beliefs. For many others, what remains of the ancient customs and rituals of their forefathers is only the murky myths of sacrifice, curses and evil spirits.

Two evenings before the exhibition, I had had the privilege of attending a talk by Doyin, a High Priestess of the Osogbo Sacred Groves. Before the arrival of Christianity in Yoruba lands (in the south western region of the country), every village had its sacred grove where the Orissas, or deities, were honoured in shrines. Today, the Osogbo groves are one of the last remaining in Yoruba territory.

Listening to Doyin’s presentation, several people in the audience noted how familiar many of the tenants seemed: many parallels were to be drawn with other faiths such as Buddhism. After a brief incantation to bless the gathering, she gave us an overview of what is known to be one of the most complex systems of belief in the world. According to the Yoruba, Oladumare is the supreme deity, the creator of all things. Between God and man are 401 deities each representing an aspect of the natural world. For example, Osun, the primary deity of the Sacred Groves, is the goddess of the water of life and fertility. Ogun is the god of war, fire, thunder and copper.

According to the Yoruba, everything is connected – past, present and future, life on earth and the spirit world. What you do affects not only your life in the present physical world but also your future in the spiritual world. The role of priests and priestesses is to help maintain balance in the natural order of things. Good behaviour sustains a good balance: bad behaviour disrupts the natural order and will be paid for in this life or the next. A child is born not as an empty vessel but with links to its ancestors and to its destiny. For this reason the naming ceremony for children is so important. In the past, a name was given through divination that discovered these links thereby giving the child its place in the natural and social order.

Doyin’s presentation and Adoluphus’ photographs made me wonder if not more than just a belief system was lost when this faith was replaced by Christianity and Islam. The ability of the priests and priestesses to communicate with and call upon the power of the spirit world provided a check on social and political behaviour. Interestingly, though most people claim to no longer believe in or live according to the ceremonies and processes of the traditional faith, many, regardless of education or religious conviction, continue believe in (and therefore fear) this power of the spirit world.

In taking the photographs of the priests and priestesses, Adolphus did not set out to describe these practitioners or their faith and practices as either good or evil. He simply wanted to understand and help others understand. It is only when we understand ‘the other’ that we can have empathy for each other’s point of view and we can engage in meaningful dialogue.

As Adolphus said, ‘This is our tradition, our roots; this is what made us who we are. It should not be forgotten.’

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