Central African Republic
UBANGI-SHARI. Does that sound strange to you? Once it was the name of a territory in French Equatorial Africa. Since 1958, however, the same land has been known as the Central African Republic.
This sparsely populated landlocked country is somewhat larger than France. Only a century ago, there were few residents. Most of them were Pygmies, who inhabited the southern forests, where they still live. During the past hundred years many other Africans have arrived, a goodly number fleeing from slavery to certain tribes from the north. These pursued the refugees, only to be defeated in battle by the French in 1911. For years France governed this land as an overseas colony. In 1960, however, it became independent when the French turned over the administration of the country to the Africans.
In the Central African Republic 1,165 Kingdom proclaimers now zealously declare the good news to the largely Negro population of over 2,000,000. Life here still is simple and primitive. The average peasant builds his house with mud bricks and grass. For a living, more and more he is devoting himself to agriculture and less and less to hunting.
Variety abounds here. Far to the northeast is a dry semidesert. In the southwest are lush tropical forests. Then there are the great green savannas covering most of the country. Elephants, gorillas, lions and other animals still roam freely in the heart of this country.
THE RELIGIOUS SCENE
The people of this land believe in God and love to hear Bible discussions. Many, though professing to be Catholics or Protestants, actually are animists. Then, too, polygamy has been practiced for generations, and for many it is the normal way of life. Very often the customary bride price is extremely high. Hence, many just live together and raise a family without benefit of marriage. The law sets a limit on the number of wives a man can have legally, and the Catholic and Protestant clergy have accepted this, considering polygamists to be good Christians. In fact, nominal Christians here say that an African cannot live with only one wife. Jehovah’s witnesses, of course, strictly adhere to Bible standards for marriage.
While many say they are Moslems, Protestants or Catholics, they have more confidence in fetishes and spirits than in God. One former Protestant admitted that during all the years he preached in church he kept some fetishes in his home, ‘just for good luck.’
Some have become nominal Christians because it was the popular thing to do. Others felt they had no choice. “When the priest came to school,” says one person, “I and other students fled into the bush so we would not be forced to become Catholic. But we were pursued and brought back and just had to listen and become Catholic.”
In 1947 an African from Cameroon, Josué Dioh, was employed by a company to work in the southern forests of Ubangi-Shari, some distance from Bangui, the capital. He was not one of Jehovah’s witnesses, but had attended some of their meetings while in his homeland. What he had heard, he spoke to others. He learned through a friend that a certain Etienne Nkounkou, head draftsman at one of the government departments in Bangui, was interested in the Bible. He was one of the founders of a splinter African sect called Kanda Dia Kinzinga (People for Eternal Life). But Bible truth is very powerful and quickly triumphs over error, and that is just what happened. Mr. Dioh obtained Nkounkou’s name and address and soon the Society’s office in Switzerland sent him the book “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” Before reading very many pages, Nkounkou was overjoyed by such wholesome spiritual food and shared what he read with others. Some years later he wrote: ‘We were extremely happy and surprised to learn for the first time that the first creation of God was the Word, who is Jesus Christ, that soon the dead would be resurrected here on earth during Christ’s millennial reign, and that soon even death will be destroyed forever.’
The group of interested ones began meeting every Sunday to hear Nkounkou read from the book, while another would read the Bible verses. Among those first ones to hear the reading were Jean Langando, a government employee, Augustin Bayonne, a customs officer, and André Yombot, also employed by the French government. Others began coming to the meetings and the number soon reached ten, then twenty.
A foundation was being laid. Contact was made with Jehovah’s witnesses in France and then with the Watch Tower Society’s headquarters office at Brooklyn, New York. More literature arrived and with it a better understanding of the Bible and God’s requirements for all Christians. The group in Bangui did not remain merely a study class for long. It became a preaching group as well. Those associated with it had zeal, but lacked knowledge of the way to preach the good news of God’s kingdom. To interest others in the Bible, at first some visited different Protestant churches and there carried on discussions with the people. They asked the minister questions, and when he was unable to answer their queries, interested ones flocked to these new preachers of truth, seeking more information. Soon some eighty persons were attending their meetings.
A CURTAILING OF LITERATURE
The Protestant and Catholic clergy were quick to draw the attention of the authorities to these Bible students. As a result, the government sent a white man from Brazzaville to Bangui to investigate the group and its activities. He represented himself as a person who was interested in the Bible. However, the Bible students soon saw that he was not really interested in the Scriptures and they avoided his company. Shortly thereafter, in July 1950, restrictions were placed on the importation and circulation of all literature published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
Jehovah’s witnesses were not banned, however. So their meetings and preaching work continued. The Bible alone was used for study and in the field ministry. It appears that at first the government was somewhat confused about Jehovah’s witnesses. The clergy would have the authorities believe they were Communists. Others said they were the Kitawala, a group from the Belgian Congo. Another movement—the Kolinga—even used the name Jehovah and conducted some meetings in the name of Jehovah’s witnesses. Much time was spent with the authorities, showing them that Jehovah’s witnesses are not affiliated with subversive groups. What removed all doubts from their minds was the fact that in time the Society sent French special pioneer ministers from France to Bangui. The Kitawala movement was anti-white and anti-European. The white special pioneer ministers were seen freely mingling with their African brothers. Eventually both the Kitawala and the Kolinga disappeared completely from the scene in this country.
