Gospel Pioneers in Africa


Moses Mahlangu, of Soweto, South Africa, patiently but persistently waited sixteen years for baptism. When he speaks of his long wait, Brother Mahlangu compares himself to Cornelius, who he says was “very good in waiting to receive the word of God or to be a member of the Church until the angels came and told him what to do.” (See Acts 10:1–7.) Today, at age sixty-seven, Moses is a groundskeeper at the Johannesburg South Africa Temple, which he regularly attends.

Brother Mahlangu is one of many Africans who have been blessed by the revelation President Spencer W. Kimball announced in June 1978 granting the priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy males. In the years following, as the gospel and its priesthood blessings began to touch more and more lives in Africa, it became evident that the Lord had prepared and blessed the people of Africa with his Spirit similar to the ways he had blessed people in the early days of the Restoration.

Although the Church was established in South Africa in 1853, more than a century passed before work officially began among blacks in Africa. In 1960, when Glen G. Fisher was released as mission president in South Africa, the First Presidency asked him to investigate some religious groups in Nigeria that had taken the name of the Church. Brother Fisher found them devoted to the restored gospel and recommended that missionaries be sent to them. For the next six years, Church leaders tried to secure permission for missionary work in Nigeria, but to no avail. The effort was abandoned in 1966, when visas could not be obtained.

Despite the setbacks in formal missionary work, unbaptized converts in Africa received Church literature and inspired direction. Often these devout people went to great lengths to communicate with the Church and share their newfound knowledge and conviction with their neighbors.

Joseph W. B. Johnson of Ghana

One such pioneer in Ghana is Joseph W. B. Johnson. Brother Johnson was converted after prayerfully reading the Book of Mormon in 1964. He relates that following his conversion “one early morning, while about to prepare for my daily work, I saw the heavens open and angels with trumpets singing songs of praise unto God. I heard my name mentioned thrice: ‘Johnson, Johnson, Johnson. If you will take up my work as I will command you, I will bless you and bless your land.’ Trembling and in tears, I replied, ‘Lord, with thy help, I will do whatever you will command me.’ From that day onward, I was constrained by the Spirit to go from street to street to deliver the message that we had read from the Book of Mormon.”

When the missionaries arrived fourteen years later, there were already many unbaptized congregations that Brother Johnson had organized, identifying themselves with the Church. Some of these early converts later rejected official membership in the Church, but many accepted it. A foundation had been established upon which later missionary work would build with increasing success.

Anthony Obinna of Nigeria

Another early African pioneer is Anthony Obinna of Nigeria. He relates that one night in the late 1960s “I was sleeping and a tall man came to me [in a dream], took me to one of the most beautiful buildings, and showed me all the rooms.” In 1970 he read an article in an old Reader’s Digest titled “The March of the Mormons,” which included a picture of the Salt Lake Temple. “It was exactly the same building I had seen in my dream,” he said. Brother Obinna wrote to the Church for LDS literature.

In 1978, when the Obinna family learned of the revelation on the priesthood, they wrote to the First Presidency: “We are happy for the many hours in the upper rooms of the temple you spent supplicating the Lord to bring us into the fold. We thank our Heavenly Father for hearing your prayers and ours.”

When the missionaries arrived in Nigeria, they found many people prepared for the gospel as a result of Brother Obinna’s teaching and leadership. The first LDS chapel built in Nigeria is near the Obinnas’ home in Aboh Mbaise.

Adjei Kwame of Zimbabwe

Adjei Kwame was guided into the Church by spiritual promptings he felt when he took a teaching position in Zimbabwe. “I had been searching for the true church,” he says. “I kept having dreams about a church building. When I went through Kwe Kwe, Zimbabwe, I saw it and wanted to go in to find out what kept coming into my dreams all the time.” When he visited the church one Sunday, he says, “I felt I was actually with some people that I knew a long time ago who had been good friends.”

As part of the service, members of the Kwe Kwe Branch bore their testimonies. Brother Kwame went to the pulpit. He said that he believed in God and wanted to be a member of the Church. He later met with Sister Hamstead, the wife of the mission president. “What actually descended upon the two of us I cannot explain. I became aware that I was weeping. I can’t explain the feeling. I was released of all burdens. I felt that I had gone to a place where I visited often, but now I was at home.”

