ZINVIE, Benin — He walked through a waterfall to get his degree.Rain cascaded from the tents above Socrates Djonwe’s head as he crossed from his seat to the podium, doing his best to stay dry.
Clad in a blue cap and gown, the young Christian shook hands with Peter Egure, who handed him a “Diplome de Fin de Formation” (“Diploma of Completion of Training”). Finding his name, emblazoned on the piece of paper, he grinned.
For three years, Djonwe studied at the Benin Bible Training Center in this small, lightbulb-shaped country of West Africa. Since 1995, the school has prepared 135 graduates to plant and nurture Churches of Christ in 10 French-speaking African countries.
Peter Egure, far left, delivers a Sunday morning Bible lesson in English. Next to him, Adjayi Inoussa translates Egure’s words to French. Then Christian Todego, right, translates Inoussa’s words from French to the local language, Fon. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
Djonwe, a native of Chad, was one of 12 graduates to receive diplomas after worship on a rain-soaked Sunday. Seated in plastic chairs, they stared forward, stoically, as friends hovered inches from their faces, snapping photos with cameras and cell phones.More than 500 Africans, dressed head to toe in their colorful Sunday best, stepped across massive puddles and huddled in the dry spaces as the school’s director, George Akpabli, called each graduate’s name.
Even as the tents began to sag and collapse from the weight of the water, the crowd refused to run for the safety of nearby buildings.
They weren’t going to miss this.“I honestly think that this is one of the greatest assets to the Christian body in Africa,” Egure said of the school. An elder of the Kado Church of Christ in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, he traveled west to Benin to speak at the graduation. Even on a continent where many people are fluent in two or three tongues, “language has been a major barrier,” he said.
It took two translators for him to address the audience. Speaking in English, he challenged the graduates to stay true to their calling, avoiding the temptations of money and greed, the temptations of the flesh.
Next to him, Adjayi Inoussa, a teacher at the school, translated his words from English to French. Another believer, Christian Todego, translated from French to Fon, a locally spoken dialect.
“My prayer is that you go out and be aggressive for the spirit of Christ,” Egure said. Then he and another church elder — Ed Jones of the Benton Church of Christ in Kentucky — placed their hands on the 12 African disciples and asked God to grant them “a harvest of souls.”
Jones oversees French African Christian Education, or FACE, a nonprofit that raises funds for the work.
“God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear,” he told the graduates, quoting the apostle Paul’s advice to a young minister named Timothy in the New Testament.
“Christ gives us knowledge, wisdom and power,” Jones said, pausing as the two translators delivered the message.
“Now you must use it.”
A PASSION TO REACH FRENCH AFRICA
Benin’s Bible Training Center began in the mid 1990s in the Vedoko area of Cotonou. In 2004, the school moved to its current, 18-acre facility near Zinvie. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
For Akpabli, a native of English-speaking Ghana, the Bible Training Center, or Centre de Formation Biblique, helps to fill a need — an urgent need, he believes — for Bible-based Christianity in the former French colonies of Africa.“In the English-speaking countries, the missionaries came very, very early,” he explains. In Francophone nations, “we are still in the pioneering stage.”
That’s a challenge and an advantage, he insists. In English-speaking nations, “religion is being commercialized. … You put your faith in it because that’s what everyone is doing.”
Not so in French Africa, where many hold true to traditional beliefs — especially in Benin, thought to be the birthplace of voodoo. To the north, former French colonies including Niger, Mali and Mauritania are predominantly Muslim. When French Africans abandon the beliefs of their ancestors and become Christians, “they really put their faith on the line,” Akpabli said.The Bible Training Center’s 18-acre campus sits a few miles north of Cotonou, Benin’s biggest city and financial hub.
Here, students study Scripture and preaching, hermeneutics and church history. While similar schools in Ghana and Nigeria possess libraries of Bible commentaries and Christian literature in English, the Bible Training Center has a few humble shelves. Akpabli translates much of the curriculum into French himself.
