Life in Lagos: The Deafening Roar of Big Religion
Lagos, Nigeria, is Africa’s most populous metropolitan area—with an estimated 21 million inhabitants. It also boasts the biggest economy of any city in Africa, housing some of the richest people on the continent, as well as huge numbers of poor.
Robin Hammond photographed life in Lagos for the story “Africa’s First City,” which appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. In a series of five posts on Proof, he chronicles this city of contrasts that is fast becoming Africa’s hub of creativity, fashion, and business.
Every Sunday, as a child growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, I was taken to church; my Dad insisted. While the priest—a good man, but a man with no natural talent for public speaking—sermonized, my father would invariably fall asleep.
Once I asked my father why we went; shouldn’t we just sleep in and save on fuel? For my Dad the act of going to church was important—what happened there, less so. And I’m afraid our priest didn’t do such a good job keeping us engaged. If that priest had been schooled by a Nigerian church, he might have had a better chance of keeping my father awake, and the one-hour service may not have seemed so long.
The first hour of many Nigerian church services is just a warm-up. In fact the Redeemed Christian Church of God Annual Camp in Lagos is a week of praising the Lord. When these services are at their height, you wouldn’t want to sleep. The choirs, sometimes hundreds strong, and the church bands make it feel like a rock concert. Religious or not, it would be impossible not to be taken in by the atmosphere, because echoing those choirs is a congregation of as many as 300,000 people.
I paced out the church hall—a huge warehouse-like construction without walls—1,600 steps at about a meter each: That’s about a mile. It was just as wide, and the place was full.
Around the church an entire town has been built, including smaller churches, hotels, and restaurants. Getting to and from the church can take hours of waiting in traffic.
TV cameras brought up emotional faces on large screens around the hall. The congregation followed the pastors and took notes in their Bibles and notebooks. Many had their Bible on their iPad.
Everyone was there to see “the Man of God.” He leads the Redeemed Christian Church of God and has done so since the founder of the church passed away. Believed to have been anointed by God, he is genuinely worshipped. At the main event that Friday night he didn’t come on until around 11 p.m.—this was an all-night service. Before him there were bands and lesser preachers to warm up the crowd.
When the Man of God shouted “Jesus” and the crowd returned his call, the noise was deafening. This is where my priest got it wrong; the pastors here had us involved in the ceremony. They were preaching to us, yes, but also expecting us to reply. It was a conversation, not a monologue.
Throughout the evening, members of the congregation gave testimony to the miracles they’d experienced. Most, when I was there, were women who had for years been trying to get pregnant but failed. They were “barren.” Some of them, in their 50s, gave testimony of how, thanks to the power of prayer, they were now pregnant. Some showed off a newborn child. Everyone celebrated the power of the Holy Spirit on seeing the baby.
That was my second time there. At an earlier camp I was pushed off the grounds quite quickly. I thought I had permission, but it turns out I hadn’t gone through the right channels. A month later, after meetings in the corporate offices of the church, I was assigned to work with Redemption TV, which broadcasts services online around the world. They even gave me a Redemption TV t-shirt!
It turned out that their concern was with how I would be reporting on the church. Pastors in Nigeria have been criticized in the press for leading lavish lifestyles, flying around the world in private jets, amassing massive wealth on the back of impoverished believers. They wanted to know if I was going to photograph parishioners making “offerings” to the church—the implication being that permission would be denied if that was going to be the focus of my story.
It wasn’t, but I did leave wondering where all the money was going. I had heard before the expression, “The more you give, the greater the blessings.” Many Nigerians I met spoke with utmost faith in tithing as an investment. This was a foreign idea to me.
During the service the Man of God appealed for funds to expand the church; he thought it needed to be bigger.
At the front of the church were the wealthy and influential. It was clear from the way they were dressed and the iPads they carried. To the back were the less well off. And I saw many who were poor. I bought one young man some food when he begged from me while we ate lunch.
I found the obvious wealth of the church and its leader—with his fleet of cars, his bodyguards and his tailored suits—a little hard to square with the outright poverty of some of his parishioners.
It didn’t seem a concern to those there to worship though. They were firm believers in giving money to get blessings. And they were firm believers in the Man of God.
Nigeria is said to be one of the most religious countries on Earth. I would believe it. It’s not just the number of believers though, it’s also the passion with which they believe. Parishioners regularly weep or fall to the floor and writhe, overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit.
My fixer was one of those true believers. A member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, he told me that I should join the church. I replied that I was very excited to be photographing the service but my involvement would end there. He turned to me and told me that in the end the decision would be taken out of my hands, that by midnight, after hearing the Man of God speak, the power of the Holy Spirit would be revealed and I would be born again as a member of the church. I wasn’t so sure, so we made our usual wager—two bottles of Star, the local beer.
I was very moved by the service and came to understand why such an event appeals to so many. But in the end my fixer was buying the beer.
Read Hammond’s other blog posts on Proof, covering Nigeria’s Fashion Week, the rising African middle class, the upstart Nollywood film industry, and sand diggers at the bottom of the bay.
See more of Hammond’s photos from Lagos, including a gallery of portraits, in the National Geographic story “Africa’s First City.”
Robin Hammond has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Born in New Zealand, Hammond has lived in Japan, the U.K., South Africa, and France. View more of his work at www.robinhammond.co.uk