This week while in Tongo I met the husband of Rose, a woman we met last fall who serves as a Kenema District Councilwoman residing in Tongo. Her husband Edward is a principal at the Muslim school in Tongo (albeit he is a Christian). I think he may have had a bit too much palm wine as he was eager to talk. Among other things, he made a comment about Islam being so readily accepted in Sierra Leone because it mirrored so much of the traditional indigenous religious beliefs. This got me to thinking so I decided to do some research and share it in this week’s post.
Islam came to Sierra Leone by or before the 16thCentury through Guinea by way of western Sudan where it had had its start eight centuries earlier. As time marched on, Islam spread peacefully in Sierra Leone among the population due to similarities with indigenous practices and perhaps even more important with the view that Islam stood for social justice and racial equality. Because Islam had to compete with established institutions and indigenous priests, the process of Islamization was slow and the result was only partial even though thousands of traders, missionaries and military leaders played roles in the increasing Islamic influence. [Mande Settlement and the Development of Islamic Institutions in Sierra Leoneby David E. Skinner]
Before the arrival of European missionaries in the early 19thCentury, Islam and Christianity both had a sustained presence in Sierra Leone, despite Islam being the first to gain a foothold in the country. The first white missionaries arrived in Freetown in 1804 as members of the British Church Missionary Society. Freed slaves entering Freetown during that same period returned to Africa with their former owner’s Christian faith. “The catholic came to Sierra Leone in 1859 and were based in the south and east. In essence, the process resulted in a situation where the customs and traditions of Sierra Leone were now being fused into both Islamic and Euro-Christian values. This became a permanent new reality of the country’s religious environment.” [Standard Times Press – April 2009, Where Religion Shows the way forward in Sierra Leone]
From the beginning of the 19thcentury the colonial government recognized the importance of working with Muslim leaders in order to promote stability and trade. Even in “[A]reas where Islam was not prevalent, the political leaders used Muslim clerics as advisors, secretaries and ambassadors in order to gain access to their large network which linked coastal ports, market towns and interior sources of goods which facilitated the dispersion of wealth, military power and political influence.” (Ibid. Skinner)
By 1961, at the time of independence from Great Britain, 35% of the population was Muslin. The Northern and Western regions were primarily Muslim and the Eastern and Southern Regions were mostly Christian. This followed tribal lines of the Timni in the North and West and the Mende in the East and South.
The popularity of Islam in Sierra Leone has been attributed to at least two key factors. First, because it was spread and promoted by black Africans, its adoption represented a show of defiance toward Britain’s colonial power and then after independence in 1961, adoption represented defiance toward some aspects of Western culture. Second, because Islam had been in West Africa for over 1,000 years, it had been heavily influenced and infused with African traits and beliefs. For example, “Prayers which go directly to God according to orthodox Islam, are thought to be taken to him by the spirits of ancestors, as in indigenous beliefs. The idea that mere words from the Koran, carried in small leather cases, have magical power parallels the belief in “medicine.” [See: Globalsecurity.org Sierra Leone – Religion (published 2015)]
Today, Sierra Leone’s Muslim presence is 71% of the population with the Christian population right at 27%. There has never really been any religious violence in Sierra Leone and the country is a model for religious tolerance. While from our perspective, there are more Christians than Muslims baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints here in Kenema, it is generally the younger Muslims that are attracted to our faith. There is still a prevailing tradition that wives follow the religion of their husbands. When the husband becomes a Latter-day Saint, the wife often follows him to the Church, but leaves her heart at home.
On Monday morning, we were able to go for a walk together. We really look forward to the opportunity to stroll through Kenema and greet many who we have come to know over the past year. We may not know all of their names, but we know their faces, their smiles, their homes and even some of their family. After returning home and getting cleaned up, I went over to Charles’ home where he had asked if I could help him give his wife a blessing. We are so proud of this good man who is really beginning to understand faith and priesthood power. This time, I anointed Mamie and he sealed the anointing and gave her a blessing. It was beautiful and powerful. She was already feeling better the next day.
At 10:00 am we helped Moses move the chairs back to the Simbeck Branch that he used for his marriage to Alice. Daniel Kannesie came by to fix the roof at the Sister apartment next door that had been leaking. We worked some more with a member who had had a Perpetual Education Loan approved but it never paid out. This entailed a number of calls to the U.S. to try to find the right person to talk to. Not an easy thing to do, and I am not sure we were successful. Still more to come on that one. Somewhere in there we had to make another trip to SierraTel to find out why our data did not renew on Saturday after we paid on Friday for another month. Still not sure, but they got it working and were extremely kind about doing so. That was a new experience for us (their kindness).
