By Rev. Fr. Anthony Mbanefo, MSP
For eight years I have been working in the Gambia, a small West African country with more than ninety percent of the population as Muslims and less than five percent as Christians. The Missionaries of St. Paul have been in this country for eleven years while Christian missionary enterprise has flourished in it for a century and half. If I were to give a short summary of our apostolate, I would say that it has so far been a story of success. Praise the Lord! Amen. Success! Yes success indeed.
I hope every Nigerian Catholic will be quite happy and delighted to hear this. The question that each person will be eager to ask is "How many thousands or hundreds of converts have you made from Islam to Christianity in the course of these years?" Well, my answer to this question is not only surprising but disappointing; but at any rate I have to say the truth. The answer is NONE! Hearing this answer, many are going to wonder what on earth we have been wasting our time doing there, while the rest will wonder if I was out of mind when I describe the mission as having been a successful one.
The first thing that makes one to like the Gambian apostolate and to give a pass mark to the activities carried out within its context is its atmosphere of relative peace. The Irish Holy Ghost Fathers who pioneered the missionary activity in that predominantly Muslim country have not been able to bring many of the Muslims to the waters of baptism but through their school apostolate and many other charitable enterprises, they were able to create an atmosphere of love and mutual co-existence between Christians and Muslims. There were only few schools in those days and most of them were Catholic schools, which educated both Christians and Muslims. Most of these are now the ones who are occupying high places both in the government and in the civil society. Their Christian education and the great impressions it made on their lives has made them to be so well disposed towards Christians and Christianity. Many of them, as a matter of fact, have along the line as youths, taken steps to get converted into Christianity, but failed because of parental pressure. Gambia has till today maintained the status of a secular state. Christian major feasts are recognized and honored by the government as public holidays just like Muslim feasts. There is no Sharia in the country. The Christians, as small they are, are well represented in the government of the day and the opinion of their leaders is sought in any burning national issue. During most of the Christian feasts, the government sends goodwill messages to them and praises their efforts towards the building of the nation. Most times, at Muslim feasts, government in its message to Muslims challenges them to imitate Christians. All these, I believe, talk of the success of the pastand present generations of Christian missionaries in the Gambia.
For most times, conversion in the Gambia tends to be the other way round, from Christianity to Islam, and not vice versa. As a matter of fact, the word 'conversion' has its conventional meaning in the Gambia's context. It means turning from Christianity to Islam. The fact that we enjoy relative peace, without religious violence does not mean that Muslims of that country are less vigorous in their Islamization drive. The simple truth is that they do it through some other means rather than physical assault.
My own parish of Brikama is situated at the heart of Mandinka mainland. The Mandinka tribe is one of the major tribes in the Gambia. For those who know their history, it is clear that their sentimental devotion to Islam could only be equaled by that of the Arabs. The Muslims use their numerical advantage to intimidate and victimize Christians psychologically as a means of Islamizing them. In the government schools, for example, in a class of fifty where there about four Christian pupils, the other children will enter the class and while exulting their religious, they make a caricature of the Christian faith and doctrine. The aim is to intimidate and ridicule the few Christian children. Their ultimate objective is nothing but the conversion of those four children. The same thing takes place in the offices and in the domestic set-ups of the cities and villages. Another avenue which they exploit very well is the area of marriage. They are always after our Catholic girls who don't always find it easy getting good marriage partners from the limited number of faithful Catholic young men around.
Now, the reason many of our Catholics easily succumb to the pressure from these Muslims is because their faith is shallow. Muslims, being in majority, have the big advantage of always giving things their conventional meaning. Many Christians have accepted this meaning without any question or protest, even when some of them are quite false and very derogatory to their Christian faith. Islamic frameworks are used to define the Christian faith and Christian accept such frameworks which do not only portray them in an inferior light but equally distort the whole meaning of the Christian faith. For instance, a Muslim is known because, apart from praying at least on Fridays, he abstains from alcohol and from pork. Now the issue is EITHER OR. If you are not a Muslim you are a Christian. With this, the identity mask of a Christian becomes drinking of alcohol and eating of pork. Even a Christian can tell you that he is sure that Mr. X is a Christian because he saw him drinking publicly. Many Christian take pride in such an identity.
Many so-called Christians do not know their faith. They receive baptism without knowing the implications of it. They go to confession once in a blue moon. Yet they continue to receive Holy Communion. When it it time for marriage they are willing either to leave in concubinage or, at best, to go for traditional marriage. They do not want sacramental marriage of the Church because they do not want something to tie them down. To tell most of them that someone who is still involved in traditional practices or someone who goes to Church a few timess in a year or even someone who has not gone for confession for years or a person who has lived with a partner for years without sacramental marriage is not a faithful Christian amounts to teaching a strange doctrine. This is the stage at which we find our people.
A missionary who is working in an environment like ours is therefore bound to realize that it amounts to misplacement of priority to leave the immense amount of work that needs to be done to build up the shallow faith of Christians and to evangelize the Muslims whose conversion, even when it takes place, does not last.
We in the Gambia mission have done so much in the area of catechizing our nominal Catholics, and making them to understand the doctrine of the Church and accept it for what it is. In my own parish, I conduct the confirmation classes myself. Through such classes, homilies, and the dialogues we have with families and our small Christians communities during our home-to-home and station visitations, we have molded and deepened their Christian faith. In my parish, there is a special crusade from station to station and from house to house of the Catholics who live with their partners but have ruled out sacramental marriage. It takes time and also involve a great deal of teaching, explanation and dialogue. It also needs prayer and patience. We need not talk about the arguments, disagreements and disappointments that are so much a part of the whole show. The crusade has yielded a great deal of fruits. About six years ago when I took over the parish, the number of sacramentally married couples in the parish was about fifteen. Today, they are more than fifty... The struggle continues in this and in many other areas. Can you now agree with me that it has been a successful mission with any 'convert'?