A Week in Nigeria
It was my great privilege to spend the period November 5th-11th, 2004, in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, chiefly in the City of Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State. I was there at the invitation of Pastor Ani Ekpo, minister of the Reformed Baptist Church there, preaching on the Lord’s Day and speaking over the following four days at the Third Reformed Bible Conference. All my needs were kindly taken care of while I was in Nigeria but members of the congregation here in London financed the trip itself. As part of my commitment to this project I want to share with those who are interested, my impressions and thoughts and some of the things I learned in that week.
I am little travelled and I found the whole experience stimulating. I have met many Nigerians over the years and we have some in the congregation here. However, being there is quite a different thing and, although I was seeing only one tiny part of a large country, I feel it gave me more of an idea of their context and I hope a better understanding of their character.
I landed in Port Harcourt at first light on Friday November 5th. For a Brit who might have been at home in the cold getting a bonfire ready for the evening’s fireworks, the whole experience was fresh. Even at that hour it is quite warm and stepping from the pressurised airplane into the fresh air is a little like getting into a hot bath. The sound of insects chirping in the grass is familiar but one realises that this is not some movie but genuine sound. I was warned about requests for favours from immigration officials and was unsure what to expect. The attitude seemed to be, both in Port Harcourt and in Lagos, on my return, ‘You are richer than I so why don’t you give me a present?’ One lady asked me if I had brought her some Coca-Cola! One can feel a little awkward but there is no menace.
It was a great joy to see my friend Ani again and his son Judah. The airport is a little way from the main city and so we drove some miles I was able to take in the sights and think to myself ‘This is Africa’. One of the first things a westerner notices is the way people carry sometimes quite large loads on their heads. Although everywhere was very green – the grass, the palm trees, coconut and banana trees – there is a lot of brown mud and a great deal of poverty. There are also often shabby but always colourful signs everywhere – ‘Maltina cares for you in a special way’; ‘MTN buy recharge cards’. A large number of these announce the locations of churches and missions and coming crusades and conferences. Nigeria is 52% Christian, over half of these being evangelical to some extent. Christianity predominates in the south. Besides familiar church names one finds all sorts of other combinations of positive words – Christ ascension church inc, Success Christian life ministries, Deeper Life Bible Church, etc. (operation World lists 37 major denominations or sects in Nigeria, adding that there are 4, 649 others!). Along with the bumper stickers (‘I’m a covenant proof God cannot lie’; ‘2004 the year of my success celebration’) and some of the other signs (‘God’s own supermarket’; Hallelujah cyber cafe) one gets the impression of a very religious people but a people drawn largely to the more spectacular and superficial end of what passes these days for evangelicalism. We stopped off at a church one day where young people were practicing music with electric guitars. The bookshop on the same plot was full of the worst sort of American paperback. Kenneth Hagin was a name I recognised. The only Banner of Truth book there was a thin children’s book.
Port Harcourt is one of Nigeria’s major cities with a population of over 1 million. In London we are used to red buses and black taxi-cabs but I saw none of these there. Instead of buses they have minibuses to transport workers (labour mass transit vehicles) and instead of taxis a large number of ‘okadas’, small-engined mainly Japanese bikes ridden by young men without crash helmets without stopping. The main roads are all peopled by hawkers selling everything from cold drinks to phone cards (the cell-phone or ‘handset’ has made an impact in recent years) to hats and belts. They sell books (I saw Bill Clinton’s biography being hawked from car to car), cola nuts, gala (a locally manufactured savoury biscuit), everything. The cars on the road are familiar enough but are generally old and tatty. Trucks or lorries have a fifties look to them and some of the petrol tankers look decidedly ancient. Driving is on the right and there is apparently a highway code but little attention seems to be paid to that. A variety of police and traffic uniforms are seen with traffic direction being undertaken at many junctions. I witnessed a man being picked on for using his mobile phone while driving. The warden simply wanted money from him and was then quite happy for him to drive on.
To counter that impression of grasping I ought to relate how one day I went to a bank with Ani (the Union Bank formerly Barclay’s). We sat talking while he waited for his cash. When the cashier had it ready she passed this wad of notes (this is still very much a cash society – it’s strange to see so many Naira banknotes around, some much the worse for wear) to another customer to pass on to Ani. This is something that for many reasons would never happen in an English bank. While we were waiting in the bank gardens I had opportunity to see a little of the wildlife – sparrows, lizards, large dragonflies and butterflies. As in most of Africa insects can be a problem. Ani has a little colony slowly taking over his car.
