Membership reaches 100,000 in Africa: growth reflected in number of new stakes

Sometime in January the 100,000th member of the Church's Africa Area will be baptized - almost double the membership just six years ago.

At the end of 1990, membership in the area was 50,115. The largest number was in South Africa, which had 17,216 members. Nigeria - the most populous country in Africa - had 15,286 members and Ghana, 8,803. At year-end 1996, those numbers had increased significantly. Nigeria now has the most members, 30,300, followed by South Africa with 24,450 and Ghana with 15,000.The growth is also reflected in the number of new stakes in the Africa Area. In Nigeria there are now six stakes, three organized since July 1996 - Eket, on July 14; and Etinan and Umuahia stakes on Sept. 2. Another was organized in November in Kinshasa, Zaire, the first stake in that nation. On Jan. 1, there were 15 stakes in the Africa Area, including six in South Africa and two in Ghana.

Throughout Africa the Church is enjoying rapid growth in leadership as well as in membership. "We are concentrating not just on numbers but also on leadership," said Elder James O. Mason, area president and a member of the Seventy. "Kinshasa Zaire Stake, the first French-speaking stake in Africa, has 380 Melchizedek priesthood holders, almost all active."

At least four new stakes - and perhaps more - are expected to be organized during 1997.

The Church is registered in 27 of the 47 African nations. Missions are currently organized in Ghana (Accra), Ivory Coast (Abidjan), Kenya (Nairobi), Nigeria (Port Harcourt, Enugu and Lagos), South Africa (Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg), Zaire (Kinshasa) and Zimbabwe (Harare). Mission headquarters are in these countries, but missionaries are also assigned to Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho and the Congo.

There are notable similarities in Africa to what happened when the first missionaries were sent to England by the Prophet Joseph Smith. These early missionaries sometimes found whole congregations waiting for a church that could provide answers to their questions. The result was amazing proselyting success. This has happened in Africa, and continues to swell membership. In much of Africa, the growth of the Church was markedly influenced by the June 1978 revelation that every worthy male member could hold the priesthood. Before 1978, hundreds of potential members were already awaiting baptism because of the efforts of local leaders who had acquired Church literature from Salt Lake City and had organized groups awaiting the arrival of missionaries.

The first Church missionaries in Africa - Jesse Haven, William H. Walker and Leonard I. Smith - were called to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in 1853. Elder Haven was assigned to preside. The missionaries met heavy opposition from local clergy. After 21/2 years, fewer than 200 people had accepted baptism. Many of those were among the 278 converts to the Church who emigrated from South Africa to Utah between 1855 and 1865.

Then came a long period of time when no LDS missionaries served in South Africa, from 1866 to 1903. Missionaries were again withdrawn during World War II, but returned once more in 1944. Since that time, the Church has steadily grown in South Africa and has expanded to other countries. Dedication of the Johannesburg South Africa Temple in 1985 was another significant milestone in the Church's growth in Africa.

In the dedicatory prayer for the temple, President Gordon B. Hinckley, then second counselor in the First Presidency, said: "We pray for peace in this troubled land. Bless this nation and its neighbors which have befriended thy servants. May those who rule in the offices of government be inspired to find a basis for reconciliation among those who now are in conflict one with another. May the presence of thy house on the soil of this land bring blessings to the entire nation and area."

The most rapid growth in baptisms in 1996 was in Nigeria. The Port Harcourt mission led the Africa Area with 1,101 baptisms, followed by the Lagos Mission with 924 and the Enugu Mission with 514. Together they combined to add 2,539 new members to the Church.

In South Africa, the Johannesburg mission reached 600 baptisms in 1996. Mission Pres. Norman H. Bangerter expects baptisms will reach 1,000 in 1997. The two other missions in South Africa - Durban and Cape Town - also show significant increases. At least half of the Durban mission's baptisms in 1996 were in its mission area outside South Africa.

Indeed, the considerable success of the Church in Africa has come largely as a result of proselyting in the larger cities. Growth has come from these centers of strength. For example, Pres. Banyan Dadson of the Nigeria Lagos Mission spoke of a stake open house held Aug. 30 in Benin City, Nigeria, which drew more than 2,550 people - the great majority of whom were not LDS. Well over 600 referrals for teaching were made. Dignitaries attending included traditional tribal chiefs, enogies (local sub-monarchs), judges, top civil servants, religious ministers from many faiths, and top businessmen.

Another open house in Nigeria's Calibar District was solicited by the community itself. "We perceive that you are a church with the ability to turn young people's lives around," community leaders told Church leaders. "About 12 percent of our young people are testing either with AIDS or HIV positive. Could you design an open house that would help young people lead better lives?"

Church leaders welcome such opportunities to point out the great need to live moral lives as spiritual children of God.

Africa is not without its challenges. One is size. The Africa Area is three times the size of the entire United States. Communications are often difficult; many members have neither telephones nor automobiles.

Moreover, tribal antagonisms continue to plague the continent, resulting in sporadic warfare, starvation and millions of displaced tribal members who occasionally flee their countries for safer havens. One recent example was the flight of more than a million Rwandan refugees to Zaire.

But the work of the Church continues to advance. More and more people are becoming receptive to the gospel message. And this has a great influence on their lives.

"Africans are a pure joy," Elder Mason said. "They're a happy, hard-working, Christ-loving people. And they make good leaders and have strong families."

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