Friday, November 23, 2012

Rebecca S. Dali defends her PhD thesis: "An Ethical Analysis of the Plight of Women in Violent Conflict in Northern Nigeria (1980-2008)"

 Rebecca awaits the examination at the Unijos School of Post-Graduate Studies
November 5, 2012 was a pretty special day for Rebecca Samuel Dali. It was the day for which she had been preparing herself for some years, especially since 2003 when she entered the Master's program in Ethics and Philosophy at the federal University of Jos (Unijos), and took a graduate course with Wendy. At the time Rebecca had already started the research which would become the heart of her master's thesis on the effect of violent conflict on women. After the Jos crisis of 2001 she had followed up on those women, both Muslim and Christian, who, like herself, had been deeply affected by that event. She asked them many questions about injuries sustained, trauma and various kinds of loss suffered during the crisis. The result was a thesis which argued that, because of their pivotal role in the family and society, the effects of such crises were more devastating for women than for men.

New Buildings at Unijos

Although Rebecca wished to continue immediately with doctoral studies, a number of delays at the university in calling on an external examiner for the master's theses meant that she was not able to defend this thesis for some time, and enrollment in the doctoral program was delayed until 2009. But that did not stop her from beginning the work toward a doctoral thesis as an extension of earlier work, now focused on the northern communities of Kaduna (the crisis of 2000) and Maiduguri (the 'cartoon' crisis of 2006): "An Ethical Analysis of the Plight of Women in Violent Conflict in Northern Nigeria (1980-2008)"

This time the focus of the thesis was somewhat different. Rebecca used evidence obtained through interviews and discussions to argue that in general there is far too little understanding of the plight of women in violent conflict, and that, contrary to public perception, Muslim women were as seriously affected by these crises as were Christian women. Rebecca submitted the completed thesis to the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy in June. Normally the thesis is first approved by a committee of the department, before it is passed along to the Dean of Arts and Sciences. From that point it goes before the University Senate, and if this body approves, an external examiner is called upon to come and examine the student in an oral defense of the thesis, the Viva.

Wendy working with Rebecca to prepare her for the oral defense

Compared to many graduate students, Rebecca's doctoral defense was scheduled fairly soon after she completed and submitted the thesis to the department. Some students wait a year or more before an external examiner is identified, and is ready to come for the defense. Since Wendy, as supervisor, was not in Nigeria at the time, she depended heavily on a Nigerian colleague, Prof. Musa Gaiya, to take care of arrangements for inviting the external examiner and setting the date. Even so, we were caught somewhat by surprise when, on October 6, we received an urgent request from Prof. Gaiya to come for the November 5 defense, and arrive in Nigeria by November 1 if at all possible. A month is rather short for obtaining a Nigerian visa, but we did manage to get it by asking for expedited service. And we arrived in Jos in time, by Wednesday, October 31!

Rebecca with Prof. Gaiya and Wendy at the defense 
Already the next day, Thursday, Wendy started working with Rebecca, preparing her for the kinds of questions and challenges she might expect on the arguments and positions taken. Rebecca appeared confident enough in these discussions, so we were not overly concerned about her ability to hold her own in the oral defense. Of course, when Monday came, the day of the defense, Rebecca was rather nervous. And the external examiner didn’t help matters when he started his examination with a barrage of criticism. Even so, Wendy noticed that his critical remarks focused on rather insubstantial details, without  touching central positions defended in the thesis. This was a good sign. In the end the examiner affirmed Rebecca for presenting 'groundbreaking' work, and awarded the doctoral degree. She would have to provide only moderate corrections; although she was given six months to complete them, she will probably be able to finish them by Christmas time.

Rebecca and Wendy with external examiner

Rebecca signs the important documents

So, the time had really come to celebrate the event! We are so grateful that Rebecca has achieved her desire to finish the doctoral studies. Many years of educational effort have come to a climax with this examination. And Rebecca has worked hard toward this achievement. Although, with her husband, Sam, Rebecca now serves the Church of the Brethren (EYN in Nigeria) and The Theological College of Northern Nigeria (TCNN), she began life in a family characterized by a thorough mix of Nigeria's major religious groups: Muslim, Christian and traditional African religion. She remembers the rote memorization of Islamic prayers in early childhood. But that did not lead to her receiving a regular basic education, for her herbalist father was more interested in having her help in the preparation, brewing and distribution of his products. But one day her older sister rescued her from this work, and had her placed in a mission school. At the time Rebecca did not have the proper clothes for schooling, but that did not stop her. Without further help from her parents, she worked in the fields at harvest to earn the money needed for tuition and a uniform.

