God Has Been Our Helper
AS TOLD BY FRANCISCO COANA
“If you refuse to obey the authorities, you’ll be executed!” my brother warned.
“That would be much better than living under these horrible conditions,” I protested.
THAT was an exchange that took place between my older brother and me in September 1975. He had come to bring me food during my imprisonment in Maputo (at the time called Lourenço Marques), in southern Mozambique. Over 180 of us, the majority Jehovah’s Witnesses, were crammed into a single cell. My brother was so irritated with me that he didn’t even leave the food he brought!
To help you understand this emotional meeting, let me go back and explain how I came to be in prison.
A Religious Upbringing
I was born in 1955 into a Presbyterian family in the village of Calanga in the Manica District. This is not far from the large city of Maputo. Although Father was not a churchgoer, Mother was, and she would take her five children to church on Sundays. Early in our lives, she taught us the Lord’s Prayer, and I would recite it often. (Matthew 6:9-12) As a young boy, I asked Mother questions such as “Why do we die?” and, “Will people always have to die?”
Mother said that death was part of God’s purpose—that those who do bad will go to hell and those who do good will go to heaven. Although I said nothing in reply, her answer saddened me. The harsh reality of death disturbed me, especially after our dear father died when I was only ten. Afterward my desire grew to know about the condition of the dead and whether there was any hope for them.
Learning and Applying the Truth
Shortly after Father died, one of the teachers at school used the book From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained to teach our class. The book, published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, was in Zulu, a South African language. The teacher let me borrow it, and although I did not know Zulu well, I was happy with what I learned from the Bible texts cited.
When I was 16, my brother who was the breadwinner in the family was summoned to military service. That is when I began to work at a perfume company in Maputo and to attend a technical school at night. During lunch breaks at work, I observed Teófilo Chiulele, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses—he was always reading the Bible. When Teófilo noted my interest, he started speaking to me.
Later, another Witness, Luis Bila, began to conduct a Bible study with me. I was relieved to learn that the dead are conscious of nothing at all and that they have the hope of being brought back to life in a resurrection. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; John 5:28, 29) I immediately wrote to Mother and provided her with Bible answers to the questions that I had asked her. She was happy to know that I had finally found reliable answers.
Moved by enthusiasm for what I was learning, I prepared to share these things with others. I was permitted to give Bible talks at school but not in church. Soon I was no longer welcome in church. Even members of my own family began to persecute me, despite the fact that Mother was pleased with my newfound beliefs. My older brother gave me a severe beating. When such opposition had no effect, family members began to mock me, especially when they saw me praying at mealtimes. So I would pray in the bathroom before coming to the table to eat. I felt that ‘God was my helper.’—Psalm 54:4.
Then Luis was prevented from coming to our home to study the Bible with me. Thereafter, we studied at his home. When I began attending congregation meetings and sharing in the preaching work, I would find myself locked out of our home on my return. As a result, I ended up staying overnight at the homes of various Witnesses.
Eventually, on May 13, 1973, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism. At the time, Mozambique was under the Portuguese colonial regime, which had banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in Portugal and all of its colonies. On October 1, 1974, I became a pioneer, as full-time evangelizers are called by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since my goal was to become a missionary, I began to study English so that I could qualify to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, in the United States, for missionary training.
Using Strategy in Preaching
During those years of the ban, the Portuguese colonial police, the PIDE, imprisoned many Witnesses for preaching. So to avoid detection, we used strategy. For example, we would speak at one house and then go to another one in a different area. Also, two of us would go to a city park during our lunch break or in the evening. One would sit next to a person and begin reading the newspaper. Shortly, the other one of us would sit down, observe the newspaper, and say something like this: “My, just look at how many people died! But did you know that under God’s government this will no longer happen?”
A conversation would follow during which the one who had been reading the newspaper would request Biblical proof for what the other had said. Then we would arrange to meet the next day to continue the discussion. In this way we were often able to involve the person sitting next to us in our conversations regarding Bible prophecies, and many Bible studies were started. We would thank God for helping us.
