A Discussion with Kingsley Bangwell, Nigeria
Background: This conversation between Kingsley Bangwell and Katherine Marshall took place by Skype on December 20, 2011. He is from Imo State in Nigeria but was born and brought up in Jos, in Plateau State, the site of some of Nigeria’s most bitter conflicts where religion is at least a part of the story. Bangwell is a well recognized voice of youth, and pursues a range of creative initiatives, using media and other approaches, and his efforts to address Africa’s youth challenges stand out. His blending of religious leadership in Nigeria’s dynamic religious panorama with his work to bring youth voices into debates were the starting point for the conversation, which reflected on his path and current work.
Interview Conducted on December 20, 2011
What is the current focus of your work? You always have several interesting projects going, so what is occupying your mind right now?
Right now we have two projects. Let me tell you about one, our youth intrafaith television debate, first.
This is a collaboration with the Plateau Radio Television Corporation PRTVC and it has the support of the British High Commission and is endorsed by different religious bodies in Plateau State. The aim is to provide a platform where young people of different faiths can come together and debate issues that affect young people who live in Plateau State. Personally, growing up, my best friend was a Muslim. When it was time to go for his prayers, we would both ride on bicycles as I escorted him to the mosque and I would wait outside for them to finish praying. He would likewise escort me to church and wait for me! We have been friends since 1985. When I got married I travelled all the way to Kano state to visit him with my wife in 2010. My best tailor, who has sewed for me since 2002 and now sews for my wife and even my church members is a Muslim called Abu.
The program grows from a challenge that has concerned me for several years. Many people in Nigeria have the impression that Christians and Muslims cannot live together peacefully. This is simply not true. Most of us grew up with Christians and Muslims as friends. My best friend is a Muslim, and so is my electrician, and others I work with every day. But these days it has become hard to visit each other’s houses and offices. Some sort of suspicion and lack of trust has been growing among people who have always lived together. Many Christians believe that Muslims are their enemies. There is a huge polarization, and now there are communities where a Muslim or Christian cannot live because of the risk of losing property and even their lives. In Jos, I am not welcome in some places. What was once a beautiful, homey city, where everyone did business in all quarters, is now highly polarized, and divided. This has affected even investment and scares people away.
We wanted to launch a project to show that we can come together. It is to focus on the real issues that youth confront: poverty, poor quality of education, employment, huge youth unemployment, poor electricity supply, bad roads, insecurity, etc., and not on the false issues of religious and ethnic identity. It will take place over 13 weeks, and will give a whole new sense of coexistence, showing that indeed we can live together. We are still receiving applications from young people (we started two weeks ago soliciting them). We sent out flyers and ran adverts on Plateau Radio and Television Station.
What then is the interfaith or intrafaith dimension?
We are seeking both Muslims and Christians, and they will be paired in the debate, teams of a Muslim and a Christian. On January 7, 2012 we will hold a public audition, to select those who can stand on platform and debate. We will select 24 teams, and then will get ready to record and broadcast.
What kinds of applicants have responded?
The response has been amazing, and we already have over 100 applicants. We also have received some criticisms. For example, we had one SMS saying that Plateau State is a Christian State, so why include Muslims? It shows how far people are angry and feel aggrieved. Hopefully by the time we start, some of those misconceptions will have been dispelled or at least reduced.
And how will the project work?
The debate topic is: “National transformation: what is the answer? Quality education or steady power supply?” We will have 24 teams, each with a Christian and a Muslim, so that each team will debate one other. So even though it is an intrafaith debate, there are no religious issues involved. It is allowed to make reference to faith, but the idea is really to show that Christians and Muslims can reason and work together.
What is the population of Plateau State? And the religious balance?
Plateau State has a population of about three million, and the capital city, Jos, has a population of half a million. This debate will focus just on Plateau State. Plateau State has a majority of Christians, of many denominations, within the northern region, which of course is majority Muslim.
What about yourself? How did you come to do the work you do?
