The first few pages make it clear that there is going to be trouble in paradise; but as soon as one goes further into Sylva Nze Ifedigbo’s ‘Believers and Hustlers’, it becomes clearer that predicting what will happen next is a task that should not be attempted. Eventually, paradise caves in, a new lord is enthroned and the old lord is left in the cold and totally bereft of the source of the wind that takes away all he has laboured for.
This book, which is Ifedigbo’s latest, tells the story of Pastors Nick and Nkechi. Nick, as a young man, loses his father. His mother struggles through thick and thin to send him to school. He acquires a National Diploma in History and starts a career in a firm that is soon swallowed up by a bigger firm and his hope of growing in the firm vanishes when his new bosses make him feel less special than he thought he was.
Along the line, it occurs to him that he should seek power, not political power but the one that comes with owning and running a church. Instead of waiting for God’s call, he makes the call himself! He convinces his wife to buy into the idea and in no time, their church is born. With time, the church grows, it grows so much that they own the biggest church in the land.
The sign of trouble begins to show the day the biggest auditorium is inaugurated. A journalist, Ifenna, writes a report, which is backgrounded with the death of a pastor during the construction of the auditorium. Following publication of the story, the journalist loses his job and starts a blog, which becomes Pastor Nick’s nemesis. A quest by his wife to find out if he is cheating on her unravels more than she bargains for. Secrets tumble out of her husband’s closet and everything soon assumes a frightening mien.
Ifedigbo’s engaging and deeply affecting novel undertakesa a “forensic audit” of the church and many of his characters look similar to some of the men who control the Pentecostal movement in Nigeria. They preach against adultery on the pulpit, yet they are guilty of it; they preach against fraud and they are fraudsters themselves; they encourage their members to embrace truth, yet they are liars; they pretend to have perfect marriages, yet their marriages are charades, and they ooze holiness, yet they are as dirty as pigs.
Ifedigbo uses several real-life events and personalities in this book that it will not be out of place to describe the book as a blend of fact and fiction. We see a pastor in love with a dangling gold chain; we see a big Grammar-loving pastor whose hair is Jheri curled; we see a pastor whose female members are documenting his sexcapades with them; we see a pastor who quits a church to start his own because his senior pastor insists he cannot remarry while his first wife is still alive; we see a sick president reluctant to relinquish power; we see a vice-president considered timid, and we see so many familiar things about power, the inordinate thirst for it and the blurred lines between spirituality and hypocrisy.
The author vividly examines hypocrisy in the body of Christ while stylishly taking a swipe at the people of Ahiara who once rejected a priest posted to their community because he is not one of them even though he was Igbo like them. He also shines the light on rivalry among pastors who sometimes plot the downfall of one another.
In a way, this is also a novel about Lagos. Ifedigbo takes us around Lagos: from the Mainland to the Island. We see the suburbs and we see where the rich and the mighty call home; we see street gangs giving the city a bad name; we smell and sight Lagos through his well-appointed diction. We also see the fault lines in this city of promise.
The influence of religious leaders in society is demonstrated in many ways, one of them being the ease with which Ifenna is sacked by his publisher for his critical story on Pastor Nick.
Ifedigbo employs a style Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie used in ‘Americana’ where blog posts (essays) are infused into the narratives; a style that allows him to deliver his blows on the men who sometimes act like God. And he does it, smoothly.
Religious fanaticism is one theme that jumps out of the pages of this book. For instance, Ifenna’s girlfriend leaves him the day he finds out he runs the blog behind the expose on his pastor. The love she has always professed to have for him is not strong enough to place him above her pastor. Without any evidence, she assumes Ifenna is being paid to write ‘rubbish’ about her pastor and when the pastor is taken in by the authorities, she refuses to quit the church, just like hundreds of others who simply believe their spiritual leader is a victim of persecution. As far as these followers are concerned, ‘touch not my anointed’ is a law they consider breaking as the height of blasphemy.
The book is likely to raise some posers: Do men of God launder money for rich, corrupt men? Are the huge auditoriums built with money other than tithes, offerings, and special donations? Are there some unknown men behind the overnight wealth of some pastors? Do some men of God plant the charms they claim to discover in compounds they are invited for special deliverance? Or is Ifedigbo’s imagination just on overdrive?
This book is a play on the rate at which churches spring up and the people troop there in search of answers to the many problems the Nigerian society afflicts them with as well as a commentary on how poverty can make men and women behave badly. It is also a commentary on how stereotypes influence the actions we take or do not take.
Ifedigbo, however, humanises this serious tale about the games in the church by giving it a romantic feel with the love story between Nick, who grew up in poverty, and Nkechi, an Igbo woman whose mother was against the union. Though we see references to dilapidated infrastructure and other comatose parts of Nigerian life, they are only the backdrop to a personal story of love found and lost to greed and lack of self-control.
With a story that spans a few years with some flashes back to reinforce present realities, Ifedigbo is able to paint a huge and multi-coloured canvas of wide-ranging issues bedevilling the church. He is a brutal writer who writes lines dripping with blood but devoid of bile. The quest for truth seems to be his main goal. He has captured a slice of life that many Africans are familiar with and also succeeds in giving us unforgettable characters in Pastor Nick and Pastor Nkechi. We will also remember Ifenna, Bolanle and Owo Blow long after concluding the book.
Outside of church matters, the book also touches on social challenges in Lagos, such as the menace of men of the VIO, incest, and so on. There is also a slight reference to an Imam behaving badly, perhaps to show that pastors are not the only men of God messing up the house of God.
In a nutshell, this novel is an exhilarating ride written in a simple but arresting style. The author’s facility in telling a unified story showcases his startling storytelling gift. ‘Believers and Hustlers’ is a sad but familiar story of distinctive characters on the run. It is a matter-of-fact tale without filters.
Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘In The Name of Our Father’ and ‘Vaults of Secrets’