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Growing up African, American and Christian

Nigerian-born Israel Afangideh, 19 shares his perspective on a life of faith between two worlds

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — African. Immigrant. Student. Poet. Musician. Writer. It takes a lot of words to describe Israel Anfangideh — hardly surprising since he has something like eight names.

“And those aren’t just names!” the 19-year-old, Nigerian-born Christian insists, with a laugh, during an interview with The Christian Chronicle at Lipscomb University, where his mother is speaking at a conference. “See, you have to trace your genealogy all the way back to the most notable person in your past, and you have to know each of those stories.”

His grandfather, Okong Mkpong, is a prominent preacher who planted Churches of Christ in southeast Nigeria. Afangideh started preaching at age 9. A year later his mother, Uduak, took a job at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., where she now chairs the science department. His father is an attorney. So is his older sister, Salem, who studied at Faulkner.

Transitioning from majority to minority — in a town that bears the scars of racism and the struggle for civil rights — was a challenge, he remembers. Although his mother studied at Freed-Hardeman University in Tennessee, he had some misconceptions about America that were quickly dispelled. He’s also encountered plenty of misconceptions about Africa. One example: few of his American peers realize the pressure Nigerian families place on their oldest sons.

“Every Nigerian parent wants their child to be a doctor or lawyer or engineer,” he said. “You can almost feel the pressure from, like, 500 years ago pushing you to make something out of yourself — and almost every African culture has that.”

As he’s studied at Faulkner, Israel Afangideh has found his own voice, writing and performing his original poetry about his experiences. With a group of friends — Christian and Muslim — he launched The Montgomery Insider, a media company dedicated to local news, commentary, music and culture.

The Insider also focuses on national issues. After President Trump initiated a travel ban from certain majority Muslim countries, the Insider conducted interviews during a protest at the Montgomery airport.

Social media allows people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to communicate, he says. Unfortunately, “we often are only friends with people who share our opinions and we become very insulated.” He hopes that in some small way his work can influence people to communicate and learn from each other.

• On adjusting to life in the U.S.: “I think one of the biggest adjustments was lunch. In Nigeria, we eat very differently — not just foods, but the culture of eating. We don’t speak while eating, but it’s also very social. If I’m eating and you’re sitting over there, I have a duty to invite you. Come and eat. And then we eat from the same plate. I give you a spoon and I have a spoon.

“In America, lunch and eating together is kind of how you forge relationships. In Nigeria, it’s just a different dynamic.

“For the longest time, I couldn’t call any adult who’s at least three years older than me by their first name. They would say, ‘Call me Mark,’ or, ‘Call me John’ and I just couldn’t. It wasn’t in my DNA.


• An African perspective on the South: “In Nigeria, it was kind of similar to America in terms of people not caring about what’s happening in other countries. I didn’t know about the civil rights movement. In Nigeria, everyone is black; everyone looks like you. So it was strange because I felt like I could identify with the white majority in America. But all of a sudden I wasn’t in the majority. It took me a long time to adjust.

“Sixth-grade kids are mean, and there are a lot of pictures of Africa that aren’t correct. A lot of black students would make jokes, and they just didn’t really understand how I’m black, but my culture is different.”

• Misconceptions about Africa — and the U.S.: “It’s funny that, when we think of other countries, we ‘learn’ so much about them from movies. In Nigeria, when we think about America, we think about movies that were shot in New York. You see a lot of sexually promiscuous people and a lot of tall skyscrapers. But Montgomery, obviously, is nothing like that.

“In Africa there is this sense of community that I really love. Being able to sit with a family — five, six, seven people — eating out of this huge tray, just spending time together …”

“It’s the same thing when Americans look at Africa. A lot of nonprofits and missionaries, they aren’t going to the rich, prosperous parts of Africa. While they are doing good, they’re not showing Africa as a whole.

“Growing up, I never saw a homeless person in Nigeria until maybe this past summer when I went back home. But if you look at pictures and films of Africa, you would think that’s all there is — poor, homeless people. When I travel to places like Atlanta or Chicago I see lots of homeless people, but you don’t see that on the screen.

• A sense of community: “I think life is more comfortable living in the U.S. — like air conditioning. It’s very comfortable. But in Africa there is this sense of community that I really love. Being able to sit with a family — five, six, seven people — eating out of this huge tray, just spending time together … I think those things get lost in translation.

• Comparing churches in Africa and America: “The church is home. I love it. Wherever you go, with the Church of Christ you are immediately at home.

“My grandfathers on both sides of my family started churches in each of their villages. American missionaries taught them the Gospel.

“They married Church of Christ people and had children who grew up in the church. So they call us third generation, and we are expected to marry Church of Christ people and keep it going.

“The church in Nigeria is very, very close, but it faces its own problems and difficulties.

“I think it’s very difficult when you plant a church to understand the culture in which you are planting the church. In Nigeria, a lot of the people who were converted to Christianity were given this notion that God doesn’t actively work in the world anymore. That was very difficult for them to accept.

“In Africa, you can tell that the devil is working. So it’s difficult for them to understand how God could not be working powerfully when they can see the devil working powerfully. I think that has continued to plague the church a lot.

“Even as the Church of Christ in America has evolved, the church in Nigeria hasn’t really changed. We’re still preaching the same message that was brought to us. If you think about the Church of Christ in the 1930s or 40s, all of the things that were issues here are still issues there now.

“In America, the questions are about love and grace. Does God love me? Can he forgive me?

“The questions that people in Nigeria are really asking are, ‘Which God is more powerful? Which God should I serve? Should I serve God or the devil (the ‘devil’ being the idols and the local witchcraft)? The church in Nigeria is still trying to adapt to answer those questions.”

• On history, African identity and faith: “In Montgomery, even if you’re just walking downtown you’re walking where Martin Luther King Jr. walked. You go to Selma and you are driving across a bridge where he marched. There is this instinct to stand up for what is culturally yours.

“That’s hard for Africans because Christianity wasn’t brought to us in a soft way. There’s this history of colonialism, which led the way for American missionaries to come in.

“So I think a lot of kids my age find it difficult to be Christian and authentically African because it feels like, to be authentically African, you have to reject things that are Western, and Christianity is dubbed ‘Western.’ That was the journey I went on when I was 14, 15.

“My grandfather … I have to trust his judgment. He heard about Christ and threw everything else away — everything he knew and everything his father had known — and clung to Christ wholeheartedly.

“Now, every one of my relatives is a member of the church. That’s our identity. But, on the other hand, I know that I’m African, and I don’t want to betray that.

“I think that’s a tool the devil is using today with a lot of our young — a misconception that you have to cast off your Christianity to remain African.”

Filed under: African Christian Dialogue life in the U.S. poetry Top Stories

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