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.