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.

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