While some Pentecostal preachers in eastern Nigeria set statues and other ancient artifacts on fire that they see as symbols of idolatry, a Catholic priest collects them instead.
Artifacts are central to the traditional religions practiced by the Igbo people of the region, who consider them sacred and possessing supernatural powers.
But there are now very few followers of these religions, as Christianity – led by Pentecostal churches – has become the dominant faith in the region.
BBC Igbo’s Chiagozie Nwonwu and Karina Igonikon report on the priest’s efforts to protect a story that is being lost due to the actions of some preachers.
Although it is referred to as a “burning fire,” there is nothing scary about Reverend Paul Obayi, who runs the Deities Museum in the town of Nnsuka in eastern Nigeria.
Located within the grounds of the Catholic Cathedral of St. Therese, the three-room museum houses hundreds of totem poles, masks, a stuffed lion, and sculptures of Igbo deities.
When communities abandon traditional religious beliefs, mainly under the influence of Christian Pentecostal churches, some pastors light bonfires to burn artifacts, which they say contradict monotheistic beliefs of the faith, and which represent “the evil ones.” spirits that bring bad luck ”.
Sometimes worshipers of traditional religions also burn their deities, in accordance with a belief captured in the Igbo proverb: “If a god becomes too troublesome, he becomes wood for the fireplace.”
But Reverend Obayi goes against the trend in preserving the rejected gods and goddesses, claiming he is using religious powers to suppress their supposed supernatural abilities. This has earned him the nickname Okunerere – “the fire that burns idols in the spirit”.
“I have already destroyed spirits,” he said in his museum.
“What you have is just an empty shell. There is nothing inside.”
Reverend Obayi said he was in part influenced by museums in Western countries, which are under enormous pressure to return artefacts, such as bronzes from Benin, which were looted during colonial times.
“I visit museums in the West and see artefacts, some even from Benin, and I decided to preserve ours.
A treasure of divinities
The administrator of the cathedral, Reverend Father Eugene Odo, supports his initiative, comparing it to a museum owned by Catholics in Italy.
“In Rome, for example, there is the museum housing things the Romans did as pagans, and people go there to see the stages of human development,” he said.
Although the Museum of Deities welcomes visitors who come from as far away as Lagos to view some of the tagged items, it is in urgent need of care and attention. The objects, some centenarians, litter the floor of the museum, covered with dust. Some have been ravaged by termites.
But it is a treasure house of Igbo deities – in one corner is a scary mask surrounded by raffia, in another corner a deity used by tricksters – two oblong-shaped objects held together by a string, used in the past to solve “mysteries” like catching a thief. Hidden trickster-operated levers were used to control the movement of objects when the names of suspects were called out, giving the impression that an unseen force had discovered the thief.
But the piece de resistance is the Adaada leja, a headless goddess covered in raffia, celebrated by those looking for children. Reverend Obayi said the deity was almost 200 years old.
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The articles come from the “delivery services” he has conducted over the past 20 years to towns and villages in southeastern Nigeria.
“People are writing letters inviting my ministry to come and take away the idols that bother them,” he said.
Paths of the ancestors
Odinani, an ancient Igbo religion, was practiced before the arrival of Christianity and colonialism. It is a form of animism where people pray to a spirit – represented by a statue – known as chi. He asks for intercession on behalf of a Supreme Being, or Chukwu.
Other worshiped deities include:
Ala – the goddess of fertility
Amadioha – the god of thunder
Ekwensu – the god of good business and evil
Ikenga – an avatar of the owner’s mind
There are not many followers of these ancient religions left, and they suffer persecution from the Christian majority.
Their holy days are ignored, traditions such as rites of passage are frowned upon, and there have been instances where shrines have been overrun by Christian activists.
Today, most of these religions are elderly, although a handful of young people are now rebelling against their Christian faith and learning the ways of their ancestors.
Chinasa Nwosu, Pentecostal bishop of the Royal Church in the southern city of Port Harcourt, is a fierce critic of traditional beliefs.
Bishop Nwosu first came to prominence in the early 1990s for destroying shrines, burning so-called idols and uprooting what he denounces as “evil trees”.
These trees, some of them ancient, have their base wrapped in pieces of white or red cloth and are sacred to the adherents who venerate them and make small sacrifices to them. Some are in the family compound but most are in forests far from the community.
“God does not want us to practice idol worship. African religion, most of the time, is based on idolatry,” he said.
“The blessings come when you do away with these cursed things,” he added, quoting the Bible.
He said that sculptures and other works of art such as Benin bronzes and Ife heads, which are items stolen in western Nigeria and which are now in European museums, did not have been consecrated to a God, he was therefore not opposed to their being restored.
But he warned the Nigerian government that if he brought back any items that could be attributed to “idolatry,” like the Ikenga woodcarvings in the British Museum, he would want them burned.
Reverend Obayi, who remains committed to preserving the artifacts in his modest museum, vehemently opposes it.
“These are artifacts that our children will see and they will understand how their ancestors lived,” he said.