“Pioneers in East Africa,” Ensign, Oct. 1994, 21
The history of the Church in Africa is a story of pioneering. “The days of pioneering in the Church are still with us; they did not end with covered wagons and handcarts,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency. “Pioneers are found among the missionaries who teach the gospel and they are found among the converts who come into the Church. It usually is difficult for each of them. It invariably involves sacrifice. It may involve persecution. But these are costs which are willingly borne, and the price that is paid is as real as was the price of those who crossed the plains in the great pioneering effort more than a century ago.”1
Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania are three republics in East Africa where the gospel is taking root. The African converts in those countries truly fit President Hinckley’s description of modern-day pioneers.
The first Kenyan to join the Church was Charles Asiago. Charles studied at a theological college for three years. In 1978 he was introduced to the gospel by Boyd Whipple, a Latter-day Saint who was working in Kenya with USA Aid. “I asked him many questions and he answered them,” said Charles. “I began asking myself, ‘How can someone who is not a theologian answer the questions more perfectly than the principals of the colleges to whom I had already asked the same questions?’ The Spirit of God touched me.”2
During the next two years Charles studied the gospel and attended Church meetings in the Whipple home. He was strengthened by the Latter-day Saint families and missionary couples who lived and served in Kenya. Charles was inspired by the Book of Mormon and the love Church members showed to him and his wife, Elizabeth. He was impressed with their humility and knew he had found the true Church of Jesus Christ.
Since his baptism on 15 March 1980, Charles has visited the old men of the tribe who know the oral histories back to A.D. 1500. He has collected his family history from them. Temple work has been completed for about three hundred of Charles’s ancestors.
Benson and Nickson Kasue
The next converts baptized in Kenya were two young brothers, Benson and Nickson Kasue. They grew up in the rural, mountainous area of Kilungu, about sixty miles southeast of Nairobi. They had no electricity or running water. As young schoolchildren, they awoke at about six o’clock each morning, washed, ate breakfast, prepared their lunches, and ran about six miles along mountain trails to school, which began at eight o’clock.
When Benson was about eighteen years old, he was introduced to the gospel by the Dennis Childs family. Brother Childs, a veterinarian from Colorado who was involved in a research project in Kenya, had hired Benson to work for him. Soon a bond of friendship developed, and Benson was invited to attend Church meetings in the Childs home. His interest in the gospel grew. Reading Joseph Smith’s testimony and the Book of Mormon brought him a feeling of peace.
One day Dennis’s four-year-old daughter asked Benson when he was going to stop smoking. He told her he would stop the next day. Two days later she saw him smoking again. “She jumped on me and started crying,” said Benson. “She told me, ‘You told me you were going to stop smoking tomorrow, and today is tomorrow, and you are still smoking.’ That gave me a different look at things, and I stopped smoking.”
At that time the Church in Kenya consisted of some Latter-day Saint families from other countries, a missionary couple, and Charles and Elizabeth Asiago. Because the Church was not yet registered with the government, special permission was required from government authorities before people could be baptized. In 1985, officials gave approval for private worship and baptisms in homes. Benson was now twenty-three years old, and Nickson was twenty. After attending meetings and studying the gospel for almost five years, the two brothers were baptized in 1985.
In April 1986, Benson and Nickson became the first Kenyans to go on full-time missions. Benson served in the California Los Angeles Mission, and Nickson served in the Washington D.C. North Mission. Benson recalls: “I felt very, very fortunate to be a missionary, and I said, ‘I’m going to be the best I can, because I spent five years saving for this opportunity. I’m not going to let anything intervene.’ To reach my goal fully, I gave it everything I had.”
Following their missions, they both attended Ricks College. During this time, the brothers served as proxies when temple ordinances were performed for their mother and grandparents. Benson said, “I could feel their spirits in that sealing room. I cannot forget that feeling. Temple ordinances are very important, and unless people go to the temple I don’t think they can really comprehend the strength of the gospel.” Benson and Nickson have both since married in the temple.
Through their influence, all four of their brothers and one of their two sisters have joined the Church and are faithful Latter-day Saints. Their older brother, Julius Kasue, studied the gospel for four years before he joined the Church in 1986. He moved back to his village of Chyulu, in a rural area about one hundred and sixty miles southeast of Nairobi. Julius and his wife, Sabina, became the nucleus of a little branch of the Church there.
Julius Kasue and the Chyulu Branch
The members in the isolated Chyulu Branch met in a small bower, which the members had built to accommodate about forty people. The sides were made from tree branches woven together and the roof was made of corrugated tin and palm branches.
Each Sunday morning little children prepared it for worship services by using tree branches to sweep out the leaves and weeds that had blown in. It was raining when Larry Brown, president of the newly created Kenya Nairobi Mission, first visited this humble branch in 1992. As a brother knelt to say the sacrament prayer, he put an old sack on the mud before him. Due to drought and poverty, bread was not available for the sacrament. Two small crackers were used to serve the sixty-three people who attended that day.