I was born in Jos, 37 years ago! I went to primary school in Jos, until my family moved to Kano State for a couple of years. I was attending senior secondary school there when we had to move back to Jos, because of the 1991 religious crisis in Kano. Our house was burned down and we had to leave. So I finished secondary school in Jos, and then went on to receive a diploma from Plateau State Polytechnique.
What were your dreams as you were growing up?
I always wanted to be a pilot! I am not sure why, but that was my dream, and I certainly never thought of working in the NGO world where I find myself today. But all that changed in December, 2003. I went to my village for the Christmas season, and while I was there started thinking about organizing youth. It was not something I had thought about before, and I remember vividly that time. It was as if I was in a trance, and someone was in the room with me. My thoughts then were very clear, that I needed to work to engage young people, and by that means to contribute to Nigeria’s governance. It was so specific that I took a piece of paper and began writing it all down as my thoughts went on, as if someone was talking to me.
This was really a new passion as I had never before focused very much on youth work. I went back to my secondary school, and slowly my passion to be a pilot waned. But I had little idea how to begin with my focus on youth. One day at a local barber shop, we began to talk about the issues facing us as young people and it began from there. Sixteen years later, I am on the same path, and excited about where we are today. I am hopeful that there is a generation of young people who inspire me and who I inspire.
Were you raised as a Christian? How did you come to be a pastor?
I never thought about being a pastor as I grew up. From childhood, I was always going to church. It was only in secondary school that I came to stronger convictions about faith. I became part of a student fellowship, and was active in it, and in my local church, in the youth fellowship. But I saw this all as just the normal thing to do and the normal place to go. It was a good thing to be active.
Then something happened in 1998. I lost my mother. I was angry that she had died, and I stopped going to church. She had been a serious person in the church, a leader before she became ill. I stopped going to church for a couple of years, but came back, around 2001, with a different spirit.
So my vocation as a pastor was something that I grew into, as I realized that I could not stay out of the church world for long. But even then I went just on Sundays. I am by nature active, a passionate person, and, wherever I am, I want to contribute, so over the years I became more active in church activities. By 2006-7, then the pastor of the church where I worship, Pastor Eshiet Udossen, Branch Pastor, Power City Intl Church Jos, took an interest in me and started working closely with me, giving me bigger and bigger responsibilities. By 2006/7, I had gone through different classes and had been active for several years, so as the time came to select people to be pastors, I was one of those selected as a candidate. For a year or so, I rejected the idea, saying I was not interested in being a pastor, but finally after some time I agreed, just to make everyone happy.
But then the issue took on a new dimension in 2008, when the pastor of our church was to be transferred to Calabar to go start a new church branch. It was his suggestion to hand over the church, which had a congregation of 120 or so, to me. My name came up as the candidate. We had a long fight as I was not at all convinced. I was single then, and there were many people in the church who were adults, in their 50s, grandmothers, and so on, and I did not think I could stand up and preach to them. The conversations went on for four or five months. I was apprehensive about preaching. But during this time I was asked to preach periodically and thus to build some confidence and truly it really helped. So when I was asked formally to take over, I agreed. But I turned down remuneration; I was thinking inside myself that I would in a few months have done so badly that I would leave, and that would be easier if there were no remuneration involved. I also felt that if I did it free of charge, God would bless me!
Now I have been doing the pastor job for three and a half years, and it is so much fun. Every week I find that I have something to preach. I realize now that what was part of my fear and challenge was what would I preach every week. If it was my regular area of speaking to young people, then I have so much to say, but preaching to God’s people was something I was very careful about, because I knew I could not come and preach or say what God didn’t inspire or ask me to preach. It was really a big issue for me, thinking of what to preach. But looking back now, I am amazed that it has been possible. Every Saturday used to be an experience, a trial for me. My wife used to pity me, because I would just be brooding and waiting for my sermon to emerge. I usually would be somber and she would keep asking, has it come? But once my sermon comes, a glow and light comes over me and I would only need to be patient waiting for Sunday to preach.
