On March 15th, 2023, Vincent Favier was invited by Dr. Lorenzo Ferrarini to screen a rough cut of his film at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester, UK. Entitled “Ƙaramin Sani Kukumi Nèe / Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing”, the film portrays life on campus at the Université Abdou Moumouni of Niamey, Niger.
Nothing seems to disturb the quietness of the University of Ibadan’s campus in the late afternoon. It is the end of classes and students are slowly making their way to the main gate or hang around the halls of residence. While some are playing football and tennis, others are chatting in small groups, checking on their phones, cooking food in their rooms. Yet, in a few hours’ time, a sound activity will break the usual calm of the campus. In different places, one will hear students singing, others screaming, high-pitched voices from saturated loudspeakers, drums rolling.
With its green, walkable park-like appearance and its many facilities, the Ibadan campus has little to envy the British and American models from which it always seems to draw inspiration. In fact, the University of Ibadan (UI) was established by British settlers in 1948 on a hill in the outskirts of the city. But it may soon become encircled by this sprawling, roaring city in the southwestern part of Nigeria, in the Yoruba region, as Nigeria’s population is growing steadily. Reflecting a booming trend all over Nigeria, Pentecostal student fellowships have increasingly pervaded universities in the past decades. These student organizations are local, university-based branches that belong to national, so-called “mother Churches”. Deeper Life, Redeemed Christian Church of God, Christian Apostolic Church, Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, Winners’ Chapel are some of the most famous and popular Churches that dominate the Nigerian Pentecostal-Charismatic landscape today. All of them – and many more – have branches on the UI’s campus, so that every evening, when it gets dark, their activities start. Bible Study sessions, prayer services, or just freely organised worships pop up a bit everywhere in the student halls or in informal spaces like makeshift constructions next to the halls.
This evening, members of the Christ Apostolic Church Youth Fellowship (CACYOF) prepare one of their weekly worships in the Mellanby Hall, a centrally located student residence on campus. A few female and male students put the plastic chairs in rows, arrange the ventilators in one of the hall’s Common Room in which I take a seat. Non-academic staff rents these so-called “common rooms” to the student fellowships for their religious activities. Musicians install a keyboard and a drum set on each side of the lectern, from which the preachers, usually students too, but sometimes external guests, will give their “lecture”. During the soundcheck, undergraduate students fill up the room, which can contain approximately 40 persons. Latecomers have to stand before the door. Low-energy bulbs create a dim light while fans struggle to cool the room as the worshippers start warming up. The Bible Study always begins with music and singing, mixing up sometimes with melodies coming from another room in which a fellowship is gathering.
The sound level slowly increases until the preacher takes the lead and announces the topic of today’s study: “the potencies of the Word of God.” Referring to the Old Testament and the psalm 119, he asserts: “The spirit of wisdom goes with the spirit of knowledge.” Then he asks for 11 volunteers for reading other verses. During the sermon, the keyboard player softly presses and holds a few keys, enveloping the words of the preacher with a musical texture that reminds a bit of the dramatic and though the very kitsch atmosphere of old-fashioned Western soap-operas. “You being saved is different than your soul being saved,” says the pastor. “Soul has to be saved daily, it goes beyond the body. The Word of God saves the soul and it starts from the purity of the spirit.” When the pastor hushes, a long keyboard note catches the silent audience and fills up the room with solemnity. Walking back and forth in the central aisle, the Pastor would sometimes softly lay his hand on someone’s shoulder, in a reassuring gesture that doesn’t seem to distract the worshipper. “The things of the flesh, put them away! You don’t need them!” he goes on, as he raises his voice. He repeats: “The Word of God saves the soul.” And he starts a new stanza: “The Word of God heals. And it delivers.” The student pastor subtly sets the pace of the ceremony like a conductor. His rhetoric, his tone, the repetition of identical words and phrase structure support the dramatic dimension of the event that the musicians contribute to heighten too. The success of this kind of performance depends on the charisma of the leader and on his ability to conduct the different actors and movements of the Bible study.
