Thursday, April 23, was definitely another WA WA (West Africa Wins Again) day in Cotonou. A lot of work has been going on at the old chapel to get it back into shape. In Africa, it seems that when you leave a building, it is expected that it be in top condition. The Church tries to respect that so there are no problems with landlords. The building is being painted and everything repaired nicely. We have been concerned about the building looking good in this case as our relationship with the landlord hasn’t always been the best. It seems to have fallen to us to oversee getting the old building returned and we also needed to get some landscaping in and around the new chapel. There are a couple of older gentlemen in the Branch, Frere Dieudonne and Koffi George, who have been very helpful over the years in cleaning up outside of the building, watering and trimming the plants, removing the garbage and in general taking good care of things. We have appreciated them a lot. Koffi George has never been baptized as he just can’t seem to whip some word of wisdom problems, but he probably knows the gospel better than anyone in the branch and never misses church. President Lokossou told us to talk to Frere Dieudonne about planting some greenery around the new chapel so we stopped by his little shack where he recycles anything he can find of any value. He was talking shotgun French to Elder Black and was telling him about his little sister dying in Ghana and that sure he would help with the plants, etc. By the way, he said he had already been to the old chapel and had cut the greenery there. Elder Black thought that was really great of him to prune the bushes so it would look good to return to the landlord. That night we found out that when he said cut, he meant cut – everything — right down to the roots. He had gone over and with the help of Koffi George, literally chopped down every green bush or tree that was there except for a large fan palm that would have needed more than a machete. Sometimes African logic is a little hard to follow. A sense of humor is an absolute necessity in Africa so we have been laughing about it ever since – sort of.

Landu and President LokossouBut laughing about it would not rectify the situation so we asked Frere Landu, our piano teacher who is an expert gardener, to help us out. That turned out to be a good decision. The next morning we went to a nursery along the road to the airport and began the selection process. I just about went crazy seeing all of the beautiful tropical bushes and flowers all being sold for a pittance compared to what we pay to landscape at home. Many of the plants we have as house plants at home are used for outdoor landscaping over here since freezing is not a problem. There are numerous nurseries along the sides of the streets of Cotonou. We had observed them before and noticed the abundance of beautiful plants but this was the first time we had stopped to look closely and buy. Landu made some nice decisions and had them planted by noon.

In front of the ChapelIn the afternoon we went back to the nursery with President Lokossou and Landu to choose greenery for the new chapel. We purchased several plants in pots to put around the baptismal font and out in front of the building. We bought some low growing flowering shrubs for a planter area directly in front of the building and two trees for the front. Some of the plants are fairly large and with the concrete pot probably weighed well over 100 lbs. Landu and I tried to carry one, and we were not exactly sure how we would get them loaded. Carrying TreesThe young man in charge of shifting things around didn’t seem to have the same problem that we did. He hoisted it up on his head and carried it to the pickup. The new paint job and the potted plants really made that old building come alive. The painting is almost finished. One of the members framed some nice pictures in addition to the ones we already had moved from the old chapel and things are really starting to look nice.

On Saturday we held the first baptisms at the new chapel. First Gbedjromede Baptism with Elder TurnerThree baptisms were held in the morning from the Akpakpa Branch and one in the afternoon from Gbedjromede Branch. Sunday was our general conference day. We knew the chapel would not hold everyone so we geared up with TVs and DVD players for three rooms, two for French and one for English. As near as we could count, there were about 170 people in attendance so the new chapel got a real workout. I thought the talk by Elder Holland on the life of the Savior was especially powerful but we enjoyed it all. After Church we met with Frere Briga and his wife. That is a long and developing story that we hope to be able to relate from start to finish next week.

Our love to all.

A rainstorm in the tropics

A rainstorm in the tropics

A Stressful Zone Conference

Sunday was full of visits, emailing, church and Soeur Black’s personal favorite, talking with the kids and grandkids. Monday was a busy day with taking the Elders food shopping, taking care of details at the chapel and otherwise getting ready for zone conferences and to go to Togo. On Tuesday morning we left early as we had things to do in Togo before President Ayekoue arrived on Tuesday evening. I went to the airport in the evening to pick up President and Sister Ayekoue while Sister Black stayed home to prepare something for them to eat. After a long wait, all the people on the flight had exited and still no Ayekoue’s. Finally a baggage handler came out and told me that there was a problem with their luggage. A while later they appeared and explained that the luggage had made it okay but while they were waiting to claim it one of the bags had disappeared and another similar one left in its place. As luck would have it, the missing bag contained all of President Ayekoue’s papers and the personal effects of little Happy. They had been filling out claim papers etc. and were the last ones to exit the terminal with a worried look on their face. As soon as we arrived home, President Ayekoue called the airport and the missing bag had already been returned. We returned quickly to the airport and peace was restored once again but we didn’t get to bed until almost midnight.

