Sunday Dancing Club at MFM

People who come there on Sunday morning spend most of the time singing and dancing, but it is neither a nightclub nor a radio station. It is a church. Starting at 8 AM, the service could be an exciting afterparty for the Christians who spent their night in one of the few Niamey’s nightclubs. Usually held by Christians, they are frequented by expats and Nigeriens from diverse religious affiliations, if they have any. This suggestion may sound out of place, yet one shouldn’t downplay the energy that preachers and worshippers put into creating an atmosphere of joy and celebration every Sunday morning in this church. MFM stands for “Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries”, a name that says it all about the Church’s style of worship. Originally founded in Nigeria, it has gained an international reputation through its usually loud, heated, and highly demonstrative services. One of the most notorious Churches on the African Pentecostal landscape, it opened branches in several African countries, including Niger, as well as in Europe and in the United States.

The Mountain of Fire and Miracles’ church. Niamey, Niger, 20.12.2020. Photo: Vincent Favier

Located in Niamey’s poor and popular district of Boukoki in which a majority of Nigerien Muslims live, the Church was run by a Nigerian couple until the Charlie Hebdo’s riots in Niger. After stealing or destroying what they could, mobs of youngsters set several churches in fire, but in a few areas, Muslim neighbours spontaneously constituted vigilantes’ groups and managed to protect Christians and churches. Nevertheless, the Nigerian couple, traumatised, moved back to Nigeria and a woman from Benin was appointed pastor of Niamey’s MFM church. In a spirit of forgiveness, the new pastor tried to make a fresh start with the neighbourhood by offering food and goods to the families and sweets to the children when she comes back from the market. The relationship is rather cordial now, yet she deplores the fact that kids in the hood still throw stones into the church’s yard sometimes, pointing at their lack of education. She decided to level-up the walls surrounding the church. The memory of the riots remains painful for many Christians. In this context, it is thus not surprising that worshipers’ behaviours are noticeably less exuberant and the noise generated by the services is overall lower compared to Pentecostal practices in Nigeria. In all cases, the sixty or so members of the congregation meet regularly again, sing and dance freely, especially on Sundays.

Worshippers waiting to drop their tithes before the altar. MFM, Niamey, Niger, 20.12.2020.
Photo: Vincent Favier

On this Sunday morning, the church is almost full for the special ceremony dedicated to offerings. Once a month, members bring goods of their choice, according to their financial capacity. A Bluetooth headset in his ear, a young security guard wearing a T-shirt with the MFM logo stands at the entrance and keeps an eye on the streets. Inside the church, all the goods were dropped in a corner, waiting for the pastor to start the ritualised offering ceremony. Worshipers must be patient. They know this kind of service usually lasts up to six hours. Instead of young partygoers, the participants are rather families dressed in their best Sunday cloth. Many men and boys rather wear either the traditional riga orcasual jeans and shirts. Women picked their most elegant dress in African wax fabric often matching their huge headscarf, but some wear cocktail dresses and sophisticated hats that would provoke sideways glances in any posh American wedding. Some little girls look like princesses with their multicoloured plastic hair clips. A small group of school teenagers – hand-clapping experts –, a few students of the Université Abdou Moumouni, men and women coming alone or with their children, form the rest of this mixed congregation. They are mostly from Nigeria, but also from Togo, Niger, Benin, and Burkina. They are a Christian community like many others on Sunday in Niger’s capital city, praying in the name of Jesus, seeking to feel the Holy Spirit’s breath inside them, imploring God to bless and to reward them on this earth, here below. And if it’s not in this life, then it will be in the hereafter, a student told me.

Young boys and girls dancing before the altar. MFM, Niamey, Niger. 07.03.2021.
Photo: Vincent Favier

In fact, the pastor likes to remind that the MFM community stands apart from other Christian churches: “We are at MFM, we have our own way of praying!” Indeed, I witnessed practices that I never saw elsewhere in Niamey’s churches, not even in Nigeria. The pastor continues: “Standing like a tree is not praying! Satanic tree! Break it!” And the assembly would start mimicking the pastor’s gesture, moving their forearms up and down frenetically, like machetes cutting the air, and repeating in chorus: “Break it! Break it! Break it!” Performance plays a central role in the sermon as it helps mediating a spiritual experience.

