A generation has passed since Latter-day Saints in Ghana endured a chilling period in their homeland aptly remembered as “the freeze.”
Acting on misunderstandings and misinformation, government officials expelled missionaries and essentially disbanded the Church. Local members were not allowed to hold services outside of their own homes.
But even during those difficult days, gospel devotion defined many of the Ghanaian Saints.
“The members there stayed faithful and even grew stronger in many ways by that experience,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “They continued to minister to each other and were guided by the Spirit.”
Eventually, the freeze began to thaw. Government leaders came to understand that the Church teaches its members to follow the laws of the land and enrich their respective homelands. And, in the final days of 1990, Ghana permitted Church activities to resume.
“Things have changed remarkably,” observed Elder Christofferson, who visited Ghana as part of his recent visit to the Africa West Area.
Thanks mostly to the day-to-day efforts and actions of local members, the Church enjoys unprecedented respect and friendship in much of West Africa.
Meetings with key leaders
During his travels to Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire (May 24-June 2), the latter-day apostle enjoyed meetings with Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo and Cote d’Ivoire Vice President Daniel K. Duncan.
“President Akufo-Addo was quite aware of the Church’s humanitarian activities over the years in Ghana — and also the kind of people that the [Ghanian] members are, and our emphasis on strengthening families,” he said. “The president agreed fully that strong marriages and strong families are essential to a strong society.”
Meanwhile, Vice President Duncan warmly welcomed Elder Christofferson to the Cote d’Ivoire economic capital city of Abidjan.
“I believe that was an expression of the Vice President’s confidence in the Church…The members of the Church in his country have built that reputation,” said Bishop Gérald Caussé, the Presiding Bishop, who also traveled to West Africa.
“Vice President Duncan views the Church as a force for strength in his country; focusing on families and helping members become good citizens.”
Elder Terence M. Vinson of the Presidency of the Seventy also participated in the Africa West Area assignment. The visiting Brethren were accompanied by their wives — Sister Kathy Christofferson, Sister Valérie Caussé and Sister Kay Vinson.
Highlights of their travels included an annual review of the Africa West Area and several gatherings with missionaries and members, youth and young adults, and local priesthood and auxiliary leaders in both Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.
Bishop Caussé also met with Latter-day Saints in Benin.
Latter-day Saints in the Africa West Area are eager participants in a period of historic Church development on the African Continent. The 15-year-old Accra Ghana Temple is perhaps the anchor of the Church for tens of thousands of West African members. Meanwhile, construction is underway on the Abidjan Ivory Coast Temple.
The Africa West Area is something of a second “home” for Elder Vinson, who served for five years in the Area Presidency, including two as the president. Returning for the recent tour evoked precious memories for the Vinsons.
Unprecedented access to temples is blessing the lives of African families and individuals who are embracing eternal principles and setting aside traditions and beliefs that are inconsistent with the gospel, said Elder Christofferson.
Elder Vinson points to the devotion the Cote d’Ivoire Saints have long shown in attending the temple as evidence of the growing spiritual maturity across the region. For years, many from that nation have embarked on long bus rides to the Accra temple. Those trips are marked by sacrifice, with many sleeping on the floors inside adjacent buildings and often turning down offers for Church travel assistance.
“I can’t imagine a more faithful temple people anywhere in the world,” he said. “Seeing families sealed in the temple and having children born in the covenant is a marvelous thing. You can see the strength in the younger generation.”
Still, challenges across the Africa West Area remain.
For Latter-day Saints living in the nations of Liberia and Sierra Leone, for example, traveling to a temple remains difficult. Meanwhile, “pervasive poverty,” job scarcities and limited educational opportunities define the lives of many West African members and their neighbors, said Elder Christofferson.
“There are challenges and issues that have to be overcome,” said Elder Christofferson. “But the good news is that the members are doing it. They are progressing. I was pleased to see that self-reliance efforts are taking hold in both Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.”
Church-sponsored self-reliance efforts, added Bishop Caussé, are allowing many to realize an education and improve employment opportunities, often by opening their own small businesses. Returned missionaries also participate in self-reliance courses to help transition to the next phase of their lives.
Bishops are playing essential roles in helping members find joy in self-reliance.
“We are giving them the principles, tools and resources to help them take care of themselves,” said Bishop Caussé.
The West African Saints are up for the challenge, said Elder Vinson. “They’re very resourceful people, so they will respond to the opportunity. There are not a lot of employment opportunities ... so you’ve got to prepare to create your own job.”
Global reach and identity
The recent Africa West Area tour perhaps suggests, symbolically, the Church’s global identity and reach. Each of the three visiting Brethren are native of three different continents: Elder Christofferson is from North America, Bishop Caussé is from Europe, and Elder Vinson is from Australia.
They were welcomed to the Area by an equally diverse Area Presidency: Elder Marcus B. Nash is from Seattle, Elder Edward Dube is from Zimbabwe, and Elder Hugo E. Martinez grew up in Puerto Rico.
No matter. In every gathering of missionaries and members (including many children and youth), the Latter-day Saints gathered as one people with one purpose: to build God’s kingdom and gather Israel.
For many in the Africa West Area, a visit from a latter-day apostle was a reminder of the Lord’s love for them.
“It’s always interesting to watch people’s faces as they shake the hand of an apostle,” said Elder Vinson. “Their eyes light up and smiles come to their faces. You can see the joy in the visages. ... They know that one of the Lord's special witnesses is with them.”