Cotonou Zone ConferenceZone Conferences are always a little stressful for us but they are wonderful for the young missionaries. There is usually about 4 hours of instruction, training, catching up on the latest information and reviewing reports. After that (or in the middle, depending on the schedule) we always eat a nice dinner prepared by Soeur Black (I think one of the few really good dinners they get – at least for the American missionaries) and then there is some time when the missionaries can mostly sit back, relax, visit and whatever as they have individual interviews with the President. Since receiving Togo as an additional assignment, we get in on two conference in two days and Soeur Black gets a little tired of all the language before the 4 hour session is over and sometimes finds an excuse to do other things which may even involve a short nap. I will have to admit that even Elder Black missed a little of the conference in Togo after helping to do the dishes. Generally, however, it is a good time. President Ayekoue is a great teacher and the conference always includes some instruction by him of various topics from the scriptures that apply to missionary work or personal development. His schedule is usually brim full as in addition to missionary training he also has training and interviews with the branch leaders. That was begun in Togo after a long day with the missionaries. It was a great meeting and the chapel was completely filled with branch leaders from Togo. Afterwards, President had interviews with the Branch Presidents so Elder Black as Chauffeur just waited around and we finally got home after 11:00. Thursday it was up early to get back to Cotonou where basically the same was repeated.

The Branch Conference of the Akpakpa Branch was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, President Ayekoue received word just before coming that the Area Presidency wanted to meet with him on Saturday so we put them back on the airplane late Friday evening. We later found out that after they disappeared into the interworking of the airport where only passengers are allowed, their plane was delayed and they did not get back to Abidjan until about 2:00 in the morning. I guess that is all part of the life of a mission President in Africa.

President Dieudonne, the 2nd counselor to President Ayekoue came over from Lome to be at the Akpakpa conference. We quite enjoyed having them stay as they are very gracious and easy to be around. Sister Philomen’s health is not good and she moves around quite slowly but she was able to go to all of the conference. President Dieudonne is interesting as he joined the church in England in 1989 before the church even existed in Togo or Benin. He was instrumental in getting the two countries opened up for missionary work. He speaks English with almost native fluency and is a very good speaker in English or French. Since Akpakpa has a lot of English speakers, most of the talks were given in English and in French. That even included Soeur Black who did a credible job of both. After she had finished, everyone did refrain from applauding which is not appropriate at a church meeting but we did hear an audible BRAVO!!. All of the members cheer her efforts to speak and understand French. It keeps the members entertained and she is doing quite well with both. The little Akpakpa branch has less than 50 members and over 40 attended the conference. Since being established there in January, several members who were baptized earlier but found it difficult to attend the chapel in Gbedjromede have become active and one was put in as a counselor to President Desire at the conference. Then there is Mohamed. He is a young man who was a Muslim but who was baptized in January or February. He gave the Sunday school lesson and did as well as any lesson you ever heard. The missionaries are really busy out there and it is fun to see things happening and the branch growing. President and Sister Dieudonne left right after the conference to return to Togo and Sister Black and I had a quiet dinner and took a nap. In another 6 weeks we will have to be prepared to repeat the process.

A furniture delivery

A furniture delivery

A glass delivery

A glass delivery

Richard Scarry would call this a car with ears

Richard Scarry would call this a car with ears

New Chapel Construction

Happy Easter everyone. We promised some photos of the new chapel this week. It has been pretty much a construction site for the last couple of weeks but now a few things are starting to get finished up so we are excited as are all the members. New Baptismal FontPresident Lokossou is like a kid at Christmas time. I think he spends most of his time up there just supervising, dreaming and whatever. Since it is only 150 yards or so from his house, it makes it pretty easy. Saturday morning the branch had an activity for the youth and anyone else who thinks they are a youth. That means we did not go but apparently there were a lot that did. At 6:30 am everyone met at the chapel and did some jogging and exercise then cleaned afterwards. Chapel Overflow areaThey got most of the things we moved over from the old building put in the rooms where they belong at least – like the library things. Still have a way to go but it is definitely shaping up and both branches had a full schedule on Sunday.

We didn’t come back to Cotonou until Tuesday. On Monday we had all the elders over to celebrate the birthday of Elder Kounkou. Elder Kounkou\'s BirthdayHis birthday was actually the week before but we weren’t there. It is fun to celebrate the birthdays of the African Elders. Africa in general is oriented a little more towards thinking of self, and birthdays are not often recognized or celebrated by others. You would be surprised how many members on the church records do not even know when their birthday is. I would say that before 1960 or 1970 it is rare to find someone who knows their birthday. Since then, people often know their birthdate, but to have a cake just for them!!!! There are other things we take for granted but people over here have to get used to as they begin to adopt the culture of the Church. To many members over here, the church means everything as it gives them friends, hope, and standards to live by that they have never had before. It is a lot of fun to see the changes that occur in their lives and how meaningful it is to them. Of course change doesn’t come without challenges, and not everyone makes it but there really are a lot of wonderful members, and we enjoy our association with them very much.

