Gospel pioneers still making inroads on diverse continent

"The assignment to broadly establish the Church in Africa and bring souls to Christ is part of the Church's global mission. This mission was begun when the Savior gave the directive, `Go . . . into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,' " said Elder Richard P. Lindsay of the Seventy and president of the Africa Area.

"The establishment of the Africa Area on Oct. 1, 1990, by the First Presidency was a milestone in this commission by the Savior," declared Elder Lindsay.While Africa is a rich gospel frontier where missionary work is progressing, it is also a continent where the Church's roots stretch back to the mid-19th century. "Some members, particularly those of European ancestry in South Africa, are from multi-generation LDS families and our South African saints are numbered among the most faithful in the Church," said Elder Lindsay.

Missionaries arrived in South Africa in 1853. By 1865, most members had emigrated, missionaries had left and the country wasn't opened again to missionary work until 1903.

For decades after missionary work resumed on the continent, most of the emphasis was placed on South Africa. However, since the 1978 revelation on the priesthood, the Church has been established in other countries of Africa, including Swaziland, Namibia, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zaire, Uganda, Botswana, Lesotho, and Sierra Leone.

Elder Lindsay and his counselors, Elders Robert E. Sackley and J Ballard Washburn, also members of the Seventy, outlined four fundamental objectives for moving forth the work of the Church throughout Africa:

  • Maintain purity of Church doctrines and practices among the members.
  • Develop and maintain a unique identity for the restored Church of Jesus Christ amid the confusion and proliferation of other churches in Africa.
  • Develop a real sense of a Zion community among the saints in Africa.
  • Achieve in Church members a behavior consistent with the standards expected of those who "come unto Christ."

"To implement these four essential concepts is one of the greatest challenges facing the Church on this continent - which is four times the size of the United States," said Elder Lindsay.

Excluding the tier of countries in northern Atlantic and the Mediterranean regions - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt - the Africa Area encompasses 44 nations with a population of about 645 million. Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands off Africa's southeastern coast are also included in the area. The Africa Area, equaling nearly 20 percent of the earth's land mass, crosses six time zones.

There are about 48,000 members of the Church in seven stakes, seven missions and 26 districts, in which there are 224 wards and branches. New stakes are scheduled for creation shortly.

The Johannesburg South Africa Temple primarily serves members in the southern tier of countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and the Mascarene Islands. Members in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and other parts of western Africa who are able to go to the temple presently attend temples in England, Europe or the United States.

Traveling in Africa, particularly from country to country, is difficult. Air travel often baffles even the most experienced travelers. Many, for example, find it is easier to fly to London, England, to get from one African nation to another - even in some nations that share a border. Travel by land poses its own brand of challenges since relatively few roads are hard surfaced. Motorists who travel dirt roads can often expect to find areas where bridges or the roads are washed out.

In addition to coping with problems concerning travel, area leaders face the formidable challenge of dealing with literally hundreds of languages and tribal dialects. In most major cities, residents generally speak a common language, such as English, French or Portuguese. "Most people in urban areas, such as Lagos, Nigeria, are fluent in two or more languages," explained Elder Lindsay. "In the rural areas, people tend to speak their tribal dialect.

"Africa is an enormously diverse continent with perceptions of life and living often distinctly different from most other countries in the world," said Elder Lindsay. "In various African cultures, individual beliefs have often been subordinate to the role of chiefs, families and tribes. Many Africans find security in this pattern of life.

"And many African traditions, customs and superstitions are antithetical to the gospel of Christ. It will require some time and courage for many of our African members to withstand pressures from deeply ingrained traditions. Accepting gospel doctrines and practicing gospel teachings are the Lord's clear answer to this challenge.

"The challenge to maintain a unique identity has often deterred or defeated many other religious groups before the restored gospel was introduced in Africa. It will require great dedication and constant teaching to maintain standards of the restored Church among the African people. They are so often surrounded by a society whose values contradict the gospel, and to which they have been subject for generations."

Elder Lindsay continued, "As we struggle to develop an LDS society in Africa, we must not forget that the old habits that new converts must forsake have often been a way of life for hundreds of years. In developing a community of saints it is essential that converts come to know and feel commitment of others. African saints who have embraced the gospel anticipate meeting together, and are among the most enthusiastic members of the Church. The goal to someday go to the temple and make sacred covenants is the stated goal of many African saints as they gather in their Church meetings.

"The cultural changes for most Africans who become members of the Church are immense. As an example, a father is no longer able to sell his daughter into marriage, and thereby loses some of the most lucrative income of his life. He must no longer force his wife to labor in the field while he relaxes, or beat her for disobedience. As a Church member, a father should not expect his family to spend all they have for his funeral expenses, a tradition deeply ingrained in African culture."

Elder Lindsay described the native people of Africa as "basically spiritual by nature."

"One of the great characteristics of the African people is their capacity to believe, their humility, their simple faith and their teachableness. They love to read the scriptures. Compared with what we sometimes describe as more advanced countries, the percentage of people who read and love the scriptures is extremely advanced in Africa. Many children learn to read using the Bible as their textbook.

"In our judgment, the timing of the creation of the Africa Area has a lot to do with the preparation of the people for this time. As an area presidency, we really believe this is the time for the African people. We are very touched when we attend Church meetings with the spirit of these beautiful, humble people."

Elder Sackley said, "It is humbling to watch the developments in Africa and to be such an integral part of all that is taking place."

As an example of the growth of the Church, he spoke of events last November. During a period of just a few days, a regional representative was called and a stake was divided. Since the regional representative, David W. Eka, had been serving as president of the Aba Nigeria Stake, it was necessary to call two new stake presidents - one, Frederick Ihesienne, succeeded Pres. Eka, and the other, Ephraim Sobere Etete, to head the newly created Port Harcourt Nigeria Stake.

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