Ani has the words ‘Reformed Baptist Mission Services’ emblazoned on the side of his car and the word missionary at the top of the windscreen. This can be helpful when the police are checking cars. He has to keep a supply of Bibles in the back, however, as sometimes a policeman will ask for one. Cars here are all state registered and usually bear the name of one of the 36 states and its motto. Rivers State is called the ‘Treasure base of the nation’, a reference to its oil, something which has served to make the state capital a relatively expensive place to live. Lagos, the largest city of Nigeria and 500 miles west of Port Harcourt, is ‘Centre of excellence’ while the new capital to the north, Abuja, is ‘Centre of unity’. Next door to Rivers is Abia, ‘God’s own state’. Also there is Bayelsa. I saw two mottos for this one ‘The glory of all lands’ and ‘The pride of the nation’. I wonder if there is some translation going on there. Although the official language of Nigeria is English, there are 21 other major languages (and over 400 minor ones) and you often here them spoken, all adding to the rich tapestry. Ani himself originates from Akwa Iboe state and speaks its language with his family and some of his members. I come from a bilingual home myself so this was not as disconcerting for me as some would find it.
When I say that English is spoken in Nigeria I should perhaps qualify that. Because of factors such as intonation, custom, history and education it is not always easy to understand or to be understood. For example, on meeting a person I would ask them their names. (Nigerian names, by the way, are often wonderful. Some have long African names that mean ‘God is very good’ or some such thing. Others have good Bible names that we know like Judah, Paul, Reuben, Solomon, etc, as well as non-biblical western names. Still others are called Peace, Gift, Patience, Victory, etc). One boy said his name was ‘Brains’ which I thought odd. I then realised he was saying ‘Prince’. A girl I thought was ‘Chris’ was in fact ‘Grace’. Similarly oddities came out as we sang the hymns. I’m odd I guess in pronouncing the English word ‘Dire’ as a two-syllable word ‘Die-er’. However, they sang it as though it were a one-syllable ‘dear’. When you get down on to the streets the English is even more difficult, not to mention the Pidgin English that exists across the south but that I had little chance to hear.
Apart from some government buildings and hotels there are few high-rise buildings in the city. There are some passable main roads but the highways are pretty dire by western standards. The track to Ani’s own church has several large potholes and would compare unfavourably to a farm track in England. There is an air of shabbiness over practically all the buildings and infrastructure of the city not helped by open drains and a general lack of walkways. The city was at least free of the usual detritus of discarded chewing gum, litter and dog excrement and I saw very few people smoking, although the tobacco firms are beginning to push this. Problems with drug abuse are relatively few, thankfully. The first Saturday of each month is a government decreed ‘sanitation day’ and from 7-10 am general traffic is banned, a clean up is attempted on the highways and citizens are encouraged to follow suit. It seems to be having little impact.
The poorest housing I saw was in what are called bachas, shacks or shanties thrown together with plywood and built on any spare land then removed when a new development takes place. Here one stills sees chickens and small goats roaming around. On most mornings I was woken by a rooster or two. On several days I saw a kite hovering around the church looking to swoop on one of the chickens. With relatively little air traffic one can get quite a sense of isolation with a little imagination. A white man (Oyibo) is something of a novelty in most parts of Port Harcourt. Although there is a big mix tribally, the people are almost all dark skinned Africans and so the racial tensions present in some cities are absent.
We went first to the Ekpo’s home although that was not where I was to stay. After an hour or so the sky turned dark and there was a terrific tropical thunderstorm. We Welsh always joke about bringing the rain with us! We had rain on three mornings – the tail end of the monsoon period. I never watch the weather at home but they put CNN on for me one day and I watched the world weather report – fascinating! (I discussed with Ani what seems perhaps an African phenomenon that I have witnessed in London – putting on the TV to welcome a guest. Strange!)
Ani had arranged for me to stay for the week with Wayne and Beverley Stracener, missionaries with the Bible Missionary Church. The church was formed in the States in the 1950s by members of the Nazarene church who perceived what they saw as a drift into worldliness in some parts of the church. The four yearly conference of this Arminian holiness group continues to provide members with rules about use of TV and the Internet and similar media. The Straceners are a delightful couple, mild mannered and friendly. We had many pleasant conversations. Their generator, fans, air conditioning and general sympathy with western needs was a boon. They prompted me to coin a phrase I’ve not heard elsewhere ‘second mile hospitality’.
