It’s a fresh morning at 19 Vance street New York. With hearts pounding vehemently, the young man Ikechukwu Uzondu enters the premises of Foreign God’s Inc. the world’s oldest god-shop. Here a religiously desensitized Mark Gruel displays his entire inventory of powerful and ancient deities to be bought off the shelf by aspiring god-parents. Excited Ikechukwu had come to do a price and interest survey for his next line of trade. Soon, he will vend a war god to Foreign God’s Inc. Ngene the ancient deity of Utonki, whose breathe is fire, whose fart is thunder, with rich history will be vended here. Selling and purchasing a sacred god is a sport which seemed odd to Ike and likewise me the reader. Instinctively, I felt Ike had a grouse with some god; this inspired me to read more.
Any hopeful, who at some point had migrated to Europe with the expectation of finding the greenest pasture, will connect at different levels with the narratives of this novel. Ikechuckwu a Nigerian of Ibo descent migrates to America combining studies and menial jobs to achieve a Cum Laude in Economics. His chase of green card led him to the path of many fugitive brides, ideal but elusive women. Having gone through hell and obtained a green card from his now ex-wife and emotional tormentor ‘Queen B’, alas green card was also not the answer. After 13yrs of eking his living and managing pressures of family demands as a cabby, the degree in economics or grades wasn’t the answer either. The politics of soft and thick accent was a strong odd against him and perhaps his tongue couldn’t deny his root no matter how he tried. Through his experiences, even the gods are to blame. This god Ngene, acclaimed to have favoured him as a potential priest has done nothing more than give him spells of rapturous experiences and shame with every storm that he witnessed. When his friend Jonathan sows into him the idea of stealing his people’s war god to come fight a more relevant war for him in America, it became an idea most people would have given a second thought to.
A well woven story of Ike’s life swings around a ruptured migrant’s hope that becomes excited by the ideas of taking advantage of the untapped wealth in the religion of his homeland to make his major break. In an age where according to Mark Gruel, gods must travel or die, Ike becomes the vessel to carry Ngene across continents. This thrill of global connectedness filled with suspense carries the reader to different settings navigating between the realities of urban American cities and rural African town Utonki where religion is projected as a social malaise with little or no interest in the people’s well-being.
Okey Ndibe strongly situated migrant issues and religion as an important topic in the present day discussions on Africa’s development. Despite academic studies on this phenomenon, this author has done a good job of representing and communicating the realities of religion at individual and communal level, provoking the intellect and reshaping our knowledge. Foreign God’s Inc. deftly highlights the inherent danger of blurring the lines between religion and rationality. Capturing a highly religious but morally inept society led by morally bankrupt characters like Pastor Godson Uka, it questions the underlying moral that underpins the Christian faith (perhaps all religion) from colonial times to present day.
Unlike the case with India, Nigeria’s loyalty to their religion and culture meant limited penetration of the Queen’s European culture with the help of the many Reverend Stantons. Hence undermining the ideology of old culture was strategic.
‘What you call Ngene is nothing; it’s a lie with which you imprisoned yourself. It doesn’t live in the river nor does it own the river. Our God owns everything. He made your river and also the wood Ngene was carved from’ Rev. Stanton said to a people who were not so gullible, to whom the thought of a born God, birthed by a virgin with a father that lives in heaven and is also everywhere remained an idea hard to swallow. For Utonki people, their own Chukwu is not a father that will hand over his child to be killed and made jest of. In their words, their Chukwu lived in the sky and, ‘everywhere we see the signs of his work, the drifting clouds are smoke from his pipe, rainfall his sneeze, all great rivers are born from his spittle…Chukwu is mighty, yet we never say that he is everywhere… if your own god lives everywhere, then why haven’t our eyes seen him?…If he were so powerful, he should make himself visible? or is he a debtor?’ Only debtors hide in Utonki.
Alas, as the ‘white man’s gun out speaks the guns of Utonki’, Rev. Stanton gun-carrying-god overpowered Ngene the war god of Utonki.
Over the years, the newly injected Rev. Stanton’s god has gained an African flavour. The chief priests became the likes of Pastor Godson Uka, the son of Okadike (a.k.a Efi epeka) the great witchdoctor with records of nocturnal activities. Like his father, Pastor Uka an ex-convict shares characterizations that easily relates to the present day faith leaders that glide our TV screens. ‘A large gold chain bedecks his neck, all five fingers of his left hands and three of the right hands were bedecked with glitzy rings. His hair dropped in slick curls, slacked with oil’. Ike who finds himself in Utonki is amazed at how people like Uka have moved Christianity from the traditional catholic space with solemn and sober air to a religion of holy ruckus. In church, boisterous prayers erupt, shrill affirmations fill the air, human bodies freeze and flip from a pastor’s touch or blow of air, women like his mother piped up in praise tossing and writhing in induced ecstasy. These sons of the traditional witch-doctors surely came into the church through the back-door. Like their fathers, they offer ‘spiritual insurance policies’; protection, deliverance from evil, dispense holy water, prayer and project all forms of pseudo-science in exchange for money or gift.