The restrictions on the Society’s publications were not lifted, however, and some of the brothers in Bangui were arrested and charged with distribution of illegal literature. Though the low court released them, the attorney general appealed the case. But the appeals court also ruled in favor of Jehovah’s witnesses. The work then continued even more energetically than in the past. A representative of the French government made the statement that Jehovah’s witnesses were on equal grounds with all other recognized religions. The only thing that they objected to was literature from the United States of America.
THEOCRATIC INCREASE EVIDENT
By 1955 there were over 200 proclaimers of God’s kingdom in Bangui. Theocratic increase was in evidence. The congregation then was divided into three, for more efficient service and the training of new ones. Expansion has continued, until today there are thirteen congregations in Bangui. While all this activity was going on in the capital, rural areas were not left without a witness. In villages several hundred miles away people spoke of the religion whose members ‘refuse to eat blood.’—Acts 15:28, 29.
A teacher from the town of Dekoa listened to Jehovah’s witnesses while on vacation in Bangui and continued his Bible studies by correspondence thereafter. This teacher, Simon Kotadissa, talked with a Protestant pastor, Jacques Samba, who invited Kotadissa to address his church group on numerous occasions. When he was convinced that all Christians do not go to heaven at death and that there is no fire in hell, Samba taught this in his church. His audience said that what they heard was as sweet as honey. They wanted more. Samba’s superiors, the American missionaries, learned about these developments and assembled all the church members and tried to convince Samba that Jehovah’s witnesses were false prophets. That did not work. Infuriated, the head of the Protestant mission yelled that all of Jehovah’s witnesses should get out of the church. Although none were yet Jehovah’s witnesses, the majority of the people stood up and walked out, including Pastor Samba. He had believed and preached falsehoods for twenty-four years, but at last was free. (John 8:32) Bernard Gaouaranga, a young man who came in contact with God’s truth at Samba’s church, eventually became the first full-time pioneer minister from among the native population.
The first congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses outside of Bangui was organized at Dekoa in April 1950. Shortly thereafter surrounding villages also were receiving the Kingdom witness. The cry from the clergy was tremendous. Jehovah’s witnesses were condemned in the churches and the accusations against them were unbelievable.
While Brother Gaouaranga, as circuit overseer, was serving the spiritual needs of the small group of Jehovah’s witnesses at another village in the same vicinity, a Protestant catechist and the local chief set the Kingdom Hall on fire during a meeting. The matter was brought to the attention of the gendarmerie. Very soon one catechist and one chief were in prison.
In time the Kingdom message was being heard deeper and deeper in the interior. From remote areas people came to Bangui and Dekoa to learn Bible truth. They then took the good news back to their villages. Somehow literature was coming into the country and people were reading it. In Ippy, 500 kilometers northeast of Bangui, Gabriel Elimatchi obtained one of the Watch Tower Society’s magazines from a school associate. After reading it he never again attended a Catholic Mass. The local priest denounced him by name in church. A report on him was made to the colonial authority in Bangui, but nothing resulted from this. Eventually a congregation was formed in Ippy.
Brother Elimatchi passed his examinations in meteorology and was sent to Fort Lamy in Tchad, then also a part of French Equatorial Africa. With only the Bible in hand, Elimatchi preached to all he could, but with little success. However, this was the beginning of the witness work in that vast land. In time some interest was found among the foreigners working in the city. A home was located and this became a Kingdom Hall, the first of its kind in the country.
FURTHER ADVANCEMENT IN UBANGI-SHARI
During 1954 Jehovah’s Word began to be preached to the west of Bangui, beginning in the administrative city of Bouar. Philippe Ouakoudou, an X-ray technician from the capital, was sent there to work in the hospital. No one had ever preached the message of God’s kingdom in Bouar. So Ouakoudou began to cover the city systematically in the house-to-house ministry. In a few months quite a few persons were meeting in the court of a village chief. Five individuals progressed very well and were baptized in 1956.
