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New Spiritualities of Survival among Refugees in Northern Nigeria: Interview with Dr Matthew Michael


In 2021 Dr Matthew Michael was awarded a fellowship in the LUCAS/LAHRI Virtual Research Fellowship Scheme about African Knowledges for Global Challenges. On completion of his Fellowship we interviewed Matthew about his research on ‘When Religion is all They Have Left: Religious Ideologies, New Spiritualities and Survival in a Refugee Camp During COVID-19 in Northern Nigeria’.

Please briefly introduce yourself

I am a seasoned researcher in the field of African studies and its multifaceted conversations with religions and modernity. I have pioneered research works in the field of ethnopsychology of African healing spaces and recently led the research project—Triangulated health & Integrative Wellness: the Mapping of Wellness and its Cultural Psychology in Modern Africa. The project was jointly sponsored by Nagel Institute at Calvin University, Grand Rapids, MI, USA, and Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, Bahamas. The research findings of this particular project were published by Regnum (Oxford, United Kingdom) in a new book, African Healing Shrines and Cultural Psychologies. I am currently the Head of Department, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria. I also have a research fellowship with Stellenbosch University, South Africa. As part of my LUCAS/LAHRI fellowship, I worked together with Dr Abel Ugba (School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds).

What project have you worked on during your fellowship period?

We examined the creative conversations between Christian refugees and COVID-19 in the context of refugee crisis, terrorism, and forced migration at Zonkwa and Samaru-Kataf areas of Southern Kaduna, Nigeria. Our study primarily triangulated three global themes (COVID-19, forced migration and religions) and poses new questions about the impacts of COVID-19 within the social and religious dynamics of the refugee space. The project covered a period of three months, and identified emerging religious beliefs/practices fundamentally shaped by the pandemic and forced migrations among these Christian communities. In particular, we evaluated the subversive polemics and creative negotiations of the religious identities of these Christian communities in their encounters with, and response to COVID-19 and forced migrations.

What are the findings of your project so far?

Our findings suggest that there is a subtle spiritual awakening in the religious thoughts and practices of these displaced Christians who are existentially threatened by the combining forces of terrorism, forced migration, and COVID-19.  In our study, we were able to identify the operation of a subversive grassroots theology in these communities of displaced persons which directly challenges the dominant African Pentecostal theology of prosperity and wellness popular among Christians in other parts of Nigeria.  The outbreak of COVID-19 and the incessant attacks against these Christian communities in northern Nigeria shattered the double illusions of Pentecostal Christianity with its messages of prosperity and healing for all true Christians.  Consequently, the findings underscore creative contestations and local reinventions of Christian identity shaped formidably by the encounters of Christians in northern Nigeria with COVID-19,  terrorist attacks and forced migration.  We already have a paper ready for publication titled, “COVID-19, Self-Identity and Innovative Religiosities among Christian Refugees in Northern Nigeria” which is scheduled for publication early 2022.  We also have another paper that we have almost finished on “Christian songs, COVID-19 and African spiritualities in Refugee Camps in Southern Kaduna, Nigeria.” This second part of the project investigated the spiritual songs of these Christian refugees in their encounters with COVID-19 and forced migration at these two Christian camps. In this second work, we look at the different ways by which these Christian refugees have appropriated popular hymns and songs for their spiritual wellbeing in coping with the pandemic and forced migration. Historically, Nigerian Pentecostal songs have received national and international recognitions. However, we realize in this study that some Pentecostal songs are deliberately ignored—in these camps instead there is the apparent revival of evangelical Hausa Christian hymnals within the camps. For example, the popular Nigerian pidgin Pentecostal song, “Me I no go suffer, I no go beg for bread. God of Miracle nah my papa oooh—nah my papa ooh” [translated: I will not suffer, I will not beg for bread because God of miracle is my father”] has no place in these two suffering camps where many Christian families live daily on the relief materials donated by Churches and civil societies. Of course, the liturgy of these suffering Christians in their conversations with COVID-19 and terrorism shows the creative appropriations of evangelical hopes and beliefs to mitigate the threats posed by these existential challenges. Significantly, many favourite songs of these Christians emphasize their robust faith in God but with a deep recognition of their suffering and pains. This defiant recognition of their pains and sufferings seen in their selections of evangelical Christian songs and hymnals underscores a critical polemics of these refugee camps against the dominant Pentecostal messages of healing and wellness for all Christians. The fascinating dialectics between these Christian communities in refugee camps, and their counterparts in the safe havens of their churches in southern Nigeria—brings to the fore the intriguing shaping of Christian beliefs by the dynamics of a raging pandemic—and the vicious attacks of terrorism.

How does the project speak to the overall theme of “African knowledges for global challenges”?

The project speaks to the theme of “African knowledge for global challenges” in the following ways. First, the project shows the practical engagement of refugees with the existential threats of a pandemic on one hand, and the onslaught of terrorism on the other hand. The responds of these suffering communities have critical bearing and contribution to the contemporary discourses of the global community to these global challenges. Secondly, the empirical data already generated in the studies of these refugee camps will help in the modern research on global Christianity particularly in the quest to map out the unique contours of local Christianities and their diverse conversations with the pandemic, forced migration and terrorism. Thirdly, the emerging constructs of local African spiritualities in refugee camps underscore a subtle polemics towards other brands of African Christianities. This finding suggests the apparent contestations within African Christianity, and the enriching nature of this finding to contemporary African studies around the world on the diversities of modern African Christianity, and the urgent need to engage its defiant Christian traditions particularly those Christian traditions in the hotbeds of refugee crisis, conflicts and COVID-19. Lastly, the emerging theologies at these refugee camps are globally significant in understanding the variegated local beliefs and practices undergirding the spread, control and religious conversations surrounding COVID-19. The outcomes of our study here have crucial implications to the global efforts to combat COVID-19, its variant mutations, and other pandemics since an adequate understanding of the religious worldviews of most faith communities is important in the global task of combating COVID-19 and other pandemics.

Is there anything you would like to add?

On behalf of Dr. Abel Ugba, and myself, we appreciate the University of Leeds for giving us the opportunity to work on this important project. We are grateful to the Director of Leeds University Centre for African Studies (LUCAS), Prof. Adriaan van Klinken for his support throughout the course of this particular project. We also acknowledge here the immense assistance of Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute (LAHRI) particularly its director Prof. Jamie Stark, the deputy, Prof. Melanie Bell, and the Institute administrator par excellence, Erin Pickles for all her many supports and cooperation during the time of this particular project.  We are truly grateful to all the institutional and individual efforts put to this fellowship and the enriching findings this project has brought to the discourse of refugee crisis, religious innovations and the pandemics.

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