Olupona Receives Nigerian National Order of Merit Award

On December 6, 2007, in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, Jacob Olupona stood in front of Nigeria's new president, Umaru Yar'Adua, shook his hand, bowed, then accepted the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM).

One of the country's most prestigious awards given for intellectual accomplishment, the NNOM is presented to four recipients each year in the fields of science, medicine, engineering/technology, and the humanities.

"The entire nation really looks forward to this award, because they know it's still the most unadulterated award that is given on merit," Olupona said. "It's kind of a national treasure."

A decorated academic, Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions at HDS and, with a joint appointment in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, chair of Harvard's Committee on African Studies. His research on African religious traditions is widely renowned, and he is the author or editor of eight books, including his most recent, African Immigrant Religions in America, published by New York University Press.

Perhaps most impressive, however, is Olupona's dedicated passion in addressing conflict and crisis, especially in his native Nigeria. "How do we make, in my own case, the study of religion central to what we're doing in Nigeria?" he asked. "How do we get scholars of religion to play key roles in national development?"

Before the official award ceremonies last December, organizers arranged to hold a two-day meeting of laureates, both past and present, "to deliberate on different issues facing the nation: issues of health, education, national integration, and national identity," Olupona said. "For me, that was a very critical moment."

Olupona's research is currently focused on the roughly one million Africans who, over the last 40 years, have immigrated to the United States—"reverse missionaries," as he calls them.

"It is the notion that it is their turn to evangelize Europeans and Americans," Olupona said. "This is a post-Christian society. The center of gravity of Christianity is not in the West; it's not in Rome. It's in Africa; it's in Latin America; it's in Asia."

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and, for example, home to more than 18 million members of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. "Anglicanism is not just a religion," Olupona said during a lecture on February 12 in the Common Room of the Center for the Study of World Religions. "It's a heritage, a culture, a self-identity, and I take it seriously."

Before this lecture, Olupona was given another award of sorts—a tie and cuff links, presented by Harambee, Students of African Descent at HDS, to congratulate him for receiving the Nigerian National Order of Merit.