And we have seen tremendous growth in the congregation, and I am leaving behind a church of about 230 regular worshippers, including children.
What is the church?
It is the Power City International Church. There are two branches. The headquarters is in Uyo, in Aqua Ibom State. There is another branch of the church in Cross Rivers State, and our branch in Plateau. It is a Pentecostal church.
Are there many Pentecostal churches in your area?
Hundreds of them in Plateau, and all over Nigeria!
What kinds of activities is your church involved in? Education, clinics?
Our church, Power City International, has few external activities, though we do have satellite churches in communities, and run activities like crusades and outreach. What we do regularly are Sunday services, and also Wednesday services, like bible study. People come to be served communion.
Other activities include a cable satellite station that people all over the world can access, and watch our own sermons, and those of other preachers. It is the Kingdom Life network, and it is available all over Africa, and Europe. We have different departments in the church: a men’s fellowship, also fellowships for women, youth, and children. Each has weekly or monthly meetings. On Sundays we have a special children’s service where they are taught in a way they can understand.
The fellowships organize community outreach, for example caring for the sick and providing food, visiting people in hospitals. What we bring is a message of salvation, and sharing the love of God.
Do you find yourselves involved in the contested topics of sexual and reproductive rights, where churches are divided in Nigeria, as they are elsewhere?
Those are indeed sensitive issues but Youngstars is not involved at all with adolescent sexuality and neither is our church. There are hundreds of groups working in those areas. And I am not very informed about the debates, and they are not ones we intend to delve into. Our focus is good governance.
How do the different parts of your work link or blend? You founded Youngstars before you became a pastor. How are they related?
They are completely separate. Youngstars is purely secular. My work for the church is a different and distinct part of my life.
How do you see your future work unfolding? Will you focus more on the church or on your work as a youth leader?
I am just now reflecting on that very question. While I love my work as a pastor, I have doubts as to whether I will continue. Of course, once you are commissioned as a pastor, you remain a pastor for life, whether you practice or not. So in that sense there is nothing I can do about it! It is the same as for a lawyer. But whether I continue as a pastor in a church is a different question.
We have recently (just a month ago) moved to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, for Youngstars. I had to inform our church headquarters, and I specifically conveyed to them my intention to stop pastoring in Jos. I have pastored for three and a half years, and it has been great. I feel honored that God lets me climb the pulpit every week. It is the most sacred job anyone could do, to explain the word of God, and to pray for people. I would never downplay it, and I have seen remarkable results, as the church and individuals move from one level to another. The experience has exposed something to me, and I realize that I face the same challenges in Youngstars, where I see young people facing the same kind of crises, of identity, employment, being vulnerable, getting into wrong relationships, and facing difficult decisions. I have seen that there is such a huge gap in the ability of the church to respond to these challenges in a good way. So I could not just let it go.
With all the experience I have gained by working with Youngstars, my travels and work, I have found ways to channel my capacities and skills to work with Christian youth. And that is my real focus now.
In the church, we started a few activities that I want to pursue. We have an annual youth event that is called “How not to marry”. It is for young people who have so many questions. As a pastor, preaching sermons and listening to parishioners, I found that there is really no time to stop and let people ask questions. And as a pastor it is hard to know if they understand what I preach in a sermon. Even in bible study, it is about sharing information centered on the bible. The system does not really allow space for questions, so there are many unanswered questions in church. Our program, “How not to marry”, is three years old. It started three years ago, on our wedding anniversary, which is August 2, and that is when we have it each year. My wife and I are ready to answer any question the young people may have. They can range from how to plan a wedding, how to deal with a crisis, and about premarital sex. We just answer all the questions honestly, using ourselves as examples. Sometimes we will say we do not know the answer, or we will respond that this is the way we did it, and why.
