For a child growing up in Lagos, Sundays began on Saturdays. We would iron our clothes, shine our shoes and cook for hours – all in preparation for that memorable work-free day, packed with the religious obligations we all willingly observed.
It was the day when the streets were blissfully empty; the traffic jams disappeared and the petrol stations were deserted.
The cooking – rice, chicken and stew – began with the washing and chopping of a huge bowl of fresh plum tomatoes. I never understood why we had to cook the tomatoes for so long, but my mum explained that it tasted better.
The entire process made me want to tear my hair out. First, we had to wash and chop tomatoes into small pieces. We then cleaned the tatashi, a big red pepper, slicing it open and removing the seeds. The tomatoes, tatashi and small peppers were blended into a smooth paste and left to simmer for more than an hour.
Mum would make us stir the paste in the pot as it simmered over the stove. At some point, I would use my left hand to prop up my tiring right as it stirred the paste.
Even the boiling tomato paste wanted to be left alone – it would bubble and splash angrily without warning – takatakatakataka, leaving burned skin in its wake. Typical of the child that I was, I never remembered the sweat and toil while at the dining table, devouring the delicious meal.
We also had to memorise the verse for Sunday school and set aside the Bible, ready to be used the following day.
On Sunday, people donned their ike akphati – their best attire: accessories, expensive jewellery, the latest fashionable lace and Ankara fabrics, Italian leather shoes, a purse – you name it. Sundays were for dressing up.
From the entrance of the church, parishioners exchanged greetings. "Brother Simon, how are you?"
"My sister, to God be the glory."
"How are your wife and kids?"
"They are fine, thank God. How is business?"
"God is faithful. Is Onyinye still sick?"
"Ah, the devil is a liar. The devil wanted to destroy himself, not my daughter – but God showed himself mighty."
"Our God is good," to which others chorus: "All the time."
In Nigeria, everything good is ascribed to God, while the devil is seen as the harbinger of evil.
As attendees take their seats, we look out for those Christian mothers who swear by the colourful and gigantic gele adorning their heads. May God help you if you are seated behind them; you will have to stretch your neck throughout the service – seeing neither the pastor nor anyone else in front of you.
After the service, there are group meetings, warm greetings, kids playing outside, family visits, food and drink. The children are often allowed more TV time on Sundays while the women head to the salon later in the day, where they will sit for hours styling their hair for the new week.
The hair salon is one of the most thriving businesses on Sunday because it is a work-free day.
From generation to generation
But, in the rural areas, where many elderly people lived, Sunday mornings were not that different to every other day. I remember going to visit my grandmother in a village in the southeast. I recognised immediately that religion and spirituality were a central part of life there.
My grandmother had her own routine: By five in the morning, my sister and I were awakened by a noise – gbagam, gbagam, gbagam, gbagam, gbagam. That was grandma's morning bell. This small but important hand bell, like the ones used in schools, had a special place at the edge of her bed so she could easily reach for it every morning. I often toyed with the idea of flinging it into the thick brush behind our compound, but I never managed to summon the courage.
After ringing the bell, she'd take a seat in the living room and start to belt out songs that shattered the graveyard-like quiet of the morning, accompanied by the sound of her rattling ichakaa.
The instrument looked like a calabash, carved like a big bottle with a round body and bottom and stringed with beads that were attached to a net like a dress. It produced a melodious sound when it came into contact with an object or was tapped repeatedly against the palm.
"Anyi ekene gi nna, eze nwe uwa, anyi ekene gi nna, Imela. Anyi ekene gi papa, osebuluwa, mma mma dirigi nna, imela …" The words to one of grandma's favourite songs. "We thank you, God, the owner of the universe. You have done well. We thank you, God. Glory be to you. You have done well."
The only other noise we heard so early in the morning was the chirping of birds and the crowing of fowls – cuckoroko, cuckoroko, cuckoroko – announcing a new day. Most of the houses were surrounded by thick forests, creating a sense of serenity in the early hours.
But when the bell sounded, we knew that if we don't join grandma for prayer within minutes, she would wake us with a slap on the wrist or buttocks. Yawning and muttering under our breath, we'd drag ourselves into the living room. For grandmother, this first part of the day was simply non-negotiable.
Devotion was followed by our morning chores. The country home sat on what could be described as a football field, with lots of work for my sister and me. Large portions of the land were dusty with red earth that had to be swept with an okokpa – a bundle of thin bamboo sticks tied together with dried raffia palm.
We lit the firewood to boil water. We took our bath, had our breakfast and started the long trek to church. After the service, grandma would send us off to our neighbour's with a basket – a Sunday gift consisting of a bowl of rice, another bowl of palm kernel stew and chicken. She would lay a beautiful napkin inside the basket and pick out her finest metal dishes.
Today, not much has changed – except that in the village, my grandmother, now in her 90s, is the only surviving neighbour among those who would send and receive Sunday baskets many years ago.
Nigerians tend to be very religious. They love their rituals, which permeate every aspect of life to such an extent that it is virtually unheard of to be an atheist here. I was not even familiar with that term until, as an adult, I travelled abroad to find empty grand cathedrals and constant debates around the existence of God.
There was always a service to attend: If it was not Monday Bible study, it was a Tuesday prayer meeting, a Wednesday revival service, a Saturday choir practice, or a Sunday service. The 'House of God' was never empty.
Even the government goes to great lengths to sponsor pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem.
In Nigeria, it is difficult to separate religion and state. When secularity is debated, people ferociously attack one another with insults; some simply do not want to hear of it.
Perhaps there will come a time when religious issues take a backseat in Nigeria, but I doubt it. In fact, it seems as though commitment to organised religion is deepening with each passing generation.
Many Christians in Nigeria were born into the Protestant or Roman Catholic fold. However, in the 1990s and 2000s, there was a significant growth of Pentecostal churches.
Today, there are mega-churches with branches inside and outside of the country.
The reach of the Pentecostal church is unprecedented. There is no corner of the country without one.
In a country where the government has struggled to provide basic amenities to improve lives, people look to places of worship for hope.
The church cares for widows, pays school fees for some of its members who are in need and provides free counselling on marriage and many other issues. It employs many and gives hope to the hopeless.
But controversial issues related to pastors are well-documented. Last year, some 'men of God' were thoroughly pummelled for owning private jets. The argument by critics was that the cost of buying and maintaining a jet could feed the hungry. Besides, it was argued, Jesus Christ, who was the model of Christianity, did not live an ostentatious lifestyle.
Pastors say that private jets aid the timely dispensation of the gospel across the world. In actual practice, very few churches can afford to dabble into this venture.
Some have accused pastors of extorting money from people in the name of tithe and offering. Again, preachers point to the fact that these offerings are channelled back into the propagation of the gospel and the upkeep of the flock. In spite of all of the controversy, people still troop to places of worship.
Perhaps it's an indication that the church is indeed serving the society.