Few churches in Africa — and far fewer in French-speaking Africa — can support full-time ministers. As they study the Bible, students also learn to raise crops and livestock — pigs, chickens and fish — on the campus’ model farm so they can earn income as they minister. Soon, the school plans to teach cell phone repair — a booming industry on a continent where many people carry two or more phones, each with service from competing carriers.
Churches of Christ, like cell phones, have boomed across the continent. Research conducted in the early 2000s showed nearly 15,000 congregations and more than 1 million members in Africa — more than 80 percent living in former colonies of Great Britain.
Harouna Kanguey isn’t one of them. Raised as a Muslim in French-speaking Niger, he was converted by a missionary from English-speaking Nigeria.
He graduated from the Bible Training Center in 2009 and returned to Niger, where he works with a congregation of 15 souls.
“Some of them don’t want to come to church,” said Kanguey, who traveled to Benin to attend the graduation before joining fellow preachers for a ministry conference in neighboring Togo, another former colony of France.
In Niger, Christians rarely are killed for their faith, he said, but may be ostracized by their families for converting, unable to find work. Despite the challenges, “I want to see the church growing in Niger,” he said. “I want to have churches everywhere in Niger.”
To that end, he said, the Bible Training Center “gave me books and knowledge to help me proclaim the will of God.”
Members of the Agbalinlame Church of Christ in Benin stand next to their student preacher, Tigniyombor Kpalidja, after graduation at the Benin Bible Training Center in Zinvie, Benin. To show their solidarity and support for their minister, the church members had traditional Africa dress clothes tailored from the same pattern. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)‘NO TRAINING, NO GROWTH’
About 35 percent of Benin’s 9.1 million people claim Christianity as their faith, said Michel Alokpo, an official with the country’s Department of the Interior who oversees church registration. Most are Catholics, but nearly 600 denominations operate in the country, he said.
“We thank God that in our country, there is peace between different religions,” said Alokpo, a longtime friend of Akpabli. He has visited the Bible Training Center and said he appreciates the school’s efforts to train future church leaders.Christians “have freedom to preach the Gospel,” but, from what he’s observed, “no training, no growth of the church.”
Samuel Ayim, another longtime friend of Akpabli — and a fellow Ghanaian — said he would like to see more of his English-speaking brethren involved in the mission to reach French Africa. Ayim, a bank executive in Togo and a Church of Christ member, serves on the board of FACE.
In French-speaking Africa, Churches of Christ “are beginning where Ghana began 40 years ago,” Ayim said. Ghana is surrounded by French-speaking countries, and “a lot of good people on the English side could be useful on the French side,” he said.
Martin Adjevi is one of them. The 64-year-old from Cape Coast, Ghana, retired from his job as a university chemistry professor and went back to school.
Now in his second year at the Bible Training Center, he’s fine-tuning his French and preparing to plant churches. He already has helped launch one in Togo.
“Here, the Gospel did not come early, and the work is not easy,” he said. “We want to help.”
His wife, Marie, said she’s proud of her husband’s decision and is committed to helping him spread the Gospel.
“I will follow him wherever he will go,” she said.
‘WE WANT LIVING, STRONG CHURCHES’As the downpour diminished to a drizzle at the graduation ceremony, Djonwe rose from his seat a second time.
Socrates Djonwe speaks during graduation at the Centre de Formation Biblique. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)Straddling a puddle behind the podium, he spoke to the crowd, in French, on behalf of his fellow graduates. He used big words — big in any language.
“The creation of this center was not by chance,” he said. “It is in perfect line with the strategy of the introduction of African preachers — by Africans and for Africans — with the view of answering the unending and growing needs of our congregations.
“We don’t want churches filled with astral robots who are only Sunday Christians. We want living and strong churches that put themselves in the service of revolutionary hopes.
“Long live the Centre de Formation Biblique,” he proclaimed as his soggy brethren cheered. “Long live the Church of Christ, so that Benin may live.”
As a drizzle turns into a deluge in the West African nation of Benin, Jonas Sambieni receives his diploma from Peter Egure and George Akpabli at the Benin Bible Training Center. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)