Emmanuel Abu Kissi of Ghana

One of the first converts in Ghana was Dr. Emmanuel Abu Kissi. For most of his life he had struggled to find spiritual fulfillment. “I had read the Bible several times and expected something more than what the churches were doing. I felt that the churches were empty, although Christianity wasn’t. I made up my mind that there must be something more than what they were teaching us, but I hadn’t found it yet.” After completing medical school, Dr. Kissi continued to study the Bible, desiring to find a church that would satisfy his idea of what one should be like.

Then he went to England on a medical scholarship. During his second year there, health problems forced his wife to quit her nursing job and remain at home for many months. He was surprised when his wife, Elizabeth, called one day to say that she was ready to return to work. She explained that she had met two young men who shared with her the word of God. During the discussion, Sister Kissi had asked them to give her a blessing. “They came and anointed her,” Dr. Kissi explains. “She said that in the presence of the anointing she felt something like an electrical movement in her, from head to toe. And when they finished, she was cured instantly.”

Dr. Kissi read the Book of Mormon, Jesus the Christ, and A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. He strongly identified with the Prophet Joseph Smith’s testimony. “I realized that Joseph Smith had had the same problem that I had. The First Vision was very good for me. I put myself in his place and found myself enjoying every bit of his experience. It wasn’t difficult for me to understand him.”

After their baptisms, the Kissis returned to Ghana, where Dr. Kissi served in the mission presidency. The Kissis also founded the Deseret Hospital in Accra. In 1992, when the first two stakes were created in Ghana, Brother Kissi was called as a regional representative.

Priscilla Sampson-Davis of Ghana

Priscilla Sampson-Davis first met the missionaries in 1964 while living in Holland. Her husband rejected them, but Sister Sampson-Davis was interested and read the Book of Mormon. When the family returned to Ghana, she found Brother Johnson’s group studying the doctrines of the Church and became an active participant. Fourteen years later, she and her children were among the first to be baptized when the missionaries arrived in Ghana.

One Sunday after joining the Church, Sister Sampson-Davis saw a vision. It was as if she were at sacrament meeting. A person in white apparel stood in front of the stand, beckoning to her. “I came and stood by him. He asked me to turn around and look at the faces of the people to see if they were all enjoying the service. I saw that some of them had bowed their heads. He asked me why some of those people were not joining in the singing. I said, ‘Because they didn’t go to school and they can’t read English. They can’t sing, and that is the reason they bow their heads.’

“Then he said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to help your sisters and brothers who can’t read and who can’t join you in singing praises to Heavenly Father?’”

Even though she couldn’t write the language well, she replied, “I will try.”

The vision ended, and she immediately translated “Redeemer of Israel” into her native language. Sister Sampson-Davis went on to translate the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, Gospel Principles, and various other Church materials. (These items are still in preparation.) In seeking approval to translate the Book of Mormon, Priscilla says:

“I discussed the translation with the mission president, and he asked me to continue. …

“I felt good as I translated the Book of Mormon. I knew the Lord wanted me to do it, because at times when I would use a certain word or a phrase, suddenly, as if somebody was standing behind me, I would hear, ‘No, use this word,’ or ‘No, not that word.’ I always had an eraser with me, because the Spirit was always teaching me.”

Clement Nwafor of Nigeria

Members are eager and open in sharing their newfound faith with others. Dr. Clement Nwafor, for example, was introduced to the gospel by Reuben Onuokoa, the father of one of his patients. Dr. Nwafor is the chief medical officer for more than one million Nigerians and is a prominent and popular citizen in the Aba, Nigeria, area. When Brother Onuokoa took his daughter to Dr. Nwafor for a medical examination, he told Dr. Nwafor that, despite his titles and positions, he still lacked one thing: “serving the Lord who has brought you into this universe.”

Not long after that bold declaration, Dr. Nwafor accepted the gospel. “I felt like a new person,” he said. “I felt like somebody who was born again.” Less than six months after Dr. Nwafor’s baptism, he was set apart as a high councilor when Elder Neal A. Maxwell organized the first West Africa stake in Aba, Nigeria, on 15 May 1988.

