By Stephen Ojapah MSP
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and wept when we remembered Zion.. They carried us away in captivity requiring of us a song… Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137: 1-4).
ivers of Babylon is a Rastafari song written and recorded by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians in 1970. The lyrics are adapted from the texts of the Psalms 19, and 137 in the Hebrew Bible. The Melodians’ original version of the song appeared on the soundtrack album for the 1972 movie Harder They Come. Which made it internationally known. The song was re-popularized in Europe by the 1978 Boney M cover version, which was awarded a platinum disc and in one of the top-ten, all-time best selling singles in the UK.
The song is based on the Biblical Psalm 137:1-4, a hymn expressing the lamentations of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Previously the kingdom of Judah, after being united under kings David and Solomon, had been split in two, with the kingdom of Israel in the north, conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC, which caused the dispersion of the 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel. The Southern Kingdom of Judah (hence the name Jews), home of the tribe of Judah and part of the tribe of Levi, was Free from foreign domination until the Babylonian conquest to which Rivers of Babylon refers.
In the Rastafarian faith, the term “Babylon” is used for any governmental system which either oppressive or unjust. In Jamaica, Rastafarians also use Babylon to refer to the police, often seen as a source of oppression because they arrest members for they use marijuana (which is sacramental for the Rastafarians). Therefore, “By the rivers of Babylon” refers to living in a repressive society and the longing for Freedom just like the Israelites in captivity. Rastafarians also identify themselves as belonging to the twelve tribes of Israel.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he entered the synagogue, He was handed the scroll, and He read from the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord in on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free”. (Luke 4:18). The biggest freedom Christ worn for us is freedom from the clutches of sin and the dominance of the devil. From the clutches of sin, we experience this grace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, there are other forms, of freedom, Christi advocated for his followers, and that is freedom from the oppression of the poor by the rich. We see this play out in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The entire work of the prophet Amos was centered on the freedom of the poor, in an oppressive government and kings. Freedom is a great experience, Martin Luther Junior, longed for it for black Americans until he paid with his life. Rosa Parks, the mother of freedom movement, best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott; lived all her life begging for freedom, just to be black. Nelson Mandela washed himself with the walls of Robben Island Prison, after living with the harsh realities of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
There are many more persons begging with their lives and some even with their bloods for the opportunity to be free once again. Free to move around like other normal people, free to use the toilets without asking for permission. Yes, you heard me. Free to use the restrooms in the most unhygienic situation without permission. I experienced that for thirty-three days. Freedom is an eternal gift from God our Father. Fellow humans have denied their fellow humans that gift.
On 5th October 2022, we read a statement from the Nigerian Defense Headquarters. That the remaining 23 victims of the Abuja-Kaduna train victims have been finally freed after six months. I spent 33 days with the kidnappers. An experience that has changed my entire worldview for good. The Abuja-Kaduna trained victims spent over 6 months. All parting with almost a hundred million naira each, as ransom. Freedom for these sons and daughters of ours will forever mean something completely different, because I have passed through that crucible of fire. They have a completely new world to face and see differently going forward, not as they use to know it before.
On the same day the remaining 23 were set free, my mum called me at about 11 pm. That the bandits just kidnapped some persons close to our house in Yola, Adamawa State. Like the Rastafarians who cried and long for freedom from oppressive regimes and governments. Many Nigerians are simply crying for freedom from the menace of kidnapping and banditry. The ones that have been freed, through some personal assistance from family and friends, now have to begin another kind of journey to freedom. The freedom from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of the most worrying prison of life. The most unattended to especially to the victims of trauma like kidnapping, banditry and rape.
While living with the bandits in the bush, we developed some friendship with fellow victims, one day, we were discussing on how life will be for us if we ever make it back alive. We thought of so many things we could do to get back to normalcy. One of us simply said, life for him was to get back to his farm as soon as possible, if ever he makes it back alive, this is after spending 7 weeks already. He had no means of even attending to the trauma that has just befallen him. Like the Rastafarians, who long for freedom from oppressive systems, we pray for the time we all will be free in Nigeria, from the menace of banditry, boko haram, and kidnappings.
Fr Stephen Ojapah is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is equally the director for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, a member of IDFP. He is also a KAICIID Fellow. ([email protected]