After roughly an hour of preaching, reading the Bible, and commenting on verses, the fourth preacher drives the audience towards the “tongue-speaking communion” with this sentence: “If the Word of God has not entered your spirit, it becomes meaningless.” The use of the words “God”, “spirit”, “entered” in a conditional form resonates as signals for the upcoming practice of tongue-speaking. The audience suddenly knows and feels that the time has come, as several members start shaking one leg slightly and close their eyes. The preacher looks gravely over the assembly. As he raises his voice, his intonations and gestures become more vigorous, and the sermon reaches another intensity. In a call & response style, some of the sentences he pronounces are rhythmed by a short silence, during which the audience would accordingly answer an intonated “a-MEEEEN!” The preacher shouts: “PRAISE THE LORD!” And the crowd: “HALLELU-JAAAH!” The preacher still holds the authorization of starting the collective tongue-speaking, creating a tension that seems unbearable to many, ready to explode. Some faces in the audience become even more contracted, the eyes closed, heads are bent down or held up high. Hands in the back or psalms facing up, most students start moving their lips or whispering some indistinguishable sounds and shaking their legs rhythmically, frenetically. Finally, the preacher gives the go-ahead when he starts speaking meaningless syllables in the microphone: “Sha-ka-ra-pe-te-raka-tapo! Re-ke-ta-pa-ka-tala-mata!…” Immediately, flows of vowels and consonants collide with each other in the four corners of the room. Bringing this din to an end is usually achieved when the preacher pronounces the magic sentence: “In Jesus’ name we have praid!” “a-MEEEEEENNN!” the crowd responds in unison. The calm is suddenly back and the sermon continues. The “Baptism through the Holy Spirit” is one of the main features of Pentecostal theology and something that worshippers actively seek after. In short, speaking in tongues is seen as a bodily manifestation of a spiritual gift that proves the presence of the Holy Spirit in individuals.
From an outsider perspective, this kind of transcendental spiritual practice is rather intriguing at first sight. At the same time, one can only notice how this collective effervescence, to take on a Durkheimian terminology, is socially organised, well-structured, guided, and controlled. During almost thirty minutes, the preacher alternates his sermon with this so-called “Tongue-speaking” or “Tongue-praying”, which students do to varying degrees. As another round of “tongue-speaking” starts again, some students just keep on moving the lips almost silently and barely shake their body, while others begin to release themselves to such an extent that they fall into a sort of epileptic trance, either standing or lying down on the floor. A few girls, wearing a headscarf, hit the wall repeatedly with the hand while they speak in tongue. Others, down on their knees, would hit the floor. Eyes shut, arms raised in the air, baffling sounds, imploring face expressions, heavily shaking and sweating bodies translate a feeling of both releasing and refilling the soul, a tension that the drummer helps recreate with frequent drum rolls. Power cuts may occur several times during the study, but don’t really affect it. Students fellowships are strategic: having a drummer always ensures the musical continuity of the Bible Study because it doesn’t need amplification. This time, the session ends up in the dark, with loud and joyful collective singing, while students keep on dancing and jumping.
At the end of the Bible Study, most of the students would stay inside or outside before the room, tidying the place, chatting, and laughing. Others would go back to their respective halls and have dinner at their cafeteria, as most of them live on the campus. The relaxed atmosphere following this session of Bible Study somehow contrasted with the intensity of the worship. I had the feeling that these practices helped students release some tensions, particularly the ones who went apparently “far” in what looked pretty much like a trance or a possession. Yet, others were discreet, or even shy, and seemed sometimes out of place when they were barely shaking a foot while standing next to a frenetically moving, sweating, and shouting body. While some are rather seeking biblical knowledge and guidance for reading and understanding the Bible, others would engage with this worshipping opportunity on a different level. This practice is anything but unusual, or hidden, on the campus. Even though the students found themselves in the intimacy of this common room, other gatherings often take place outside on the campus, where students may worship and perform such practices openly, publicly, in groups or individually.
On October 31st, 2022, Vincent Favier presented a thesis chapter entitled “‘L’accueil des nouveaux bacheliers’: Students discover the academic environment” during the workshop “Religions on Campus: Coexisting Traditions, Reformulating the Secular and Life Projects” that took place at LASDEL, Niamey, Niger.