We also started a weekly television show that has been on the air for a year. It is called “Out of you”, from the Gospel of John 7:38, “Out of you shall flow rivers of living water.” The purpose is to encourage Christian youth to employ their intellect and creativity to improve society. The program uses both bible stories and contemporary issues to encourage Christian youths to step out and become champions of social breakthrough in a world and society that is in need of life changing and innovative solutions. The format for the show is 30 minutes talking to young people, covering different topics ranging from governance, leadership, corruption, ICT, social media, relationships, wealth creation, etc. We usually have young people, though we also have leaders as guests periodically. We stopped the program because my wife was pregnant and had a baby this year, and the cost was overwhelming, but people up to this moment come by and ask why we stopped. There is a real need and demand.
A third initiative involved job creation and entrepreneurship. I realized that most of the counseling I had with young people while pastoring was in relation to getting a job or starting a business. I was overwhelmed by questions on these topics by young people, even on the television show. I realized that there is a lot to do. So in March 2011 we organized our first activity under our newly formed Christian youth nonprofit. The event was called Youth Christ Entrepreneurship, and it was a two day Business Start Up Conference. I was excited to see 47 youths from different churches in Jos register, with about $50 to attend the conference. People have started their own companies and businesses. I am blown away by the impact.
So if you put these three key areas together, you can now understand my current thinking. Standing in the pulpit is fine, but it may be more fulfilling to reach out with branded ideas, and to work to develop the underdeveloped potential of youth right inside the church. There are probably enough churches that minister to the body of Christ in general and they are doing a pretty good job at that. But there is a huge deficit in programs that target Christian young people who are members of churches and that’s my true calling and area of grace. I just want to work with Christian youths in a non denominational platform. So after three and a half years, I would say truly that I have decided to give up pastoring, and plan instead to work with Christian youth to make them relevant to the society, and to help them to realize their God given destiny.
My work with Christian youth is two dimensional and it is predicated on Mathew 6:10, where Jesus taught his disciples to pray and he made a profound statement, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The will of God on earth is not done not by angels but by people. It is about invading the earth’s system with the system of God’s kingdom. It applies in all sectors: entertainment, education, media, marriage, everything. God created the heavens and the earth and at onset, the earth had a system which made it peaceful and prosperous. Things became distorted after the fall of man, but the cross gives us another chance to restore the Eden world. It is very obvious that man’s system has not resolved the world’s problems, so we need God’s system, the Kingdom system from heaven, to invade the earth. Our youths need to understand that God is the answer and, like Joseph in the Bible, seek the face and ways of God to come forth with innovative responses to improve our world, Joseph did it in Egypt and so this places a demand on us today to do same. That is the first dimension of my work with youths.
The second, dimension is that we must make heaven; heaven must be the end goal because we know that after doing a good job, at the end of our life, we will be transported into Heaven, in an everlasting relationship as a reward for what we did on earth. So with young people we need to help them to understand these very serious mandates. As Jesus said, “you good and faithful servant” and that is what we want to look forward to for Christian youth for the rest of time.
With youth in general but with The Factory - Youth Impact Christian Centre, we will advance Kingdom principles among Christian youths!
You are an Ashoka fellow. How did that come to be and what does it entail? What brought you to the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Athens in 2009, where we first met?
It began with a three month internship in New York with the World Youth Alliance in 2003. The head there urged me to apply to Ashoka, but I did not feel that I was qualified. Then in 2005 another person, a black American who was working with young people, also urged me to apply. But again I felt that I was not qualified. In 2007, she gave my name to the Nigeria Ashoka country director, Nanre Nafaiger, urging her to contact me. Leslie got in touch with me and we began a conversation. I went to Abuja for meetings, and spent a year going to different sessions, panels, etc. Then in July/August 2008 I was elected as an Ashoka fellow.
Being an Ashoka fellow works in two ways, after you are elected as a member. For the first three years you receive a stipend. After that, you are a fellow for the rest of your life, so that you are always part of the network and can participate in Ashoka events. The only precondition is that if you become politically active, you must forfeit your Ashoka fellowship.