From this beginning Rebecca acquired a deep desire for learning, and when she finished primary school she hoped to go on to secondary schooling. Once more, her parents had other plans. In order to pay the debt of one of her brothers who had been imprisoned, her father had promised Rebecca in marriage as third wife to a much older man. To escape this fate Rebecca ran away from home, but the relatives from whom she sought help returned her to her father instead. Again her older sister came to her rescue, telling her to run to the house of the Captain in charge of the local EYN Girls' Brigade, of which she had been a member since she was five. At this point the Captain and the local pastor intervened on her behalf to talk to her father, and introduce her to the Women Teachers' College Numa, a girls' boarding school. And once again Rebecca lacked the necessary means, but she was able to pay for her own room and board, uniform, books and tuition by helping a number of teachers with their housework. Rebecca did well at the school (1975-80), and upon graduation was able to teach in area schools for a number of years, until she married Sam, who was working in a mission dispensary at the time. The wedding was not a straightforward event either, for an older brother wanted Rebecca to marry a rich man, who could help solve the family's financial difficulties. Once again, Rebecca escaped to a relative who promised to help, but in fact did nothing. But Rebecca did get to marry the man of her choice, although the wedding had to proceed without the usual help from family members, and the young couple had little to claim as their own at the time; but the Lord has blessed their marriage with six children.

In 1983 the Nigerian Church of the Brethren (EYN) sponsored both Sam and Rebecca for theological training at TCNN, and from 1983-87 Rebecca was enrolled in the Christian Ministry program there. Upon completion she taught for six years (1987-93) at EYN's Kulp Bible College. But this would not be the final goal of her studies, for in 1993 the Basel Mission of Switzerland sponsored her for further studies, first for her Bachelor's degree (1993-96) and following that, to work towards a Master's degree (1997-98) at TCNN. Since that time Rebecca has been teaching at TCNN on behalf of the Church of the Brethren. She did take a leave of absence for a number of years to complete her doctorate, and transferred to live in the north east of Nigeria, also because last year her husband became Executive President of the Nigerian Church of the Brethren, which meant relocating to Mubi, not far from Maiduguri. Aside from the NGO which she has established to help women victims of ethno-religious violence, Rebecca is teaching and preaching in that part of Nigeria for the time being. She hopes to go back to teaching at TCNN Bukuru from January through July 2013, before returning to Kwarhi, near the Mubi EYN Headquarters, until her husband Sam finishes this term of service to the church.

Time for celebration: Rebecca and Sam with Adrian and Wendy
Aside from her studies and teaching activities over the last years, Rebecca has published a number of books: Women in Ministry with Jesus: Where are They? Reflections on Women's Activities in the Church Today (2000); The Secret of Successful Living in the Christian Home (2001); Wealth Creation and Savings: Some Biblical Principles. Not long ago she managed to publish her master's thesis on women in the Jos 2001 crisis, and we anticipate that the doctoral work will soon join this list of publications.

Over the years we have asked many of you to pray for Rebecca as she faced one obstacle after the other, to pray for Wendy's supervision of her work, and for the successful completion of her studies at this level. This is the appropriate time to thank you for your faithful support, which has made it possible for us to celebrate this event. In her thesis Rebecca acknowledged the help of many people who supported her along the way, and special thanks must go  to our department's Professor Umar Danfulani (currently Dean of Arts and Science), who always supported Rebecca, and initially encouraged her to work with Wendy. Also important for Rebecca's work was church historian Prof. Musa Gaiya, who looked after all the bureaucratic details of Rebecca's obligations to the Post-Graduate School of Unijos, particularly when Wendy was already back in Canada, and was continuing her supervision by email.

Rebecca working with Coleen Starwalt

Once Rebecca began collecting data based on her interviews, the intervention and help of Dr. Coleen Starwalt of TCNN was crucial for the analysis of the statistics on which her results are based. And Rebecca's work owes much to the timely help of Mrs. Crozier and others at TCNN who helped her to edit her thesis for English. But finally Rebecca's acknowledgements begin with what has been most important throughout these years: “My appreciation goes to God Almighty who bestows His favour upon me in His ministry. 'My God is God.' He opens doors for me, and has sustained and enabled me to this point. Glory, honour and majesty belong to God.”

November newsletter

November 7, 2012

 "May he give you the desire of your heart, and make all your plans succeed.” Psalm 20:4.

Dear  Friends,

1/ This was our prayer for 
doctoral student Rebecca Dali, and we are happy to report that our Lord has graciously answered.  This past Monday, Nov. 5, Rebecca successfully defended her thesis on "The Plight of Women in Violent Conflict in Northern Nigeria (1980-2008)".  The external examiner praised her for groundbreaking work on the topic. So we also want to thank all of you who have supported us over the years that Wendy supervised Rebecca's work. Through your support you helped to make it possible for Rebecca's work to come to a successful conclusion, and equip her to better serve both the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, and the Theological College of Northern Nigerian, in Bukuru (close to Jos), where she teaches.

2/ Please give thanks with us, also, that we were able to travel at this time, and arrive safely in Jos, about a week ago. Once we heard of plans for 
Rebecca's oral examination on Nov.5, there were many details needing attention, especially with respect to travel arrangements and visas. We are especially grateful that we decided to travel via France; had we followed initial plans to travel to Lagos via New York, we would probably have been prevented by hurricane "Sandy", and not arrived on time for the defense! We have been warmly welcomed once again by former colleagues, and are now able to work with remaining doctoral students, and accomplish some editorial projects. Please pray for our return journey next week Wednesday, Nov.14. After a few days with our daughter Pauline and her family near Boston, we hope to be back in Toronto by Nov.19.