Worshippers mimicking the pastor’s gestures. MFM, Niamey, Niger, 07.03.2021.
Photo: Vincent Favier

During another service, the participants were asked to bring cooking oil in a small bottle and to spread it on their head during the sermon to chase the evil spirit. “My hair” said the pastor, “reject the bewitchment! Bewitchment attacks me through the hair. My hair, take fire!!!” – “Fiiiiiiiire!!!” people shouted in response as they were vigorously spreading the oil on their head.

But before doing such practices, church members need to warm up. The Sunday service always starts with gentle singing and dancing during almost an hour, as members keep on coming. A student plays a synthesizer next to the bassist, a few women sing. A father seats down on a chair, gives his Bible to his 4 or 5-years old kid, and, while the kid holds the Bible seemingly absent-minded, the father closes his eyes, lays his hands on his son’s shoulders and starts praying. Joyfully, the singing goes on and on, increasingly louder, until the pastor makes her apparition on the stage.

The pastors giving the sermon. MFM, Niamey, Niger, 07.03.2021. Photo: Vincent Favier

The sermon is bilingual. The pastor preaches in French and a second pastor, a man, translates it consecutively into English. His proficiency in translation is crucial to the whole performance. It is not only about finding the right words quickly but rather being able to reproduce the pastor’s tone, fluidity, eloquence that gives the sermon its theatrical dimension and strength. Based on the metaphor of the tree, the Pastor drew a parallel with the umbilical cord that connects to the ancestors, and that one must cut, or burn. African Pentecostals emphasize the need to radically break with the traditional past because satanic forces inhabit spiritual traditions and keep preventing Christians to access health and prosperity here and now. During another sermon I attended, the pastor declared annihilating the power of all fetishes, voodoo, and satanic powders through the fire of God. In fact, Muslim reformist discourses may equally reject ancestral social and spiritual practices during public preaches, yet they don’t perform it as symbolically as the Pentecostals do. Often, it becomes a cacophony when church members repeat words after the pastors: “Pouvoir !!” “Power!!” “Feu de Dieu !!” “Fire of God!!” The service shortly reaches a hypnotic, if not epileptic, climax.  Like in many churches, the pastor brings everyone down and takes back control of the ceremony by saying the magic words: “In Jesus’ name we have prayed”. Like a class of disciplined children, everyone is suddenly quiet again and ready to listen. The sermon goes on:

– “People subscribe life insurances, but our life insurance is Jesus! With Jesus, a radiant light will shine on your life!”

– “Amen!” the assembly answers.

– “God will surprise you! We see others with a big house, a pretty car. Jesus will make you an important person!”

– “Ameeeeeen!”

Worshippers dancing in circle during the final procession. MFM, Niamey, Niger, 07.03.2021.
Photo: Vincent Favier

After hours of singing, praying, dancing, mimicking, listening and shouting, time has come to perform the final offering ritual. The pastor even apologizes for exhausting her congregation so much today as she begs for one last dance. Before bringing the several goods to the front, members are called to contribute to the financial effort of the church with giving tithes and offerings. Like the Islamic Zakat, tithes are supposed to be around 10% of a member’s income. Offerings may then come on the top. How much one should give remains at the discretion of each individual. For that purpose, the pastor distributes envelops to participants who require one, while he encourages them to give more: “What’s your offering plans for this year? Are you going to keep on giving 500-500 [FCFA] or are you gonna raise to 1000-1000?” Once the members have put their offering or tithe in the envelop, they fold it and hold it in their hand raised over the head, and close their eyes for the benediction. The pastor begs God to bless the offerings and to make individuals’ wishes come true. She then calls them to stand up and, as the music starts again, people come to the altar and drop their envelop in a box. The closing procession can start now.

Worshippers’ offerings being blessed by the pastor. MFM, Niamey, Niger, 07.03.2021.
Photo: Vincent Favier

Bringing the goods to the altar is performed as a ritual. The papas, the mamas, and the youths are called to gather the one after the other, to pick some goods and to bring them to the altar. Ananas, bags of rice, oil bottles, yams are shaken up and down over the heads, left and right, carried by the members of each group walk and dance towards the stage. Joy, hilarity and communion soon spread all over the place. Once they dropped the goods, every group dances some 15 minutes before the altar, and goes again.