Edward Ojuka of Uganda

As in the early days of the Church in the United States, most of the Africans who were baptized while the Church was in its infancy in their countries did not have spectacular spiritual experiences like those just related. Yet the Spirit moved upon them just as strongly and prepared them just as surely for service in the Lord’s kingdom.

One such was Edward Ojuka of Uganda. He met the missionaries in Perth, Australia, when he went there to attend college. After studying the gospel for four months, Edward was baptized. But when he talked to his wife, Grace, she was not interested; she was happy in the church they had been in. “I didn’t press the issue,” Edward says, “because I knew without a doubt that one day she would understand it.”

When Edward finished his master’s degree in 1987, he returned to Uganda. Then he decided to pursue a doctorate at Brigham Young University. Through a “chain of miracles” he received the necessary scholarships, and in 1988 he, his wife, and their three children moved to Provo, Utah. Three months later Grace was baptized, and a year after that their family was sealed in the temple.

“The Church’s power is based on the truth that it carries,” Edward says. “My desire in life is to serve. If I can use my learning and my education both secularly and in the Church to help, that would be my heart’s desire.”

Robert Israel Muhile of Tanzania

Those who join the Church first in an area are often isolated from friends, family, and even the organized church. But they are not isolated from the Spirit.

Among the first to accept the gospel in Tanzania was Robert Israel Muhile. Robert attended his first LDS meeting in Egypt, where he was working and studying. At church, he met a missionary couple who taught him the discussions and baptized him. In May 1991 he was ordained an elder and decided to take the gospel to his family in Tanzania. But when he returned to his village—one thousand miles and three days by bus from Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam—his efforts went without success.

After six months, Robert traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, and secured permission from the mission president to administer the sacrament to himself. “I know how important those emblems are,” Robert says. “I didn’t feel well spiritually.” Back home, Robert continued to invite his family to join him for worship service, and they continued to turn him down. So he held his own service alone. He describes his service simply:

“I prepared water and bread and more water to clean my hands, and a small towel. I sang a song to myself out loud. I had my hymn book. After that, I offered an opening prayer. Because I was alone I didn’t have any business to do, so I sang the sacrament hymn and prepared the sacrament. Then I knelt and blessed and took it. After the sacrament, I covered it, as we respect it always. I offered myself a talk—my testimony. Then I sang as in Sunday School and then read from Gospel Principles. I finished with a prayer. I then attended priesthood. After singing a hymn, I’d have a prayer, then read from the priesthood manual the lesson I had chosen for that day. After that, I finished by singing and then offered the closing prayer.”

After being home two months, Robert received a letter from Lervae and Joyce Cahoon, the first missionaries sent into Tanzania. They requested his services as a translator. He accepted and traveled to Dar es Salaam to join them. While there, he met and married Joy Nassiuma, a convert from Nairobi. In July 1993, Robert and Joy had their marriage sealed in the Johannesburg South Africa Temple.

Benson and Nickson Kasue of Kenya

Among the early converts in Kenya were two brothers, Benson and Nickson Kasue. When Benson was about eighteen years old, he was introduced to the gospel by the Dennis Childs family of the United States. Brother Childs was a veterinarian on a research project in Kenya and hired Benson to work for him. A warm friendship ensued, and Benson became interested in the Church. He then introduced his brother to the gospel. When the first missionaries came to Kenya, the brothers studied with them and requested baptism. But “it looked like that was never going to happen,” he says, “because the Church had been denied registration in our country. I waited for about four years. I did everything I could do, but I wasn’t baptized. I thought maybe God was testing me. I prayed and fasted, and prayed and fasted.”

Because the Church was denied official recognition, special permission was required from government authorities before anyone could be baptized. In 1985, approval was given for private baptisms in homes, and the Kasue brothers were finally baptized. In 1986 Benson and Nickson became the first Kenyans to serve full-time missions—Benson in California and Nickson in Washington, D.C.

The Saints of Chyulu

After their missions, both Benson and Nickson married in the temple and continued sharing the gospel. Among those they introduced to the Church was their older brother, Julius. After four years of investigation, Julius joined the Church and moved back to his village of Chyulu, a rural area about 250 kilometers southeast of Nairobi, Kenya. Julius and his wife, Sabina, became the nucleus of a branch there. The experience of the Chyulu Saints is representative of the faith found among the new congregations being established throughout Africa.