They have only been in Nigeria for 14 months after long service among Navaho and Eskimo and in Guyana, Barbados and the Philippines. They have seven grown up children, including two daughters married to pastors and a son who is a nuclear chemist. Wayne gave two helpful, well-balanced papers on pastoral counselling at the conference. He is academic dean at BMC’s Calvary College and it was good to meet at least two serious-minded pastors currently studying with him. Anthony lives on the Stracener’s patch. He is from a northern village and spoke no English when he arrived at the college four years ago. He gave me my first lesson in Hausa. (He still has a little learning to do with English. He referred at one point to a cigarette button!). He is one of those rare people, I discovered, who does not know exactly when he was born. Also in the same ‘Boy’s quarters’ lives one of Ani’s members, a lady also known as Ani. She took care of most of my meals for the week. These were pretty westernised but I did try some local dishes – gharry (cassava), pounded yam, moa moa, akra, plenty of ‘strong’ (ie chewy) meat, chinchee, sugar cane, paw paw and pineapple.
Most of these I took at Ani Ekpo’s house. Ani and I are both 45 and our younger wives are the same ages too. We first met some 10 years ago when he came to speak at a Grace Assembly here in Childs Hill. He had met Martin Bussey (now based in Kenya) when he was studying at the Samuel Bill College and through Martin had met Stephen Rees. Ani subsequently spent a period studying at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, a church that has been a great influence on him and continues to support him in his work. The church uses the Metropolitan Tabernacle’s fine hymnbook and Sunday School material and other influences can be seen and yet always in a thoroughly Africanised manner.
Ani has three children Peace is 18, Judah, 16, and Hosanna, 14. Another son, David, tragically died in a road accident some six years ago. It was a joy to learn that Grace is expecting another baby next February. Typically, Ani’s sister also lives with them at present and another young relative. In the last year they have been able to move into accommodation at the rear of the church building. The Reformed Tabernacle is a large but as yet unfinished building. They have recently been able to purchase a generator, an essential item in a country where the power company NEPA (‘Never Expect Power Always’ is the local joke) is likely to switch of the power supply at any time of the night or day. They also have electric fans and brand new plastic chairs instead of the very basic wooden benches used previously.
Ani was originally a minister with the Qua Iboe Fellowship, a church founded by missionaries from Northern Ireland, that has many good people but is suffering the sort of drift that so many previously reliable groups seem to be undergoing. In light also of a Presbyterian structure that was making sustained systematic teaching impossible Ani reluctantly decided to withdraw some years ago and begin an independent Reformed Baptist work. The church now has a membership of around 120 and many more in the congregation. They are a fine group of people. To be there with them on the Lord’s Day was a great privilege and an honour.
The Lord’s Day
Each morning I was collected in the church mini-bus by JaJa, an enthusiastic man employed part-time by the church to drive the bus. He likes to listen to sermon tapes and was mostly enjoying messages by Joel Beeke from the Met Tab School of Theology 2002. At the flick of a switch he is able to put the sound through the speakers on the bus, which he would usually do as we neared the church. Driving through the streets of Rumuodara with Joel Beeke blasting against worldliness as we go is quite an experience. The church also has an outside speaker system that is switched on for services. There are things you can do here that you would not even attempt in England.
The day begins with the leaders meeting for prayer. From 9 am there is then an all-age Sunday School. They are currently working through the 1689 Baptist Confession. It was a joy too to see some fifty or more little children (every little girl with a head covering) reciting the commandments and the children’s catechism so well. Although things are changing this is something that fits in well with the present culture and presents a real opportunity for doing good.
I preached in the main morning meeting at 11 am to about 250. It was very similar to the sorts of things we do in our churches but with an extra African dimension – especially loud and united Amens and other responses. The intonation in the singing and even the way the organ was played was different too – but not at all inaccessible. My first sermon on African soil was from John 3:16. Wonderful text! They kindly gave me black African chief’s smock with gold lions on it, which I wore despite the heat. The lions gave me the theme for my children’s talk.
I then helped to serve communion (remembering to use my right hand. I was told later that it is most polite to let the left hand assist the right one).
