“Glad Tidings” Bring Joy to Central Africa
‘YOU will be witnesses of me to the most distant part of the earth’ were among the last words of the resurrected Jesus Christ before ascending to heaven. While in many minds Central Africa is isolated and ‘one of the most distant parts of the earth,’ this has not prevented the truth of God’s Word or the message of his kingdom from being carried even to the smallest and remotest villages there.—Acts 1:8.
In 1947 interested persons on their own initiative requested that Bible literature be sent to them by the Watch Tower Society. Without any direct contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses, they met together to read and discuss the publications received by mail. At first only men assembled. But soon they recognized the need to have their wives and children attend. So they translated the French material orally into the local language. On learning that immersion was a Christian requirement, this group arranged for a baptism in 1949. Since no one among them had been baptized previously, they selected one person to be immersed first. He, in turn, immersed others. Though lacking in understanding of certain Bible principles, they demonstrated remarkable zeal.
This did not escape the notice of religious enemies. In 1950 restrictions were placed on the importation and circulation of all literature published by the Watch Tower Society. When colonial rule ended in the late 1950’s, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses were granted legal recognition and the right to import Bible literature. That and the arrival of missionaries gave a boost to the Kingdom-preaching work.
A Religion That Does Not Fear the Dead
Very shortly, even in far-off villages, people learned of a religion whose members do not fear the dead. (Eccl. 9:5, 10; Ezek. 18:4) For centuries, people of Central Africa have lived in terror of the dead. In fact, much of their life revolves around death and customs concerning the dead. Sacrifices are made to appease the deceased, and food must be left out for the spirits. Therefore, the condition of the dead is a frequent topic of conversation in the preaching activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The truth of the Bible has opened the eyes of many. For example, a man who claimed that his dead aunt regularly visited him at night was asked what she wanted. He replied: ‘That a sacrifice be made for her down at the edge of the river.’ And what if the sacrifice was not made? There was the threat of death. While living, this aunt had been a very loving person who raised him from infancy. But, after dying, she supposedly acted like a menacing, threatening tyrant. Could this really be the same person? With reasoning and the use of the Scriptures, this man and others like him have been freed from fear of the dead. These persons have learned that the visions, voices and apparitions are the work of fallen angels, demons.—Compare 2 Corinthians 11:3, 14; Ephesians 6:12; Revelation 16:14.
Nevertheless, faithful adherence to Bible teaching brings many difficult tests. After the body of a dead relative is buried, the family gathers at the home where a wake is held and follows practices that are said to make the spirit of the deceased happy. Usually there is wild dancing. To share in such practices would be an open admission that a person believes in unscriptural teachings about the dead. This a true Christian simply cannot do. But how is nonparticipation viewed? It is regarded as a public admission that a person is responsible for the death of the deceased. What a test it is for Jehovah’s Witnesses to be accused by their family of being murderers, even though all realize that such a charge is entirely false and ridiculous!
But there was something else that came as a surprise to many. Jehovah’s Witnesses adhere to the standard set forth in the Christian Greek Scriptures with reference to marriage. The Catholic and Protestant missions had turned a blind eye to the practice of taking secondary wives. For people in Central Africa, security rests in the having of many children because of high infant mortality. A person’s having numerous children is a way of ensuring that there will be someone to look after a man in sickness and old age. To have many children requires a number of wives. So polygamy is accepted as a tradition and as an economic necessity. Usually no one tries to contend that having several wives under the same roof makes for a happy way of life. In fact, many husbands and other wives have been poisoned due to rivalries and jealousies between feuding women.
To the amazement of many, Africans gave up polygamy upon becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses. But this has not been without difficulties. Often there is intense family pressure for a man to take more wives. Imagine returning from your place of employment one day to find that your family had purchased a second wife for you and, while you were at work, had already placed her in your house! The choice between enduring the wrath of an enraged family, perhaps numbering upward of 200 people, and upholding Bible principles is one of the many tests faced by servants of Jehovah in Central Africa.
Preaching in Central Africa
To discuss religious subjects with the people is as natural as a conversation about the weather or sports in North America or in Europe. Knocking on doors is unnecessary in the villages, since almost all work is performed outdoors under the shade of a tree. A quick glance determines whether anyone is at home or not. Often by the end of a Bible discussion, a Witness has an audience of 10, 20 or even 30 as passersby stop to listen. In the country, Witnesses may travel many kilometers by bicycle to reach the inhabitants of a small village, only to find that the people already have heard about God’s Word from a visiting relative who had carried what he had heard back to his native village. Usually the villagers are ready to hear more.
During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses built Kingdom Halls from one end of the country to the other. There Witnesses from different tribes assembled in unity. This was no small feat, as can be seen from what happens in Protestant churches. For example, once when a pastor of one tribe was sent to oversee a church with a membership from another tribe, he was so severely beaten by his new “flock” that he and his wife had to be hospitalized.
In Central Africa the work and principles of Jehovah’s Witnesses, though not always appreciated, were universally respected and admired. But, then, nationalistic pressure built up, and their work came under ban in 1976. The then existing government felt that an organization that did not participate in political functions could not be tolerated. However, there was no hostility toward individual Witnesses. Meetings were conducted in private homes. House-to-house activity was not possible, but the general interest of the people in religious matters opened up many opportunities to share Bible truth with them. While about 40 Witnesses spent up to several months in prison and a few lost their employment, the courts were fair and the circumstances provided occasions for declaring God’s name.
September 20, 1979, brought a change in government, and the country reverted to its original name of Central African Republic. The new government promised to restore full liberty to the people. How great was the joy of Jehovah’s Witnesses when, on September 27, 1979, a decree announced the removal of the ban!
No account about the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Central Africa can be complete without mentioning the vital role played by traveling overseers who regularly visit all congregations. The land is sparsely populated, with towns and villages linked by dirt roads that are often impassable during the rainy season. Transportation between places has no fixed schedule, and buses and trucks frequently break down. Many times traveling overseers go for months without having the benefit of electricity or running water, living under very difficult conditions. Yet these brothers faithfully continue in their work, appreciating that their visits can do much to encourage the congregations.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Central Africa appreciate being free from the fear of the dead. They are glad that their thoughts are not restricted to one tribe or village, but that they are part of an earth-wide brotherhood united by love. Their diligence and work have made the hope of God’s kingdom known throughout this land. Also, their principles have gained the respect of many, even of those who do not wish to accept the Christian way of life themselves. Jehovah’s Witnesses rejoice in continuing to make known the “glad tidings” in this “most distant part of the earth.”—Rev. 14:6, 7.