A Time of Severe Testing
On April 25, 1974, the dictatorship in Portugal ended, and many political changes occurred in the Portuguese colonies. In Mozambique political prisoners, as well as Witnesses who had been imprisoned for their political neutrality, were granted amnesty. But then, on June 25, 1975, only 14 months later, Mozambique declared its independence from Portugal. A few days afterward, a new wave of persecution against the Witnesses commenced. Neighborhood groups were mobilized to arrest all Witnesses who could be found. We were depicted as “agents left behind by Portuguese Colonialism.”
In September, I was compelled to attend a meeting of a neighborhood group. Upon arriving, I discovered that all of those in my Bible study group were there. We were ordered to shout political slogans that exalted the ruling party. When we respectfully refrained, we were taken to prison and placed in the overcrowded cell I spoke about at the beginning.
The cell was so crowded that we could hardly move. For a few to have room to sleep on the floor, others had to sit or stand. There was only one toilet, and it was often blocked, so that it would overflow, leaving a horrible stench. Our food consisted of oily spaghetti filled with fish bones and big blue flies, which we had to eat with unwashed hands. For 19 days the more than 180 of us endured these horrible conditions. Then we were transferred to a place where only Witnesses were held, including men, women, and children. During the next few months, many children died because of the appalling prison conditions.
Eventually, the government decided to banish the Witnesses to Carico, a remote area in the north. The objective was to isolate us. There were then about 7,000 Witnesses in Mozambique, a large percentage of whom had been baptized in 1974 and 1975. Realizing that we would need Bible literature during our isolation, I obtained permission to return home to gather some food and belongings for the journey. Unobserved by the officer who accompanied me, I partially emptied some boxes of cookies and packed Bible publications in the bottom of the boxes. At such times, we were not afraid. We trusted in God to help us.—Hebrews 13:6.
Life in the Camps
We arrived at Carico in January 1976 and found many Witnesses from neighboring Malawi living in camps that they had constructed. From 1972 to 1975, over 30,000 people, including children, had fled from brutal religious persecution in Malawi. They were granted permission to enter northern Mozambique as refugees, and when we arrived, they shared their homes and meager provisions with us.
Since most of us had no experience in construction, our Malawian brothers showed us how to build our houses by making bricks and using these along with vegetation from the bush. They also taught us how to grow food and to do other things to maintain ourselves. Thus I learned carpentry, agriculture, and tailoring. These acquired skills proved useful to many of us when we later returned to our cities of origin.
Our principal concern was to maintain our spirituality, and I must say that we never lacked spiritual food. How was this possible? Well, as noted earlier, when we were sent into exile, many of us used our creativity to bring Bible literature along with other belongings. Also, tiny copies of The Watchtower were printed by Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Africa. This made it easier to take them into the camps.
After many petitions, on December 1, 1978, the first marriage was permitted within the camps. That day I wed Alita Chilaule, whose father was among the first to be baptized in Maputo back in 1958. When our children Dorcas and Samuel came along, we taught them to love Jehovah, and we regularly took them with us to our Christian meetings. Later, we had another child, named Jaimito.
How We Preached
The Witnesses were granted permission to leave the camps to sell things, including food that they had grown. Many of us used this opportunity to preach. In fact, I deliberately asked a high price for salt so that no one would buy it. Quite a few people that I met, however, responded to the Kingdom message, and I started a number of Bible studies.
One of my Bible students spoke with a director of a certain company in nearby Milange who manifested interest in the Bible. When I was informed of this, I corresponded with the director. He responded with an invitation for me to pay him a visit. So I hid Bible literature on myself and set off, ostensibly to sell him some furniture that I had made.
When I arrived, I found the house guarded by soldiers; and I became apprehensive. However, the man came out and informed the soldiers that he did not wish to be disturbed. We started our Bible study at five o’clock in the evening, and he showed such great interest that we did not finish until five the next morning! Later, he offered to receive our literature from Portugal, since no restrictions were placed on his mail. Then he would give the literature to me, and I would take it into the camp.
True, some of us were apprehended and arrested a number of times for our preaching activity. Yet, when many responded to the Kingdom message, we were confident that God was helping us, just as he helped first-century Christians.—Acts, chapters 3-5.