Two university students dancing at the end of the ceremony. MFM, Niamey, Niger, 07.03.2021. Photo: Vincent Favier

It is almost 2 PM and worshippers eventually receive meals prepared by the church. The whole ceremony ends up in a frenetic atmosphere of singing and dancing, although visible sweat on faces and shirts betrays the participants’ exhaustion. But everyone seems to enjoy the celebration and spending a long part of their day within their community. And the pastor doesn’t miss the opportunity to make them feel good and unique when she says: “Lose yourself when you give thanks! If you’re normal, you’re a fool! Do something exceptional during the procession! You are distinct.”

Journées de commémoration du mouvement historique du 9 février 1990

Une certaine agitation règne sur la cité universitaire en ce matin du 09 février 2021. Nombreux sont les étudiants qui portent un T-shirt blanc floqué du logo de l’Union des Scolaires Nigériens (USN), et une inscription au dos : « 31ème anniversaire de la commémoration du mouvement historique du 09 février 1990 ». Trente et un ans plus tôt, les étudiants de l’Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey (UAM) sortaient dans la rue pour réclamer la démission du gouvernement du Général Ali Saibou et la tenue d’élections démocratiques libres et indépendantes. Marquée par des débordements et des confrontations avec les forces de l’ordre, cette manifestation avait connu un épilogue tragique, se soldant par la mort de trois étudiants, tombés sous les balles de l’armée. Ce combat, que Mamane Saguirou, Issaka Kainé, et Alio Nahantchi avaient payé du sacrifice de leur vie, ne fut pas vain : il créa un électrochoc social et politique qui initia la tenue de la conférence nationale souveraine du Niger du 3 juillet au 29 novembre 1991. Doté d’une nouvelle constitution, le pays entrait de manière douloureuse dans un long processus de démocratisation.

Le syndicat des étudiants réunit ses sympathisants avant de débuter la marche du 9 février. Université Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger, 9 février 2021. Photo : Vincent Favier

Depuis, la donne politique nigérienne a changé. Le 31ème anniversaire de la commémoration du mouvement historique du 09 février 1990 est arrivé dans un contexte particulier, entre les deux tours de l’élection présidentielle. Pour la première fois de sa jeune histoire, la République du Niger allait faire l’expérience d’une transition démocratique du pouvoir. Le président sortant, Son Excellence Monsieur Mahamadou Issoufou, arrivait au terme de ses deux mandats et n’avait pas cédé à la tentation de modifier la constitution pour en effectuer d’autres. Un fait assez rare pour être souligné, tant ce phénomène continue de se produire dans de nombreux États d’Afrique subsaharienne. Conscients du chemin parcouru, les étudiants, guidés par leur syndicat, l’Union des Étudiants Nigériens à l’Université de Niamey (UENUN), ne baissent néanmoins pas la garde pour autant. On spécule beaucoup quant à la réelle transparence et indépendance d’une élection dont le candidat favori, Mohamed Bazoum, est issu du Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et le Socialisme (PNDS), qui est aussi celui du président sortant. Ce que les étudiants commémorent avant tout, c’est la mort de leurs camarades, pour lesquels la justice n’a toujours pas été rendue. Un comble alors même que le président au pouvoir, S.E.M. Mahamadou Issoufou, faisait partie de cette génération d’étudiants des années 1990.

Les membres du service d’ordre du syndicat étudiant canalisent la foule d’étudiants sur le pont Kennedy. Niamey, Niger, 9 février 2021. Photo : Vincent Favier

