When the words ‘religion’ and ‘Nigeria’ appear in the same sentence the implications can be mixed. Religion certainly plays a big part in Nigerian society. “A survey of people’s religious beliefs carried out in 10 countries (in 2004) suggests that Nigeria is the most religious nation in the world,” according to the BBC. Over 90% of Nigerians said they attended a religious service regularly, more than any of the 10 countries surveyed.
The survey also found that, “More than 90% of those surveyed in Nigeria and Indonesia said they would give their lives for their beliefs.”Â This presents the other side of religion in the country.Â Over the years the BBC has reported that religion is one of the major flashpoints for conflict in Nigeria. Religion continues to challenge the social and cultural fabric of the country. The difficulty in distinguishing religious, economic and ethnic sources of conflict has seemingly made the challenges more intractable.
Along comes a ray of hope, spurred by of all things, a deadly disease like malaria. The Center for Interfaith Action (CIFA) described Faiths United for Health (FUH) and reports that …
The Sultan of Sokoto and the Archbishop of Abuja, along with other leaders of Nigeriaâ€™s Muslim and Christian faiths, today joined Nigerian government officials to launch an unprecedented effort to eliminate deaths from malaria throughout the country. By the end of 2010, the religious leaders plan to train 300,000 imams, priests, pastors, and ministers to carry the malaria prevention message to cities, towns, and rural villages through sermons and other cooperative efforts.
The Christian Post quotes U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Malaria, Ray Chambers, who attended the launch of the Nigerian Inter-Faith Action Associationâ€™s campaign in Abuja as saying, “Working together, Nigeriaâ€™s faith leaders have the credibility, influence, and reach to carry the message that â€˜bed nets save livesâ€™ to their nationâ€™s most distant villages.”
The implication is that the more than 60 million insecticide-treated bednets being distributed in 2009-10 will only be effective if they are accepted, hung up and slept under. With such a large portion of the population attending religious services, the potential for an interfaith push to actually use the nets should have a big impact on reducing the disease. As John Bridgeland has said, “Faith-based and other leaders in civil society throughout Africa are emerging from the grassroots to ensure that nets are used properly in homes and villagers know the warning signs of malaria so they get help in a timely fashion.”
While the FUH offers hope, two important issues remain to be addressed.Â First, malaria cannot be controlled in isolation and simply through campaigns. Efforts require a strong primary health system to sustain malaria control. Unfortunately This Day highlights, “Part of the irony of our national development is that rather than situations improving, some key sectors tend to deteriorate. One such instance is in the health sector where the once robust primary health care system is almost completely extinct now.”
Secondly, perceptions of malaria illness are culturally based. It is not clear how indigenous African beliefs and religion fit into FUH.
Nigerians, like most people around the world, do not abandon their cultural beliefs just because they practice a cosmopolitan faith. Without attention to the indigenous cultural core of a peoples (e.g. sacrifice of beans and palm wine to Ogun at left above), we may risk low acceptance of our ‘miraculous’ malaria interventions.