Release, and Return to Maputo
In September 1985, it was decided after prayerful consideration of the circumstances that we would organize a mass exodus from the camps. Although some stayed in the Carico camps and remained isolated from the rest of Jehovah’s Witnesses for the next seven years, others escaped to Malawi and to Zambia. My wife and I decided to go with our children to the nearby town of Milange. There I obtained employment and a place to live, and we continued in our ministry. The following year we finally returned to Maputo.
At first, we lived with relatives. Employment was hard to find, but in time I managed to get work. Alita sold roasted peanuts to augment our meager income. Since my English had improved, I submitted a job application at the British Embassy. I passed the tests and was employed at a salary 20 times higher than what I had been making before! I truly felt that Jehovah had helped me, and I thanked him in prayer.
Finally, on February 11, 1991, the Mozambican government granted legal recognition to Jehovah’s Witnesses. What a memorable date for us! The following year I was invited to serve as a member of the committee that oversees the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mozambique. At the time, our children were only 12, 9, and 6 years of age. I spent the night in prayer, asking Jehovah for wisdom in making a decision that would reflect proper balance in handling both family and organizational responsibilities.
We were able to obtain a small trailer, which we used in a business venture. We employed a number of pioneers to make and sell sandwiches, and the business prospered. Thus, I had time to care for my new organizational privileges. We were also in need of a house, since it was not possible to continue renting the house we were living in. So I prepared a request to the authorities, describing my family’s situation. Soon we received approval to acquire a house. This was given great publicity, since I was the first Mozambican to buy a house from the state.
Alita and I have been blessed with children who have responded to our program of spiritual instruction. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9) Our habit has been to discuss a Bible text for the day at 5:40 a.m., after which we do Bible reading together. Since our children need to be at school early, they are accustomed to this early morning schedule. On Friday at 6:00 p.m., we have our family study, during which the children discuss with us Bible themes that they have done research on during the week. This is also the time when we practice presentations for the ministry.
All of our children are baptized. In fact, Dorcas and Samuel have been serving as pioneers since 1994, and ever since his baptism, Jaimito has been an auxiliary pioneer. The children are still in school, and each one has the goal of increasing his or her ministry afterward. Alita balances her time between pioneering and caring for our home. For many years, including the years spent in the detention camps, I served as a pioneer. However, since 1993, I have been working at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the day.
Blessings From God Continue
In 1997, I received the grand blessing of attending a two-month course for Branch Committee members. The course was held in the United States at the Watchtower Educational Center at Patterson, New York. Thus, my efforts to learn English were rewarded once again. On my way home, I was able to visit Jehovah’s servants in other lands, and how this made my heart overflow with appreciation for our worldwide brotherhood!
This very love among true Christians has been a factor contributing to the drawing of additional thousands of sincere ones into association with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mozambique. (John 13:35) From the some 7,000 who were preaching when we were banished to detention camps, we now have over 29,000 preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom throughout Mozambique. These are associated with more than 665 congregations; only 4 existed in 1958.
In 1993, plans were approved for a branch office in Maputo that would accommodate a branch staff of over 75 and care for the marvelous expansion of pure worship in Mozambique. After a construction period of about four years, the project was completed. Then, on December 19, 1998, our joy was unbounded when 1,098 were on hand from many countries for the dedication of these beautiful facilities. On the program, I had the privilege of interviewing people who spent years in exile in Carico. I asked for those who had been exiled there to raise their hands, and the audience was deeply touched when hundreds of hands went up.
The following day a crowd of 8,525 were present at the Matola Assembly Hall for a review of the dedication program, encouraging reports from other countries, and Bible-based talks by visitors from the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in Brooklyn, New York.
True, since coming to a knowledge of Bible truth as a teenager, I have experienced family opposition, threats of execution, and horrible persecution that at times made me think that dying was preferable to continuing to live. Yet, I rejoice because as a result of these experiences, my relationship with Jehovah has been refined. Indeed, as the Bible psalmist said, “God is my helper; Jehovah is among those supporting my soul.” (Psalm 54:4) It has been an unequaled privilege for my family and me to serve Jehovah along with the worldwide family of his worshipers.
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Witnesses in front of the Kingdom Hall built while they were in isolation
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Enjoying our family Bible study
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Those who had been in Carico camps raised their hands