Au fil des décennies, cette marche commémorative est devenue la « mère des marches » estudiantines, comme un membre du Comité Directeur de l’Union des Scolaires Nigériens aime à le rappeler. Cette marche, qui part du campus universitaire et s’arrête de l’autre côté du fleuve Niger, à un carrefour stratégique de la capitale non loin de la présidence, rassemble quelques milliers d’élèves, d’étudiantes et d’étudiants de Niamey. Certains font même le voyage depuis d’autres villes du Niger pour y participer. Elle est à la fois un rituel et une démonstration de force. Aux alentours de 10 heures, c’est une véritable marée humaine qui déferle sur le pont Kennedy et traverse le Niger, coupant un des axes majeurs de la circulation. La police et les forces de sécurité se font discrètes. Aisément repérables grâce à leurs T-shirts rouges, les membres du service de sécurité du syndicat étudiant donnent de la voix et des ordres. Ils prennent le contrôle de l’espace public le temps de la marche. Comme dans toute manifestation, les premières lignes du cortège sont les plus galvanisées et virulentes. Elles doivent être canalisées pour que les membres des deux syndicats étudiants, l’USN et l’UENUN, puissent marcher librement en amont du cortège. Seules les équipes de presse sont autorisées à les suivre et les filmer. Le succès de cette démonstration de force repose autant sur sa mise en scène que sur sa médiatisation.

En amont du cortège, le Secrétaire Général de l’Union des Étudiants Nigériens de l’Université de Niamey donne une interview à la presse sur le pont Kennedy. Niamey, Niger, 9 février 2021. Photo : Vincent Favier

Pour la première fois cette année, les syndicalistes ont introduit une nouveauté à la marche du 9 février. Ils marquent une première pause au début du pont. À leur signal, le cortège s’arrête et se fait silencieux. Les dirigeants des syndicats s’agenouillent en cercle et entament une prière collective, aussitôt imités par l’ensemble du cortège. Les paumes des mains tournées vers leur visage, ils murmurent une prière individuelle, avant de passer plusieurs fois les mains sur leur visage. À l’image de la société nigérienne, l’écrasante majorité des étudiants est musulmane. Pour un syndicat qui revendique haut et fort une appartenance et un héritage marxistes-léninistes, cette mise en scène peut sembler paradoxale à première vue. En réalité, elle témoigne d’un impact grandissant de la religiosité, en l’occurrence islamique et, à moindre mesure, chrétienne, sur le campus. Tout en gardant une apparence « rouge », les leaders étudiants ne peuvent plus faire abstraction de la religiosité des « camarades ».  Si leur discours anticolonial et anti-impérialiste puise abondamment dans l’idéologie marxiste, toujours en vogue, les idéaux de bonne gouvernance et de justice sociale s’inspirent désormais davantage du Coran. Pour bien marquer le coup, le syndicat a répété cette prière symbolique une deuxième fois en arrivant au bout du pont.

Les leaders du syndicat étudiant prient en mémoire des martyrs sur le pont Kennedy. Niamey, Niger, 9 février 2021. Photo : Vincent Favier

D’après le Secrétaire Général du comité directeur de l’USN, cette nouveauté doit permettre de maintenir une forte mobilisation des étudiants pour la marche, alors que le souvenir du 9 février 1990 et de ses victimes s’éloigne un peu plus tous les ans. Une fois le pont traversé, et alors que le discours du Secrétaire Général devant les médias se fait attendre, l’excitation diminue et la vague humaine qui a déferlé reflue presque aussi vite qu’une onde percute un mur. Déjà la foule commence à se dissiper et des groupes d’étudiants traversent le pont dans l’autre sens en direction du campus. Mais le devoir de mémoire ne se limite pas à la « mère des marches ». Plus tard, une soirée culturelle est organisée sur le campus à la Place Amadou Boubacar, du nom d’un autre « martyr » également tué par l’armée lors d’une manifestation estudiantine. Depuis quelques années, les étudiants y jouent une pièce de théâtre montée par un dramaturge nigérien, qui reconstitue les évènements avec autant de gravité que de dérision.

Un membre du service d’ordre du syndicat étudiant dans une chambre du campus avant le départ au cimetière. Université Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger, 16 février 2021. Photo : Vincent Favier

