A friend once shared an experience she had years back in Texas. She narrated how she attended a church, dominated by blacks, and I could bet by many Nigerians too, and the prayer point kept focusing on immigration issues. The pastor would call for prayer for those who needed their papers regularized, those who had overstayed their visa or smuggled themselves into the United States. She noted that it was a spiritually challenging situation for her, since she had valid papers and couldn’t quite fit into the community’s religious worldview. Her tale was reminiscent of when a family member came into the country and while sitting in a meeting where an event was being planned, he heard another family member interjecting the discussion intermittently with “I pray there will be light.” He couldn’t help asking, “What don’t you guys pray for in Nigeria?” And talking about light, the Hurricane Sandy which affected part of New York State affected a friend such that her house was left without light for a few hours and the land telephone line was out for a day. When I called her cellphone to sympathize with her, she sounded very worried as I laughed it off and told her to calm down, since it was a situation I was used to in Nigeria. When she responded that she could imagine what we experience in Nigeria, I advised her against deceiving herself, by asking her if she prayed for the light to come after it went out. The answer was obvious. She didn’t need to. She knew it would come on and sure, it did.
So, as I reflect on the above anecdotes, I’m moved to ask the question “What don’t Nigerians pray for?” As a pointer, I will briefly proceed to highlight a few of the things Nigerians pray for. Oh, you are already thinking Nigerians pray for electricity. Of course, we do. Why shouldn’t we? When we pray for electricity, we don’t pray that the lights should come on and stay all day and keep us company through the night. We pray for it when we want to iron our shirts or heat water to bathe in the morning, when we want to watch football match or our favourite soap opera on tv. We pray for light to cool our refrigerators or freezer, not so much to drink cold water under the scorching sun, but to preserve our food when we are too tired to pour the leftovers into the pot and rehash using firewood in the middle of the night. When we pray for electricity, we are mindful that we need it so that those who are better-off could pump water for us to buy and store for use, since the tap in the house hardly flows.
Oh, we pray for so many other things in Nigeria. We pray for the traffic to clear by some magical wand, and let us go home in peace. We drive through traffic lights without stopping, praying that there is no police officer around to arrest us. I was on-board a flight a few years ago from Lagos to Kano and somewhat close to descent, the flight experienced turbulence and landing was visibly difficult. It was a violent weather and though outwardly I was struggling to maintain my calm, my heart did actually beat faster than normal mainly because of the uproar from fellow passengers who were praying in different tongues. I could bet I heard Moslems calling on Jesus Christ, Christians invoking African deities and some others beseeching Krishna. Amid the din, the prayer of the young lady seated beside me was the most troubling. She was praying fervently, “God, please, I’m yet to be married o.” Yes, that was her prayer. Caught in the seriousness of the helpless reality and the humour of her prayer, I burst out with “Is it inside this plane you want to marry?” That is the kind of prayer some Nigerians offer. There is no doubt that praying for a life partner is a specialist spiritual activity in Nigeria. People fast for days, months and years in prayer pose for a life partner. I know many friends who have attended annual religious activities to “hear” from God about a life partner. Many have heard, and some are still trying to clean their ears to hear properly.
If you have watched public functions organized by Government such as inauguration of the President or swearing-in of Governors and listened to the kinds of prayers offered by the Imams, Babalawos and Pastors, you will hear them praying to God to make the leaders good, to prevent them from stealing money, to prevent them from being seen by their enemies, to give children to those in need. Even when the leader might have rigged election, you will hear some Nigerians thanking God for the person’s election and praying for the public office holder to be re-elected. Nigerians are so religious that it is not uncommon to hear someone praying that God should touch the heart of public officers to provide good roads, schools and hospitals in their communities. In fact, I have seen students praying to pass an examination even after they might have come out of the examination hall, in denial of the feelings their intellect tells them. Everywhere you go, there are prayers of all kinds: for a contractor to finish airport renovation on time, for Boko Haram not to detonate their bomb until one would have safely passed a spot, for the president or his wife to remain permanently quarantined inside their Aso Rock Presidential Villa so that the roads in Abuja would not become impassable due to closure. Last year, during the floods that overtook much of Nigeria, there were so many prayers for the rains to stop, for the drainage systems to work and all sorts. It is difficult to document the plethora of things Nigerians pray for because I will need to undergo months of prayer to be able to attain such aspiration.
Meanwhile, you might be thinking that so far, I have not focused on how Nigerians pray for money. Let me tell you how some of those prayers actually go. If you are working in Nigerian Customs Service, for instance, you are likely to wake your wife and children up around 3.00 am and cast and bind any spiritual forces that might be preventing your being posted to some specific national border spots or sea ports – rather than be in the office – so that you can make more money from fraudulent deals. If you are working with the Nigeria Police, you are likely to pray (while working to use all contacts at the Force Headquarters) to be posted to a state where the governor is engaging in shady deals so you can protect him at a price. If you are a female banker or financial services advisor in relationship management, you are likely to be waking up early in the morning and praying that God will lead you to a male prospect who would not ask for sexual favours before doing business with you. It is not beyond some Nigerians to pray that they will land a job they are not qualified for, or be blessed with a car they don’t need. There are some Nigerians who pray that the contract they have paid kick-back for and obtained would not be cancelled. Some pray that the contract they have executed and paid bribes for would be paid when they submit their bills for payment. Nigerians pray that when they fake academic qualifications to apply for job or some corporate documents to apply for a contract, the person evaluating the documents would not see that they are not genuine.
Prayer is a living art of communion which validates and reinforces our existence as spirit beings and focusing on the externalities of human existence makes the process of praying bereft of its essence. Most of the things I have heard people pray for have no bearing on their existence as spirit beings. Having observed the wide continuum of prayerfulness among Nigerians and the motley of themes and concerns that inform the prayer life of many, I think there is a valid need to be worried about the increasing abnegation of personal responsibilities. People should be held responsible for failures of the state or institutions, rather than just “pray” them out of existence. We will not need to pray for electricity if those given responsibilities and paid to provide this service are held accountable for the trust reposed in them. We would not need to pray for doctors to be dedicated to their duties in hospitals if those who have responsibility to hold them accountable do their jobs. I have often mocked the proliferation of places of worship across Nigeria because they have become physical spaces of human communion, denuding the individual of the grace of cultivating his or her heart and inward being for penetration of the redemptive light. The externalization and proliferation of prayerfulness in the form we know it in Nigeria tends to underline the systemic rot in the country. Ironically, it is a rot we cannot successfully remove with the kind of praying the country has gone berserk with. The prayer we need is one that redeems and renews the inward being; that nurtures love, dispels hate and engenders genuine smiles and trust.