BETA

Coming full circle in West Africa

ABOH MBAISE, Nigeria — In the days and months following the establishment of the Church in Nigeria, persecution mounted — just as in the days of Kirtland and Nauvoo. And just as the pioneers of old, the pioneers of Nigeria refused to bend or break. The tougher the persecution, the more resolute they became.

Fidelia Obinna, wife of Anthony Obinna, was first Relief Society president of first branch in Nigeria. She joined the Church with husband in 1978.
Fidelia Obinna, wife of Anthony Obinna, was first Relief Society president of first branch in Nigeria. She joined the Church with husband in 1978. Photo: Photo by Dan Dockstader

One moment epitomizes this courage. Anthony Obinna, the first Nigerian baptized in his homeland after the arrival of the first missionaries in 1978, faced an entire village. The first branch president in this West African country and the man who had for years written Salt Lake City pleading for missionaries called his community together. Hundreds had been flocking each week to attend Church services in the home and on the grounds of President Obinna, causing a stir and even hostility among those opposed. His youngest brother, Vincent Obinna, who was also baptized, remembers the moment clearly.

"My brother Anthony called the whole village together and said to them — I don't forget this — he made the statement that if this work is of the devil that the work will collapse. But if it is of God that all of them will be witness that this work will grow beyond their reach and they will not have hands to stop it."

Those words ring with clarity today. Not only did the work grow in Nigeria, but there are also now nearly 70,000 members here — more than half of the 120,000 members in West Africa. And on Aug. 7, 2005, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Aba Nigeria Temple, the 121st operating temple in the Church and the second temple in West Africa. (Please see Aug. 13, 2005, Church News.)

Anthony Obinna
Anthony Obinna Photo: Photo courtesy Obinna family

Anthony Obinna died in 1995, but his legacy continues. His memory is honored by not only dozens and even hundreds of extended family members — all Church members — but also by the many in Nigeria who trace their membership back to the original 19 baptized at Ekeonumiri Stream in Owerri, Imo State, in November 1978.

Vincent Obinna spoke with reverence — and at times with emotion — of his brother. "I wish he's alive," he told the Church News during an interview in Aba days prior to the temple dedication. "Had it been that he's alive seeing all these things happening, it could have been marvelous."

But Vincent Obinna quickly added: "Wherever he is, I strongly believe he's watching and preparing to receive us. When Anthony was dying, he said to us, 'Get hold of this work and never allow this work to die.' "

They never did. All surviving Obinna brothers are active in the Church and have been to a temple. Raymond, the oldest at 72, Francis and Albert attended the Accra Ghana Temple with their families, while Vincent attended the newly dedicated Aba temple Aug. 8 with his family. (One other brother, Aloyoisus, who also joined the Church, has also died.) Some 20 Obinnas have served missions.

And in honor of the dedication of the new temple and the arrival of President Hinckley — the second time the Church president has visited Nigeria — the Obinna brothers and the daughters of Anthony Obinna prepared historical documents and statements detailing the eldest Obinnas' journey to see the Church established in his homeland.

"Solemn, gentle and dignified" was the way Elder Rendell N. Mabey described Anthony Obinna. Elder Mabey, along with his wife, Rachel, and Elder Edwin "Ted" Cannon and Sister Janath Cannon were the first missionaries to step foot in West Africa after the revelation on the priesthood in 1978. But Anthony's story begins some 13 years previous. In 1965, according to Obinna accounts, he had a dream during which a personage "took me to a beautiful building and showed me everything therein. . . ."

Sometime later, he picked up an old copy of the September 1958 Reader's Digest. Inside was an article, "March of the Mormons," which included a picture of the Salt Lake Temple. "In that article was the picture of the building I visited in my dream."

Ralph Mabey joins Raymond Obinna, right center, Francis, left, and Albert Obinna under original sign where Church started in Nigeria.
Ralph Mabey joins Raymond Obinna, right center, Francis, left, and Albert Obinna under original sign where Church started in Nigeria. Photo: Photo by Dan Dockstader

With great joy, he rushed to share the news with his family, and then promptly began writing to Salt Lake City. In response, he was sent copies of the Book of Mormon and other Church literature, including "Joseph Smith's Testimony." He was also told, as recalled his oldest daughter, Anothonia Mwachukwu Nee Obinna, that "it was not yet time" for missionaries to come to West Africa.