Une semaine plus tard, c’est une autre représentation, sociale et politique cette fois-ci, qui se joue dans les rues de Niamey. Toujours sous la houlette de leur syndicat, les étudiants se rendent au cimetière musulman du quartier populaire de Yantala pour se recueillir sur les tombes de leurs trois camarades tués en 1990. Plus impressionnante encore que la marche réalisée une semaine plus tôt, les étudiants traversent une grande partie de la ville sous un soleil de plomb jusqu’au cimetière. En tête de cortège, les leaders des syndicats et leur service d’ordre prennent littéralement le contrôle des rues qu’ils traversent. Pas une voiture, une moto ou une bicyclette n’est autorisée à se frayer un chemin lors de leur passage. Ceux qui osent le faire sont sévèrement appréhendés par les gros bras du service d’ordre, qui leur confisquent souvent les clés du véhicule. Les forces de police ne sont visibles nulle part. La rue appartient aux étudiants, et c’est bien là le message que le syndicat envoie aux dirigeants : il faut toujours compter sur les syndicalistes et sur leur capacité de mobilisation. Dans un contexte de commémoration de martyrs, l’utilisation de l’islam comme force fédératrice démontre aussi l’étendue de leur créativité politique.

Les membres du service d’ordre dégagent la chaussée en direction du cimetière musulman de Yantala. Avenue de l’Indépendance, Niamey, Niger. 16 février 2021. Photo : Vincent Favier

Muslim associations from secondary to higher education in Niger: shaping good Muslims, producing new citizens

On November 11, 2021, Vincent Favier gave a talk at the Symposium on Education in Muslim Societies co-jointly organised by the Indiana University and the International Institute of Islamic Thought. His presentation was entitled “Muslim associations from secondary to higher education in Niger: shaping good Muslims, producing new citizens”.

“Allah liberates people from fire at each fast-breaking, each night”: Ramadan at the Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey

A banner scrolls at the bottom of the TV screen during the news on Télé Sahel, Niger’s national channel: the thinnest moon crescent has been sighted in Zinder and Maradi, two major southern cities close to the Nigerian border and considered as cradles of Islam in Niger. The holy month of Ramadan is officially starting although one couldn’t see the moon yet in the western part of the country and Niamey, the capital city. Some people don’t rely on such reports and prefer to start fasting when they see the crescent by themselves, invoking that it is how the Prophet Muhammad did. Following precisely the steps of the Prophet is crucial during the holy month. Yet the majority simply follows official statements given by religious authorities, and Ramadan remains a collective, nationally organised event.

On April 13th in Niamey, the thermometer reads 43°C. Fasting, and not drinking in particular, from roughly 5 AM to 7 PM during the hot season is a real challenge for many. Some male students use this opportunity to show their determination and endurance capacities. Regardless of gendered attitudes, most people can’t wait to start fasting. A general excitation and craze characterize the days before and the first days of Ramadan. Finally! One will dedicate more time to prayers, to read the Qur’an, and thus increase one’s chances of going to heaven.

On the campus of the Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, the Association des Étudiants Musulmans du Niger organized a few conferences before and during the first days of Ramadan. The topic “How to do the Ramadan successfully?” attracted many students to the talk given by an Islamic scholar or Oustaz invited for the occasion. One of these conferences took place at the Faculty of Arts’ mosque, attended by roughly a hundred male students sitting outside on mats while female students gathered inside the mosque. The Oustaz presented the meaning and objectives of fasting during Ramadan and emphasized the necessity to perform it as the Prophet did so as to get closer to Allah and to multiply one’s chances of entering heaven. The questions asked by students after the lecture mostly focused on practices and on a variety of hypothetical situations. Students are afraid of anything that could invalidate their Ramadan.

Conference “How to do the Ramadan successfully?” 15.04.2021, Université Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger. Photo: Vincent Favier

Prayers on campus during Ramadan gather more people than usual, especially at the beginning of the holy month. The most important prayer is undoubtedly the last one of the day, Isha. In Sunni Islam – the major trend on campus –, one must perform four Rak’ah (a Rak’ah is a cycle of praying movements) during Isha’ prayer. Yet during the holy month, this number rises to 17 Rak’ah at Isha’ so that the prayer lasts almost forty minutes instead of ten. Although several mosques surround student halls, male students like to gather at the former bus stop, a sandy and empty square located right after the campus main gate. During the first nights of Ramadan, the attendance was so massive that the row of prayers slightly impinged on the campus main road. Unlike in some places in town during Friday prayers, it didn’t block the traffic. This massive student presence during prayers did not last more than a week. Fewer students would gather for prayer in that space after a couple of weeks, and many would start leaving before the end of the prayer. But other groups would unconditionally perform this prayer until the end and gather for a session of collective Qur’anic recitation, sitting on mats in a corner of the square.