In order to hold worship services, the members in Chyulu built a small bowery that would accommodate about forty people. The sides were made from tree branches woven together, and the roof was corrugated tin and palm branches. Each Sunday morning, little children used tree branches to sweep out the building.

Due to the area’s isolation and primitive conditions, special arrangements had to be made for the baptisms. A water tank was brought from Nairobi to serve as a baptismal font. It took five hours to pump enough water from a well and haul it six kilometers to the new font. Then ten adults stood inside the font to raise the water level high enough so the candidates could be immersed. In preparation for the first service, forty people were taught the discussions and interviewed. When they were baptized and confirmed, the branch nearly doubled in membership. By August 1993, there were two branches in Chyulu, with a combined membership of three hundred and fifty.

In 1992 a severe drought brought near starvation to the Saints in the Chyulu area. Under the direction of mission president Larry Brown and Julius Kasue, by then Chyulu Branch president, 3,400 pounds of corn and beans were brought to relieve the suffering Saints. Elder and Sister Ted McNeill, a missionary couple, made the arduous trip from Nairobi to deliver the food. Elder McNeill recalled:

“There were about eight women who came and rolled big lava rocks out from in front of the truck and made a road. I have never seen such hard-working women. I worked construction all my life. I’d like to have a crew like that.”

There was great rejoicing when the truck arrived with its seventeen bags of food. President and Sister Kasue spent the night making porridge and taking servings to the many starving Saints who were too weak to get out of bed. He visited every family to assess their needs.

To help the Church members prepare for future emergencies, a program was established to raise drought-resistant crops. But even drought-resistant crops require some moisture—and the area had received no rain for nearly two years. And so, on 21 October 1992, forty members and sixty nonmembers planted a crop, then held a special fast, asking the Lord to bless them with rain. The Church film The Windows of Heaven was brought in and shown at one of the few public places with electricity. In less than a week, the rains came. The crops grew—and so did the faith of the people. There was a bountiful harvest.

All Are Alike unto God

As in the early days of the Restoration, the Church in Africa has grown rapidly as converts have shared the gospel and struggled to overcome their challenges. Fifteen years after the revelation on the priesthood, the number of black Saints in Africa continues to grow at a rate that rivals the growth of the early Church. The Lord truly has invited “all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God” (2 Ne. 26:33).

It is evident that the Lord loves the people of Africa and desires to bless these patient people. The Church is having a great impact on the lives of these Africans, and they in turn are having, and will continue to have, great impact upon the Church.

[photos] Photography by E. Dale LeBaron

[photo] Following the June 1978 revelation on the priesthood, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints entered West Africa. On 4 March 1979, at a small stream near the village of Ikot Eyo, Cross River State, Nigeria, sixty-seven persons were baptized. One hundred seventeen had been baptized the day before. (Photograph by Janath R. Cannon.)

[photo] Moses Mahlangu

[photo] Joseph W. B. Johnson

[photo] Anthony and Fidelia Obinna

[photo] Adjei Kwame

[photo] Emmanuel Abu and Elizabeth Kissi

[photo] Dr. Kissi and the Deseret Hospital he and Elizabeth founded

[photo] Above: Independent of any formal missionary work and largely unknown to one another, entire congregations with testimonies of the Book of Mormon formed in both Nigeria and Ghana in the late 1950s, 60s, and 70s. In 1978, official missionaries were welcomed with open arms by whole villages eager to become Latter-day Saints.

[photo] Right: Priscilla Sampson-Davis of Ghana has translated the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price into her native language.

[photo] Clement Nwafor

[photo] Robert Israel Muhile

[photo] Benson and Nickson Kasue

[photo] Edward Ojuka with his family. Edward is currently working on his doctoral degree, and his wife, Grace, is working on her bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University. (Photograph by Doug Martin.)

[photos] Left to right: Sunday morning, children use tree branches to sweep out the bowery where the Chyulu Saints meet. A water tank was brought from Nairobi to Chyulu to serve as a baptismal font. Julius Kasue stands in the new font.

E. Dale LeBaron is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.