Church growth has been rapid in Africa during the past decade as the restored gospel has spread to twenty-six African nations. To learn more about the Church in Africa, the Ensign talked with the Africa Area presidency.
Question: How long have Latter-day Saints been in Africa?
Answer: In South Africa, there have been members of the Church for 140 years. We have strong fifth-generation members there well deserving of the Johannesburg Temple. There is nothing like a temple to stabilize the Church, bring strong retention, and create a sense of permanency.
Outside South Africa, the Church was introduced to some African nations as recently as two years ago and to others as long ago as fourteen years. Altogether, we have 80,000 members, 10 stakes, 50 districts, 12 missions, and 425 wards and branches.
Q: How rapidly is the Church growing?
A: The growth of the Church in Africa is significant. Missionary work is progressing very well. In 1993 we had more than 9,000 convert baptisms—enough to bring 40 new wards and branches into the Church. Of that number, 1,500 members came from South Africa. Generally, we do not have a concern about baptizing in Africa. Our concern is managing the growth of the Church.
Q: How do you seek to manage Church growth in Africa?
A: Key leadership is essential to managing growth. We are fortunate that when the Church began proselyting in West Africa, initial converts were men and women who had been well educated. Our leaders are in a position to act as a bridge between the colonial languages and the traditional tribal dialects, of which there are probably between one thousand and two thousand.
We are trying to focus growth in key cities, places that are accessible by transportation and that can be reached by phone or fax. Much of Africa is not accessible by phone or fax. We establish centers of strength—usually major capital cities where there are many members and some chapels—and then we grow around these hub areas. We are providing facilities necessary for nurturing these members, and we are emphasizing leadership training.
Q: In which African nations is the Church established?
A: Africa comprises nearly fifty nations. We have about forty-five of those in our area and have been authorized to do missionary work in twenty-six of those nations. Further, because we are focusing on the colonial languages, we are in only the English-speaking and French-speaking countries now.
English-speaking areas around Ghana and Nigeria are major hubs, as are French-speaking West Africa and the Ivory Coast. English-speaking hubs are developing in Kenya and Zimbabwe in East Africa and in French-speaking Zaire in central Africa. In South Africa most people speak English as well as Afrikaans.
Q: In what ways do you see the gospel blessing African members’ lives?
A: Many Africans have suffered much in terms of political problems, hunger, and deprivation. Many have little or nothing in terms of material wealth, so to them the gospel is everything. It gives them hope.
They find great joy in following the prophets and in reading the scriptures. They quote the scriptures all the time and have put great emphasis on the Book of Mormon. It’s heartening to feel their reverence for the modern prophets of the Lord. They quote them in every talk and in every serious discussion about the Church. Members often refer to “what the prophets have taught us.” They say, “We are doing this because the prophets have asked us to do it.” They identify very strongly with a living prophet. You can feel it in their prayers.
They are a faith-exuding people with a deep love for the Lord. We are moved by the depth of their spirituality, the simplicity of their faith, and the way they pray and sing. When music directors stand up to conduct hymns, they often do so without an organ or a piano. They simply sing the first few lines of a hymn, and then the whole congregation joins in. The level of singing is inspiring—from little children to everyone else in the congregation. They do not need to be prodded to sing praises to the Lord.
Sacrament meeting attendance is around 50 percent for the African area—and that is often under very difficult circumstances in getting to church. We attend conferences in some places where maybe a thousand people attend. Yet in the parking lot there will not be a half dozen cars; members walk to the meetings or come by public transportation. They will walk hours just to attend a conference meeting. That conveys an idea of their level of devotion.
The reverence in their sacrament meetings is outstanding. A respect for adults is taught in the home of the average African that carries over into reverent Church meetings.
Q: Can you discuss some of the challenges the Church faces in Africa?
A: There are many difficult economic and social conditions facing Church expansion—conditions related to poverty, tribal cultures, traditions of the fathers, and traditions of other churches. And we are very concerned about political turmoil. Political instability is sometimes a rule, not an exception, on the continent of Africa. That instability has an impact on the economy; unemployment is very high in many places. We are awaiting the impact of the new government in South Africa. We are optimistic that the new South Africa will offer wonderful new opportunities for the Church.
Yet the Church is moving forward despite the circumstances. We have seen tremendous changes in the lives of people who look to the Church as a stabilizing factor in their lives, a stability that many have not known previously.
Another of our challenges is helping some learn about self-reliance—helping them shift their perspective from an expectation of “What will you do for me?” to “What can we do to help others?” For some of our local leaders, learning to preside over units of the Church and to follow principles of welfare and self-reliance can be a pretty sharp learning curve. As they learn these principles and learn the joy of self-reliance and the joy of personal accomplishment, marvelous things happen in the hearts and minds of the people. They move from subserviency to a position of independence in their minds and in their hearts. The gospel expedites that process and gives members a foundation on which to accomplish it.
Q: How do you feel about the Church’s future in Africa?
A: In Africa, the family unit is still intact. There are still very strong family ties—strong relationships between parents and children, and obligations between generations. When people join the Church, they often join as a family. This bodes well for growth, given the Church’s emphasis on the family.
The Church is growing and its leaders are responsive and assuming their responsibilities. We have local regional representatives, and we now have four mission presidents from Africa. Nearly half our 960 full-time missionaries are from Africa. We have every reason to be optimistic.
Despite difficulties posed by poverty, travel, and language, we have 70 percent enrollment in seminary and 76 percent enrollment in institute. We see the young people, because of their faith and growing spiritual maturity, emerging as strong leaders in Africa.
Returned missionaries are going back into their villages and taking the spirit of missionary work with them. In areas where returned missionaries are being called as district missionaries, significant growth is taking place. Many of these young members are becoming very qualified, highly spiritual leaders.