Unlike others, Ike is amazed at the failure of a multitude to question the autocratic conventions of this corruption that wears a spiritual coat. Suddenly, Ike temporarily adopts a new battle over snatching Ngene. Battling Pastor Uka whose messages are divisive to his relatives was a worthier fight. Onward, I could clearly understand Ike’s grouse with the gods. Any rational thinker who cares about a people’s well-being and their development will join Ike’s fight. These Peacock Pastors; our modern day witch-doctors appeals to the African spirituality but not to her development. Peacock Pastor Uka desires to make of Utonki a community with ‘spirit-filled, tongue speaking, hands-laying, devil binding born again’ with empty pockets and hungry stomach, he exploits poor people of their meagre feeding money, raping their minds with fear. The scene where Uka demands fifty thousand dollars from a struggling migrant to build God a Church in Utonki as condition for being a millionaire was mind blowing. Beyond this being the size of Pastor Uka’s greed, this narrative aptly captures a wide spread phenomenon in present day Africa. Modern day churches prioritize erecting god more shrines, exploiting poor community purses of vulnerable and gullible people Ike’s mother with terms like ‘God said’, ‘Sow seeds’ … while the people remain perpetually with sick bodies and hungry stomachs.
A walk on the streets of Nigeria confirms that there is a proliferation of churches with almost every street littered with two or three churches if the residents are unlucky. Massive church edifice are now metrics for measuring church growth and an indicator that member populations are on the rise but this in no way reflects the well-being or development of the members. This church building culture of this African flavoured Christianity is being exported phenomenally across the globe and the hinterlands, changing the landscape of the average man’s thinking. Something is fundamentally wrong when a poor person continuously submits his meagre earning to build god a shrine when shrines are not in deficit. Do we really need more churches to develop? Does the growing prioritization of church edifice over the much needed mission schools and hospitals that were once the hallmark of the Christian religion bring to question the mind-set of the present day faith leaders?
Decades ago, the church as an institution had proven track record of managing low cost education, accessible quality healthcare and other social services that are critical to sustainable and equitable development. My education validates their impact, for at almost no cost I and others were educated in church missionary schools; taught by selfless teachers from the Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian Church schools that spread across the country. Let for a few church schools still committed to low cost quality education, children of today should bewail the loss of this institution’s commitment to drive human development as was the case years back. Can faith leaders with their agencies channel member’s contributions towards other deficit infrastructures that are fundamental to our well-being? Yes!!!
As Pervez Hoodbhoy puts it, selling religion is the easiest and most profitable business… and as Voltaire’s said, ‘a clergyman is one who feels himself called upon to live without working at the expense of the rascals who work to live.’ Foreign God’s Inc. helps us questions the ideology of the new church ministries with sole proprietorship managed by owners and wife. It made me think more seriously of these African ‘Men of God’ who swim in title galore, craving power, exalting their personalities and looming over us from their imposing pictures mounted on highway bill boards. In an incurably religious Africa, god is a game and to play it, you must either be smart or be vulnerable.
By centralizing religion, this novel proves it has researched the spiritual state of Nigeria and perhaps most African countries, hence its projection of religion as a dimension of life that suffuses whatever Africans do. One would have assumed that the more religious we are, the higher the morals in our society. Ironically, our exploits in religion, made us a people with little godliness. The reality is that the more religious we got, the baser we became. Africa’s religious altar is filled with bloodshed from religious extremists; our girls are continuously kidnapped as booties of religious war. More-so, our altars continue to serve for political rallies to endorse leaders who take advantage of people’s frustrations and vulnerability. Indeed the poor are the raw material for religious salvation.
Foreign Gods Inc. projects that religion is obviously indispensable in Africa’s development discourses. But dear Africans, is our understanding of GOD enabling or disabling our development? According to Osuakwu the chief priest of Ngene, ‘people sometimes kill off a recalcitrant god’ Is it not time we come together to kill this god? In the end, the gods are not to blame, we are.
I encourage fellow literary enthusiasts to read and find out if the almighty Ngene the war-god finally travelled to Mark Gruel’s world’s oldest god-shop in New York. Foreign God’s Inc. was a good read for me, but it failed to project the female gender in an admirable way. For example, I would have loved to know more about the martyred ‘ocher-coloured childless widow who cradled her gun and stood against Rev. Stanton’.
Notwithstanding, Okey Ndibe has given us a book with a detailed narrative that will contribute to wider understanding of the growing linkages between religion and development in ways that few academic writing has. The novel was well written, stories nicely woven and the language is sophisticated. For this and more, I say to Okey, Daalu!
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye