Venues of Transformation
Photos from Redemption Camp, north of Lagos, Nigeria, courtesy of the writer.

Venues of Transformation

Damola Osinulu, a doctoral student in the Department of World Arts and Cultures, took his International Fieldwork Fellowship to Lagos, Nigeria, to understand why at least a million Pentecostal worshippers come together just north of the city.

At least a million people are reported to gather on the climactic day of the week-long Holy Ghost Congress; one official estimated that the number could be as high as five million.

By Damola Osinulu

THE TRULY DEVOTED believers arrive first, the trickle that portends the coming torrent. Hours before the official event starts, they lie prostrate in front of the massive tiled, concrete altar. Some dance before the altar to a song that only they and their God can hear.

By the end of week a teeming throng of worshipers has joined them, their voices combined into reverberating shouts. Women wrapped in their ankara wax print fabrics. Babies playing on the dirt floor while their mothers pray fervently on the adjacent mat. The dust rises, when the many feet above dance to the music from the band and the 2,500-member choir. One senses, here, an immense energy that is released in bursts orchestrated from the altar.

This is the scene at Redemption Camp, an outpost of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. More than religious camp, it is a small city between those two larger cities, Lagos and Ibadan, with its own banks, a post office, a university, and a secondary school, amongst other facilities.

Every December, however, beneath the roof of a 2 kilometer by 1 kilometer continuous structure called the Congress Ground, it becomes a temporary metropolis. At least a million people are reported to gather on the climactic day of the week-long Holy Ghost Congress; one official estimated that the number could be as high as five million.

Redemption Camp

For these believers, the Congress Ground has become a site of pilgrimage, a space where the miraculous becomes evident. A grant from the UCLA International Institute allowed me to conduct a pilgrimage of my own in December 2008 to try to document and think through the phenomenon that was occurring. What I observed here was only one component of the rise of Pentecostalism in and around the Nigerian city of Lagos. In the last few decades, even as the city's population has exploded to as many as 15 million people, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have emerged on just about every streetcorner. Here at the camp, it seemed that explosive population growth and religious fervor had collided into one representative event.

Even though I had examined the emergence of Nigerian Pentecostalism in previous projects, what I observed at the camp this year raised new and urgent questions. Why did all these people endure the difficulties they do in order to be present at this particular event? In what ways do the individual and collective performances of religious expression articulate and respond to the existential conditions of their daily lives? What sort of relationship does the camp have with the neighboring city of Lagos, as well as its smaller neighbor to the north, Ibadan? How do the state and its agents view what goes on here? A million people joined in collective purpose could, after all, not be ignored. These were questions that I started to probe as I engaged many participants in conversation.

Documenting the goings-on by video and photographs, I soon realized that I would have to search for language that was multi-faceted enough to describe what I was witnessing. It was clear to me, on the ground, that I would have to draw, not just from one disciplinary tradition but many—cultural studies, anthropology, performance studies, postcolonial theory, religious studies, African studies. In that sense, I came away more certain that UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures with its cadre of specialists––anthropologists, choreographers, folklorists—and the International Institute with its global family of scholars provided me with exactly the academic tools necessary to explore a topic as complex as this.

In addition to the time invested at the Holy Ghost Congress, I also spent time with two other congregations. Faith Dominion Sanctuary, my second research venue, is quite a contrast in size with Redemption Camp. Theirs is a space that holds no more than a hundred but that comes alive with singing, dancing and vigorous prayers. The time I spent with this congregation raised, for me, questions about the confluence of religious identity, ethnic identity, national identity and global citizenship. It become clear to me, through conversations with this congregation's members and observation of their religious practice, that these are questions with which they are themselves fully engaged.

The third venue, City of Praise Parish, is one of the many parishes that the Redeemed Christian Church of God has established in Lagos. Lagos is, in many ways, RCCG's test tube for its mission to establish a parish within 5 minutes of every citizen of the world. To this end, RCCG encourages an entrepreneurial model in the establishment of churches. The head of this parish, like many others, is bi-vocational and saw no contradiction between his secular entrepreneurial ambitions and his religious duties.

Each of these three venues opened a different window through which to understand a continuous phenomenon. It is my belief that this research has sent me on my way to a comprehensive review of the transformations being effected by Lagos's Pentecostals.

Published: Tuesday, February 24, 2009