Old Shrine, New Gods, By Victor Ehikhamenor

Victor Ehikhamenor

I am back from church. It is noon on Sunday and the hammering has ceased. The carpenter is done. I look out my window, a shrine stares back at me. Rain has given way to sunshine. Blinding rays bounce off the corrugated zinc covering the shrine. Everybody has one in this city in this country. Along my street, like every other street in Lagos, shrines litter compounds. Small ones, big ones and very big ones. Men and women and businesses and even the government build them daily without knowing.  The shrines are built in compounds in a nondescript corner—that is well in the nature of shrines. Behind doors, bush paths, deep in the forest, river banks—humans always give gods a respectable distance.

This new shrine looks old already. Same architecture from life so distant, it is almost like it never existed. Before fraudulent prophets/pastors grew faster than mushrooms on decaying wood, we had fathers and grandfathers that could see beyond the razzmatazz of polyester suits, clip-on ties and megaphones powered by Ever Ready batteries. They were priests in their homestead; every household had one and a shrine to manage. Some shrines were made in honour of deities; others were altars of remembrance for founders of entities. Whites go to cemeteries to throw roses at gravestones of departed loved ones. Africans say prayers to theirs at shrines erected in memory of the departed. Through the diligent work of colonial/missionary masters, Okonkwo became the devil and St. Michael Peter became our angel.  Chaplets replaced amulets and pamphlets became semi-permeable membranes via which our brains osmosised western beliefs.

This Lagos shrine is not different from that of yesterday which lined the village paths I walked.  This particular shrine reminds me of Okosun Onogun’s, the blacksmith, shrine. By virtue of his profession, he was the high priest of the iron god—Ogun. His small shrine was built away from his workshop, the gulag of many dogs, Ogun’s favourite beverage maker. All day, you could hear the striking of iron on metal as he fashioned hoes and cutlasses and knives for villagers. Onogun could hold red-hot iron with bare hands because, as we were told, Ogun had given him power over burns.  Ever so often, he performed his priestly role by pouring Ogun’s diesel of dog’s blood on the shrine.  More power. Sometimes, when we dared to stare hard at the interior of Onogun’s shrine, built with wood and corrugated zinc, we saw heaps of stained metal.  Beside a very old dane gun and retired hoes and cutlasses devoid of wooden handles, new gods of Western origin found themselves into the shrine—spark plugs, a motorcycle petrol tank, bicycle chains, and a rusted exhaust pipe to show the universality of Ogun. As children, on our way to catechism or Mass, we made a sign of the cross and held tight to our rosaries as we raced past Onogun’s fearsome shrine. What frightened us most was not the caked blood of dogs that lost their lives to Ogun, but the pictures of such shrines painted by our catechist and reverend fathers. Last time I went to the village, Okosun Onogun has long gone and his shrine had taken the colour of used generator oil.

The shrine the carpenter built is for my generator, Nigeria’s new god. Every household has one, a house to house these new gods, like old shrines in my village. Pepper sellers and barbers have generators. Factories and manufacturers have generators.  The House of Assembly and Senate have generators. The Presidency and the President have generators—the new god of Nigeria. They come in different sizes, as gods are wont to, and in Nigeria size matters. To stroke egos and make manhood swell to supernatural proportions especially. Big jeep. Big houses. Big country. Big failure. So we buy bigger and bigger generators and build bigger shrines for them, as we seek more power.

The acquisition of generators is the beginning of light. For long we have been thrown into perpetual darkness by our “Power Sector” and there is nothing any government can do about it but worship generators as well.  Every Nigerian must seek his or her own power and therefore must worship generators. Even PHCN offices worship generators.  Small and mega-churches worship these new gods or else the pastor’s loudspeakers would fall silent—like the relics of Onogun’s shrine.  Dogs’ blood has been replaced with diesel and engine oil—no more barbaric sacrifices you would say. But that is because you have never visited the Niger Delta, where the oil comes from to see what and who are dying in place of dogs.

I drag my generator (only 7kva, a small god compared to my neighbour’s earth-moving one) out of its box to the shrine, clean it and give it the desired anointing with petrol and oil. As Onogun the blacksmith sought remote power from his shrine by offering it sacrifices and incantations, I seek power from my generator which came with a remote. I mutter a short prayer by the shrine and beg God to let the generator generate power.

This article was first published in NEXT. We are republishing here with the author’s permission.


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