In 2007 or 2008, I attended the Congress of the Africa Democracy Forum Youth Conference on Peace and Conflict, and it was in that meeting that a staff of International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) by the name Vanessa approached me to talk about my work. Eventually we succeeded in organizing an event in Nigeria for youth on non violent conflict. Then they asked me to apply for the Fletcher Summer Fellowship on Non Violent conflict in 2008 and from there nominated me to be part of their panel to attend the IACC in Athens Greece in 2008.
Have you been involved in other aspects of the international anti-corruption alliances?
Not really, and I did not attend the 2011 IACC in Bangkok. But Youngstars continues to be very centrally involved in working for good governance and against corruption. We organized for the last international anti-corruption day a four week on line forum, using a meeting and the website. The young people were very engaged. We had wanted to organize a larger event but there were not enough resources.
Why the move to Abuja?
The last two to three years has involved such demands for travel that we started to rethink our location, in terms of cost, energy, and time. I found that I was traveling every week and most organizations we were working with are based in Abuja. A second reason for the move is the work I want to do with Christian youth, as it means operating from a central place. I want to build platforms for entrepreneurship and governance. So I prayed about it, beginning last year, and asked God to make it possible. We had some projects that helped us to move. Youngstars was able to manage a huge project during the elections, and from the money we saved we were able to hire office space and a house for me. So in January, 2012 we will begin both Youngstars and my faith-based activities from Abuja properly.
Do you think you might go into politics?
I have always known that I will not go into politics, but I am very interested in governance and democratization growth in Nigeria and across Africa. I want to nurture people who will be become active in that space.
One part of the work of Youngstars is the Youth Democracy Academy (called DESPLAY Africa). We have been running it for six years. When we began we made a projection that we would produce at least 1 person holding a public office after 15 years of running the program. And after only six years we already have four people in government, two elected and two appointed. Two are special advisors to the governors of Ondo and Kaduna states, which carries a huge responsibility. And we have an alumnus who was elected as a councilor in Ghana, and another is in the state assembly. So this project is showing very positive results. We hope to have our graduates in strategic places, either elected or appointed. With that I do not need to go into politics myself! And I was happy when I asked my wife if she wanted me to go into politics and she said no.
Our DESPLAY program is designed to deepen young people’s understanding. At first we had only Nigerians, 30 youth s a year, but now it is open to other countries. The program involves three what we call semesters, each of which is a four day workshop. Semester 1 addresses democracy and good governance, Semester two youth participation, and Semester three looks at youth leadership. The core question is how young people can get involved. The semesters are three months apart, and after the workshop and formal training, each semester the participants must meet our criteria, which are that they must organize and train 25 youths in their community, within 8 weeks, and send us a report. Then they get invited to the next semester. While that is going on, there are also legislative internships of two to three weeks. Another key activity is a learning visit to another democracy in Africa. So they bring home a lot of experience and an appreciation of the importance of quality in leadership and how it has a huge impact on the quality of governance. At the end of the third semester they receive a certificate. There are 200 young people now who have completed the program, from Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa. The next set of applications will be launched in January, 2012, and people are already waiting and calling us to book space!
What it the ratio of men and women in the program?
It is generally about 70:30 men:women, but sometimes the share of women has been as high as 40 percent. We try to encourage more females to join. We are also thinking of designing an all female DESPLAY, and there is a chance that we will work with the Federal Ministry of Women to design such a program. I had a conversation last week with a woman who was very passionate about the need for a tailored program and we are hoping to follow up. Hopefully we will find funding for it.
As you work with young people, especially in Plateau state where there are so many tensions, do you find that the young people focus much on religion and religious identities?
No, in reality they do not. What I have found interacting with young people is that they do not see or make a strong connection between their faith and governance. The sense is that our faith is private. There is more effort to look and speak to universal values, like respect, and not a loud connection with faith. It is just not there.