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Researcher of the Month, January 2024: Nduka Udeagha

Researcher of the Month

Our Researcher of the Month is CRPL Visiting Research Fellow Dr. Nduka Udeagha. Soon CRPL will host Dr. Udeagha’s presentation, “African Belief Systems, Ember Months and Demonic Forces in Nigeria: the Pentecostal Influence.” As always, information will be made available on this blog as soon as details emerge.

Tell us little about your research journey, how did you get to where you are now?

My research journey started during the first semester of my diploma programme at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). We were given different term paper topics to write on, and I was assigned to write on kolanut in the setting of Item, in the Bende Local Government Area of Abia State. It is imperative to mention that kolanut, which is the fruit of the kola tree, holds great symbolism in Igbo indigenous religious culture. I had to travel from Nsukka to Item, where I interviewed some elderly people, including one Mr Ogali A. Ogali, who had written a book, The History of Item, and gifted me a copy. The term paper emerged as the foundation stone on which my subsequent research endeavours rested. It culminated in my writing on the advent of Christianity in Item for my final diploma project.

The diploma was followed with my first degree programme at UNN. My first degree project was informed by a disturbing experience I had had a few years before: the Sharia riots of 2000, which kicked off first in northern Nigeria and swiftly spilled over into south-eastern Nigeria, too. Being an eyewitness to the reprisal riots in Aba, I was inspired to conduct an empirical study on religious crisis.

My Master’s thesis followed a similar pattern. It, too, was informed by the need to critically interrogate a period of nightmarish insecurity in Abia State, which had prompted many residents of Aba to relocate away from the city. At the height of the armed violence, in September 2010, fifteen school kids were kidnapped in Aba. Consequently, I focused my Master’s thesis around the increasing waves of violent crimes, to find ways to understand and address the religious dimensions of the heightened insecurity that had become the order of the day in Abia.

In my PhD dissertation, I research the Bende sub-cultural Igbo group to explore changing patterns of religious and cultural practices in Igbo society.

Subsequently, my research interests have continued to revolve around religion and society, focusing on African religious cultures and their relationships with political developments. My projects are motivated by the pressing need to address prevailing social problems. I have been an independent researcher and am now an active member of the University of Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life.

Who or what sparked your interest to work on your particular area?

Prior to my diploma programme at UNN, I had no plans to study religious studies. It was during this course, which I found pretty engaging, that I decided to pitch my academic tent in this area. The decision was stimulated by my immediate environment in Nsukka.  Throughout my studies in Nsukka, I lived with my uncle, who is a professor at UNN, Dee Ocho, and his family. We lived in typical lecturers’ quarters that were occupied by academics from many different fields, which facilitated intellectual intercourse and academic socialisation. However, as a budding researcher, what sustained my interest in the field of religious studies most, was the significant place of religion, especially in Nigeria. Religion is so central to most issues in Nigeria and this generates topical and intense academic debates almost on a daily basis.

Along this path, my religious personality has played a part, too. I am a Christian, but my Christian background is quite interlacing, or diverse. I was born a Methodist, grew up a Catholic, was a Pentecostal as an adult, and married an Anglican! I also have close friends from other religious traditions, especially Muslim ones. My personal experiences and interactions with diverse religious groups and scholars in the field of religious studies have been pivotal in deepening my interest in the area of religion and in shaping my empirical work.

What are you currently, or about to start working on?

I have a few projects I am currently working on. These include my book project, Changing Patterns of Igbo Religious Culture, which demonstrates emerging patterns of change in the Igbo belief system. I also have two upcoming projects on gender perspectives that will require study in south-eastern Nigeria. The first focuses on Muslim women to critically assess the challenges of interreligious relations in south-eastern Nigeria. The second is on decolonisation, which aims at deconstructing misleading vestiges of colonial perceptions of female gender among contemporary Igbo writers. I am also preparing for two international conferences coming up in early 2024, where I plan to participate and present papers.

In what ways do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life?

My research examines the role of religion in public life in a range of societal contexts. In the Nigerian society that I was raised in, religion is both a public and a private matter. Indeed, in Nigeria, religion is becoming more and more of a public matter. Nigerians manifest their religious convictions publicly and conduct religious sessions in public spaces without any second thought. For instance, you will enter a mode of public transport, and someone may well start to lead the entire group of travellers in a religious session, involving singing, praying, and preaching. This can go on for as long as the journey! Virtually all public functions start and/or end with religious observations. Contentious issues surrounding politics and policies consistently revolve also around faith and faith identities. When you are raised in and when you study religion and society in this type of setting, where (despite state claims of secularity) state authorities continue to make religion a public affair, you can hardly see religion as a private matter. Religion is public life.

Consequently, all my work centres on religion as a public affair. Given that my research interests are mostly social-problem-oriented, my research has touched on various aspects of the role of religion in public life, including on security, education, politics, and public health, among others.  My work on the proliferation of small arms and light weapons touched on religion and security. One of the works I co-authored with Ekwueme Stella Chinweudo on community values and formation of members, relates to religion and education. My piece of work on suicide, and another on Covid-19, which I co-authored with my wife, Ozioma (who is in the same field of study), centred on religion and public health. Another work I co-authored with my wife, on ethno-religious sentiments and the need for restructure in Nigeria, touched on religion and politics. My research projects will continue to explore and demonstrate the role of religion in public life.