ACCRA, Ghana — In 1986, a new apostle traveled halfway around the world to dedicate a small, rented meetinghouse in a hot, humid land where plantains are plentiful but the Church was still an infant.
For three decades, he visited sub-Saharan Africa again and again, until he returned April 16 as the man Latter-day Saints revere as a prophet to the world to visit an emerging continent where a stake or district is created about every other week.
As President Russell M. Nelson walked into an oval arena in Nairobi, Kenya, that was part traditional wooden hut and part amphitheater in the round, he created connections to his past visits, to history made by one of his late predecessors as Church president and to 2,000 reverent African Saints.
They were so eager that they stood and sang, “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” twice, once when his unseen vehicle arrived and then again when he entered the arena.
A beaming President Nelson stood under dark wooden beams and roof to address the crowd in a blue suit, white shirt and blue tie with white stripes. He laid his watch on the podium and looked out over a sea of men in white shirts, ties and suitcoats and women in dresses of colorful blues, oranges, reds and greens.
Then he laid out a mental framework for the Church’s future in the region.
“You perhaps don’t think of yourselves as pioneers,” he said, “but you’re just as much pioneers here now as Brigham Young and his associates were following the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 1800s.”
Esther Wangeci and other Latter-day Saints throughout African nations continued to talk about and digest the visits to Kenya and Zimbabwe long after President Nelson left to complete his circumnavigation of the earth on a ministry tour that ended April 24.
“I prayed to Heavenly Father to help me prepare my heart to receive his message. I am grateful my prayers were answered,” said Wangeci, a member of the Ongata Rongai Ward in Nairobi. “When I saw the prophet, I felt the love of my Heavenly Father, especially when he looked into my eyes while we were singing.”
Fittingly on a continent with half a million members four decades after the 1978 priesthood revelation first opened the way for missionary work in most countries here, Wangeci’s congregation moved into a larger rented meetinghouse the day before President Nelson arrived.
“What a wonderful, wonderful, growing, dramatic, significant component you are of this Church, the restored Church of Jesus Christ,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said to more than 4,000 Africans gathered in Harare, Zimbabwe, on April 17. “Your history has only begun, and really the Church’s history has only begun in terms of what it will yet be. But I’m thrilled to be with you, observing history.”
The tour appeared to energize an energizing prophet and those who had seen and heard him. President Nelson knelt to meet some children, held others and hugged and greeted members, many of whom had traveled for days and lined up 10 or 11 hours early to see and hear him in both Nairobi and Harare, Zimbabwe.
“It’s a global ministry and a global message — faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and strengthening your own families as they qualify for eternal life in the presence of deity,” President Nelson said at tour’s end.
“Really,” he added, “everything we’ve done in these last few days together circling the globe could be summed up in two words — the temple. In Jerusalem we talked about the temple Jesus loved. And in several cities we talked about the temple that is going to come to their place.”
The whole of Africa has three operating temples, but two more are under construction with another three announced — in Nairobi and Harare as well as for Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
“Members have been talking about his emphasis on the temple” since he left, said Elder Kevin S. Hamilton, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Africa Southeast Area, which is larger than the continental United States. “As we enter a new era of temple building in Africa, members are becoming more aware of the importance of the temple and the role it can play in our lives.”
The message resonated in a land where for centuries people have used song to memorize their family trees. In some countries, people put up plastic, roadside posters to celebrate anniversaries of an ancestor’s death.
President Nelson and Elder Holland, the latter holding up his own temple recommend signed by the former, encouraged those in countries near Kenya and Zimbabwe to prepare themselves for their coming temples by obtaining temple recommends and preparing family histories now.
“There are a lot of places around the world that want a temple, that need a temple,” Elder Holland said in Nairobi, “and now it’s your good fortune to have one (announced). I hope you will anticipate it with your life, with your love, with your prayers, with your devotions, with your missionary service and with your family home evenings and teaching your children, that in every way you will point this Church in Kenya and all who will participate in the temple district to prepare for this temple, work for it and look for it and then celebrate it when it comes and use that temple as a gift that has been given you.”
Imende Robinson Aliero was young when President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Kenya in 1998, but ever since he has shared President Hinckley’s message that Nairobi would have a temple if the members were faithful and paid their tithing.
“I have always found solace in his words,” said Aliero, also a member of the Ongata Rongai Ward in Nairobi. “Imagine the joy I felt when a temple was announced to be built in Kenya! To top it up, Prophet Nelson visited Kenya. I prepared my heart, mind and hands to learn and take note so that I may share much with generations.”
He and others took note of messages about Christ, the temple, revelation, family history, tithing and dowry from President Nelson and Sister Wendy Nelson, Elder Holland and Sister Patricia Holland.
“I’m really excited because when a prophet visits a nation, better things start happening,” said Lovemore Tenganani, who attended the tour stop in Harare. “Most of us haven’t had the opportunity to have a prophet grace our great nation.”
At the Africa West Area office in Accra, Ghana, excitement was building over the anticipated creation of the area’s 100th stake. In all, the continent now has 152 stakes and about 580,000 members, President Nelson announced in Nairobi, which is part of the continent’s other area, the Africa Southeast Area.
President Nelson first visited Kenya in 1992. He presided over the groundbreaking of the temple site in Accra, Ghana, in 2001.
During his 1986 trip to Africa, President Nelson became the first apostle to visit central Ghana, where he dedicated a meetinghouse in Kumasi and encouraged a small-but-growing number of Saints to keep the commandments, pay tithing and love their spouses, said Harry Kyere Sarpong, who had joined the Church in Germany.
Sarpong, now 70, had returned from Germany to Ghana in 1983. He found the Church in his homeland only after he chased a missionary van with the Church’s logo 300 meters down a Kumasi street. When he told the senior missionary couple he was a member, they jumped out of the van and hugged him.
Richard Samche also returned to Ghana in 1983 as a Church member after his conversion in Nigeria. The Saturday after President Nelson left Africa, Samche gathered his family in their one-room home, where his two daughters sleep on a triple bunk bed, and he and his wife sleep on a bed behind a bookcase. In the fading light of a hot Kumasi evening, he presided over scripture study that began with a hymn and ended with family prayer, surrounded by his wife, Anyamesem, 50, and four of their five children — Simmons, 30, Martin, 22, Dora, 15, and Esther, 10.
Samche spoke for many LDS African pioneers.
“I feel very great because I have been part and parcel of the people who helped to build Zion here in Kumasi,” said Samche, 65, who has served as a branch president, bishop and stake president. “I’m proud of the Church’s growth in Kumasi and always thank my Heavenly Father for making me part of His plan of salvation.”
It was a message President Nelson shared in eight meetings in eight countries on three continents in 11 days.
“Our message to the world,” he said in Nairobi, “is that Jesus is the Christ and that His way of life is the way of joy and happiness not only in this life but in the life ahead.”