“Descending” the Qur’an – reading it completely – at least once during Ramadan is highly encouraged, and almost compulsory for those who can read Arabic. Although translations are available, reading the Qur’an in Arabic is much more valued. In fact, some students who regularly attended Qur’anic schooling may know how to read Arabic but don’t necessarily understand it. Yet, a majority of university students today come from the public schooling system and couldn’t acquire such skills by lack of time or interest. For this reason, the Muslim student association offers courses on how to read the Qur’an in 12 lessons. As attractive as it may sound, very few students attend the course. Nevertheless, students often take time during their day to go to the faculty’s mosque and recite a few Qur’anic verses. During Ramadan, the melody of murmuring voices of readers reciting verses faded down day after day and was soon replaced by the constant snoring of tired bodies between seminars and daily prayers.

Students sleeping during the day at the Arts Faculty’s mosque. 10.05.2021, Université Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger. Photo: Vincent Favier

Students and lecturers are exhausted after a couple of weeks of fasting. The usually loud and joyful campus life during the day gave way to a silent and strange atmosphere. Crushed by the heat, students seek shelter in their dorms during the day or some hypothetical fresh air during the night, sleeping under the stars on the halls’ rooftops. Many lectures and exams were cancelled during the fourth and last week of fasting.

It is only when dusk breaks out that the campus finally wakes up as people gather for Maghrib prayer. In observance of an official and widely spread Ramadan schedule, Muslims can break the fast a few minutes before the evening prayer, drinking for the first time after roughly 14 hours of drought. Like the prophet did and recommended, they would start by eating an odd number of dates (usually three) to break the fast. The collective meal is often taken between the two evening prayers. Beyond the pleasure of drinking and eating again after a long day of abstinence, it is a crucial time for exchange and socialization. Many student clubs and associations try to offer once or even several times a collective diner to their classmates or members and thus enhance their reputation. For this purpose, associations often rely on the help of international Islamic NGOs. Subsidizing food supplies during the holy month seems to have turned into a moral economy. Indeed, alms-giving during this month is much more rewarded and supports donors’ quest for paradise. For instance, the leader of the Student Union obtained from a Nigerien businessman a cheque of 20 million FCFA to finance free meals at the campus restaurant for all students during the whole month of Ramadan, a news that rapidly spread on social media.

Students breaking the fast collectively in front of the “Club of philosophy students” 07.05.2021, Université Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger. Photo: Vincent Favier

Despite the hardship of performing Ramadan under exceptional climatic circumstances, Muslims find courage and motivation again toward the end of the holy month. Most of them would seek the benefits of Laylat al-Qadr, the night of fate, among the odd last nights, a moment that shall give more chance to Muslims to enter paradise. Massive collective prayers would take place during this time on two different sites on campus, the one outside led by the Tijaniyya, a Sufi order, the other in the Friday Mosque, led by the Sunni-Salafi, from approximately 1 AM to 4 AM.

Seeking Laylat al-Qadr: collective night prayers at the main campus mosque. 09.05.2021, Université Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger. Foto: Vincent Favier

Nights turned into days, days into nights, and time seemed to stop until the liberating final sermon of Eid al-Fitr. Gathering at one of the campus mosques, the Cheikh warned off Muslims that this Islamic celebration should not become a mere social event. Traditionally, at the end of Ramadan, everyone asks their friends and relatives to forgive them for all the wrongdoings they might have committed, voluntarily or not, in the past year. With a hint of both nostalgia and rejoicing, the Eid al-Fitr celebration could finally start as people went back home and met with their families, friends and neighbours, eating all day until night.

Cheikh giving his sermon for Eid al-Fitr at the former campus mosque. 12.05.2021, Université Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger. Photo: Vincent Favier

Preaching and teaching: religiosity, knowledge and performance among students and lecturers in West-African universities

On July 4, 2019, Vincent Favier presented his research project entitled “Preaching and teaching: religiosity, knowledge and performance among students and lecturers in West-African universities” during the CRASSH Summer School “Religious Diversity and the Secular University” that took place at the University of Cambridge from July 1 to July 12, 2019.

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