3/ At this time we would also ask ongoing prayer for Harro van Brummelen, executive director of CSI. We pray that, 
if it is the Lord's will, Harro's life may still be spared for his family and loved ones. We are grateful that chemo treatment and medications have helped to ease the pain. But these treatments do cause extreme fatigue, and we would ask your prayers for sufficient stamina for each day. Please uphold  Harro and his family before the Lord, for his never-failing care and love.


October newsletter

October 4, 2012

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Philippians 4.5.

Dear  Friends,

1/ This is a season of thanksgiving, and we begin with a note of thanks for your prayers for the situation in the Gambia. We are grateful for good discussions last weekend between Stan Wallace of IICS in Kansas City and the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Gambia. The door is open on the part of university administrators, and we pray for constructive involvement of North American academics at that university. The role of the Gambia Christian Council for the Program in Christian Studies still needs clarification, however, and we ask your ongoing prayers for that process.

2/ Your prayers for doctoral student Rebecca Dali are also being answered. Last year Rebecca’s husband Sam became Executive Secretary of the Church of the Brethren, and they now live in Mubi, in the north- eastern section of Nigeria, not far from Maiduguri, which is also the home base of Boko Haram. Troubles of the past months have resulted in malevolent destruction of strategic communications towers in that area, making phone and internet communications very difficult. But we did have a clear phone conversation this week, when Rebecca reported that approval of her dissertation for defense is moving along well. She also told of 27 students killed in a local university dormitory; 3 students were killed only a few days earlier. Whatever the specific cause, please pray for the families of these victims. Pray for peace and resolution of conflict in this region, and pray for the Lord’s special protection for Sam and Rebecca, since their work in the area requires considerable traveling.

3/ We want to ask your special prayers for Harro van Brummelen, who has so ably served as executive director of CSI for the past few years. Aside from his position at Trinity Western University (Langley BC), Harro is well known in the wider Christian community, in Canada and beyond, for his work in Christian education. A few weeks ago Harro was surprised to learn that his severe back pain was caused by spinal cancer, and by that time it had already spread to the point where it is difficult to control. Please uphold  Harro and his family in your prayers, that they may know the Lord’s never-failing care and love in this difficult situation. Pray for relief from the pain, and wisdom for doctors as they make decisions regarding optimum care.

September newsletter

September 9, 2012

"Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 146.5-6

Dear  Friends,

Labour Day has come and gone, and a new academic year is starting. But we are still in Toronto. You have not heard much from us these past  months, and there is a simple reason for that. We did not really know what was happening in the relationship between the University of the Gambia and the bishops of the Gambia Christian Council as it affects students wishing to enrol in the new program in Christian Studies at the university. To the best of our knowledge there has been one meeting during the summer, but we do not know the outcome, particularly whether a Memorandum of Understanding has been agreed on. This was to regulate the respective responsibilities and relations between the two parties.

As we understand the matter, there is some difference of understanding regarding the nature of the Christian Studies program. While the bishops appear to be looking for something like a divinity school program which can serve ordinands for ministry in the major Christian denominations, the intentions of the university are for a more open program to serve a wide variety of both Christian and non-Christian students. But we must also tell you that this is only our deduction as we reflect on the tensions experienced during the months we spent in the Gambia earlier this year.

This is the main reason why we are sending you a prayer note at this time!

1/ So we ask your prayers once more for the Program in Christian Studies. Please give thanks with us that two introductory courses on Christianity are being taught by a Gambian Catholic lecturer. And these courses are attracting a wide range of interested students. Do pray that a Memorandum of Understanding with the Gambia Christian Council can be worked out in the near future, so that the rest of the program can be implemented. Many students, including those whom we got to know via our teaching in Gambia Theological Institute courses, are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to enrol. Pray with us that their hopes may be realized.

2/ Please give thanks with us for Rebecca Samuel Dali, a doctoral student whose work was supervised by Wendy. She recently completed her thesis on the special challenges faced by women in violent conflict. Her research is groundbreaking for the Nigerian situation, and promises to be a major resource for organizations providing assistance in conflict situations. When her thesis is accepted by the university senate an external examiner will be appointed; she hopes to defend the work later this year. We hope to travel to Nigeria for that occasion, also to meet with some of our other students to advise them on their research. Please pray with us for Rebecca as she prepares for the defense; pray that her work will be well received, that she may be able to overcome any remaining hurdles for the defense.

3/ We thank you for your ongoing prayers for Nigeria, and specifically for Jos. Many missionary colleagues have been encouraged to leave during the past months because the situation appeared so precarious. Please pray for them and their families as they resettle in North America or in other mission contexts. Give thanks with us that the situation in Jos has remained relatively peaceful the past few weeks. We also know that tensions are not far below the surface. So we ask continued prayers for our friends and colleagues, especially at the University of Jos, that they may be able to finish the present semester with a degree of normalcy. Pray with us for stability and peace; pray that government officials may find a solution which addresses  the underlying causes of tension and conflict.

