In Africa, four communities celebrate 50 years of progress

LILONGWE, Malawi — Fifty years ago, the first two members of the Bahá'í community here would meet in the bush at night. There they would say prayers together, discuss plans, enjoy biscuits, and then go their separate ways.

"This was done because in those days, blacks and whites could not meet openly," said Enayat Sohaili, describing the first Bahá'í gatherings in Malawi during commemorations of the community's 50th anniversary in August.

Mr. Sohaili, of Persian background, had arrived from India in 1953 and was considered white. The first Malawian Bahá'í, Dudley Smith Kumtendere, was black. And colonial policy at the time discouraged racially mixed gatherings.

But much has changed in the 50 years since the Bahá'í Faith was first established here. Since Malawi gained its independence in 1964, Bahá'ís have been able openly to express their commitment to the basic principles of their Faith, such as the oneness of humanity.

Today, there are more than 15,000 Bahá'ís in Malawi — along with other signs of a flourishing community life: a handsome national headquarters, 15 local centers, and the existence of some 101 local-level governing councils, known as Local Spiritual Assemblies.

There have been similar signs of progress for Bahá'í communities in the three other African countries where Bahá'ís also celebrated 50th anniversaries in August and September 2003.

In Cameroon, there are now some 40,000 Bahá'ís. In the Republic of the Congo, some 20 Local Spiritual Assemblies have been established. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the national Bahá'í governing body, the National Spiritual Assembly, was recently able to meet in the capital for the first time in five years, since the outbreak of civil war in 1998.

All of these accomplishments and more were commemorated in gala celebrations held in the capital cities of each of the four countries last summer.

It is no coincidence that four African Bahá'í communities celebrated their 50th anniversaries this summer. In 1953, Bahá'ís around the world embarked on a ten-year plan aimed at spreading the principles of their Faith to every land. During that period, Bahá'ís carried the Faith to some 131 new countries and territories, raising to 259 the places where the Faith was established — including many countries and territories in Africa.

In all this year, Bahá'í communities in some 17 countries will observe their golden anniversaries. In addition to the four mentioned here, they include: Cyprus, Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Namibia, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Togo, Vanuatu, and Zimbabwe.

In the African countries celebrating their jubilees in August and September, the commemorations were marked by visitors from around the world, significant media coverage, and ceremonies featuring song, dance, and prayer.

In Cameroon, more than 560 Bahá'í from all regions of the country attended the jubilee celebrations, which were held in Yaoundé on 22-23 August 2003. Guests also came from Australia, Botswana, Canada, Equatorial Guinea, France, Morocco, Rwanda, Uganda, United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

In addition to talks by visiting dignitaries, the celebrations included cultural performances by some 15 ensembles from a diversity of Cameroonian ethnic groups.

Speakers also extolled the contribution of the Cameroon Bahá'í community in the field of social and economic development. The Bahá'ís there have founded a national development agency, which has sponsored or coordinated various projects in recent years.

The Cameroon Bahá'í Agency for Social and Economic Development has. for example, worked with the United Nations Development Fund for Women on a program in the eastern province aimed at improving family life and the lives of women. It has also promoted family education projects in central and northwestern provinces, and assisted in programs to eradicate river blindness.

In Brazzaville, the Republic of the Congo, the Bahá'í community celebrated its 50th anniversary 29-31 August 2003. The festivities were marked by some 28 theatrical and musical performances, as well as the showing of a documentary film on the progress of the Faith in the Republic of the Congo.

The commemoration emphasized the importance of peace and unity — the Republic of the Congo has been torn by two civil wars in the past decade — and participants celebrated the freedom that the Bahá'í community has enjoyed since 1992, when a new democratically elected government gave it legal recognition.

The national Bahá'í center, the venue of the jubilee festivities, had been seized by the former Communist regime and occupied for 14 years. During that period, the Bahá'í community was forced to stop its organized activities. Bahá'ís supported one another through mutual encouragement and informal family contacts, but without their elected administrative bodies.

The Bahá'ís of the Republic of the Congo have since reinstated their administration, regained use of the national center, and energetically resumed their activities. And despite years of oppression, there are now more than 3,500 Bahá'ís and some 20 Local Spiritual Assemblies.

In Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the jubilee celebrations were held 6-7 September 2003. They began with the reading of a message from the National Spiritual Assembly.

"Today our country is entering a crucial phase of its future," said Nshisu Nsunga, chairman of the Assembly. "If the Bahá'í model that our national community is striving to build, can in some way contribute to the renewal and construction of the infrastructures of our country, we humbly submit it for [the nation's] consideration."

Attending the jubilee festivities was a senior Government representative, Jean Baptiste Nsa Lobete, Political and Diplomatic Counselor of the Governor of Kinshasa. He linked the jubilee to the rising climate of hope in the nation.

"Because the social development and the various economic endeavors of your Faith across the country constitute a point of pride for all its members and leaders," Mr. Lobete said, "all of these wonderful results justify the respect that the authorities of this country feel towards the Bahá'í community in particular when it comes to answer one or another of your concerns."

Some of the activities Mr. Lobete referred to include social and economic development field projects such as adult literacy initiatives in Kasai and Western and Eastern Kivu, community health projects in Southern Kivu, and community farming projects in Katanga and Southern Kivu.

Mr. Lobete particularly praised the Bahá'í contribution to national education. The Bahá'ís have established primary and secondary schools in Katanga and throughout the country, and centers for the promotion of the status of women and the education of children in Kinshasa and Katanga.

Currently, there are about 30,000 Bahá'ís in the DRC, and they have established some 541 local governing councils.

In Malawi, Bahá'ís came from all over the country — from Nsanje to Karonga, from Mchinji to Nkhotakota — for the golden anniversary, which was celebrated on 9 August 2003. They were joined by participants from as far away as Bermuda, Australia, and Mauritius, and from nearby African countries like South Africa, Zambia, and Lesotho.

The celebrations were in great contrast to the early days. Julius (Robert) Kasakula, one of the first Malawian Bahá'ís, recalled that indoor Bahá'í meetings had been just as secretive as the encounters in the bush.

"Because the blacks and whites could not meet openly, we used to have meetings at our house at night," Mr. Kasakula said.

Mr. Sohaili, who now lives with his wife, Iran, in Zimbabwe, recounted the time when he asked a restaurant owner to provide a table to allow visiting Americans John and Val Allen (Bahá'ís living in Swaziland), to meet with him and Mr. Kumtendere.

"When the owner was approached, he asked us to come after 2 p.m. when there would be few customers. He put us right at the back where we had our lunch."

Bahá'í World News Service reports