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 afterhour 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.
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 broke out in Niger in January 2015. 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.
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 wear either the traditional riga or casual 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 are dressed like princesses with 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.
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 sensation.
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 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!”
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.
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.
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.”
In this workshop, explicitly designed for doctoral candidates and postdocs, the Remoboko research team will present its work, and discuss the methodological difficulties associated with researching a sensitive topic from an ethnographic perspective. Finally, members of the team discuss the challenges of completing their PhDs within a research project.
“The innocent spy who came in from the cold: Fieldwork in the Sahel and self-reflexivity”, Vincent Favier
Vincent Favier did a presentation entitled: “The Innocent Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Fieldwork in the Sahel and Self-reflexivity”. Beside the nod to the climatic dimension due to frequent travel between Germany and Niger, this title refers to the conditions and experience of doing Fieldwork in the Sahel from 2019 to 2021. Inspired by Nigel Barley’s “The Innocent Anthropologist”, his presentation outlined the challenges faced by the researcher as a French and non-Muslim in a former French colony dominated by Islam. Balancing between linguistic and academic affinities and forms of political distrust, or even faith-based contempt, Vincent explained how doing fieldwork in such a social environment requires to be strategic, patient, and diplomatic. This particular setting also enables the researcher to reflect on himself, on the individuals and groups he looks at, but, more importantly, on the way these individuals perceive him and the significance of his research project. In an unstable regional context due to terror attacks, French military intervention, coups, accusations of state corruption, and disinformation, being perceived as a spy is anything but surprising, especially when one comes from abroad to ask questions. Self-reflexivity is thus a crucial dimension of research, in any context, not only to assess the epistemological biases but also to gradually break down clichés and engage in mutual understanding.
“Being a Muslim and a researcher: conducting research in a context of religious competition”, Bello Adamou
Bello Adamou presented the topic : Being a Muslim and a researcher: conducting research in a context of religious competition. He began his presentation by discussing his religious identity and his associative background within one of the Muslim Students Association of Niger, section of the Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey. Being Muslim, he participated several times in the activities of this association without however occupying a position of responsibility or integrating one of the commissions, during his cycles of Licence and Master. Thus, he mentioned the influence of his research on his religious identity because it requires him to analyze the different groups with the neutrality that scientific research requires. Then, he mentioned the different reactions of religious groups on his research. While Christians and Sufis accepted him without resistance, the Salafis perceived him as a spy on the payroll of the outside world. However, over time the latter group came to accept him as a researcher. Finally, Bello reported attempts by student religious groups to influence his research as they perceived him as a mouthpiece for their activities on campus through his scientific publications.
“A “Yovo” Historian in Benin and Togo: Conducting Fieldwork in Times of Pandemic and Fears of Jihadism Spreading”, Dr. Frederick Madore
Frédérick Madore did a presentation entitled “A ‘Yovo’ Historian in Benin and Togo: Conducting Fieldwork in Times of Pandemic and Fears of Jihadism Spreading”. In the first part of his talk, he offered some thoughts on conducting ethnographic fieldwork as a historian by training. Although a lot of textbooks exist on ethnographic fieldwork, the “field” often presents unexpected challenges, and the research must deal with many gray areas. He also addressed the issue of positionality and reflected on how being a foreigner or a “pseudo-insider” as well as making friends in the field impact the research findings. In the second section, Frédérick Madore gave an overview of the difficulties of doing research in insecure regions – “red zones” –, and how the security context in West Africa can influence the research on Salafism. For instance, many journalists and commentators, in assessing the threat that jihadists pose to countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea, such as Benin and Togo, have pointed out the spread of Salafism and Saudi Arabian-funded NGOs in the region. As a result, a growing number of Salafis are reluctant to talk to researchers and building trust can be a challenge. Finally, he highlighted the difficulties of conducting research in post-colonial archival centers in West Africa, which are often underfunded and disorganized. Historians of contemporary Africa must make do with less written material and usually must rely on oral sources.
