Equal Rights: by Francis Kolade Ajila

Photo credit: Dan Gold

As the Ibadan-bound bus inched its way out of the busy park at Ketu, Lagos, a woman who sat by the window raised her voice above the din in the vicinity.

“Praise the Lord,” she shouted.

There was a scattered response of “Halleluyah” on the 14-passenger bus as some were on their phones, some were trying to conclude purchases as vendors ran after the moving bus, whilst the rest simply sat back and stared into space.

“I said, praise the Lord.”

The response this time was a bit louder. But the woman was less than satisfied.

“If there are living souls on this bus, let them shout Halleluyah”

A louder response than the last.

This style must be working, Seye thought to herself.

“I say, if you want to see the end of this year, shout a resounding Halleluyah!”

This time, it was thunderous. Only Seye and another fellow didn’t respond. The young man, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of chinos trousers, was sitting in the row in front of Seye, his nose stuck in a paperback. A few people looked at them with accusing stares.

“Let us pray.”

Then she started a chorus which she urged everyone to join in, after which she started a lengthy prayer. By the time she was done, the bus was already outside Lagos State and was past Kara Bridge.

And just as some were about to relax and attend to other things, she launched into a sermon, a long and rambling one. As the sermon wore on, even some of her original respondents lost interest. It was one of those sermons that touched everything but made no central point: Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life; all other gods are false; babalawo, alfa and wolii cannot solve your problems; only Jesus can; the witches following you can only be defeated by Jesus; on and on and on.

Since there was no central theme, it was difficult to round off.

Seye looked on in a bemused manner, wondering if the preaching was more for the woman’s personal satisfaction than for any prospect of winning converts.

They had just passed the Benin-Ore junction when the sermon finally ended – or rather, petered out as it ran out of steam.

At last, thought Seye, we can now concentrate on other things.

But she could not be more wrong.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the young man in front, who had been reading throughout, put aside his book, cleared his throat, and raised his voice.

“I greet everyone in this bus,” he started.

The passengers turned to him with suspicion.

Seye was sure her thoughts were those of all the others who now looked at him: isn’t this the same man who had shown complete disinterest when the woman was preaching?

The man became momentarily quiet as he waited to have their complete attention.

“In a special way, I greet the last speaker, even though I’m going to make reference to some of what she has said.” He spoke in a surprisingly good Yoruba, the kind one hardly expects from one so young these days, especially with the education he seemed to have acquired.

He invoked some general blessings.

Then he continued, “I’m here to speak on behalf of all the orisa of our land. I do not presume to be qualified to do so, as everyone claims to do in the name of Jesus and other foreign orisa; but as a more qualified person is not available here and now, I must go ahead.”

The passengers looked at one another in wonder and bemusement. This is strange, isn’t it?

“I’m going to focus my sermon,” he actually used the word iwaasu, “on two major areas: what kind of life the orisa want us to live; and what they can and will do for us.”

Already, a few people began to show some irritation. If the young man noticed, he showed no sign.

“What kind of life do they want us to live? Very simple. Their demands are not back-breaking; not like asking you to turn the other cheek, or to kill your neighbour who disagrees with you on matters of faith.”

“Excuse me,” someone interjected.

E ni suuru,” he said patiently. “Let me finish. I won’t take as long as the first speaker, so there’ll still be time for questions and debates.

“So, as I was saying, the orisa want us to deal fairly with our neighbours. You don’t have to love anyone in a very special way; just treat them right, and be good to them when they are down on their luck. Ogun demands justice; Orunmila insists we tell the truth. We should be contented with what we have. No cheating. Obatala does not expect you to bring him gifts acquired from bloodshed or cheating others. Sango does not need a big shrine built from the proceeds of corruption. They visit the household of evildoers with their wrath!”

Someone nearby nodded. Another grunted in agreement.

“As for what they’ll do for us,” he continued, “if we live in integrity, they’ll guarantee prosperity and peace in our land. Osun is the mother of children, and she’ll give children to those who ask her. You don’t have to bring her millions before she does this; her priestesses don’t need private jets, and you don’t have to sow seeds in dollars to prove your faith in her. And Sango will strike down those who swear falsely. Look at Ile. Ile ogeere amokoye’ri. The food we eat comes from him. If we refuse to shed innocent blood and desecrate the land, our food will be sure. And for all these things they do, they don’t ask for payment. No true babalawo will tell you it’s your lack of faith that makes any particular thing fail to happen, as the agents of the foreign orisa tell us when the miracles they promise fail to occur.”

At this point, the protests had become so heated that the young man could not continue.

“How dare you insult the Almighty God, you pagan, you iranse Satani!” one howled. “May thunder strike you for such blasphemy!”

“What right have you to speak to us about dead gods, you agent of darkness?” demanded another.

The woman who initially preached had jumped up from her seat to grab hold of his shirt, and it looked like she might strangle him if she could.

There was total chaos.

The young man said nothing.

Seye was having a hard time closing her mouth; she’d never seen a scene like this in all her years of travelling.

The driver shouted for everyone to be quiet, but nobody heeded. Finally, he decided to park the bus and come down from his seat. He hit the body of the bus to draw attention.

“Listen, everybody!” he shouted. “Ibadan is not very far again. But if we’ll get there in one piece, I need everyone to conduct themselves in an orderly manner. If not, I’ll personally throw the person out of this bus. Do I make myself clear? I’m not saying you should not speak. But I don’t want any quarrel in this bus, that’s all. I didn’t ask anyone to preach on my bus. So if you can’t do that without quarrel, then be quiet.”

Calm gradually returned as the bus continued on its way.

Still the young man said nothing in his defence.

Then someone said, “But, ogbeni, why did you come in with such problematic speech?”

The young man looked steadily at the last speaker for some time.

He asked, “When that woman took everyone’s time with her prayers and sermon, who complained? What right has she that I don’t have? What rights has her religion that this other one does not have? Tell me! When she was casting aspersions on babalawo and the so-called ‘false gods’, who protested? I’ll agree that I shouldn’t have spoken if someone in this bus can tell me what right Christianity has that the African Traditional Religion does not have in this country. And with all the noise they make, do they and their pastors not always run to those same babalawo to seek assistance?”

I see, Seye thought to herself. One more question I’ll ask him.

The bus finally arrived at Iwo Road, in Ibadan. And as the young man went to the boot to retrieve his bag, Seye appeared beside him even though she had no luggage.

“Interesting journey, wasn’t it?”

He smiled.

“I’m Dapo,” he said as he thrust forward his right palm. “And in case you’re wondering, I’m not an ATR practitioner, I’m a Christian. I just thought that, if anyone wants to preach in a public place, he or she should stay focused and not start attacking other faiths. Besides, if a Christian preacher knows their position can be challenged, they’ll prepare better or hold their peace.”


Francis Kolade Ajila is a Nigerian writer and editor. He has a Masters Degree in Philosophy from the University of Ibadan.

Related country: Nigeria

All rights to this story remain with the author. Please do not repost or reproduce this material without permission.