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.