By Anayo M. Nwosu
My grandfather Nwosu Ezeechedolu was amongst the dignitaries invited by Chief Aghaukwu, the then Obi of Uruagu Nnewi sometime in 1893, to welcome visiting members of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) from Onitsha en route Obosi in today’s Anambra State, Southeast Nigeria. That was before the British colonial masters cowed Nnewi town to surrender to its authority in 1905.
The message was the same as those from Catholic Mission and others when they arrived. They were marketing Heaven described as an Estate of many mansions somewhere in the sky, built by God for those who lived holy life on earth.
Our people were encouraged to see their stay on earth as temporary and a preparation for making Heaven. In the said Heaven lives the Christian God and his family who are worshipped by His servants known as angels.
Many elders of Nnewi attended most of the meetings called by the people of the new religion as Nigerians attend those meetings called by pocketful politicians, because at the end of every meeting, gifts of all sorts would be shared. Such gifts softened the elders resistance to their children’s attendance to the christian gatherings and schools. Many of the elders didn’t believe the heaven story for so many reasons.
My grandfather wondered when the christian heaven estate was built. He had also reasoned that since his ancestors were not christians and were never baptized or knew Jesus, that they went elsewhere which the christian people didn’t know about. Of course, they wouldn’t know about the Land of the Ancestors where only those whose funeral ceremonies and passage rites were performed after or during burial.
Nnewi elders never believed in Hell as a place where human beings would be roasted like yam tubers or goat being de-furred by fire. They believed that Hell was here on earth; that whatever punishment anyone couldn’t serve out while alive would be suffered by his or her descendants.
While the Anglican missionaries were busy selling heaven and hell to our people, the Catholics introduce another Estate they called purgatory which was said to be in-between Heaven and Hell. Early 1900s was an era to learn new things in my town.
I believe that stubbornness and perchance to query the incongruent was hereditary hence I guess that the spirit of my ancestors were upon me when I was waiting to meet with the parish priest of St. Dominic Catholic Church, Yaba Lagos.
It had to do with my insistence on using Igbo names for the baptism of my first daughter.
I was told that by the catechists that I must choose my daughter’s baptismal name from the Church’s approved list of Saints in Heaven.
On that list were no one from Nnewi or Igboland. There no names from our neighboring Ijaw, Edo, Ibibio and even Yoruba.
Fortuitously, my parents baptized me the day I was born and I didn’t have any opportunity to choose a religion. They chose one for me and even initiated me into Catholicism without my consent.
I grew up to practice the faith of my parents but with serious reservations to some of their teachings which I reasoned were introduced with cultural self righteousness.
I intended to resist those ideologies that I felt I could resist. This resolve was fired up in my first year in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka after reading “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” by Walter Rodney. The book says that if you want to subdue a people, make them to abandon their own gods and kill their language. Can’t you see how we foolishly converse with our own children in English as our local language is sinful?
The reverend father at St. Dominic’s parish was warm and pleasant. But I was resolute in the pursuit of cultural justice for my people.
“Father, did St. Augustine, St. Catherine, St. Timothy etc. choose the names of saints that lived before them at baptism? How do we as Africans increase the list of the names available to be chosen from by catechumens or baptismal candidates if the faithfuls with Igbo names are not made saints? Must my daughter bear the name of a patron saint?” was a barrage of questions I shelled out of the gun in my mouth to a surprised priest. I suspected that he must have seen a human right activist in me.
Trust catholic priests, especially the well educated ones, with their ability to handle a deviant like me. “My dear Anayo, what names have you chosen?” he asked.
“Chiemelie, meaning that ‘God has become victorious’. I chose the name after the battles my wife and I fought in our three years of childlessness in which God defeated Satan”, I told the priest, stressing the reason behind the choice of the name.
“What is your choice of a second name?”, the priest asked me with a countenance of a father expecting a son to do the right thing, which I suspected to mean, that I should choose the name of a saint as a compromise.
But, I wouldn’t do that.
“Mmesomachukwu, meaning the ‘goodness of God”, I responded.
The priest, said, “that’s ok. I approve. Give this paper to the lady in the parish office. Nice meeting with you, Mr. Nwosu”. And I left.
I didn’t have to tell the priest that I was aware of some scholarly publications by brilliant Igbo bishops like: Late Professor Ezeanya, a former Archbishop of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province and his predecessor, Francis Cardinal Arinze on some Igbo names that could be used for baptism. Some of the publications also translated many biblical names into Igbo language.
Some of the names like Ikechukwu, Ifunanya, Chukwuka, Okwukweka etc. sound nice.
Irrespective of acculturation efforts by the Catholic Church, we still have opposition more in our African priests than Europeans in the refusal to accepting local meaningful names for baptism hence decreasing the nomenclature or number of diverse names in register containing the names of saints.
Despite my spirited entreaties, the parish priest of a church located off Itire Road Surulere, refused to allow my cousin give the daughter, “Ginikachukwu” as a baptismal name. The name means “what is greater than God”. My cousin was forced to finally pick an European name that means “a plant” which was born by someone who later became a saint.
Does “Peter” not mean “Okwute or Rock” and “Thomas” not “Twin or Ejima”? To our priests Okwute or Ejima is not good enough for a name. It is either a Peter or a Thomas.
Even the most educated don’t know that there are always the human or cultural superiority complex embedded in every religion just as there are many cultural impositions on the new adherents from another climes.
Any surprise as to why the muslim God doesn’t like prayers said in English or French but only those said in Arabic? Even in Igbo villages, most people believe that Pentecostal God answers faster in English and prayers said using loud microphones.
Therefore, one can understand my confusion when some of the poorly educated Christian converts from my town shout “My Rod is good!” I don’t say anything. If I must, then I need to ask their wives before I respond, “All the time!”