Sunday, January 22, 2012

Back in the Gambia

University of the Gambia sign

It feels good to be back in the Gambia, after an absence of 13 months. We are here with a mission: to help start a program in Christian Studies at the University of the Gambia. This is an entirely new program that is intended to prepare Gambians to teach Christian Studies at in Gambian elementary and secondary schools.

Islamic Studies has been taught since this university was established, but Christian Studies were never introduced, largely because Christians form a tiny minority in a country that is about 85% Muslim. Christians and followers of African Traditional Religion (ATR) make up the rest. The Christians are divided into two main groups: the mainline churches, meaning Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans, and the rest, a multiplicity of Pentecostal and other evangelical groups.

At the university, the student body is similarly divided. We hope that we can help to bring Christians students together so that they and the churches they represent can present a united front where the majority are Muslim and/or ATR. Some Muslims, and even some Christians, tend to be syncretistic; they will attend their mosque or church, but they will also sacrifice at a shrine.

Ceremonial entrance arch to Banjul

It is clear that an enormous challenge awaits us. This is compounded by the fact that the second semester has just started, but so far no applicants for this new program have been identified. We knew this already before we arrived, but we were not fully aware of the many hurdles that remain before this program can begin. Yet we are hopeful that it will be implemented very soon.

We brought scholarship money with us for prospective students, but so far none of the churches involved have identified students for this program. Each of the mainline churches is allowed to nominate two students for a scholarship. Four more scholarships are available for students from the remaining churches.

The scholarships are being made available by the Christian Volunteer Movement, a Toronto-based group that has asked us to help start the program at the university, as well as teach some courses at the Gambian Theological Institute GTI), which provides training for pastors and other church leaders. GTI is where we taught when we were here in the fall of 2010, although we also helped to lay the foundations for the program in Christian Studies.

The new program has been accepted by the university, but there are still many steps required before it can start. A committee of the Gambia Christian Council has proposed the criteria for acceptance into the program, but the three bishops have not yet approved them. The most important step for the students will be acceptance by the university. They also need endorsement by the head of their church.

No announcements have been made about this program in the mainline churches so far, thus there have been no applicants yet. There are some prospective students in some of the pentecostal and evangelical churches, but in the absence of the criteria, there was little that they could do.

We too are limited in our ability to move the process along much more quickly, except to pray that the program will start very soon so that we can get in a full semester of teaching. Please pray with us.

In Africa things may sometimes seem to move slowly, if at all, and yet suddenly they pick up speed, and the apparently impossible becomes a reality.

The Gambia is a very small country on the west coast of Africa, with a population of only 1 3/4 million people, that is surrounded on three sides by Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean on the fourth side. It is named after the Gambia River, which is its main feature.
We are living in Kololi, a suburb of Banjul, the capital. Kololi is the main tourist area. It is filled with resorts, restaurants, and bars, many of which are close to the beach. The CVM house where we are staying is about 10-15 minutes walk from the beach, thus we have the opportunity to walk along the beach every day. Even though today was a very windy and cold day, thus we walked for two hours. We have not gone swimming yet, but we hope to very soon.

We also want to visit many churches in the next few weeks, in particular those where some of our former students attend in order to publicize the GTI courses and the new program at the university.

The CVM house where we live, which recently received a new coat of paint (not shown)

The university is located in Brikama, about 40 minutes drive from our house. We have driven there several times a year ago, but now we plan to take public transportation as much as possbile in order to save money. Since the program has not yet started, many questions such as scheduling of classes are academic.

Fortunately, our courses have been approved, and we are ready to start teaching. In future blogs we hope to write more about our courses at both the university and GTI.