Pioneers in Ivory Coast97909_000_006
“The Spirit of the Lord is brooding over Africa,” Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles observed while visiting Africa in 1992. 1 Full-time missionaries then laboring in Ivory Coast, which had been dedicated for the preaching of the gospel in 1987, could see the influence of that Spirit as Ivorians welcomed the full-time missionaries and began to accept the message of the Restoration.
The impact of the 1978 revelation extending the priesthood to every faithful, worthy male was not immediate in Ivory Coast as it was in some English-speaking African nations. Church literature in English had found its way to Ghana and Nigeria, for example, prompting people to ask the Church for missionaries. But for French-speaking Cote d’Ivoire, on the Gulf of Guinea between Liberia and Ghana on Africa’s west coast, the gospel entered through a different door.
The story of the pioneer Church in Ivory Coast is one of hardship and sacrifice, diligence and perseverance. Most important, it is a story of faith in and love for the Savior.
Phillipe and Annelies Assard
Ivory Coast citizens who have the means often leave their country to obtain an education in European universities. In the 1970s and 1980s a number of such Ivorian students were introduced to the gospel in Europe. Upon returning to their native land, these Latter-day Saints helped the gospel take root and grow.
One such Ivorian was Phillipe Assard. Phillipe left Ivory Coast for Germany in 1971 to attend engineering school in Cologne. While earning his degree, he met Annelies Margitta at a dance in her hometown of Remscheid. Before long, they married, Phillipe found employment, and the couple started a family.
In 1980 two full-time missionaries knocked on their door and presented the message of the Restoration, and the Assards quickly embraced the gospel. They were soon baptized and, in Brother Assard’s words, “overwhelmed with blessings.” Phillipe and Annelies were married in the Swiss Temple, and Phillipe found a new job that allowed him to better meet the needs of his growing family, by then consisting of a son, Alexandre Joseph, and a daughter, Dorothée Anne.
Yet despite the family’s improved economic conditions and increasingly comfortable life in Germany, Brother Assard began to feel drawn back to his native Ivory Coast. He realized the development his country needed most would come only through the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he was determined to play a part in introducing the gospel to his country. An application to a company looking for engineers in Ivory Coast bore no fruit, but Brother Assard decided in 1984 to return to his homeland anyway during a vacation and assess employment opportunities. He was disappointed to learn that the company he had sent an application to was having financial problems. No other work opportunities materialized.
“I returned to Cologne, but I had total faith in the Lord because I had this dream that the gospel must be established in Ivory Coast,” Brother Assard recalls. “So in 1986, after many prayers and fasting with my wife, I decided to return to Ivory Coast to give what I had received, to improve the lot of my family and my people.”
Before leaving Germany, the Assards received their patriarchal blessings, returned to the Swiss Temple, and traveled to Frankfurt, where they met with members of the Europe Area Presidency—Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, now of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Elder Russell C. Taylor, now an emeritus member of the Seventy. After explaining their desires to go to Ivory Coast, the Assards “received blessings and encouragement from them,” Brother Assard says, “and Elder Wirthlin gave me a list of all known members in the country, which was only a handful.”
Brother Assard quit his job, and the family sold their house and belongings. On 10 April 1986 the Assards left for Ivory Coast. They moved in with his parents in a small village near Abidjan—the nation’s largest city and its industrial center, with a population of about two million inhabitants. Neither Sister Assard nor her children could speak any French. Nevertheless, Alexandre and Dorothée were placed in school while Sister Assard learned French from her in-laws and Brother Assard looked for work.
For an entire year Brother Assard fruitlessly sought employment while the strain of providing for his family weighed heavily upon him. He did not, however, let the difficulty of finding a job prevent him from moving the work of the Lord forward. He and Sister Assard sent letters to members on the list they had received in Germany. The Lucien Affoué family of Abidjan was the first to respond. The families rejoiced to know they were not alone. Other members in Ivory Coast also responded but were too remote to meet with them.
Brother Assard directed the growing branch until Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy visited the country in 1987. At that time, United States Embassy worker Terry Broadhead was set apart as the first branch president with Brother Assard as his counselor. When Elder Ashton dedicated the land for the preaching of the gospel in September 1987, the country had 16 Church members.
President Assard later became the first native branch president in Ivory Coast. Today he serves as a district president. Sister Assard has been a branch Relief Society president and Young Women president and currently serves as a district Relief Society president. Her musical talent has proven invaluable in helping people learn Church hymns.
