On the Tarmac, Waiting for Take-off

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.

Image of an Èṣù effigy staged in a sacrificial style. Cross-posted picture retrieved from twitter Feb. 2020

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.

(Chapel of the Resurrection Carpark_Tarmac with front view of the Chapel Hall. Picture by Adéjọkẹ́ April 2020)

Adéjọkẹ́ Rafiat Adétòrò & Vincent Favier

Socially Distant, Spiritually Connected: Religious activities on the University of Ibadan campus amid the coronavirus pandemic

The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused many changes in various spheres of human life and institutions, including religious and educational ones, that are central to human and social relations around the world.

Religious centres on many university campuses in Southwest Nigeria organize activities for the members of their immediate and host communities. These centres were closed to worshippers as part of the measures announced to contain the spread of the coronavirus. So, religious leaders sought alternative ways to keep up with the religious practices of their congregation especially devotional activities. The changes to these activities are remarkable. At the University of Ibadan, churches, mosques and other grounds appropriated for such purposes saw some interruptions and adjustments to their programmes.

©Adéjọkẹ́ Agbowó, market, opposite the University Of Ibadan. (May 2020)

COVID-19 in Nigeria: Actions and Reactions

In Ibadan, Nigeria, despite the relative adherence to abstaining from religious and school gatherings, the city is still bubbling. Operators of commercial transport, commuters and market traders in Agbowó, a mini-market opposite the main gate of the University of Ibadan (UI), conducted their business with no social distancing. Though a few are conscious of the problem, discernible in their use of face masks, wrapping of hands in plastic bags in place of hand-gloves and comments from some, whom to reassure others gesturing towards restraint from physical contact, claim they “don’t have Corona.” The latter habit is common among transport workers for whom grabbing and dragging commuters to board their vehicles have always been the usual practices.

This city hosts the country’s premier university, the University of Ibadan established in 1948. The University is a federal university bound by federal regulations on holidays, as with the lockdown recently instituted. On the evening of 19 March, Nigeria’s Minister of Education, through the ministry’s permanent secretary, ordered the closure of tertiary, secondary and primary schools in the country. Following this directive, the university management released a statement closing the University, ordering students to vacate their residence halls.

At the University of Ibadan, non- academic and academic unions of the university had earlier embarked on an industrial strike because of both internal and external default in remuneration. This action impaired operations and left the students in a precarious situation. Students took up the roles of security officers and porters in their halls of residence while writing their final examinations since the members of the non-academic staff charged with these responsibilities stopped working in mid-February. The order to vacate the university buildings applied to postgraduate students, though they have not started their examinations. As a result, they had to forgo a host of their activities and gatherings – social and religious, that would characterize the end of a session.

©Adéjọkẹ́ Mount Zion Ground, April 2020

COVID-19 and the Adjustments to Devotional activities at the University of Ibadan

The nerve centres of religious activities on the University of Ibadan campus are the Chapel of the Resurrection, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom catholic chapel, University Central mosque, Mount Zion Ground and Baptist Service Centre. Other places appropriated for this purpose include cafeterias in residence halls and sports centres. 

Towards the Northeast gate of the University is the Awo Hall, named after Obafemi Awolowo, a key nationalist figure who played a fundamental part in Nigeria’s struggle for independence. Beside this hall is the Mount Zion Ground, a crucial religious landscape of the campus. It is a space for postgraduate students (PG) fellowship hosting about 7 – 8 Christian denominations. Competing soundscape – buzzing instrumentals and varying human melodic tunes mark the presence and activities of the different Christian denominations worshipping on this site every Sunday and sometimes even during weekdays when school is in session. But on this first Sunny Sunday in April 2020, the sonic atmosphere was entirely different except the chirping birds. I felt here the disruption to religious activities caused by the lockdown measure the most.

©Adéjọkẹ́ A side-view of the entrance to the University of Ibadan Central Mosque on a Friday before the lockdown (March 2020)

Before the official closing of the university and religious centres across the country by the federal government, a letter signed by UI’s Chief Imam had been circulating on WhatsApp. It was the notice of suspension of the “weekly Jumu’ah prayers’ and any other mosque events that will create a gathering of up to fifty people in the general interest of the Muslim Ummah.” Of course, this is the first religious centre in Nigeria to take precaution against the spread of the virus by deciding to put a hold on religious gatherings in the physical congregation.

For a mosque that hosts not less than one thousand worshippers from within and outside the campus for its weekly Jumu’ah service, this is an important decision. Asides this, observing physical distancing which is one of the cautionary steps to curb the spread of the virus appears unrealistic. Particularly because the doctrinal position encourages standing in close contacts while observing congregational prayers. Also, no room because the mosque management just embarked on an expansion project for the increasing number of worshippers.

From Friday 22 May, the Chief Imam delivered the Khutbah (Friday sermons) on the mosque’s YouTube and Facebook channels. These channels also complemented the customary broadcast of sermons delivered on Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha; Islamic festivals, by the university radio station.

©Adéjọkẹ́ The Chapel of the Resurrection, UI (April 2020)

A mellow, melodic sound assumed to be from a piano lured me to the chapel area on Easter Sunday from behind the mosque. I watched the priests in their white cassocks go into the chapel in a procession with cameras and audio equipment surrounding them to aid their current means of conducting church services. In contrast to the mosque’s action, the Chapel did not stop their physical services until a few weeks after the closure of the university. The adjustments to their activity did not start until 29 March when moves their Sunday services and other programmes online and on-air broadcasting via the church’s online radio station, YouTube channel, and sometimes on a private radio station in Ibadan. Despite these provisions, a few worshippers still make it into the chapel to worship and some others in the car park (tarmac).

From the sounds and sights in some staff quarters in different parts of the University, I could tell that some Christian families on campus have turned to house fellowships held in their living rooms or outside in their compounds since they cannot go to their worship centres.

Without a doubt, there have been some modifications to religious activities in the University. An example is the suspension of devotional activities, held physically in groups. The social detachment arising from this informed the need to find alternative ways to stay spiritually connected. Thus, the broadcasting of sermons via YouTube, Facebook, online radio platforms and traditional radio stations became alternative ways of keeping up with religious practices and the community. 

But, in a country with an often poor internet connection and unequal/less access to such facility, I expect the transition to virtual programming will not provide the intended effect for some people. On different occasions, even I had problems enjoying some programmes disseminated via the chapel’s online radio because of the incessant pause while streaming. However, the traditional radio stations like the university-owned Diamond FM specifically prove to be a suitable option, particularly for this year’s Easter Sunday, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha celebrations. Although, it is customary for the radio station to broadcast sermons delivered on the campus during Christian and Muslim festivals.

There is a group of people that stand to benefit from these alternative forms of conducting devotional activities on university campuses. These are former university students, who often share posts on their social media pages about their favourite religious preachers or leaders when they were on campus. For instance, after my undergraduate programme at the University of Ilorin, I would often mull over how much I missed the Imam’s delivery of the weekly Khutbah at the central mosque. Perhaps, the online broadcast of services and hymns by the chapel and Khutbah by the mosque is a blessing for some people, as they can now enjoy what they have so far missed even it if it is in the interim.

Adéjọkẹ́ Rafiat Adétòrò