Due to the isolated and primitive conditions in the Chyulu area, special preparations had to be made for baptisms. A water tank to be used as a baptismal font was brought from Nairobi, 160 miles away. It took five hours to pump enough water from a well and haul it four miles to the church. Ten adults stood inside the font to raise the water level sufficiently so the candidates could be immersed. In two days, forty people were taught the discussions, interviewed, baptized, and confirmed, nearly doubling the membership of the Chyulu Branch. By August 1993, there were two branches in Chyulu, with a combined membership of 350.
In 1992 a severe drought brought near-starvation conditions to the Saints in the Chyulu area. Under the direction of President Brown and President Julius Kasue, Chyulu branch president, 3,400 pounds of corn and beans were sent to relieve the suffering Saints. Elder Ted and Sister Jaclyn McNeill, a missionary couple (see p. 25), made the arduous trip from Nairobi to deliver the much-needed food. Elder McNeill recalled that eight members rolled big lava rocks off the road so he could drive through. It took hours to clear the way.
There was gratitude and rejoicing when the life-saving load arrived and the seventeen bags, each weighing two hundred pounds, were unloaded. “You have never seen people so happy to receive anything,” said Sister McNeill. “The members knew this was going to save their lives. It took four adults to unload one of these sacks of beans or corn. They were singing and doing their work.”
That night Sister Kasue made porridge and President Kasue took servings to the many starving Saints who were too weak to get out of bed. He visited every family to assess their needs. Sister McNeill observed: “You could feel the spirit of this sweet, humble man. The Spirit there was so strong and beautiful. It made us weep to see how they were handling things.”
To help the Church members prepare for future temporal needs, a program was established to raise drought-resistant crops on six acres of Church land in Chyulu. The project was directed by priesthood leadership, with assistance from Joel K. Ransom, first counselor in the Chyulu District presidency, who is an agronomist from Pocatello, Idaho. Although the area had received no rain for nearly two years, forty members of the branch and sixty others planted a crop on 21 October 1992. They held a special fast for rain and watched the Church film The Windows of Heaven. The rains came in less than a week after the seeds were planted. The crops grew, and so did the faith of the people. There was a bountiful harvest.
Joseph Sitati, First Kenyan District President
Challenges accompanying the growth of the Church provided opportunities for growth and unity among these early African Latter-day Saints. In 1989 government officials in Kenya restricted members to meeting in groups of no more than nine adults. In July 1989 all full-time missionaries were asked to leave the country. Joseph Sitati, a convert of only three years, was set apart as the first Kenyan district president. Under President Sitati’s direction, small groups were formed to meet in homes. He recalled: “Each group had a priesthood leader, but our numbers were so few. That was one of the great challenges at that time. A number of people fell away. In my own mind there was no doubt at all that this problem would be solved. I saw this as a passing phase.”
President Sitati asked the members to fast and pray that the Church might become officially registered with the government. In family and personal prayers, they pled for a miracle. There was a great unity of faith in this matter, even among the children. If family members failed to ask the Lord to open the way for the Church to become registered in their land, the little children would remind them and ask that the prayer be said again.
On 25 February 1991, President Sitati, Charles Asiago, and two other brethren were asked to come to the attorney general’s office. They were overjoyed when they were presented with the registration certificate for the Church. President Sitati recalled, “It was a very, very happy occasion. We cried. I thought I was dreaming.” In April 1991, the Church was also registered in Uganda. In October 1991 Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated Uganda and Kenya for the preaching of the gospel and the building up of the Lord’s church.
One of the first to join the Church from Uganda was Edward Ojuka. He was taught Christian values in his home, and he regularly attended a church. There he met Grace, whom he later married. His parents also instilled in him the importance of obtaining an education. With their support, Edward graduated from a university by the time he was twenty-one. When his father died, it appeared unlikely that Edward would be able to continue his schooling. He had been an excellent athlete in high school, and so he turned to sports as a means to pursue his educational goals. “I knew that my future was not so much in sports, but rather in academics,” he said. “I used sports as a door to get to school.”
In 1982 Edward traveled to Perth, Australia, with a scholarship to study physical education. His wife and children remained in Africa with her family. The first people Edward came to know in Perth were two sister missionaries who knocked on his door the night of his arrival. He said: “They introduced themselves as missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were very kind and friendly to me.”
After studying the gospel for four months, Edward was baptized in May 1982. Of this experience Edward recalled: “My baptism was one of my most special days. I know that I was born on this earth for an important mission.”
Edward completed a master’s degree in education in 1987. Upon his return to Uganda, Edward, through his contact with the International Mission of the Church, received Church publications and other books. Before long, he decided to pursue a doctorate in education at Brigham Young University.
