In the massive building adjacent a multi billion naira Cathedral of Nsukka Catholic Diocese, a seemingly unthinkable scenario is currently taking place.
One of its priest has been en massing a monumental idol artifacts for over a decade now.
Call him a rare priest or even a controversial servant of God.
After all he is popularly known as Okunerere (consuming fire). Rev. Fr. (Professor) Martins Obayi, PhD, a professor of Mass Communication, is indeed an uncommon and controversial priest.
Ordained a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka in 2000, Prof. Obayi has been growing both spiritually and academically, clinching a professorial seat four years ago at the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).
But while his academic attainment may say a lot about his versatility and wealth of knowledge that is not the uncommon thing about this servant of the Most High God, a priest in the Order of Melchizedek – Catholic priests are among the most educated in the world. What is unusual about Fr. Obayi is his unusual relationship with, or attitude to, deities often represented in dreadful totems and or artefacts in Igboland.
However, while it is normal to see many other Catholic and Pentecostal preachers set fire to statues and other ancient artefacts representing deities but which such men of God regard as symbols of idolatry, Rev. Fr. Prof Obayi, in sharp contrast, collects them, protect them, as he puts it, as a means of preserving Igbo history.
These artefacts are central to the traditional religions practised by the Igbo people, who see them as sacred and possessing supernatural powers. With very few now openly professing adherence to these traditional forms of worship as Christianity has become the area’s dominant faith, Obayi’s ‘romance’ with the artefacts of the gods has drawn a lot of criticisms, especially from many Christian preachers some of who question this practice.
Our reporter visits Fr.Obayi/Museum
Although he is referred to as “fire that burns”, there is nothing frightening about Reverend Professor Paul Obayi, who runs the Deities Museum inside the sprawling compound of St. Teresa’s Cathedral, Nsukka city. All efforts to speak to the priest proved abortive as he kept on saying he was not in the mood to speak to the press.
Located in the compound of Saint Theresa’s Catholic Cathedral, the three-room museum plays host to hundreds of totems, masks, a stuffed lion and carvings of Igbo deities, collected from communities from virtually all states of the South-East zone.
Our reporter gathered that each time communities forsake their traditional religious beliefs, primarily under the influence of Christian Pentecostal churches, some pastors would create bonfires to burn the artefacts, which they say contradict the faith’s monotheistic beliefs, and which represent “evil spirits that bring bad luck”.
Sometimes worshippers of the traditional religions also torch their deities, in accordance with a belief captured in the Igbo proverb that “if a god becomes too troublesome, it becomes wood for the fireplace.”
But in contrary, Reverend Obayi bucks the trend by preserving the rejected gods and goddesses, saying he uses religious powers to remove their supposed supernatural abilities. This has earned him the moniker Okunerere – “the fire that burns idols in the spirit”
I’ve already destroyed the spirits,” he said sometime ago at his museum when he brought Ada Alor (Queen of Alor – Adero in local dialect), one of the most powerful deities in the area. “What you have is just an empty shell. There is nothing inside.”
Why I don’t burn the artefacts
By and large in a chat with newsmen some time ago, Fr. Obayi said he had been partially influenced by museums in many Western countries, which are under enormous pressure to return artefacts, such as the Benin Bronzes, that were looted during the colonial era.
“I visit museums in the West and I see artefacts, some from Benin, and I made up my mind to preserve ours,” he had said then.
The Diocese defends the initiative
Explaining further while speaking to our reporter on the museum and the artefacts, the immediate past cathedral’s administrator, Rev. Fr Dr. Eugene Odo said the initiative was in order, comparing it to a Catholic-owned museum in Italy.
“In Rome, for instance, there is the museum housing things that the Romans did as pagans, and people go there to see the stages of human development,” he said.
Though the Deities Museum hosts visitors who come in from as far as Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Ibadan to see some of the tagged items, it is in dire need of care and attention. The artefacts, some of them centuries old, are strewn across the museum’s floor, caked in dust. Some have been ravaged by termites.
But it is a treasure trove of Igbo deities – in one corner is a fearsome-looking mask surrounded by raffia, in another corner a deity used by tricksters – two oblong-shaped objects held together by string, used in the past to solve “mysteries” such as catching a thief. Hidden levers operated by the trickster were used to shoppingmode control the movement of the objects when the names of suspects were called out, making it look like an invisible force had discovered the thief.
Catalogue of the deities
Apart from Ada Alor (Adero) deity there are more than one hundred deity artefacts displayed in the museum. But the most prominent is the Adada lejja, a raffia-covered headless goddess, feted by those seeking children. Reverend Obayi said the deity was almost 200 years old. Another prominent artefact is that of Ada Alor (Adero in local dialect), a dreaded goddess from Alor in Nsukka local government area of Enugu state.
How he collects the artefacts
According to the fiery priest, the items came mostly from the “deliverance services” he had conducted over the past 20 years in towns and villages across Nigeria’s South East.
“People write letters inviting my ministry, (Okunerere Adoration Ministry, Nsukka) to come and remove the idols that are disturbing them,” he said. “My ministry will honour the invitation and remove the idols and I will bring the artefacts to this museum here.”
Ways of the ancestors
Within Nigeria gathered that Odinani, an ancient Igbo religion, was practised before the advent of Christianity and colonialism. It is a form of animism where people pray to a spirit – represented by a statue – known as chi or personal god. It seeks intercession on their behalf from a Supreme Being, or Chukwu.
Our investigations revealed that other deities worshipped then included Ala – the goddess of fertility; Amadioha – the god of thunder; Ekwensu – the god of bargains and mischief and Ikenga – an avatar of the owner’s spirit, among others.
It was also gathered that not many adherents of these ancient religions remain, even as they endure ‘persecution’ from the Christian majority.
Their sacred days are disregarded, traditions such as rites of passages are frowned upon and there have been instances where shrines have been invaded by Christian activists alleging that these deities were the cause of their misfortune in business, workplace or family life.
Nowadays, most practitioners of these religions are elderly, although a handful of youngsters are now rebelling against their Christian faith and learning the ways of their ancestors.
Reactions of other men of God
However, Founder, Christ the Saviour Ministry Nsukka, Pastor Jude Anosike told our reporter that “I don’t subscribe to the idea of preserving these artefacts. For what reason again? They should be burnt so that we do not have anything to do with them again. ”
Pastor Anosike added: “Remember when God asked his people to leave Egypt, they left everything they had with them, even their cooking pots. Since an idolater has repented from his idolatry, it is very necessary that we set these artefacts on fire so as to bring an end to it.”
However, in a chat with our reporter, a traditionalist, Chief Onwudinjo Ugwuoke said: “What the priest is doing is very much proper. Since he has removed the spirits of these deities in the artefacts, it is no longer necessary to set them on fire. Keeping them in museum like Fr. Obayi does is the best option because that will help our children know what their forefathers worshipped before Christianity.”
Nevertheless, in the midst of all these controversies, Rev. Father Professor Paul Martins Obayi’s ministry has continued to grow in leaps and bounds.
His collection of artefacts has continued to swell as his ministry has continued to receive invitations from many communities in the South East for removal of ‘troublesome’ deities from their communities.
According to one seminarian working in the diocese, ” we are thinking of expanding the museum so as to contain more artefacts from various communities. New and bigger museum is being proposed to this effect.