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.