From the Mailbag: Atheism in Nigeria

I’ve said in the past that the internet is an incredibly beneficial invention for atheists, since it provides a truly global platform for speech. Sometimes, you get a potent reminder of just how true that is. A few days ago, I got an e-mail from a young man in Nigeria – about the same age as me, in fact – who recently became an atheist. I invited him to tell us his story, and he agreed. The following e-mail is reprinted with his permission, and I think you’ll agree that it’s a powerful and deeply moving testimony.

I was barely 13 when my father fell sick. He was an ex-soldier, retired after sustaining serious bullet wounds during the Nigerian civil war (1967-70). I grew up to witness how he used to complain about body aches and so on which they said was a consequence of some 7 bullets still in his body (it was on the x-ray) resulting from the haphazard treatment one gets during a war. When he eventually fell sick in 1996, it was like we were waiting for that moment: He never fell sick – as much as I can remember. This happened 1 year after he got separated from my mum for no apparent reason. Although he later claimed he was suspecting her for sleeping around with church members, this I knew was not true. I know my mum, she was a good christian, a righteous one – in my own sense of the word. Unlike my father, who as far as I can remember, never went to church. He was popularly known as a church critic (though he believed in god), my mum was a sunday school teacher ever since before I was born and she still is.

I was the only one at home when my father’s health suddenly failed: my siblings were either in boarding schools or something. We were surviving through his little pension and my mother’s peasant farm. We were ignorant about the hospital. But even if we weren’t, it wouldn’t make much sense because here, instead of a doctor confessing he lacks the professional skill applicable for an illness, or no appropriate equipment, he would simply advise you to go home and consult a herbalist, unprofessionally claiming that “this sickness is not a hospital type.”

As my father’s health condition worsened, I cooked his meals from the food stuff my mum will never hesitate to provide, bathed him, changed his clothes – you may not be able to imagine how it was for a 13-year-old child caring for an ailing 70+ year-old father. I’m not trying to be emotional or something, you know, I don’t even like being sentimental. Neither am I trying to convince any one on why I rejected the god belief: no, I just don’t want to pretend I do. That’s it. After weeks with little or no medication, my father’s brothers decided to take him to a witch doctor, carrying along my cousin Esau (6-7 yrs old). Two days later they returned with the news that the boy said he saw my mum and my 3 sisters in the calabash (you might be familiar with this type of cases). Indicating they are witches, geting at my dad through me as their agent.

This story was spreading around the village (Raba) without us having an idea about it for some time until – I can’t remember how it came to us. Everywhere I go people gave me a look that told me my presence was not welcomed. I would lock myself in my room weeping. Wondering how it came to this, I was confused. One night (past 1:00am) I sneaked out of the village into the forest. Looking for an explanation, I wanted to talk to god. I thought: God doesn’t want to appear in public but to a young innocent boy? I thought he would; I read about such things in the bible! At about 1 and 1/2 km from the village, I stood in the footpath and called out to ‘god!’, crying, I was so loud that my entire body vibrated. But all I had in response was the silent echo of my shrill voice and the distant hum of forest creatures. I wanted god to let the people know I didn’t do it. But he disappointed me! I slept under a tree waiting for him all night. In the early hours of the morning, I walked back home so dejected.

In god’s absence, my mum was my comforter, with her bible quotations and godly promises which I came to despise. I was never satisfied but pretended I was just to keep her from worrying about me. The day my father died I was the only one with him, my mum and sisters never visited for fear of further accusations (we used to be a happy home). Past 4:00am, I was in his room (his brothers abandoned him when they realised they couldn’t help him with their witch medications). I never knew how it was for one to be dead but I knew something was wrong. I ran to my mum’s house and described the situation. She started to cry but refused to come with me saying I better let his brothers know about it quickly. Later, he was confirmed dead. He was buried and forgotten.

People saw me as a witch and it bothered me. I became involved in church activities; bible recitation competitions, choir, boys brigade, youth evangelism and and so on: I tried to please god according to how it is said in the scripture. Leaving my mum behind, I moved to the city (Minna), got a job and made new friends. My new pastor seemed to like me; I was upfront, always willing to volunteer. I’m sensitive to lies and I always oppose deceit. I became a sunday school teacher yet, I couldn’t reach god, nothing to prove ‘he’ really cares or tell the people I was falsely accused (‘cos that’s primarily what I labored for; to clear myself of all charges). Instead, those who seemed to sympathize with me concluded I was seeking for forgiveness. I figured out they pretend to love me but actually don’t trust me (once a witch always a witch). And actually as my late father use to say: “only the guilty goes to church” (as in “only the sick goes to the hospital”). I had a series of unbelievable experiences in my quest for “supernatural” evidence. Not to mention how I slapped the chief of my village (the case is presently in court). As my faith dwindled further, I left the church and joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For 3 years, though they seemed better than my previous churches in terms of response to questions, I was never satisfied. So I quit.