In the afternoon, James Foday came to our home. He is the district councilor over the Nyandeyama Branch. They had arranged for training last Saturday for the Elders Quorum leadership and branch auxiliary leaders, which we usually arrange and lead. The good news is that all of the District Auxiliary leaders have been trained and can now deliver this training without us. They have done this training a number of times already and we have full confidence in their ability to do it again. We went over all of the training packets with Br. Foday and told him we would have the copies made and ready for Saturday. We think he breathed a sigh of relief as he left, feeling much more confident about moving forward without us. We are grateful for the faith of these leaders, who so willingly come and learn for themselves and then do for themselves. This is how the Kingdom is meant to be!
The majority of Tuesday was spent on two special projects for the mission president. The first was a photo book that LaDawn worked on for most of the day. The second was a narrative of the mission history for 2018.
It is always a privilege and a blessing to help write the history as it give us a perspective of the size, scope and depth of the work in Sierra Leone. For example, we ended 2018 with 145 young full time missionaries (124 elders and 21 sisters) along with 5 missionary couples (not counting President & Sister Clawson) – and we need more, many more!. The mission recorded 1608 converts during 2018, which here represents nearly an entire stake. This number was slightly higher than the prior year. In 2018, we had 59 missionaries from Salone either serving or with a mission call. This was a 20% increase over the prior year. This perhaps is one of the most significant statistics as it will be the returned missionaries who will be the leaders of tomorrow, prepared to serve because of their missionary experiences. In the area of family history work, the mission saw a 165% increase in the number of members submitting names to the temple, now at 400. We expect another significant increase this year as the members and missionaries are catching the vision of this great work. 868 members added an ancestor to their tree, an increase of over 200% over the prior year. How grateful we are to have gained this glimpse into the growth of the Lord’s Kingdom here in Sierra Leone.
On Wednesday, Dennis Samai came over at 10 a.m. and we walked through the printing of the July labels for the Liahona magazine. It is still unclear whether or not the process will change where the labels will be printed in Ghana, but for now we want to keep a current file with the labels for each month until a decision is made. We are still waiting for the May issue with the April conference talks. It is unfortunate that we cannot get them sooner while there is still buzz around the conference talks, but the members here will be grateful whenever they arrive.
Shortly before noon, Melissa and Cason along with Elder Guy and Sister Connie Mangum came from Bo to spend some time with us. Elder and Sister Mangum are from Blackfoot, ID where LaDawn grew up and I attended high school. While we never knew each other, we have many common friends including Curt Matthews who was a good friend in high school. It was a small but tender mercy to be able to spend time with them. They were called as the Area YSA Missionary Couple, but after arriving they were changed first to Pathways and then to Gospel Literacy. They came to Sierra Leone to participate in the rollout of Gospel Literacy at a branch in Bo. This would give them an end to end view of what it takes to make Gospel Literacy work in a West Africa Country.
On Wednesday evening, we went over to visit with Eku. We took with us the missionary pamphlet titled Learning and Serving in the Church and talked through Sabbath Day Worship, home centered study, serving in the church through a calling, and sharing the gospel with others. During the week, LaDawn had watched a video of Elder Hollands October 2012 General Conference talk titled, The First Great Commandment. It was wonderful. It was focused on Peter’s lackluster performance as the chief apostle after Christ was crucified. We know that Peter went fishing and once again, the Lord came and called him back to the ministry with those three penetrating questions, “Do you love me?”. Nobody delivers a talk as well as Elder Holland and this was no exception. We all felt the spirit of the message, especially as it pertained to serving others in the church and enduring to the end. The message was not lost on Eku!
On Thursday morning, we drove the Sister Training Leaders back to Bo after their exchanges with the Kenema Sisters. We got back in time to attend the Kenema South District Council where Elder Armstrong serves as the district leader. The sisters couldn’t get access to the Nyandeyama Chapel, so we offered our apartment. We had a great district council where the focus was on how to make our personal study more effective. I asked a question that I hoped would spur some new thinking in this area. “What are the barriers to having effective study?” Sister Ebuche had which for me was the quote of the day when she summarized a big barrier with the following words, “When we study to teach instead of study to learn.” In other words, if we are just studying so we can teach someone else (and especially here in SL), we will never go deep enough on the doctrines. However, if we approach our study with a desire to learn, then it will be much more effective. I agree with the statement because the vast majority of the people here need the simple doctrines of the gospel. The missionaries know these and most can effectively and easily teach them without doing any additional study at all. To be even more effective missionaries however, they need to approach their study with a desire to learn for themselves, knowing this will make them better teachers.
In the afternoon, we went to the Total station and filled our Gerry cans with diesel for the generator, made the copies for the training the next day at Nyandeyama branch and worked on a letter in support of Grace and Rebecca being granted visas to fly to America for Grace’s surgery. In the evening, we had a phone interview with Aubrey Eyre from the Church News in relation to Sister Bingham’s visit to Kenema.
On Friday, I took the zone leaders, Elder Allen and Elder Dube to Tongo to teach our investigators there. It had been a couple of weeks since I had been there and it is always nice having a chance to go back and be with the people of “my village”.