Temporal blessings soon followed the spiritual blessings. After being unemployed for a year, Brother Assard was hired by a European automobile manufacturer in Abidjan. His knowledge of French and German, along with his engineering degree, made a perfect match. Today he serves as assistant technical director for the company.
The Assards are eternally grateful for their blessings and for the guiding influence that directed them to Ivory Coast. Thanks to that influence, President Assard has seen the fulfillment of his dream that the gospel would be established among his people.
Lucien and Agathe Affoué
After Lucien Affoué traveled with his family to Lyon, France, to study industrial arts he had no idea that the most important education he would receive there would be spiritual. Lucien; his wife, Agathe; and their two daughters embraced the gospel soon after full-time missionaries knocked on their door in 1980. The Bordeaux Branch welcomed the family into the Church, and, after proving faithful, the Affoués and their daughters were sealed in the Swiss Temple.
When they returned to Ivory Coast in 1984 the Affoués, now with an infant son, were disappointed that at first they were unable to find any other Church members. Nevertheless, they diligently held meetings in their home, praying for the fellowship of another Latter-day Saint family.
Times were difficult. Well-paying jobs in Ivory Coast, a French colony until 1964, were, and still are, scarce. Most industry is foreign owned. Unemployment has reached as high as 80 percent in this nation, where most people live in small villages and make a living as farmers raising tropical agricultural products such as cacao seeds (from which cocoa and chocolate are made), coffee, pineapple, bananas, and palm oil. Scarce jobs often are made available only to those who can pay a cadeau, or fee, for the privilege of working. More-enterprising Ivorians get involved in small business ventures. Most commerce is conducted from a stall or roadside table.
Despite their difficult economic situation, the Affoués rejoiced in April 1986 when they received a letter from the Assards. The two families soon began holding joint Sunday meetings in the Assards’ backyard. As they worked, worshiped, and prayed together for work, the families grew close and strengthened each other spiritually. Sister Affoué and Sister Assard became as close as sisters.
The Affoués, like the Assards, had their prayers answered when Brother Affoué found a teaching job in Bouaké, the nation’s second largest city, located approximately 200 miles northwest of Abidjan. They had to leave their growing branch in Abidjan, but with strengthened testimonies and faith the Affoués helped establish the Church in Bouaké in 1988. There the family spread the gospel, eventually receiving welcome help from a missionary couple assigned to the area.
Brother Affoué served as branch president for four years, then continued as branch president after the branch was divided. Today he serves as a counselor to the mission president. Sister Affoué served as Relief Society president, while the children taught classes and helped out their small branch in other ways.
Adolphe Mande Gueu
Until the nation’s first French-speaking mission president arrived in July 1992, Church missionary work in Ivory Coast was directed from Accra, Ghana, by an English-speaking mission president. 2 Despite this early challenge, membership growth was impressive.
In 1988 Robert M. and Lola Walker, a missionary couple in Ghana, were asked to transfer to Ivory Coast. They could speak no French, so they were instructed to hire a translator and seek help from American families living there.
The Walkers accepted their assignment with some trepidation but with faith that the Lord would help them meet their new responsibility. At Church meetings in Abidjan, the Walkers initially understood only what the Spirit helped them to understand. During one meeting, a young man approached them and asked, in fluent English, if he could help. That young man, Adolphe Mande Gueu, was the first of four translators the Walkers hired, taught, and baptized during their 14 months in Ivory Coast.
Before his baptism, Adolphe quickly became acquainted with the gospel through his translation of many gospel lessons and talks. His translation work for the Walkers prepared him to understand and gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon, which he read in three days. He says the Holy Ghost bore such a strong witness to him of the book’s truthfulness that he had read it almost nonstop.
“This book testifies to me that your message comes from God,” Brother Gueu told the Walkers, “and my family and I must be a part of it [the gospel].”
Brother and Sister Gueu, along with their four children, have been stalwarts in the Church in Abidjan ever since their baptism in 1988. He was a branch president and later became the first teacher for the Church Educational System in Ivory Coast. Today he is the regional director for CES and serves as an elders quorum instructor. Sister Gueu also has served in many callings, including president of the district Young Women organization.
Many Ivory Coast pioneers exemplify a total change of life. Perhaps no story is more typical of such change than that of Mammadou Zadi, a retired border guard.