Then, on my own, I felt free to explore my psyche and solve my problems my way. I have 6 million reasons for why not to believe in god anymore but I have virtually none to do the opposite, however, I wanted to know how other people beyond my community view this things so turned to the internet. About 4 months ago I hit Ebon Musings. I read “A Ghost in the Machine” and I couldn’t believe what I saw. It felt like the end of the road. You know why? My father was acting exactly the way it was described in the “alien hand syndrome“! At times he would ask me to bring him a cutlass to “chop off this stubborn hand.” Each time he wants to eat I had to hold the left hand to stop it from spilling over his meal – oh my! I simply couldn’t contain myself, I was so excited: to realize I belong to a community, a people who knows I didn’t do it. At the time I was made to understand life had shut down its ears from me, suddenly I bumped into aliens like me – no, I no longer feel like an ‘alien’, I think am the rightful owner of this beautiful green planet. I feel pure and free untrammelled by religious nonsense. I’m human! I’d stopped worrying, I no longer had to shut myself crying my pains out. Now I close my eyes in tears with a smile on my face; someone, finally, can hear me – at last I found “god” – someone who can materially answer my basic questions that gave me the real meaning of life. Thank you very much.

Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Nathaniel

    What an interesting story. The internet is truly a wonderful thing. I hope he comments here on a regular basis.

  • Valhar2000

    [...]to realize I belong to a community, a people who knows I didn’t do it.

    I know nothing of you, or about what you may or may not have done. However, I do know, and there is no doubt in my mind, that you did not, at any time or in any way, participate in any sort of witchcraft.

    Even you had carried out secret evil rituals like those your fellow villagers likely gossiped about, they would have been nothing more that weird movements and mumbled incoherent sentences. There is no magic, evil or good, and neither you nor anyone else can be held responsible for any harm that comes to others, besides that which is done by your own hand, or that which you can prevent but allow to happen.

    In what world could you be guilty of the crimes you are accused of? There is no such world.

  • Valhar2000

    Oh, and:

    I read “A Ghost in the Machine” and I couldn’t believe what I saw.

    That essay is composed in its entirety by high-grade, concentrated win-sauce!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Damn. I got to leaking a little reading that.

    Ebon, the thought occurred to me that perhaps an “International Corner” of some sort might be appropriate where stories such as this might be collected?

  • Yahzi

    I am in awe of your strength and courage.

  • An Indonesian Atheist

    Adam, I strongly suggest that you edit out his father’s name. It may be of little consequences in the western world, but in a country like Nigeria, I’m concerned that there are people who are willing to track down atheists/witches/whatever to punish them.

    Most atheists in Indonesia refuse to publish their real name on the internet for that same reason.

  • bbk

    I consider Ebon Musings to be some of the best atheist writing that hasn’t been published in a book (yet). It presents cogent, succinct, and informative arguments that are written in a very clear and accessible style. I don’t agree with everything that Ebon ever wrote, but that’s what keeps me coming back to his blog. It’s not surprising that people from such diverse backgrounds benefit from it. Keep up the good work!

  • Ebonmuse

    Point taken, Indonesian Atheist, about removing the father’s name. My correspondent didn’t express any concerns for anonymity when he gave me permission to publish this, but it’s better to be on the safe side – I’ve edited the piece to remove that detail and will leave it out unless he gives me specific permission to put it back.

  • SuperHappyJen

    Ebonmuse, doesn’t it make you feel all warm and fuzzy that your writing has affected someone in such a profound and positive way?

  • TommyP

    Wow that was awesome. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Zietlos

    Now, I realize the emotion involved, but I would not be me if I did not ask: Have any of the royal family in Nigeria died recently? Because I got this email…

    But joking aside, a touching story. Thank you, both, for posting it. I may be a troll, but I love stories, especially ones that end on a positive note.

  • JulietEcho

    Thanks for sharing that. I hope you stay safe and can find friends and communities that accept you for the person you are – not with suspicion or hatred. You definitely have one here :-)

  • Jerryd

    When you live in the Bible belt, and are literally bombarded with religious irrationality day in and day out, it is so wonderful to read stories like this. The battle is difficult, and the converts happen much too slowly, but when the message reaches someone and turns their life around, it warms me from head to toe to read it. Keep up the good work Ebon, you and your websites are a treasure trove of light and reason in a world in dire need of every ray of sunshine you send. And thanks so much to our Nigerian atheist friend for sharing his wonderful story.

  • Em

    I’m so sorry you had to go through all that. I know you’re not a witch and never were. You sound like a very thoughtful, conscientious young man trying to live a good life, and I hope you find some like-minded people in your city as well as all of us online.

  • inspector

    I’m also an atheist from Nigeria and i can tell that there are many atheist in Nigeria (Most especially those in the muslim dominated north don’t come out). Sorry about what you had to go through but i believe with time people will accept us for who we are. Cheers!

  • Phantom

    Hey, so refreshing to be here and read this. I was just messing around on the net and stumbled on here. When you are a Nigerian Atheist, u find out quickly that your closest friends become the internet and the people you find out here and bond with. Even if people cannot hurt you physically or “rolling my eyes now” spiritually, who wants to go around being “suspect”? But I agree totally with inspector. There ARE very many atheists in Nigeria. Every once in a while, i have on twitter what i call my #religiousrantandrave moment and before i know it, i get all sorts of Direct Messages. I restrict people who may see me twitter as facebook is completely overrun by my friends and family so for now, twitter’s safe. But everyday that passes, i know one day, someone who i have confided in will let something slip, or someone on twitter will meet someone who knows someone and b4 i know it, it’ll be out there. I am preparing for the day. And just as i felt the day i finally said the words “i am an atheist” to myself, i know i will finally be free. i just hope my family love me enough. I hope they do.