Cultural elements affect Mormon missionary work in Africa



Mormon Newsroom
Culture continues to play a huge role in missionary work and how international members observe the gospel. (Mormon Newsroom)

Editor’s note: this story pairs with LDS Church helps preserve genealogy in Africa

Three Mormon missionaries took their first steps onto the vast continent of Africa after a seven-month journey spanning 9,713 miles with neither purse nor scrip.

In 1852 — just five years after the early Mormons entered the Salt Lake Valley — Jesse Haven, Leonard L. Smith and William H. Walker were called to establish the church on the Cape of Good Hope in what is now part of South Africa. Their arrival marked the beginning of a work both tumultuous and prosperous. 

As of 2018, the Mormon Newsroom reports there are 2,004 LDS congregations in Africa comprising 578,310 members. With eight temples in operation or announced and 31 missions, the church is seeing success on the continent; however, cultural dissonance continues to create stumbling blocks for missionary work.

Garrett Nagaishi, a program manager for first-generation students at Utah Valley University, conducted a research project in 2014 with LDS converts in Ghana. The project synthesized 32 interviews with church members of different ages to understand cultural challenges and explore how Latter-day Saints in Kumasi conceptualize their church involvement. The premise of the research was that missionaries, as guests in a particular region, must understand the importance of context in introducing an oft-times foreign theology.

“Mormonism developed in a very specific and unique historical and cultural context that does not immediately translate to other times and spaces,” Nagaishi said.

Education and literacy repeatedly emerge as barriers to missionary work across the continent, especially in Kumasi, where they feed into gossip culture. According to Nagaishi, the prevalence of rumor and hearsay in Ghana prevents many members from meeting with the missionaries or attending church.

He noted several factors that contribute to the pervasiveness of hearsay in Ghana: lack of access to church materials, the inability to read and speak English, anti-Mormon programs held in various Christian congregations and the historical importance of oral communication.

These practices helped fuel misconceptions, including a rumor that the church was a facade for satanic rituals, and in 1989, the government of Ghana even placed a “freeze” on church operations. It took a year for LDS leaders to convince state officials to lift the ban. 

Nagaishi said there are limited alternatives to accepting the advice of friends or family in an area of the world where English literacy is quite low and few materials are available in local dialects.

“There are so many theories about the church in Ghana,” said Isaac Nii Ayi Kwei Martey, one of the Africans Nagashi interviewed for his project. “And people are putting their minds to things that are not true but are false about the church because somebody told somebody … and somebody told them.”

Michael Welch, a returned missionary from Benin and Togo in West Africa, said family ties could get in the way of missionary work where he served.

“The opinion of parents can greatly influence choices, even for adults, because they have such strong family traditions,” Welch said.

On the contrary, he also noticed members were excited to share the gospel with their family and tended to bring others to church if the missionaries asked them.

The biggest issue, according to Welch, is member retention. He said too many missionaries are focused on baptisms and not integrating members well enough into their own wards. Leslie Hadfield, a BYU Africana studies professor, also expressed concern over retention on the continent.

“A lot of Africans are very spiritual, so missionaries get excited and baptize them quickly but then experience low retention,” Hadfield said, “Missionaries need to make sure people in Africa understand the church and want to join it for what it is.”

Most sub-Saharan Africans report that religion is very important in their lives, according to Pew Research. (Lauren Malner)

Christianity is the main religion in sub-Saharan Africa, comprising 63 percent of the population. Daniel Boakye, another African that Nagaishi interviewed, said the LDS church in Kumasi draws criticism because, unlike other Christian denominations, meetings do not feature cultural elements such as drumming, clapping or dancing.

“When they don’t see those things here, they are going to see the church as boring,” said African William Quaye.

According to Hadfield, music plays a big role in many African cultures outside of Ghana. She said some African cultures see pianos as bar instruments and find it strange that they are in every LDS meeting house.

On the other hand, many South Africans grew up with more subdued music in Methodist churches and do not see the piano as an issue. She believes it is important to understand how music plays into African oral culture.

“There are people who, for whatever reason, don’t have formal schooling and they learn about Christ and the gospel through song,” Hadfield said, “It’s a very important part of their worship because of the role it has in oral society.”

Africa is a highly diverse continent linguistically with an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 languages spoken. According to Hadfield, this can be a problem for missionary work when church materials are not available in a local language. Nagaishi’s research revealed the church in Ghana is often incorrectly understood as a white, English-speaking institution.

“We see members who have come who cannot read or cannot understand the English,” said Nagaishi interviewee Edmund Osei. “They’ve just left the church like that. Not that they disobey the commandments, but just because they felt themselves out of place.”

Socioeconomic factors permeate many of the issues facing missionary work in Africa. Lack of public transportation and populations being spread out in rural areas makes attending church difficult for many members on the continent.

Hadfield explained the economic situation in places such as Botswana can also clash with the idea of women staying home and being mothers.

“Many women have to work — whether it’s in urban areas where they have to earn a wage or in the fields,” Hadfield said, “There can be some tension or discomfort with the idea of mothers not working, depending on how people push it.”

Nagaishi said there is value in learning how members living in other parts of the world view themselves within an LDS framework and, conversely, how they view The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the context of their local culture. He believes doing so may add validity to the assertion made by Mormon sociologist M. Neff Smart that throughout the world there are a number of “right” ways to worship.

“I think too many people erroneously believe the idea of ‘one true church’ means their way is the only way,” Nagaishi said. “While there are clearly certain tenets of Mormon doctrine that cannot be altered, far more of what Mormons do and think about on a day-to-day basis is a product of their interpretation of Mormon tradition.”

In an article on titled “Emerging with Faith in Africa,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve said it is easy to love the people of Africa.

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Wendy, accompanied by Elder and Sister Holland, will visit Africa this month. 

Use this map based on information from the Mormon Newsroom to learn more about the church in Africa. Teal pins indicate a country where a temple exists or has been announced.

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