Religion is a very passionate, sensitive, and serious affair in this country as exemplified by the various ethno-religious conflagrations and upheavals in the past 30years; which appears to be compounded by the recent use of bombs. Travelling incognito was a chronicler’s dream of observing, listening and on a few occasions deliberately provoking discourses.

A foretaste of what was to come was the chaotic, disorderly, raucous and rowdy screening exercise for the intending pilgrims. The officials came in late and unorganized whilst the pilgrims to be were shoving, noisy, jumping queues and reply with uncharitable language when reminded of such unchristian virtues. The surprise of such disorganized conduct was the seemingly inability of the officials to get it right considering the number of years this exercise has been carried out; probably this is reflective of the generally observed systemic failure in this nation.

The day of departure to Israel was a sultry and balmy evening. At the airport, the rush to board the aircraft was unbelievable as if some people will be left behind. We arrived in Israel on a blustery cold dry windy morning. The tour managers were courteous and welcomed us with breakfast packs, caps and bags. Thereafter, we were paired up and put into various subgroups to be in each bus.

Dinner time (or do I say supper since we were in Israel) came and trust “naija people” the rush and stacking of plates with food was nauseating, it was not surprising that most people could not eat up to what was stacked. At breakfast the next day, some people ate up to five eggs with their tea/coffee and bread. The resultant winds in the confines of an air conditioned bus was better imagined than experienced (you may say what a Christian treat). This state of affairs continued for the first eight days until some sanity prevailed. Another thing about our seemingly inability to learn was that during the orientation the officials cautioned about the need to be your neighbour’s keeper by eating enough for your need more so as meals were served as buffet. Some members actually go to the ridiculous extent of filling plastic containers with orange/mixed fruit juices to take into the bus when there is a bold notice on the door of the dining halls that prohibits same in all the hotels we were lodged in.

When we are in the buses moving from one site to another for the greater part of time praise songs were sang thereby depriving the tour guides of giving us a running commentary of the geography of where we are moving through. On one but the last day, our tour guide actually stated that that was the reason he was unable to give us much of the tourist talk. In all of the days of the visit we never cease to amaze, for instance, on the visit to river Jordan and the Dead Sea; in the former people actually came with white garments from Nigeria to have full immersion baptism (even for those previously baptized in Nigeria) which of course was being organized by a Nigerian pastor. Some were washing their feet, faces and parts of their bodies; and take a deep breath, some were actually drinking from it and others were buying a 100ml plastic container for 5 USD (US dollars) to take the water home. At the Dead sea in addition to the above people were digging the mud from the river, put in plastic containers to take home back to Nigeria. On arriving in Jerusalem, some scoop the soil in bags to bring home. There was never a dull moment being in the Nigerian contingent. At the mountain of transfiguration, some of us were lying prostrate on the floor that countless number of visitors had trampled on that day.

On a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, the appointed subgroup leader told the pilgrims to raise an offering after an initial session of makossa dancing and worship songs. Hold on a minute, the proceeds of the offering was given to the boat riders whom the government of Nigeria has paid as part of the tour package. On the first arrival devotional service, the self styled spiritual leaders of the delegation announced that services will run in the mornings and evenings and at each one offering will be raised (preferably in USD). The question this generated in the minds of a few of us was what purpose such offerings will be used for. Unlike us, except for some pilgrims from the not so prosperous countries who had the full immersion in the Jordan river, the other nationals (Indians and Indonesians) quietly come to these places, take photographs, sit briefly and meditate whilst the British and Americans only walk around and snap photos; but for us Nigerians we must sing worship songs in raucous voices at every site.

Whenever we get to some isolated ?selected shops the tour guides took us, we just swarm on the shops like a horde of locusts. It took several appeals before we were taken to the open markets on two occasions whereas it was every day several times a day for the other shops. I was reliably informed that the penchant for the selected shops was that there is a commission for the tour guides by the shop owners for the “patronage”. Except for one of the shops where we met those from the far eastern part of the world, the patrons of the shop are Nigerians. At the end of the pilgrimage it was not surprising that many of us ended up with excess luggage charges.

The ingeniousness in us never ceases to intrigue me. There was the unwritten rule that those of similar denomination worship together in spite of everyone supposedly here on a Christian pilgrimage. There were short lived romances blossoming within members of the delegation and outside the delegates. The tendency of some bigots to push down their denominational myopic postulates as the only true way to go to heaven; not minding that over 80% of our hosts are not even Christians. On the eleventh day of the pilgrimage two men were actually involved in fisticuffs. In the evenings people go hunting for and consuming significant quantities of alcohol. Some came especially for the shopping aspect claiming they have come up to 3-5 times on government sponsorship. The sometimes subservient kow towing to those with a different skin hue is humiliating to some of us.

On the lighter side, in ascending mount Sinai in Egypt, some people got to quarter, mid, three quarters, all the way by climbing, crawling on all fours, sweating at temperatures of minus 6 0 Celsius and having to be assisted to descend with camels. There were these guys whose command of the English language was interesting; samples, “No matter how beauty you are”, “I have a sing to sing”, “Where did you got the water”.

There is the need for the screening committee to by the federal government to be reorganized as the present chaotic situation cannot be sustained for an event that takes place annually. A data base should be created as I consider it “unholy” for some individuals to be sponsored by government for 3-5 pilgrimages in a country of several million Christians. The tour programs need to be revisited as too much time is “arranged” for shopping and in that way more people can be sponsored for a shorter number of days.

My summation is that people go on the pilgrimage for different purposes; firstly for sight-seeing of the historical places mentioned in the bible, others for shopping/business purposes; in order to add the acronym JP (Jerusalem pilgrim) after their names; and lastly for its religious significance.

Richard Michaels (Just back from Israel).

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