We are grateful for your  prayers! We know that our Lord hears and answers us when we bring our needs to him.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Our GTI students in ministry

In June the Gambia Theological Institute (GTI) hopes to hold its first graduation ceremony for the students who have participated in these courses from the first (about three years ago) and successfully completed ten courses. So this time we want to feature some of these students in the context of their regular activities. 

Since February we have taken time to follow up with them at their places of work and ministry. We had this opportunity because the Christian Studies program at the University of the Gambia has not yet fully started. We were in the Gambia first in 2010, when we each taught two GTI courses. This year we each taught one.

Adrian and Wendy meeting the new crop of GTI students

We begin with the brothers Henry and Bola, who have participated in the program from the very beginning. Both are lawyers, and as such they have been very helpful to the Christian Volunteer Movement as it has worked to be registered as a charitable organization in the Gambia. Henry and Bola come from an old established family in the Gambia, and belong to the Methodist Church, where both are active as lay preachers. This is one of the reasons why they have appreciated and benefited from the variety of courses on the Bible and Christian theology in the GTI program.

Bola (in forefront) at our GTI courses 

While both brothers practice law, Henry is also our colleague at the University of the Gambia, lecturing in the Law Faculty. In fact, at the recent graduation ceremonies the Law faculty was singled out for its outstanding performance in an international forum for debate on legal issues, and Henry himself has been invited to represent the Gambia on many occasions.

Adrian and Wendy with Dr. Henry at Law Faculty 

Dr. Henry with Wendy at UTG graduation ceremonies

We have enjoyed having Jude in our classes. Jude was always faithful in attending classes and did well in all the courses he took with us. Even for the most difficult questions we could count on Jude to give some constructive answer. His primary involvement is with a sports evangelism group, but he is also involved with prayer ministry as a means of establishing a group of believers.

Although Jude comes from Nigeria, and has spent some time in Canada, he has already worked in the Gambia for many years, and has a commitment to spreading the gospel here. In March Jude invited us to attend an evening session for evangelistic outreach in the center of Serrekunda. Most of the sessions were held at a hall owned by the Methodist church. We made the mistake of coming at the hour this program was supposed to start: 5.30pm. Even at 6.30 the only ones in the building were trying to get the musical instruments and sound system working. But by 7.30 -- at about the time we wanted to leave (so that we would not have to drive home in the dark) -- the hall was filling nicely.

Jude and Dorcas (seated)

Jude surprised us when we came back this past January by bringing his wife Dorcas. In the time that we had been away from the Gambia (since 2010), Jude had gotten married. Dorcas, who is also from Nigeria, attended only some of the GTI sessions, but at the outreach event we recognized that she is fully involved in ministry with Jude.

Mary with David Reed and Adrian 

Mary at graduation

Mary has attended all our courses. At the February graduation ceremonies at the university, she received a diploma in Early Childhood Education, a real asset for her work with the New Life Children`s Centre, where she teaches small children the stories of the Bible. A few weeks ago we were privileged to attend the Sunday worship service held for these children, many of whom come from non-Christian homes and have no other place of worship. Coming from the Jola tribe in the Gambia, Mary has learned a number of languages, and so when the worship leaders use English she translates for the children whose primary language is Wolof.

Mary translating at children`s service

Children`s worship center sign

Mary is also involved in various outreach programs. From time to time she works as a translator for an evangelism group which goes into Senegal and has interacted with local religious teachers there. On Saturdays Mary also teaches at the Bible Training Centre (BTC). She told us she owed her own primary understanding of the Bible to the courses at this school, and is happy to be able to give back that training as she helps to disciple new believers.

Mary at BTC gate

Mary teaching

Finally, we want to introduce pastor Stephen, who is also involved at the Bible Training Centre, teaching courses in the New Testament. Stephen especially appreciated the course Wendy taught on the New Testament during our previous visit to the Gambia, because he wrote a short textbook on the New Testament for his students and asked Wendy to help him edit it.

Stephen is the pastor of Joy Baptist Church in the center of Serrekunda. We visited his church in April, when Stephen asked Wendy to preach on the Sunday after Easter. She was happy to share with these people the significance of the resurrection. It was the first time we have worshiped with a `Pentecostal Baptist` congregation. And we discovered that 'Joy' is certainly an appropriate name for the church. As the congregation, both men and women, came forward to pray, sing and dance, we recognized the joy with which these people worshiped.

Wendy preaching

Stephen's congregation

Stephen`s family

Friday, April 13, 2012

Life in the Gambia

We live at the far left of the map, west of Serrekunde

The Gambia is a tiny country of less than two million people located on the West coast of Africa; it stretches along the Gambia river and is surrounded on three sides by Senegal. It is so small that it is hard to find on some maps. Although you may know quite a bit about our work here from previous posts, we also want to describe some aspects of daily life here.

We were rather surprised, when we arrived in January, to discover how "cold" it gets in the Gambia! Cool breezes from the ocean and harmattan, the dust-laden wind thats blows down from the Sahara, together have given us surprisingly cool days and nights ever since we got back.