Three months after their arrival in Provo, Grace was baptized. A year later their family was sealed in the temple. As Edward reflected upon what is of greatest worth, he said: “I have a very strong testimony, and I want my posterity to know that I know the Church is true. I have no doubt about it. The Church’s power is based on the truth of the gospel. My desire in life is to serve. I will be returning to Uganda to work with our people.”
In 1992, the Church was officially recognized in Tanzania. One of the first to accept the gospel there was Robert Israel Muhile. While working and studying in Cairo, Egypt, Robert attended his first Latter-day Saint church meeting on Christmas Day 1990. There he met Elder and Sister Whitecourt. He observed: “They were very kind people. I liked them so much. They made me want to change my life.” After Robert was taught the missionary discussions and baptized, he said, “I felt a great joy and peace in my life.”
In May 1991, after being ordained an elder, Robert returned to Tanzania so he could share the gospel with his family. However, Robert’s family lived more than six hundred miles (a three-day bus ride) from the nearest branch of the Church, in Dar es Salaam, so he found himself isolated from other Church members. He wrote to the Africa Area presidency and Nairobi mission president Larry Brown to let them know that he had joined the Church. After six months without partaking of the sacrament, Robert traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to ask President Brown if he could administer the sacrament to himself each Sunday. His request was granted. Robert said: “I know how important those emblems are. I didn’t feel well spiritually. In Nairobi, I had opportunity to partake of the emblems and bear my testimony.”
Robert traveled back to Dar es Salaam with a newly arrived missionary couple, Elder Lervae and Sister Joyce Cahoon (see p. 25). He then traveled on to his home village more than six hundred miles away.
Each Sunday Robert invited his family to join him for worship service, but they chose to attend their own church. So he held his own service alone. He said: “I prepared water and bread. I also had 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 it 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 we did in Sunday School and then read from Gospel Principles. I finished with a prayer. I then attended priesthood meeting. After singing a hymn, I said a prayer and then read a lesson from the priesthood manual. After that, I finished by singing and then offered the closing prayer. Each Sunday I had all three meetings. When I partook of the emblems it helped me to be more worthy.”
After being home two months, Robert received a letter from Elder and Sister Cahoon requesting that he return to Dar es Salaam to be their translator. He immediately responded and has provided valuable service to the Church in that area. During the course of this service, Robert developed a close friendship with Joy Nassiuma, a young adult convert from Nairobi. In July 1993, Robert and Joy were married in the Johannesburg South Africa Temple. Robert is now employed as the full-time Church Educational System supervisor for Tanzania.
These African converts are representative of the hundreds of Africans who are accepting the gospel. Although it was slow in becoming established, the gospel has taken root in East Africa, and the Church is flourishing under inspired leadership. The words of Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve, as he dedicated Kenya for the preaching of the gospel and the growth of the Church, already seem prophetic: “We are grateful that after long years of waiting, a mission has been established for the preaching of the gospel. May the work go forward firmly and solidly.”
The planting of the first gospel seeds in many African nations has been done by Latter-day Saints from other countries working there.
Guy and Peggy Denton, who served in Uganda, are two people who have helped the gospel take root in East Africa. In October 1989, Brother Denton moved his family from Logan, Utah, to Uganda to organize agricultural education programs at Makerere University. During the next four years, the Dentons provided strength and leadership and were instrumental in helping gain official recognition for the Church in Uganda.
Similarly, the Church in Tanzania was established in part due to the efforts of Bruce and Ruth Wilson, who moved to Dar es Salaam from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The family arrived in Tanzania on 1 August 1991. They began to hold Sunday services in their home. The first baptisms in Tanzania were performed in the Indian Ocean in March 1992. When the Church was officially recognized by the Tanzanian government in October 1992, Brother Wilson was called as the first branch president in that land.
Ted and Jaclyn McNeill were the second missionary couple called to serve in Uganda. They served for eight months before the Kenya Nairobi Mission was created. The Africa Area Presidency asked Elder and Sister McNeill to open the work in Jinja, a city about sixty miles from Kampala, the capital of Uganda. “We left Kampala with a little boiled water and a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread, and we headed out to Jinja,” said Elder McNeill, a retired mechanic. When their mission was completed, Elder and Sister McNeill left behind two branches of the Church and many marvelous experiences and eternal friendships.
Lervae and Joyce Cahoon from Cardston, Alberta, Canada, served a mission in Nigeria following Elder Cahoon’s retirement as a high school music teacher. After their mission they returned home to their ten children and forty-five grandchildren. After eighteen months in Canada, they accepted a call as the first missionaries to Tanzania. In spite of many difficult challenges and obstacles, they were successful in helping to move the work forward and endearing themselves to many. This humble couple spent their golden wedding anniversary serving the Lord as missionaries in Tanzania.