“‘Who is your father? What family do you belong to?’ and ‘Patience, I’ll call you back!’: Researching Islam and Muslim Life in Contemporary Sahel”, Dr. Abdoulaye Sounaye
In a region such as the Sahel where Salafi-jihadism has become highly politicized, from below and above, from within and without, what are the challenges of conducting research on Islam and Muslim societies? How to deal with ethnographic discomfort and security concerns? What to draw from those constraints, but also opportunities to engage other dimensions of the work of academic knowledge production? What to learn from the actual contexts and the dynamics that shape it? How to make research and academic collaboration work? These questions were at the core of the public lecture (“Who is your father? What family do you belong to?” and “Patience, I’ll call you back!”: Researching Islam and Muslim Life in Contemporary Sahel) Abdoulaye Sounaye gave on June 13, 2022 at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Halle. Building on his two decade-long experience conducting fieldwork in the region, the lecture was an opportunity to open a conversation on the constraints and forms of social control that field researchers have to deal with, especially when “working at home.” The conditions of ethnographic research on Islam and Muslim societies in the Sahel were discussed, highlighting some of the challenges and the problematic nature of such methodological orientation today. The lecture also drew attention to both ethical and epistemological concerns, especially with regard to the sensitivity of “Islamic” topics, how researchers (are and) become subject to social control, navigate the “non-sense” of research, and become constitutive of the field.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On November 17th, 2021, Vincent Favier presented a paper entitled “Comparison as a mode of knowledge production in academic contexts: interpreting history through the lens of religious narratives” during the workshop “Religion in higher educational institutions in Africa and beyond: (Re)Conversion, Power, and Authority from a comparative perspective” that took place at ZMO, Berlin, Germany.
Réunir les étudiants au-delà des dénominations de leurs églises, les accompagner à vivre leur foi et diffuser « le vrai message » du christianisme auprès de ses cibles tels sont, entre autres, les objectifs que s’est fixé le Campus Pour Christ (CPC) sur le campus de l’Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, au Niger, un espace à dominante musulmane. Ainsi, il vise à fédérer les chrétiens au-delà de leurs appartenances individuelles dans un milieu où ils se trouvent en minorité. Pour atteindre ses objectifs, le mouvement mène diverses activités auprès des étudiants chrétiens, sur le campus, au siège, situé à quelques minutes de marche de l’université, et/ou dans une église donnée. Lors de celles-ci, les étudiants musulmans sont aussi invités à y participer. Cette invitation a un double objectif qui est à la fois d’ordre social et d’ordre prosélytique. Au niveau social, les activités contribuent à la cohésion sociale entre les deux communautés religieuses ce qui facilite éventuellement le prosélytisme dans l’espace universitaire.
Parmi les activités qu’organise le CPC sur le campus ou dans son local, on note la séance de lecture biblique hebdomadaire à la faculté des lettres et de sciences humaines appelée « Apportez Votre Bible » (AVB) ; les conférences débats sur des questions religieuses, académiques ou sociales ; des formations diverses (sur la vie du couple, l’entrepreneuriat, etc.), des animations culturelles, l’évangélisation, ou encore l’accueil des nouveaux bacheliers. Cette dernière activité est organisée chaque année à la reprise des activités académiques des étudiants. Elle vise à faciliter les contacts entre les nouveaux étudiants et leurs aînés ; présenter l’organisation aux nouveaux venus ; leur prodiguer des conseils ; etc.