We notice it especially in the evenings. During the day it can get quite hot, and even more when you are some distance inland, as we discover whenever we go to the university in Brikama. Thus, there are advantages to living where we do in Kololi, right near the ocean, although it is about 30 kilometers from the main campus of the university.

It can be cool even on the beach

In Nigeria it could also be cold in January and February, since we lived in Jos, on a plateau. We were not fully prepared for the cold, because the last time we were in the Gambia, October-December 2010, we found October so hot that we would sleep even without sheets, and the fans going full blast (when there was power, that is). Thankfully, it got a bit cooler in November that year, but we did not need any sweaters for those three months. During the past few weeks, however, we sometimes wondered whether we should have taken blankets and warmer sweaters along.

We are located about 10-15 minutes walk from the beach, which stretches as far as the eye can The see. These are not the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen, since they have been badly eroded by storms. A Dutch dredging company has tried to reconstruct the most severely damaged parts of the beach, but recent high tides have undone much of the work, leaving only piles of sand bags behind.

Since this photo was taken there has been further erosion

The most severely damaged part of the beach fronts two of the more popular local hotels. Kololi is the center of the tourist area of the Gambia. Numerous hotels and resorts have frontage on the beach, but they can also be found along the coastal road and some side roads leading to the beach.

The more popular hotels are quite pricey, but there are also apartments for less well-heeled tourists. And you can also find an endless array of restaurants, serving both Gambian and international cuisine at reasonable prices, at least by international standards. We can have a chicken dinner for two, drinks included for about ten dollars in total. Other dishes are slightly more expensive.

Our house is on a dusty street on the edge of the tourist area. It is actually part of a compound of two big houses that is rented by the Christian Volunteer Movement (CVM) to house the teams of surgeons, dentists, agricultural specialists, or pharmacists who come here every year for several weeks of ministry.These houses can sleep about thirty people, mostly on bunk beds.

During this period of our stay in the Gambia (January-May) we have had one house entirely to ourselves. We occupy a large bedroom, where we also do our work. The house has two more bedrooms upstairs, but none are in use at present, since no team is here at the moment. Some teams are expected in June, but we will have left by then.

Downstairs there is a huge living room with a large table that can seat about twenty students. This area is used as a classroom for the GTI courses. There is also a kitchen, a small dining area where we eat, and an office, where CVM has a printer. The other house is the mirror image of our ours in design, but without a classroom.

This year, because our stay has overlapped largely with the tourist season, we have found that provision of electricity has been better than in 2010, but it is still intermittent, and we never know when it will go off, and for how long. The tourist season is nearly over, and so we expect the power to become worse, but even so, it is certainly not worse than what we experienced in Nigeria, where we counted hours of available power, not the hours when it was gone. 
A cup of coffee on the beach

When we stayed here in 2010, we had someone cook for us during the week, but we went out to eat on Saturday and Sunday. Since we are here for four months this time, we are happy that we can cook for ourselves, although we still go out occasionally. And can buy the basics within easy walking distance. The nearest grocery store is only 300 meters away. It is nowhere the size of the average grocery store in North America, but is quite well supplied for everyday needs. Thus we have survived quite well so far.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are also available at stands along the main road. But they are quite expensive, relatively speaking. There is a major market about five kilometers from here, but we rarely go there. And  there are numerous outlets on any given street where one can buy fresh bread every morning. Gambia is noted for its tapalapas, which look like small baguettes, but are chewier.

Although we have the use of CVM`s vehicle, a Land Rover, we use public transportation as much as possible. The rates are fixed per distance and are not expensive. When Wendy travels to Brikama for her classes she uses a combination of taxi`s and mini-vans, and the total cost of traveling 30 kilometers is less than a dollar!

Walking barefoot along the beach

We enjoy walking. Almost every day we go for long walks along the ocean, especially when the tide is low and the sand is firm. The only drawback is that we are regularly approached by young Gambian men who want to sell us jewelry, get us to try their juice, or simply to engage us in conversation. Some who market themselves as tourist guides are called "bumsters," but they dislike the term.

They seem friendly, but they can be very aggressive. They latch on to tourists, and offer to accompany them wherever they want, for a fee, of course. And they refuse to take "no" for an answer. We have found it best to ignore them. Yet they are so persistent that at times one almost has to be rude to be rid of them, and walk along. But they can act highly offended and show rudeness in return.

Some of the young men clearly aim at forming a relationship with a female tourist, with the hope of going to Europe and the UK, which is where the majority of the tourists are from. Often one can see these "bumsters" walking had in hand with a "toubab," as foreigners are known here. They are quite noticeable, as no African would walk hand in hand, not even with their spouse. Recently, we saw a woman, who was at least 75, walking with a Gambian young enough to be her grandson. Sad to say, the women are complicit in this; they are often lonely and come here for companionship and sex.

This is sad. It is no more acceptable, of course, when older men find young Gambian women as companions on the beach. It the sordid side of tourism, which has become the most important part of the Gambian economy, since there is no industry to speak of.

