ACHINA, Nigeria – Born to a family of traditional priests, Ibe Nwigwe converted to Christianity as a boy. Under the sway of born-again fervor as a man, he gathered the paraphernalia of ancestral worship â€” a centuries-old stool, a metal staff with a wooden handle and the carved figure of a god â€” and burned them as his pastor watched.
“I had experienced a series of misfortunes and my pastor told me it was because I had not completely broken the covenant with my ancestral idols,” the 52-year-old Nwigwe said of the bonfire three years ago. “Now that I have done that, I hope I will be truly liberated.”
Generations ago, European colonists and Christian missionaries looted Africa’s ancient treasures. Now, Pentecostal Christian evangelists â€” most of them Africans â€” are helping wipe out remaining traces of how Africans once worked, played and prayed.
As poverty deepened in Nigeria from the mid-1980s, Pentecostal Christian church membership surged. The new faithful found comfort in preachers like evangelist Uma Ukpai who promised material success was next to godliness. He has boasted of overseeing the destruction of more than 100 shrines in one district in December 2005 alone.
Achina is typical of towns and villages in the ethnic Igbo-dominated Christian belt of southeastern Nigeria where this new Christian fundamentalism is evident. The old gods are being linked to the devil, and preachers are urging not only their rejection, but their destruction.
The Ezeokolo, the main shrine of Achina â€” a community of mainly farmers and traders in Nigeria’s rain forest belt â€” has been repeatedly looted of its carved god figures. While no one has been caught, suspects range from people acting on Christian impulses to treasure thieves.
Recently, a village civic association volunteered to build a house to keep burglars away from a giant wooden gong decorated with carved male, female and snake figures. The gong in the market square is reputed to be more than 400 years old, and in decades past was sounded in times of emergency.
“We feared it may be stolen or destroyed like so many of our traditional cultural symbols,” said Chuma Ezenwa, a Lagos-based lawyer.
But the move to protect a communal symbol has not changed the minds of others.
Ikechukwu Nzekwe, a 48-year-old farmer who belongs to a traditional masquerade cult, rues the action of his younger brother, a born-again Christian who destroyed the family’s masquerade costume, including pieces dating back seven generations.
The masquerade cult was once part theater, appearing at festivals to perform songs and dances, and part traditional police â€” its members helped enforce mores and customs. Now its role is largely restricted to theater, including performances and races by men in costumes depicting ancestral spirits.
Ukpai, the evangelist, tells followers the artifacts bear “curses and covenants” linked to the gods they represent.
“Since the curses and covenants do not automatically disappear when we repent, Rev. Dr. Uma Ukpai is a man called by God for the total liberation of mankind,” he says on his Web site, claiming to have the spiritual backing of Jesus to break the curses.
Efforts to speak to Ukpai were unsuccessful, and e-mails to his office asking for an interview received no reply.
Early missionaries to Nigeria condemned most traditional practices as pagan. Roman Catholics and Anglicans later came to terms with most practices, even incorporating some traditional dances into church liturgy. But there was no room for local gods once their erstwhile worshippers became Christians.
Similarly, Muslim preachers in Nigeria’s predominantly Islamic north forbade interaction with figures dedicated to local idols, although many cultural dances featuring traditional masks are still tolerated.
Most converts are in constant tension over how much of the old beliefs can be incorporated into their new faith, said Isidore Uzoatu, a specialist in the history of Christianity in Africa affiliated with Nnamdi Azikiwe University in southeastern Nigeria.
“Where the older Catholic and Anglican denominations are more tolerant, the Pentecostals reflect more strictly the idea of a jealous God that would brook no rival,” said Uzoatu.
The changing attitudes have not escaped the attention of art dealers.
“This work you see here is from a shrine. It was brought to me by one woman who said her pastor had asked her to get rid of it,” said Wahid Mumuni, a dealer at Ikoyi Hotel in Lagos, gesturing toward a carving.
Mumuni said the price was the equivalent of $1,500 and he expected a European visitor to take it away soon.
The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which is responsible for protecting the country’s cultural antiquities, has responded with a sensitization campaign.
“We are … telling the Christians that they can’t detach themselves from their past, that there is a beginning to their history,” said Omotosho Eluyemi, a senior commission official.
The commission urges those who do not want to keep sacred objects to take them to local chiefs. It also seeks stricter enforcement of the law prohibiting export of artifacts.
Okwy Achor, an archaeologist, fears the government’s response has been weak compared to the fervor of the evangelists.
Achina is part of the region where famed Igbo-Ukwu bronzes were discovered in a private compound in 1958. Older and more sophisticated than the better-known Benin and Ife bronzes, the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes date to between the 8th and 10th centuries and provide proof that a unique form of metallurgy evolved in Nigeria.
While Achina had few Christians 60 years ago, they now constitute more than 95 percent, says Emmanuel Eze, a retired teacher.
“There is hardly anyone around these days to speak up for tradition,” said Eze.