Then the trouble started. Clergymen warned their flocks not to listen to the “false prophets.” They lyingly told the authorities that the Witnesses were a seditious group of political agitators. When the annual Memorial of Christ’s death was to be held, four gendarmes hid in a neighboring house to hear the “seditious” talk. More than eighty humble people, including four gendarmes, heard Brother Ouakoudou’s faith-strengthening talk. Apparently the gendarmes gave a very favorable report to their superiors, for the French governor of the region called the Catholic priest and informed him that Jehovah’s witnesses were not Communists and were not political, but were practicing the true religion of the Bible. In a very short while the whole town knew what the governor had told the priest and this resulted in favorable publicity for Jehovah’s witnesses. Through the years Jehovah has given the increase. Today two congregations of God’s people meet in Bouar.
A branch office of the Watch Tower Society was established in Brazzaville during 1956 to look after the Kingdom work in all of French Equatorial Africa. Jean Seignobos directed the work from Brazzaville and also served as district overseer for a time, both there and in this country. With the arrival of Brother Seignobos and his wife, and thereafter two other couples from France, the authorities became more friendly. Most problems were gradually cleared away. By Decree Number 2675 of July 27, 1957, the ban on some of the Society’s publications was removed. As time went on, more and more literature was approved for distribution among the people of the land.
On March 28, 1961, the Society was legally recognized by the new independent republic, and an insertion was made in the Official Journal of the State to that effect. Then in 1962, the first graduates of Gilead School sent to the Central African Republic—Richard Rainer and Alexander Atkinson—arrived in Bangui. The next year, on April 2, Milton G. Henschel arrived, the first and only director of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania to visit this country. How happy the brothers were to greet him at the airport! Later that day, Brother Henschel addressed an audience of 612, speaking on Bible prophecy. The brothers had worked very hard on the Ngoubagara Kingdom Hall so as to get it finished for Brother Henschel’s visit. It was the first Kingdom Hall in the country to be constructed with cement blocks. They were very proud of it.
Later that year, on September 1, 1963, a branch office of the Society was opened in Bangui to look after Kingdom interests in the Central African Republic. Closer supervision resulted, with a gradual improvement in organization and field ministry. The average number of publishers of God’s kingdom had risen from 387 in the 1962 service year to a peak of 1,243 by May of 1971.
For some time the situation existed that a man who considered himself one of Jehovah’s witnesses could have a “customary marriage” and be looked upon as a brother although not being legally married. Patiently it was explained that not men but Jehovah God himself sets the Bible standard for marriage, and so man needs to change his standards of conduct and not vice versa, if he desires to please his Creator and receive everlasting life. This question struck right at the root of African communal life. Time was given those living in customary marriage to obtain a legal marriage, but some found it too difficult and fell away. However, the cleanup was in harmony with Jehovah’s will and soon these faithless persons were replaced with new ones.
Illiteracy has been a great barrier to progress. So the Society opened literacy classes in all Kingdom Halls. This was especially stressed beginning in 1963. Today 74 percent of Jehovah’s witnesses here can read, a much higher percentage than for the rest of the country’s population.
Another step forward was the Society’s decision to translate the Watchtower magazine, some booklets and other publications into the Sango language, which is spoken by the majority of the people. Now all can participate in the meetings, especially during the Sunday Bible study, instead of just the two or three in each congregation who are literate in French.
Then in 1965 the Society made the decision to build a branch-missionary home in a quiet residential part of Bangui. From there the work in the Central African Republic and Tchad is now supervised. The Society was registered with the Tchad government on April 24, 1969. Shortly thereafter, four missionaries arrived in the city of Fort Archambault, where two special pioneer ministers already had been preaching the good news for over a year. Up to that time, Jehovah’s witnesses had been active only in the capital city, Fort Lamy. A congregation was organized at Fort Archambault in 1970. In 1971 special pioneers were sent to two other cities. At last natives from Tchad itself were becoming Jehovah’s witnesses.
The Central African Republic had a change of government in January 1966. Opponents of God’s kingdom immediately moved into action against Jehovah’s witnesses. The Evangelical Protestant Church made a proposal to the new president that Jehovah’s witnesses be banned. According to them, the Witnesses were against the government. However, the president saw through their ruse and stood up for religious liberty.
Four new missionaries arrived in the Central African Republic in 1970, making a total of ten in the country, besides the four in Tchad. Now most of the principal cities and towns have been reached with the Kingdom message. Even the small villages are receiving a witness, in spite of the difficult travel conditions in the country. Circuit overseers are visiting the congregations regularly and circuit assemblies are being held as in other countries.
Jehovah God has blessed his people richly here, and they have surmounted great problems to see that the population hears the good news of God’s kingdom. We look confidently to the future, seeking Jehovah’s direction in all that we do. The five congregations in Tchad and the forty-three in the Central African Republic are very happy to be sharing in the witness work during these critical “last days.” With 1,165 Kingdom publishers in the Central African Republic and an attendance of 3,397 at the Memorial of Christ’s death in 1973, we are convinced that there is yet a tremendous work to be accomplished here in the short remaining time.