Some Gambians keep cattle near the beach

Many Gambians survive by farming; even if they live in the city, they will have a plot of land in their village where they go when the rains come. But the rainy season has been reduced in the last few years; while it used to last from May to October, much as in Nigeria, more recently the rains have not come until July. So many people are hungry here.

Begging is common throughout Africa In the past most beggars here were people with disabilities, but in the last few weeks we see more, especially women with small children. We typically do not respond by giving money on the streets, primarily to avoid attracting attention to ourselves as having deep pockets. But we also feel that there are better ways to help Gambians survive. It is our hope that the help we give through education will, in the long run, give our Gambian friends a means of survival that protects their dignity. Yet our hearts are torn by the suffering we see everyday.

There is much more to tell about living in the Gambia. Words, and even images, cannot convey the sounds and smells of life here. There is much that makes us sad, but we are also very thankful that God has brought us to this country to help train pastors and other church leaders and to teach at the university. This is the reason why we are here.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Gambia Theological Institute 2012

CVM House where we live and teach the GTI courses

As soon as we realized that the courses we planned to teach at the University of the Gambia would not be given this semester, because the program was not to ready to start, we began to focus on courses which we knew would be held, those we planned to teach on behalf of the Gambia Theological Institute: Adrian on Ecumenism, and Wendy on the Apostolic Fathers.

Adrian is looking at the modern ecumenical movement by studying some its major statements, beginning with the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh (1910). His hope is that through better understanding of other churches, students might be inspired to examine their own views of other parts of the body of Christ. And learning how the ecumenical movement has inspired Christians in getting along and cooperating might also help them work for deeper unity among Christians in the Gambia.

Wendy teaching her course

Wendy's course looks at a number of representative documents from early Christian leaders, Bishop Clement of Rome, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or The Shepherd of Hermas to discover how they dealt with challenges of poverty and riches, false teachers, or persecution, as important teachings still valuable for twenty-first century Christians.

Knowing the importance of adequate publicity, we began to work on a flyer to advertise the courses, and also contacted the students we had taught in 2010. The last GTI course, taught by Stephen Ney on the Psalms, was held last October/November, so the students had had a considerable break. Tina, the registrar hired by the Christian Volunteer Movement that sponsors these courses, arranged placing the ad in the local newspapers, and we ourselves sent out notes by phone, email and text messaging.

Arranging the two classes

Even so the courses got off to a bit of a rocky start. Wendy's class on that first Friday (Feb. 10), had seven students, and we certainly expected more for Adrian's class that Saturday. Instead, only three students showed up, and we began to wonder whether we had missed our target in the publicity. However, after further phone calls and emailing, by the next weekend we had more adequate numbers to make the course worthwhile.

We realized that the group of students who have been taking these courses from the beginning have taken at least ten courses, and thus have fulfilled the requirement for a diploma. They are now waiting to hear of their final marks, to discover whether they are eligible for a diploma. The challenge for these GTI courses will be to find another batch of students to take their place. Indeed, our students have assured us that there are still many who can benefit from these courses. Even with a somewhat disappointing start, students are enjoying the courses, participating in readings and discussion. They realize that here in the Gambia there are still few opportunities for them, as teachers or pastors, to receive an education for Christian ministry.

Our GTI students underlined the urgency of starting the university program in Christian Studies in September since some of them would like to enroll in that program. They too want to be able to get a theological degree in the Gambia.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

An Important Graduation

Little did we expect, when we arrived last month in the Gambia, that we would participate in a graduation ceremony at the University of the Gambia (UTG). Yet we were invited to attend the seventh graduation of UTG and its affiliated college, held on February 16.

UTG was founded in 1999, and started with a medical school and a law faculty in Banjul. Later a school of business administration was added. Courses in Arts and Sciences became possible when the campus in Brikama was opened, about forty km from Banjul. About two years ago a new permanent campus was started in Faraba Banta, about ten km beyond Brikama, away from the capital.

Part of the new campus, with another building visible on the left

This campus is not yet in use, even though its brand new classrooms are stocked with some of the latest audio-visual and computer equipment. A fiber optic cable will provide internet access to the students, a considerable improvement on current wireless access, which is sporadic at best. But this is where the graduation ceremony was to be held, this year for the very first time, and we wanted to join the celebrations, in part to satisfy our curiosity, and in part because one of our former students in the Gambia Theological Institute program was graduating from a program in early childhood education.

Graduates putting on the robes outside; the faculty had a room for this

We were given instructions to be at the Brikama campus at 10 am, and from there we would be brought by bus to the new campus. So we left our home at 9 am, using public transportation to get to Brikama. From there we joined some of the faculty, found one of the numerous buses to be used, and arrived at the new campus by 11 am.

There we waited with the rest of the faculty, most of whom dressed in robes provided by the university. We did not have the proper academic robes or hoods with us; indeed, had we asked on time, UTG would have provided us with robes. Even so, we found our colleagues were very tolerant of our somewhat unusual garb, as we had to make do with our African clothes. However, these ultimately proved much more comfortable as the day progressed, with the hot sun beating down overhead.