Une soixantaine d’étudiants patientent, assis sur des chaises en plastique installées dans la cour du centre. Le haut-parleur crache une musique de type pop américaine. Les deux principaux représentants de l’association Campus Pour Christ, Maliki, un Nigérien, et Kirk, un Américain, ouvrent la cérémonie. La soirée commence par des jeux. Kirk, s’exprimant en Français, demande par exemple aux étudiants présents de se lever à l’annonce de la faculté dans laquelle ils étudient, ce qui permet non seulement aux étudiants de voir en un clin d’œil tous ceux qui font partie de leur faculté, mais aussi aux membres de l’association de prendre connaissance de la répartition des étudiants par faculté. Or, ceci est crucial pour l’organisation de leurs activités sur le campus et pour repérer dans quelles facultés ils sont susceptibles de réunir le plus de monde. La Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines (FLSH) est de loin celle qui compte le plus d’étudiants présents ce soir-là. Habituellement, le CPC donne rendez-vous aux étudiants de la Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines les lundis à midi dans une salle de cours pour une session de prière et de lecture de la Bible. Malgré l’importance du contingent de Chrétiens dans ladite faculté, il n’est pas rare que cette réunion hebdomadaire soit annulée parce qu’aucun d’entre eux ne s’y est rendu. Le jeu se poursuit. On demande à ceux qui ont déjà voyagé en avion, qui ont déjà vu l’océan, de se manifester en se levant, ce que font très peu d’étudiants. On demande aux étudiants de se lever lorsque ceux-ci entendent leur couleur préférée. Toutes ces questions posées ont l’ambition de faire socialiser les étudiants et de créer une dynamique de groupe d’une manière ludique.
La soirée se poursuit avec le témoignage de Bachir, un des anciens cadres du CPC. Celui-ci rappelle la mission de l’organisation : fournir un soutien aux étudiants chrétiens dans leur formation religieuse, dans leur relation avec Dieu. Il ne s’agit pas que d’un simple soutien. “Être au CPC, c’est avoir la certitude du salut !” affirme-t-il. Un des objectifs principaux de l’organisation est aussi d’évangéliser, ce que l’intervenant rappelle en ces termes : « nous voulons évangéliser à notre manière en milieu musulman ». Il n’en précise pas pour autant les modalités mais met l’accent sur les enseignements de la relation avec Dieu : « Qui suis-je en tant que Chrétien ? », demande-t-il. Il ajoute : « la vie avec Dieu conditionne tout. » Et cette vie se veut équilibrée, à la fois spirituellement et socialement.
Bachir dit qu’il a eu la chance de voyager beaucoup grâce au CPC, notamment dans plusieurs pays d’Afrique de l’Ouest. Un léger murmure parcourt l’assistance, il se reprend : « non, pas la chance, la grâce ! ». Il s’est notamment rendu au Kenya pour un forum international chrétien. Il fait l’éloge de l’organisation ainsi : « avec le CPC, vous gagnez beaucoup ! » Maliki s’empresse de nuancer : « Attention, on n’est pas en train de vous dire que vous allez voyager ! » Les étudiants rient. C’est un rêve que beaucoup partagent ouvertement : sortir une fois du Niger, voyager ne serait-ce que dans les pays limitrophes, voir l’océan, un jour. Il en profite pour rappeler que le CPC ne fait aucune exception, il rassemble toutes les Églises. Cette aspiration à transcender les dénominations, fortement ancrées dans le paysage chrétien Ouest-Africain, se retrouve chez la plupart des groupes de jeunes chrétiens. Ceux-ci sont répartis en différents foyers autour du campus et tentent de rassembler largement leur communauté à chacune de leurs activités. Cette volonté ne se concrétise pas vraiment puisqu’aucun des groupes existants n’a jamais fusionné avec un autre.
La soirée se poursuit avec un interlude musical. Les membres les plus âgés sont invités à chanter l’hymne du CPC devant les nouveaux bacheliers. Puis c’est au tour d’un autre ancien cadre, un des pionniers de l’association au Niger, de témoigner.
Papa Até, tel que l’on nomme, raconte l’histoire du CPC, depuis sa création par le Dr. Bill Bright en 1951 à l’université de Californie, à Los Angeles. Dr. Bill Bright a un diplôme d’enseignant-chercheur. Son ambition est d’abord matérielle jusqu’à sa rencontre avec une femme qui éveille sa spiritualité. Il s’inscrit alors à une école de théologie. Une nuit, dieu se serait révélé à lui. C’est cette vision qui a donné naissance au Campus Pour Christ. L’objectif est de « gagner les étudiants pour Jésus », car il constate que les étudiants sont livrés à eux-mêmes. En 1958, le CPC gagne la Corée du Sud, puis l’Afrique de l’Ouest, d’abord Lomé et ensuite le Niger en 1992.