A very African thing is to make a point of welcoming visitors quite publicly. A lady (Pat – i.e. Patience) was home from London where she lives and works. She is married to a West Indian (a rare mixture I believe). They are members at the Met Tab. Ani invited her for lunch.
After lunch, it was Sunday School. This evangelistic Sunday School uses the Lessons for Life prepared by Jill Masters and as Ani had to be at the airport I was put in front of some 30 seniors all keen to explore the subject Thou shalt not steal. Many of the local children, some of them very poor, come into these meetings.
The evening service is at 5 pm, so there was little time to catch my breath. Less well attended there was again eager listening and I trust the Lord’s blessing on the Word as I spoke on the wisdom of Solomon. The electricity failed near the end but that wasn’t a problem.
One feature of services at the Tabernacle is a strange woman who lives just over the wall and tends to keep up a constant racket of clapping and singing throughout most meetings. What to do?
On the Monday morning it was arranged for Ani, Joe Jacowitz, one of the main conference speakers, and myself to travel out to the Treasure FM Radio station and take part in a radio programme. For quite a modest outlay we were able to purchase nearly an hour of airtime (minus a little music and jingles) between 9 am and 10 am, including a phone-in. I have next to no experience in radio so I cannot compare but it seemed a bit of a shambles – one small studio and only two sets of headphones for five people (two of them and three of us), one good presenter and one learner, hassles over the length of air-time, a rather basic phone set-up, etc. I was surprised that when played back it sounded just like local radio here only with a Nigerian flavour.
One interesting phenomenon observed here was the way although the station presenter was quite a worldly woman in some of her ways yet she carried a Bible in her handbag. Typical, I understand. Another striking contrast I remember seeing was when we visited an Internet cafÃ© one day so that I could e-mail home. In the place there was a preacher on the TV but I also saw a young man accessing pornography oblivious to the TV screen.
Big Joe was the lynch-pin here as, as well as being a pastor, he has 20 years experience in radio and it showed. He worked for many years for Harold Camping’s Family Radio until Camping’s wacky views meant a parting of the ways. Joe is from the north east of the States but has pastured in Florida and now California. Ex-military, where he was converted, he is Reformed and Baptist by persuasion but does not move in the obvious circles of that ilk. He has been coming to Nigeria for 10 years. The link began with Tony Okoroh from Lagos, who used to listen to the programmes on short-wave. Tony was the only person he could find on his first visit that didn’t ask for money. Tony also spoke twice at the conference. They had also had a conference in Lagos beforehand. Joe’s style reminded me a little of Al Martin – strong, passionate, emotional, firm, etc. It is great to see such a committed man. He was keen not only to speak but to pass on good books too. He gave out sixty copies of a book I didn’t know Charles Jefferson’s fine The Minister as Shepherd. Ani has got a book room going in the church now. Literature is very important. The radio phone-in wasn’t a great success (understanding people was difficult enough) but it is good to have such exposure. Ani would like to get TV airtime, showing Peter Masters, with himself topping and tailing the broadcast. He cannot get an hour’s slot, however. He would also like to see a seminary started. As he says himself he’s an ordinary pastor but if the big men are doing nothing he’s willing to try. How we need men of vision!
The conference began that Monday afternoon and went on until the Thursday morning. About 150 came each day. The church worked really hard before and during the conference to provide food and every convenience. A group of women did all the cooking under a canopy at the back. What an undertaking! I had to leave before the end and so missed the doctor who spoke at the end on HIV/AIDS a huge problem here as in much of Africa and the closing sermon. I spoke each day on ministerial ethics and honesty and I think got through most of the time. I was glad of the opportunity to acclimatise for a few days beforehand. On the Monday night we heard a fine message on visiting from Matthew Chiangi. Sadly, he had to depart early for his church’s synod in the north (he is an NKST pastor i.e. Dutch Reformed). Paul Cookey, a gifted local Bible College lecturer also spoke at length on perseverance and conflicts. Ani gave fine messages on preaching urging a well-informed expository message like he himself is pursuing. On one afternoon Joe and I fielded 19 written questions on all sorts of topics. I wrote them down word for word to help get the flavour of things. They were about sexual ethics, churches and the stock exchange, pastoral visitation and the matter of gifts, the pastor’s pay and other employment, ministerial success or failure, preaching topics, the call to the ministry, being called to another church, the most important gift a minister needs, how women dress and wear their hair, etc. Here are two word-for-word examples
Good day sir, This is my question, what advice can you give to a pastor who allowed members both married and single to visit him and even slept I his room, with the intention of praying for them?