Some of the graduates, with Master's students in the front rows

The graduation ceremony was held in a huge tent set up for this purpose, or rather, a series of tents; in fact these were enclosed (probably for security purposes), and were supposed to be air-conditioned, but as they were filled with a few thousand people, it became almost unbearably hot. The mainly polyester academic robes were pretty uncomfortable for our colleagues!

The program was to start at 12 noon, and the students (some 2,000) were the first group to be ushered into the tent by bagpipers; after them came the faculty, ushered in the same way. By then it was 1 pm. The audience of guests and parents was already seated. On large screens we watched the arrival of the presidential party at about 2 pm; the president of the Gambia, who is also the Chancellor of UTG (and thus its chief executive), was shown waving from an open vehicle. However, that did not mean that the ceremony could actually begin yet. In fact, the ceremony did not begin officially until 3 pm, three hours after the scheduled beginning. This is Africa, and people here are used to such long waiting. But even so, very few could have been prepared for how long the ceremony turned out to be.

Some of the faculty, Wendy is visible in the fourth row

Protocol is important in Africa, and each speaker duly mentioned all the invited guests, concluding with the remark, “and all other protocol having been observed,” to cover any possible omissions. That procedure was observed each time, and invariably followed by a long speech. The two longest were by the Vice-chancellor and the Chancellor, each of them speaking for more than an hour.

The speech of the former was very informative, and was filled with useful facts, especially for us who are new to this university. The speech of the president, whose full title is “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. A.J.J. Jammeh,” was spiced with humor, much of which (unfortunately) eluded us.

President Jammeh, as Chancellor of the university, awarding a diploma, as witnessed on a screen

The actual awarding of degrees did not begin until after 6 pm. Throughout, the audience was very patient; attendants did hand out packets of biscuits, water and soft drinks, but that can hardly have made up for foregoing both lunch and supper. The graduates numbered almost two thousand, mainly because the ceremony had been cancelled last year. We stayed long enough to watch the awarding of Master's degrees, but decided to leave by 7 pm so that we would be able to get home in Kololi by a reasonable time, if not before dark (even by taxi it took more than an hour to get home). In fact, it is hard to find public transport later in the evenings. And we discovered the next day that the ceremony had not concluded until after midnight! Since Wendy had a class with the Gambia Theological Institute scheduled for the next afternoon, it was good we got home when we did. One of our GTI students received a certificate in early childhood education.

Mary Jabbang, a GTI student, is in the middle

We are grateful that we had this opportunity to see the university in action, and that on the significant occasion of awarding degrees. Even though we were not properly garbed, we sensed that we were fully accepted by our colleagues in the faculty. Many of them realized that we were the “Canadian couple” who would be joining them in September to begin the new program in Christian Studies. So, who knows, we may be able to join them next year for the eighth graduation ceremony of UTG – and in proper robes!

Graduates being ushered to the large hall

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Consecration of a Bishop

The Right Reverend Hannah Faal-Heim

It is not every day that a bishop is consecrated, and certainly not in the Gambia. This past Sunday, February 5, we had the rare privilege of witnessing the consecration of Hannah Caroline Faal-Heim as The Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church in the Gambia.

The Right Reverend Hannah Faal-Heim, to give her proper title, is only the second Gambian to become a bishop in the Gambia, and she is the first woman bishop in West Africa.

She was baptized and confirmed in the very same church building where she was also consecrated. After beginning her career in teaching in the Gambia, she moved to Great Britain where she became a nurse and a midwife. Later she taught midwifery in London. During one of her return visits to the Gambia she became convinced of her call to the ministry. After some thirteen years experience in lay ministry, and further training in theology, she finished her preparatory work with an MA in pastoral theology, while continuing to minister in various parishes in the UK.

Her colleagues in the Methodist church of the Gambia elected her formally as their new bishop only two days before her consecration. Since we had heard of this event we made it our priority to be present at this service, never mind how long it would take - more than four hours, in fact - with more than a thousand people in attendance.

The newly consecrated bishop

The outgoing bishop, The Right Reverend Professor Peter Stephens, officiated at the service. He was accompanied by The Reverend the Lord Griffiths (he is a member of the House of Lords in England), who was Hannah's pastor in the UK, and preached an inspiring sermon for the occasion. In attendance were several other Methodist bishops from the Congo and Ghana, as well as the Methodist prelate of Nigeria. The Anglican Bishop of the Gambia also participated.

Aside from the joy of being able to attend and participate in such a service, we found the singing impressive, for the liturgy included many beautiful and stirring hymns, obviously well-loved by the congregation, whose voices filled the church to the rafters. Where we were sitting, on one of the balconies, it felt as if we were literally being uplifted by the music! A combined choir from several Methodist churches added to the beauty of music offered, particularly when they concluded the service by singing the Hallelujah Chorus; but this was by not just an offering of the choirs only, for large sections of the congregation joined in to sing with them.

