Nigerian professor says concept of God preceded missionaries
In one Nigerian language, the name for God is "Osanobua," meaning God who created the universe. Yorubas call God "Orisagbaye," meaning God who occupies/owns the universe.
"Those are just two names from two cultures in one African country," said Itohan Idumwonyi, who came to Spokane in 2018 as an assistant professor of religious studies and as an interdisciplinary scholar with the Religious Studies Department at Gonzaga University.
"Traveling through Africa, the concept of 'God' and belief in 'God' existed in different cultures before European missionaries came," she said.
Such insights are ways Itohan offers students a new lens as she introduces them to African religions, African diaspora religions, African studies, sociology of religion, African womanist theology, religion and gender.
She invites students to use ethnographic insights to move beyond colonial views of African religions.
Itohan, who earned a bachelor's degree in 1998 and a master's in 2002 in religious studies at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, said even her name speaks of God. "Itohan" means "God's mercy" "kindness," "favor" and "compassion."
She taught and did research for more than 10 years at the University of Benin and did community services with the African Women Empowerment Guild.
In 2012, she earned a master's in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and in 2018, a doctoral degree in religious studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
By challenging students' "preconceived notions and conventional thinking," she inspires them to new understandings to prepare them to live and work in a diverse society and world.
For example, she makes the point that in Africa's 54 countries there are diverse cultures, beliefs and languages.
Most of the perhaps 2,000 African languages and dialects have words identifying God as the creator.
"The dominant Western Christian idea is/was that Africa had no religion before missionaries came and missionaries introduced God to Africa," Itohan said. "That is not correct. God as a concept existed among the people of different religions as is evident in the different names for God in many languages and cultures.
The different names do not mean Africans have many gods.
"God is one," she said. "Non-Africans mistake African deities and ancestors for gods. African ancestors are like the saints in Catholicism.
"A closer study of the religious practice of the 'acclaimed' world religions reveals the similarities with African religions," she said.
Itohan said that Anglican priest and theology professor John Mbiti is considered the father of African religion because his books on African religion and philosophy tell how attitudes and beliefs evolved in many African societies.
"Africans are notoriously religious. I'm using 'notorious' with a positive meaning. When they cultivate a farm, there is a ritual. There are rituals when children are born and for their stages of development," Itohan said. "African businesses often hang a sign, saying "In God We Trust."
"Mbiti said God was in everyday affairs. We sleep and wake up with God. We eat and drink with God,"
"Bringing awareness of African religion to an academic setting like GU informs students of religious traditions beyond Catholicism, because they will encounter other religions in their work and careers," Itohan said. "African traditional religions are different from mainline Christian traditions and practices, but also have similarities.
"Students need to learn to empathize with people of very different religions. If they find themselves in positions of making policies, they need to know how to deal with people of different cultures or religions," she said.
She finds that many at Gonzaga have encountered only Catholicism from grade school to college. In Itohan's classes, learning that African religion is similar to Catholicism opens for them "a vista for meaning-making in life."
"If they hear, know and understand that, I have done my job," she said. "I hope they embrace understanding another person's traditional cultural way of life and to see life beyond what they have always known."
Itohan also pointed out that African Christianity is an umbrella body. Within it are African Catholic, Pentecostal and Orthodox churches that are now incorporating African customs, life and meanings.
This fall she is teaching a class on how literature portrays religion, women, men and culture.
"I focus on women, because women are so often written out of history," she said. "African women today are speaking up for themselves and others. Women need to be empowered and draw strength from each other."
Itohan quoted an African saying: "If you want to get to your destination on time, travel alone, but if you want to travel far and successfully, travel with others."
She believes that to find purpose in the journey of life, people need to collaborate, draw strength from and give strength to one another, something she did in community engagement through her church in Nigeria and does through prayer and support groups she leads in Spokane.
In Nigeria, Itohan said many women are housewives depending on their husbands for financial support, so they do not speak up if things are wrong.
So she created a revolving "micro-loan" program. She gave 3,000 to 5,000 naira—$7 to $13—to a woman to begin a trade. In consultation with the woman, Itohan sets a payment plan that starts the fourth week. She seeks no return or report the first three weeks, but by the fourth week the woman begins to pay back the money following the payment plan. Over 10 months to a year, she pays back the full investment with an additional fraction, Itohan explained.
"I give that capital to another woman to start a trade. Now nearly 20 women have benefitted from the program. With what they earn, they can support their families and themselves, and they have tuition for their children to go to school. The capital recycles over time and expands," she said.
"Because women can support themselves and their children, they are empowered and speak up," she said.
Itohan also offers financial literacy workshops to teach budgeting.
In Nigeria, she also started a teen and adult education program and had her church youth group visit juveniles in a correction facility. They exchanged ideas, read books, sang and danced with the juvenile inmates.
"Visits gave church teens awareness of teens in detention. So they thanked their parents for what they had taken for granted. They studied harder and become more committed," she said. "Teens in prison learned from the church teens that there is hope for a better tomorrow.
"Collaboration gives the women and teens a new lease on life," she explained.
Itohan, an ordained minister, attends Victory Faith in Spokane Valley, an American Pentecostal church. She also continues to connect with women's groups through weekly phone and Zoom meetings.
She hosts a Zoom prayer group for women she met at a Nigerian church she attended in Boston. The elderly women are grandmothers from Benin City. They meet at 6 p.m. Sundays to pray for churches, priests, ministers and families around the world.
Each week she also leads a group for elderly women—grandmothers who live in various U.S. states and Canada—at 8 a.m. Saturdays. They meet by phone to share the challenges they have with their children and grandchildren. They share Scriptures and pray in a Benin language.
Itohan, who met her husband in Nigeria, said he is working in Mississauga, Ontario, near Toronto, because he was not allowed to immigrate to the U.S. They have two children, one at Gonzaga Prep and the other at Roosevelt Elementary School.
Six weeks after arriving in Spokane, her mother died, so she flew to Nigeria for five days. Her father had died in 2015. She has six siblings in Nigeria.
Itohan said GU's religious studies faculty welcomed her as part of their family, supporting her when her mother died, as she lives apart from her husband and now works to meet the challenges of teaching in the pandemic.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November, 2020