Papa Até demande à l’assemblée : « quel rôle peut jouer l’étudiant dans son environnement ? » Le « rôle » est un mot qui revient fréquemment dans des conférences organisées par et pour les étudiants sur le campus. Les étudiants, conscients de leur impact potentiel sur la société, s’interrogent souvent sur leur rôle et leur apport dans les questions de sociétés, notamment celles liées à l’extrémisme religieux et au terrorisme. L’intervenant ne manque pas de rappeler que « le CPC veut le bien-être de l’étudiant et sa réussite ». Il cite l’évangile de Matthieu, chapitre 28, versets 19 et 20 : « Allez, faites de toutes les nations des disciples, les baptisant au nom du Père, du Fils et du Saint Esprit, et enseignez-leur à observer tout ce que je vous ai prescrit. Et voici, je suis avec vous tous les jours, jusqu’à la fin du monde. » Papa Até conclut son discours ainsi : « C’est grâce aux enseignements du CPC qu’on a le salut. Cela donne aussi l’assurance, la confiance pour témoigner auprès de vos camarades. »
Maliki reprend la parole et clame : « soyons des imitateurs de Jésus Christ ! » Se contenter de s’en inspirer ne suffit pas pour évangéliser. On approche de la fin de la soirée. Maliki présente ce qu’il appelle « l’applaudissement campusien » : tout en frottant longuement ses mains l’une avec l’autre, il dit : « On va chauffer à 100 degrés… à 120… à 150 degrés ! » et il commence à frapper dans ses mains un rythme particulier, court, saccadé, accompagné par les anciens membres. Avant d’inviter les participants au repas tant attendu, il rappelle que le CPC dispose d’interlocuteurs au centre pour tous ceux et toutes celles qui auraient des questions d’ordre sentimental. Il donne aussi rendez-vous à la session de prière tous les lundis à la Faculté des Lettres. Répondant à une ultime question, il conseille aux étudiants de venir avec la Bible en version papier plutôt que d’utiliser son smartphone, avec lequel on peut être facilement distrait.
La soirée d’accueil des nouveaux étudiants a servi de cadre de rencontres et de retrouvailles entre les nouveaux et les anciens étudiants d’une part, et les étudiants et les anciens cadres d’autre part. Elle a mis en contact ces étudiants chrétiens dans un milieu où ils restent en minorité. Alliant jeux de divertissements et témoignages des anciens cadres, la soirée a permis de briser la glace entre les participants et ainsi faciliter la sociabilité. En outre, le CPC a profité de cette rencontre pour présenter ses missions et objectifs auprès des étudiants, que les organisateurs, de leur propre aveu, ne pensaient pas avoir si nombreux.
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.
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 performthis 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 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.
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.
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.
It is unclear why and when people started naming this unspectacular place at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, like this. The tarmac is a flat, large, tree-lined and well asphalted parking space, that officially belongs to the adjoining Chapel of the Resurrection, traditionally dominated by Anglican and Methodist denominations. One would find the campus’ main mosque next to it, and, on the other side of the road, the “Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Catholic Chapel”. Almost everyone on the campus knows about the tarmac, where it is, and what happens there. During the day, the parking space fulfils its formal task: hosting cars. But in the evening, cars have left and people, mostly students, invade the tarmac.
On the campus, the sun goes down behind a palms’ skyline, an exception in a city of an estimated – not officially – 6 million souls seeking shelter from the burning sun and heavy rains under an ocean of rusty roofs. Ibadan’s famous hills are like green islands emerging from an infinity of buildings, houses and roads that fade away in the horizon’s smog.
And although deans of faculties and non-academic staff sometimes cut trees on the campus for aesthetic matters or for any other obscure reasons, the university campus is probably the only public accessible greenest space in town where one can admire a sunset listening birds singing in a rich natural environment. But this is not what students aim to do when they gather every evening of the week on the tarmac.