Is it true that the major ministry of women is anointing (sic) the body of Christ, if this is true how can this be done explain to me please. Thank you sir.
One frustrating thing was the difficulty of speaking one to one with the pastors attending. This was because of three problems – the deliberate seclusion of the speakers, the language problem and knowing where to start when, for example, someone says he is an apostle from a healing church. Maybe I am making excuses.
One interesting incident during the conference occurred. On the first night, as Wayne Stracener was coming to the end of his message a young man rushed in and knelt in front of the pulpit in an attitude of prayer. He was clearly quite disturbed. It was difficult to know quite what to do. He was removed, however, and his brothers quickly arrived to escort him away. They said he had taken drugs. We prayed for him, publicly and in private, and early the next morning he returned and spoke to Ani about his situation. He had become involved with an occult group. He had a tattoo on the back of his neck to prove it. When he began at college he had few friends and drifted deeper into this occult grouping. One of the consequences of this downward spiral was that he failed his examinations and his mother refused to finance him any further. All this had clearly brought him under conviction for sin and before long he had made a profession of faith in Christ. Some of us had the opportunity to meet with him. He seemed still a rather frightened young man and how genuine his profession is I cannot be sure. At least he was spared an ‘exorcism’ or something of that sort, which may well have been the reaction had he pitched up at another church.
Soon my final day was here. It almost started around 5 am when I was awoken by the sound of a passing preacher who announced that this was the hour of prayer and urged me in a strong voice to trust in Christ. Proverbs 27:14 came to mind as I drifted back to sleep. I enjoyed greatly my time in Nigeria but I was glad to be going back – back to my family and back to the familiar.
JaJa kindly drove me to the airport along with one or two others. Emmanuel, Tony Okoroh’s assistant, earnestly asked me to pray for his wife and himself that God would bless them with ‘the fruit of the womb’. He seemed quite anxious and so I enquired how long they had been married. Just a year. Another little insight into the way people think, perhaps.
There was a second hand bookshop at the airport with all sorts of books on sale. Typically one of the assistants told me she was hungry and needed food. She seemed okay to me. Later in Lagos an immigration official said to me ‘Do you have anything for the boys?’. Just as I started to wonder how he knew I had sons, I understood what he meant and told him that as a pastor I did not do things like that. In the bookshop I saw the late Brynmor Pierce Jones’s life of Jesse Penn Lewis. It was strange to be there in Africa looking at a book by someone whose Sunday School classes I had attended as a boy. How did it get there?
A short flight brought me to Lagos, which looked a little less shabby than Port Harcourt, although I saw very little of the place despite having a few hours to wait. A series of conversations confirmed my general impressions of the religious situation. I was the only passenger on the shuttle bus from the domestic airport to the international one. The driver said he was a real Christian and attended a Pentecostal church. In the airport I got talking to a young student who I noticed reading one of the worst sorts of ‘demons in your soup’ book. He was fascinated by my beliefs. He had clearly never met a professing Christian who seriously questioned his dispensationalist, second blessing, tongue-speaking, signs and wonders assumptions. He was very receptive and eager to learn. I have sent him some books to help him. I also had good chats with two Roman Catholic young men, also very receptive and a Seventh Day Adventist lady. Her problems lay deeper. She was not clear on the Trinity. I began the conversation by asking her if she was a Christian. She was positive but I then said, but are you a real Christian. ‘There are fake ones?’ she replied with some incredulity!
Later I passed a stand raffling a Mercedes. My suggestion that as a pastor I would not be interested was firmly rebuffed by one of the young ladies selling the tickets. Like scores of others I have met in London she forcefully enthused about her signs and wonders, health and prosperity religion, cheerfully dismissing anything that a pastor of 20 years standing could counter with. She told me she was a healer who had healed many people. Why she was not down at the local hospital helping out we never established.
The ease with which it was possible to get into conversations at the airport emboldened me a little and I had a conversation with a French stewardess about the gospel. Her problem was the virgin birth. She could not accept it. I tried to explain how vital it is. I must try and be more ready to speak to people back here in London. I also want to keep praying for the advance of the gospel in Nigeria.
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