When we left the church after the service we noticed that a large video screen had been set up for the many who could not fit into the church and were sitting outside under an awning. But everyone was invited to the reception held in the school yard next to the church, where food was served to all those who attended.

The new bishop and her husband flanked by her predecessors

We were happy to attend this celebration not only because we witnessed the very joyful ceremony of the consecration of Reverend Hannah as the first woman bishop in West Africa. As the Bishop of the Methodist Church, Hannah takes over from Bishop Stephens the position of chairing the Gambia Christian Council, the body which has been appointed by the Gambian government to oversee the Christian Studies program at the University of the Gambia. During the dinner we briefly spoke with her and her husband (the Reverend Dr. Kurt Heim, a noted Old Testament scholar in the UK), and arranged to meet with them in the near future. We certainly look forward to working together with her, to bring the new program in Christian Studies at the university closer to reality.

The new bishop blessing the people      

Monday, February 6, 2012

Churches, Students, and Books

Through our IICS/CSI colleague Steven Ney, we were introduced to staff of GAMFES (the Gambian Fellowship of Evangelical Students in the Gambia, a branch of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students/IFES) within a week of our arrival at the end of January. Steve had organized a dinner at CVM House (where we live), to welcome staff of the IFES who had just arrived from a visit to Sierra Leone, and introduce them to other African staff. Since September Steve has been teaching English full-time at UTG, as one of many non-Gambian lecturers at the university, and he quickly got involved in the ministry of GAMFES.

Some of the staff of GAMFES, together with Steven Ney (in center, holding Agnes), some visitors from Canada, and the two of us

GAMFES is active at the university, and also at many small colleges scattered around this country. Its goal is to have a vibrant biblical student ministry in every tertiary educational institution. In the Gambia this ministry was started by the branch in Sierra Leone. Local operations are presently headed by Noble Robert, the first Gambian General Secretary of GAMFES, who took over leadership from Rev. Steven Musa Kormaye.

We were especially happy to meet Noble Robert and his team, and shared our concerns about academic life in the Gambia, because our aim in coming this time is to help set up a program in Christian Studies at the University of the Gambia (UTG) – although, as in 2010, we also hope to teach one course each at the Gambian Theological Institute (GTI), which provides training for pastors and other church leaders. A program of Christian studies at the university level, clearly, needs not only the lecturers to teach the relevant courses. What is also very important is to be able to pass on high quality literature.

Office of GAMFES, which owns a large property with several buildings

The availability of good literature is a big challenge here in the Gambia. Unlike the situation in most Canadian cities, or even in Nigeria, where Christian books are readily available, we have found hardly one bookstore which sells good Christian literature, although Bibles can be purchased. Even Sunday school materials are not always of the highest quality. Of course, we realize that African culture does not emphasize reading, and oral transmission is still the norm; moreover, nearly all books are far too expensive for ordinary people. But when we are thinking of university level teaching, that cannot be accepted as an excuse.

And pastors too, need to have some resources to pass along to their congregation. Even though the Gambia is more than 85% Muslim, there are quite a few Christians. The largest churches are the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and the Methodist Church, each with their own bishop in this small country of about 1 ¾ million people. There are also many evangelical churches, although these are often small, their buildings tucked away into back alleys, unlike the cathedrals of the large mainline churches that may not dominate the main streets, but are still visible signs of a Christian presence.

Noble Robert and Adrian in front of gate at GAMFES -- a new sign is coming shortly

This past week we took the opportunity to continue the conversation on these matters with Noble Robert, and were gratified to know that he shared our concerns fully. Even more, he told us of their plan to open up both a resource centre/library that will be accessible for pastors and students, and a bookstore where Christian literature would be sold.

GAMFES has the necessary space for a library and bookstore, because it owns a compound which is centrally located, with a number of buildings that are already used as office space and for leadership training. As well, in the last few years GAMFES has received hundreds of books, that can form the basis of the library. More books may be available from other sources.

GAMFES wants to build a library and bookstore, but as you see much work still needs to be done

During our visit and teaching in the Gambia in 2010 we had already discussed with our GTI students various strategies for getting access to good Christian literature, such as that published by Africa Christian Textbooks (ACTS), a Christian publishing company started by our long-time colleague in Nigeria, Danny McCain. The head-quarters of ACTS is located near Jos, Nigeria. ACTS now has book-stores scattered across Nigeria, and has expanded to Kenya; it hopes to expand to other African countries. Since our discussions with Noble Robert, we pray that GAMFES may become a partner for ACTS in the Gambia. Its location, staff, and vision for Christian service to the intellectual/reading community would make them a good partner for ACTS. Bringing books from Nigeria should not pose a great problem, since many Nigerians work here in business or as pastors; and they do travel back and forth on an ongoing basis, so we hope they can be persuaded to bring books on their return to the Gambia.

We are thankful that God has brought us here, especially as we find these doors which are opening for us. Aside from a supportive role in the book ministry, Adrian will also be teaching a course in Christian theology for the staff of GAMFES on Wednesday evenings. Thus even before more the official parts of our duties commence at the university or with GTI, we are happy to be involved in ministry through GAMFES.