Take a seat at the edge of the place, on these white concrete benches on the Chapel’s side, and you’ll find students who, individually or in tiny groups, walk back and forth, whispering inaudible words. Other would sit right next to you, often listening to sermons through their earphones. In the middle of the tarmac, two girls walk in circle side by side, making convulsive gestures. They speak, but not to each other. Sometimes, one of them would go down on her knees and talk to the asphalt, or through the asphalt, even, as if to address her prayers and wishes to the underworld. Heads bowed towards the ground, or held up high, eyes shut, frowning, supplicating, psalms of the hands facing up, or arms raised towards the sky; Pentecostal students seem to perform their prayers to establish a connection between the earth and the universe. This performance is fostered by the many Pentecostal fellowships for undergraduate students present on campus. They gather regularly on the tarmac.
To sum up briefly, Pentecostals aimed to break with certain theological interpretations and religious practices of mainstream Churches, flatten old clerical hierarchies, and, eventually, free the Word of God. Its adherents emphasise the baptism through the Holy Spirit; its presence during worship manifests when practitioners start “speaking in tongues”, a divine gift. Speaking in tongues doesn’t happen just out of the blue, or systematically. One must “train” if one wants to achieve a certain level of proficiency. Individuals develop their ‘own’ style of tongue-speaking like their own language of sounds. This collective worship setting enables them to practice, get inspired by others, let it flow, and let it go.
The tarmac is a favourite playground, a field of predilection for this kind of practices. It is for free, open and outside, large enough, there is public light at night. It is conveniently, centrally located on campus, in the middle of the earliest three religious buildings: The Mosque, the Catholic Chapel, and the Protestant Chapel. The latter was the first space of worship built in 1954 on campus, shortly after founding the University of Ibadan in 1948. It sometimes hosts ceremonies like the recent celebration of the university’s 70th Foundation Day. The Chapel regularly organises worship and educational activities for pupils, students, and holds frequent services for people who mainly live on the campus. Therefore, it tolerates the presence and practices of Pentecostal youth on the parking space. The second wave of Pentecostal revival started in Nigeria in the 1970s, often on university campuses. Youth literally went out of the traditional religious buildings and started worshipping more freely, and this is how places like the Chapel’s car park have been appropriated. Now, it is socially widely accepted and has become part of the campus’ landscape.
Student Pentecostal fellowships usually gather in the evening, sometimes filling the space with hundreds of people, dispatched in smaller groups like passengers waiting at a crowded terminal’s boarding gates. Groups would naturally use the whole width and length of the area to avoid that others’ cacophony mutes their own sermons. Well organised fellowships usually succeed to perform a prayer service or a bible study on the tarmac through a carefully rhythmed, although acoustical, succession of actions. As members slowly arrive and wait for the session to begin, they would start “warming-up” by pronouncing dimly, individually, some prayers, words, or sounds. Then, joint prayers, singings, sermons, healing performances would follow, punctuated by short but louder and louder tongue-speaking interludes, until the group would reach the final take-off, a seemingly “out of control”, heated, collective frenzy. However, since March 2020, the tarmac atmosphere has been very different for some reasons. The first is the academic and non-academic staff strikes. The second is the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic that led to schools’ closure.
The disruption caused by the strike and school closure also meant that religious programmes’ participation witnessed some changes. Likewise, spaces often appropriated for religious programmes became deserted. The tarmac remained and resonated empty during several months. Like some of their parent and affiliate churches, some students’ fellowships tried to close the gaps by moving some of their activities online. They conducted virtual programming via social media platforms like WhatsApp and online radio platform such as Mixlr. For instance, the Ibadan Varsity Christian Union fellowship members convened weekly on these platforms for prayer meetings, bible study, and prayer and fasting sessions.
A lot have now changed, in November most worship places on the university campus resumed physical services with churches and mosque opening to congregants again. People began to trickle into the tarmac; a space that has not been in much use because of COVID-19 restriction measures and students’ absence on campus. Although the university is still closed to students, some students staying off-campus who either returned from home and some who live in Ibadan have started to reconvene for physical fellowships. Some other individuals in groups of two or there that appear not to be students have also begun to troop on the tarmac for prayer sessions. Since mid-November, a few Redeemed Christian Postgraduate Fellowship’s (RCPGF) students began to meet on the tarmac on Wednesday evenings. Even though the RCPGF holds its programme in another part of the campus, they have been using the tarmac because of its open and accessible character since the university is still officially closed.