Anthony Obinna was saddened missionaries were not coming, but, his daughter added, he "did not abandon the Church." Maybe he recalled the words of his father, who had died years earlier: "White men will come and build house in my land. When they come accept them with happiness."

Anthony did not give up; he sent letter after letter to Salt Lake City — and he organized the unofficial Church in his village of Aboh Mbaise. Villagers, his family said, flocked to services in his sitting room. A sign painted on his house read, "Nigeria LATTER DAY SAINTS." According to family members, the date Anthony Obinna began holding "sacrament meeting" in his home was March 1974.

Finally came the news they had been patiently awaiting. The priesthood was to be extended to all worthy male members of the Church — and missionaries were coming to Africa. "We all shouted for joy," a statement from the Obinna brothers reads.

Elder and Sister Mabey and Elder and Sister Cannon were those missionaries. On Nov. 18, 1978, after several stops asking for directions to the Obinna compound, the missionaries arrived at Aboh Mbaise. Anthony was not yet there, but others showed the missionaries around. Inside what was called the meetinghouse, which today is the Obinna home, they saw copies of the Book of Mormon, a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants, and stacks of Ensign and Church News issues.

Sitting room in Obinna home where members met.
Sitting room in Obinna home where members met. Photo: Photo by Dan Dockstader

Then the man they were looking for arrived. Elder Mabey described the moment. "He greeted us quietly as though an overt display of enthusiasm at such a moment might be almost sacrilegious. Our eyes, however, were moist. We all felt movingly the richness of God's Spirit."

The fulness of the gospel had arrived in West Africa. On Nov. 21, Anthony, along with his wife, Fidelia, his brothers and others were baptized. He was soon called as the first branch president, with his brothers, Francis and Raymond as counselors, and Vincent, at age 17, as branch clerk. Fidelia was called as the first Relief Society president in Nigeria and the Aboh Branch was organized as the first divinely organized unit in West Africa.

Twenty-six years later, the Aboh Branch has become the Umuelem Ward of the Owerri Nigeria Stake. There sits the first chapel, on land donated by the Obinnas, dedicated in 1983. A few feet from the chapel is the spot where Elder David B. Haight of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated the land of Nigeria for the preaching of the gospel. The Mabeys and Elder Cannon have passed away, but on Aug. 8, 2005, on what would have been his father's 97th birthday, Ralph Mabey and his wife, Sylvia, along with public affairs missionaries and the Church News, visited Owerri.

Time seemed to have come full circle when a younger Brother Mabey clasped hands with a graying Raymond Obinna. Within about an hour, they were standing at Ekeonumiri Stream. "At the time we saw Elder Cannon and Elder Mabey, we embraced them, we embraced the gospel, and we loved them and they loved us," a beaming Raymond Obinna said.

They reflected on earlier words from Anthony Obinna: "The gospel will be fully propagated in all the parts of the country and it will grow as a giant tree."

At this stream near Aboh Mbaise, Nigeria, in 1978 were the first baptisms in Nigeria. Here, Anthony Obinna was the first Nigerian in Nigeria to join the Church. Brother Obinna, who died in 1995, had been writing the Church for years pleading for missionaries.
At this stream near Aboh Mbaise, Nigeria, in 1978 were the first baptisms in Nigeria. Here, Anthony Obinna was the first Nigerian in Nigeria to join the Church. Brother Obinna, who died in 1995, had been writing the Church for years pleading for missionaries. Photo: Photo by Dan Dockstader
The brother of Anthony Obinna, Raymond, greets Ralph Mabey, the son of Elder Rendell Mabey, one of the first missionaries in West Africa.
The brother of Anthony Obinna, Raymond, greets Ralph Mabey, the son of Elder Rendell Mabey, one of the first missionaries in West Africa. Photo: Photo by Dan Dockstader
  • Historical information for this article was taken from statements prepared by the Obinna family and from An African Legacy by Rendell N. Mabey.

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