Believers and Hustlers by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
Iskanchi Press, October 28, 2022, 350 pages, $24.00 Paperback. https://www.iskanchi.com/product/believers-and-hustlers
Review by Andrew Diamond.
Sylva Nze Ifedigbo’s Believers and Hustlers opens with a reporter covering a simple local-interest story. Pastor Nick Adejuwon and his wife Nkechi are celebrating the grand opening of their new megachurch, Heaven’s Gate Cathedral, in Lagos, Nigeria.
The church’s public relations team has told Ifenna Obumselu and the other reporters what questions to ask at the press conference and in what order they’ll be called on. Each has received an envelope of cash as payment for playing their part in this made-for-the-press event.
When Ifenna’s turn comes up, he goes off script. Instead of the softball question he’s been told to ask — the one that will allow Pastor Nick and his team to brag about their new cathedral — he asks why the church went to such lengths to hush up the death of one of its leaders, Pastor Felix, who fell to his death during the cathedral’s construction.
Bad idea. In today’s Nigeria, megachurch pastors like Nick are rich and well-connected. Ifenna finds himself out of a job.
He knows his question hit on something important, but he doesn’t know what. Out of work, and with little left to lose, Ifenna starts a blog about religious corruption in Nigeria. There’s plenty to write about.
Countries with just and properly functioning institutions offer a path foward to their citizens. Countries ruled by corruption and chronic dysfunction don’t, and that opens the door to hustlers like Pastor Nick. “In Nigeria,” Ifedigbo notes, “there are only two estates: the elite and the rest of us.”
“In Nigeria,” Ifedigbo notes, “there are only two estates: the elite and the rest of us.”
Knowing how many Nigerians are desperate for a better life, Pastor Nick calculated early on that preaching prosperity through the Lord would be much more profitable than preaching morality or love or fire and brimstone. The message people want to hear is the one that lays out the path to riches.
Pastor Nick and his ilk preach that good will come to those who “sow a seed” by giving cash to the church. The more you give, the more you’ll be blessed. If tragedy befalls you, it’s because you haven’t given enough.
The message makes sense to the residents of a country where corruption rules at every level. Government ministers steal from the public, cops and inspectors shake down drivers on the road, and local thugs extract fees from taxi drivers picking up passengers from street corners they control.
If bribes are a way of life in Lagos, why not bribe God too? Give the pastor everything he asks for and maybe you’ll get ahead.
While American shows like The Righteous Gemstones portray religious corruption in a mocking and satirical light, Believers and Hustlers shows the tragic side of exploited desperation and misplaced belief. One incident sums it up well: A paralyzed boy who wants to walk again visits a preacher promising miracles. The preacher fleeces the boy and his mother, along with a thousand others seeking deliverance from misery. They go home broke, convinced that the failed miracle was their own fault for not giving enough.
Meanwhile, the pastors who fleece them buy tailored suits from Italy, new Range Rovers from the UK, and luxury properties in Dubai. Pastor Nick spends much of the book coveting a personal jet as a symbol of his rise into the elite ranks of religious leadership. Instead of seeing their preachers’ wealth as a sign of corruption, congregants see it as a sign of God’s favor.
The rift between believers and outsiders is deep, dividing families and loved ones. While Ifenna wants to save the poor from further exploitation, his girlfriend, Lilian, is one hundred percent invested in Pastor Nick’s vision. To her, criticism of “Daddy Founder” is blasphemy.
Pastor Nick has studied his American counterparts. He knows how to manipulate the media. He puts more energy into his wardrobe, into scripting public events, timing news stories and choosing camera angles than into saving souls or ministering to the needs of others. “Being able to control every narrative and make people believe only what he wanted them to believe was how he had come to be so successful in his ministry.”
“Being able to control every narrative and make people believe only what he wanted them to believe was how he had come to be so successful in his ministry.”
Ifenna’s off-script question in the opening chapter hit a nerve not just with Pastor Nick, but with his wife, Nkechi, as well. Nkechi can’t quite let it go. She had been close to the late Pastor Felix. How did he really die? Who was there with him at the time? And why was his death swept under the rug so quickly?
She begins digging into her husband’s finances, his travel, his relationships, driven by one essential question: If Nick is willing to cover up the death of a close friend, what else might he be hiding?
Quite a bit, it turns out.
Believers and Hustlers is, at face value, a mystery in which a series of clues and questions unravels a revered man’s public facade to reveal corruption and deceit. If you want to read it as a simple mystery, you’ll find plenty to like.
But author Ifedigbo isn’t simply out to provide entertainment. In his bio, he says “the calling of a writer is to study humans explicitly and document this in simple, memorable stories.” He’s done that well. Believers and Hustlers is a study of the desperation caused by political, social, and economic corruption, and of how that desperation drives the masses willingly — even enthusiastically — into the arms of exploiters like Pastor Nick.
Sylva Nze Ifedigbo (@nzesylva) writes fiction, creative non-fiction, and socio-political commentaries. He has published a novel, My Mind Is No Longer Here (2018), a collection of stories, The Funeral Did Not End (2012), and a novella, Whispering Aloud (2007). His short stories have appeared in various publications including Prick of the Spindle, African Writer, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Saraba, Kalahari Review, True Africa, AFREADA and Thrice Fiction Magazine. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
Andrew Diamond is the author of award-winning mystery/thrillers Gate 76 and Impala. His most recent release is Kill Romeo. He writes at www.adiamond.me.