It started to rain so we huddled under John and Kadie’s porch for a bit. After the missionaries taught Adama, Hawa and Ibrahim (a new investigator), I visited with Rebecca for a few minutes and showed her how to use LaDawn’s “point and shoot” camera. She will be going to Kono this next week to see her other three children who live with her uncle and we thought it would be good for her to have a picture together with them. It was fun teaching her how to take a picture with a camera as it was something she had not done before. She laughed and laughed and that made me laugh as well. When we went over to Sahr Lahai’s home, Elder Allen taught his son-in-law Ibrahim the first discussion. He is a Muslim and while he likes what he learns about the church, it is hard for him to see Christianity as any different from Islam. I keep praying the spirit will tough his heart and he will “awaken”.
While we were there, Hannah Brima walked over from her home and presented her pedigree chart with information on 10 ancestors. For the next 45 minutes, I worked with her as we put the information into FamilySearch and submitted those names to the temple. She was so filled with joy!
While we were with Ibrahim and Hanna, Elder Dube and Brother John taught Foday, Ishmael and Mansary Mohamed. The first two are both progressing towards baptism. Afterwards we all went together to the Kanu family. There we taught the dad, the mom (Mary), two of their nearly grown children (Joseph and Sarah), a neighbor Baindu and a friend Foday. It was here at this discussion that I had the conversation with Edward that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. All-in-all it was a glorious day in Tongo, having taught 12 new and progressing investigators and submitted over 40 temple ordinances for a new convert.
On Saturday morning, we headed to Bo to work with Melissa and Cason to implement Gospel literacy in a ward in the Bo North Stake. When we arrived at 10:00 am, there were only two people in attendance, and both were stake leaders. Change of plans. Melissa and Cason arranged to move the training to the Gbanda Town Ward. It was miraculous to me that within an hour of the time the decision was made, we were in Gbanda Town with nearly a full branch council in attendance, something they did not even know was going to happen an hour earlier! Impressive on their part.
We trained the branch council on how to facilitate a gospel literacy discussion that would occur as part of the second hour Sunday school class the next day. We finished shortly after 1:00 pm and then went back to the Moomey’s apartment with Melissa, Cason and the Mangum’s and ate their delicious leftovers (they had traveled to Freetown for a medical need of a missionary who was returning early from Ghana due to a terminal cancer condition.)
At 3:00 pm we arrived at the Messima Branch building where teacher training was held for members of the Bo East District. It had been raining and that always puts a damper on attendance, but by 4:30 pm, there were 5 teachers there, plus the district literacy specialist Amie Kemokai, with whom we were especially impressed. She did a masterful job leading much of the training. This is exactly what it takes to make Gospel Literacy a success and we were so happy to see it happening.
On Sunday, we traveled back to Bo to the Gbanda Town Ward and helped with the Gospel Literacy Sunday School lesson during second hour. The sacrament meeting was again just excellent. Talks on tithing and building and strengthening the church preceded comments by the stake president who introduced the importance of Gospel Literacy. Our favorite part about this sacrament meeting though, was the young man playing the keyboard. He was 12 years old and played really quite well. There were about 80 in attendance.
For the second hour, members gathered in 9 circles with each circle led by a member of the branch council (or a missionary) who had been trained the prior day. Elder Judkins and Elder Udo also participated in being trained and facilitating circles.
After the meeting, we gathered for an assessment session and identified 15 individuals we would classify as beginning gospel learners. This was a big number. Most wards and branches have between 5 and 10, but in this ward, the need was much greater. There is perhaps a correlation that the further the unit is away from the city centers, the greater the need for literacy education. We really enjoyed our experience in Bo and working again with Melissa, Cason and our new friends, the Mangums.
After arriving back home, I contacted a branch president and a member in his branch who was submitting an application to the First Presidency for a temple clearance. We were trying to get it resubmitted to the mission president before the Clawson’s left, but it didn’t turn out successful. Since email is rarely used and ChurchofJesusChrist.org accounts are rarely accessed, we spent most of our time just trying to get into the accounts. Unfortunately, this will be an item that President Harper will need to pick up once we get the accounts straightened out.
We are grateful for the religious tolerance here in Sierra Leone. We are grateful that the government does not pick sides, but rather is inclusive in everything they do when it comes to Islam and Christianity. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing.
It is attracting both Muslim and Christian to a better and more fulfilled way of life. We see it so clearly in the lives of those who are members of the church here. They are like a beacon of light to those around them. The Church grows, not out of defiance or convenience, but out of peace, love and kindness. The contrast between a faithful Latter-Day Saint and most men and women of other faiths is quite revealing. How grateful we are to be working hand in hand with the lovely people here who are working hard to build Zion right here in Sierra Leone. We consider ourselves blessed to be a small part of that effort.