Before Brother Zadi joined the Church, he was in poor health because of liver problems related to alcohol abuse; nevertheless, he decided to open a bar with his savings. He purchased a good location and was soon enjoying a brisk business. He little realized then how his life would change after his wife, Josephine, met the full-time missionaries. Josephine was immediately impressed with their message, but as a wife in Ivory Coast’s culture she needed her husband’s permission to take the missionary discussions. He granted approval but told her he wanted nothing to do with the Church. The life he had chosen to live, he realized, was incompatible with gospel teachings.
Josephine, however, wanted to share her growing gospel knowledge with her husband. He resisted until the Holy Ghost guided him, Brother Zadi later recalls, “because of the prayers of my wife.” Once he began listening to the missionaries, he too was quickly impressed—so much so that he began living the Word of Wisdom. After his health dramatically improved, he became convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel.
With the Zadis’ baptism, membership grew not just by two but, within a short time, by all 18 members of the couple’s immediate family. The Zadis spread the gospel to many extended family members as well, and a son and a nephew, as full-time missionaries, are spreading the message of the Restoration to more Ivorians.
Because the gospel became foremost in their lives, Brother Zadi closed his bar and donated the building for Church use. The Agoueto First Branch and the Agoueto Second Branch of the Abobo District now meet in the building, and Brother Zadi supports his family off a pension and income from rental properties. He and Sister Zadi have donated many hours of service to the Church as well. Both are busy in their current callings: Brother Zadi as a district president and Sister Zadi as president of the Dokui Branch Relief Society.
Ivory Coast—the size of New Mexico, with approximately 14 million inhabitants—is a melting pot for people from several African nations because its stability has provided a safe haven for refugees fleeing war. Christophe Mvomo was not one of those who came hoping for a better life, but he found one nevertheless.
In his native Cameroon, Christophe was selected to attend a Catholic seminary because he was an excellent student. Upon graduation, he was asked to become a seminary teacher in Ivory Coast, where most people practice ancient local religions. About 30 percent of Ivorians are Christian.
After arriving in Abidjan, Christophe learned that many young people were responding favorably to missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He grew curious when several young men, including three with whom he was acquainted, were called as full-time missionaries for the Church. Christophe had questions about this new church, and he decided to “straighten out” those who were spreading its message.
“Originally his idea was to prove the Church wrong,” recalls Sister Grace Mackay, who was then serving a mission in Abidjan with her husband, Theron. “But he had sincere questions right from the start, and he was willing to learn.”
During his visits with Elder and Sister Mackay, Christophe heard answers to questions about life’s meaning that he thought had no answers. The beauty of the plan of salvation rang true and the meaning of the Atonement became clear.
“I became converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I was still a full-time teacher at a luxurious and selective Catholic seminary school,” Brother Mvomo wrote in his journal. “To live in accordance with my newfound faith, a year after I met the Church I resigned my teaching post. I lost all the privileges and other advantages inherent in my nine-year tenure.”
The challenges that followed tried Brother Mvomo’s faith and perseverance.
“My wife, a grammar school teacher, divorced me,” he recalls. “Three times thieves broke into my apartment and stole all my belongings. My beautiful car was [wrecked] by a friend. Suddenly I found myself in desperate circumstances but resolved and committed to the Lord.”
In July 1993 Brother Mvomo was called as second counselor in the mission presidency. He has served well and with distinction, and he has continued to endure his challenges, which were lightened when he found a new teaching job.
“I know my Savior lives and died for me—for all of us,” Brother Mvomo says, noting that heaven’s blessings far outweigh earth’s trials. Out of gratitude for the Savior and his gospel, he said, “I must do all I can for him.”
A Long and Patient Wait
In 1992 there were nearly 1,000 members in Ivory Coast; two years later Church membership had more than doubled to 2,500. Today the Church has approximately 3,500 members, 2 districts, and 14 branches in Abidjan, Bouaké, and Yamoussoukro, the nation’s capital. Groups are meeting in other cities as well.
The Church’s first chapel in Ivory Coast was dedicated in April 1997, a decade after the country was dedicated for the preaching of the gospel. A chapel of their own represents a milestone for Ivorian Latter-day Saints, including the Affoués and the Assards, who have longed for a chapel in their native land since the two families first met under a tree in their home village 11 years ago.
The best of what the future holds for this African nation is found in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. For Latter-day Saints in Cote d’Ivoire, a bright future is becoming a reality.