We got back to Cotonou on Tuesday just in time to go to the airport and pick up Elder Turner. He is from Michigan–north of Detroit–and is going to be a very good missionary. Right now the language is a little difficult, but he seems to be adjusting rapidly. Elder Kounkou and Elder JermanOur count now in Cotonou is: African Elders from Ivory Coast – 4. White Elders from the US – 4. I think this is what President Ayekoue has been wanting – Native Elders working with North American Elders. That way they cross train, and it is good for all the missionaries.

Obama Beach; Visa Troubles

When we left Blanding for a mission here in Africa, we thought we had a vague idea of what we might be doing to serve the Lord, but in reality we did not have the slightest idea. Flowers inside our Lome HouseAs our mission has progressed we find ourselves doing more things with finances, real estate and administration for the young missionaries and working less and less with the wonderful people here, as time for these other responsibilities is very demanding. The highlight for the week is our family home evenings with the members which we schedule when we are available.

Home evenings are a great time for a family to learn more about gospel principles and bond together. We had a really good home evening with Elizabeth Lokossou, a new member, and her daughter Jeanette this week but did not get any pictures. We asked her if we could come to her home. She said we could, but she did not have any chairs to sit on so we invited them to our house instead. Most of our members have not been a member for very long so the purpose of our home evenings is basically two fold. First, we teach a gospel principle geared to the age of the children. Secondly, we teach the parents how to have a home evening with their children by observing the process of a home evening. We have taught “I Am a Child of God” several times with emphasis on our Heavenly Father’s love for us even though we are all different just as earthly family members are different. We then play a game, “Don’t Eat Pete” followed by refreshments. Here in Africa, parents and their children generally don’t know how to have fun together so it is a new experience to get them laughing and having fun together.

We were in Lome again last week and that usually calls for a trip to the bank, which is located in downtown Lome. This trip to cash a check can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours so I decided to go to a nearby grocery store and then walk down to the bank while Elder Black worked on the check. (A year ago I would have been too scared to walk that far by myself.) The streets are packed with beggars and sellers, and I was accosted several times by sellers, but the one that got my attention the most was a guy carrying Barack Obama tee shirts. Name change at the beachHe thought that since I looked very American, I would not be able to resist. The Africans were elated when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States and have renamed some of their businesses after him. I think they think it will be their financial salvation to have him in the White House. I personally think that he has too many problems at home to cure the African ones.

Other activities in Lome included taking our French Elder, Elder Fontaine, to Lome to be a companion to Elder Missigbeto who flew in from Abidjan. The significance of that is that Elder Missigbeto is from right here in Cotonou. We met his mother right after we arrived and have been to her place many times to teach her the gospel. Elder MissigbetoShe badly wants to join the church, but her husband (not Elder Missigbeto’s father) isn’t that interested and they are only married traditionally, which is not a legal marriage in Benin. He is nice enough and we have had some good visits, but he hasn’t yet been willing to pay the fee for a marriage license and be civilly married without which she can’t be baptized. Elder Missigbeto was an assistant to the President in Abidjan before being transferred to Togo where he will probably finish his mission as he finishes 3 days before we do. He is an outstanding missionary and it was really great to get to know him other than just on the telephone.

We came close to getting kicked out of Benin last week due to visa problems. The visa that we obtained before we came to Benin was clearly stamped with an expiration date of March 23, 2009 and boldly stated that it was good for one year. I thought that was pretty clear and we went down two weeks ago to get the visa renewed before it expired. It took a few days to get it done but they gave us a receipt and said it should be okay. When we got back from Togo last time, the member who works at immigration said the chief wanted to visit with us. That is not usually good news. I went down and after a certain amount of waiting was finally ushered into his office where he pointed out that that below the expiration date is says it is a three month visa. Turns out that the visa is good for a year but you can only legally stay for 3 months. Figure that one out if you can. I asked him if he knew how many times we had crossed the border and each time they check our visa to make sure it is okay. That didn’t impress him. He just said his office issues the visas not the border. It doesn’t pay to argue much when the boss is convinced you have been in the country illegally for 9 months. I told him we also had residence cards and that made him feel quite a bit better. He quickly decided that it wasn’t anything a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix. So now we are legal again and this time it was for a year. We also renewed our Togo visa so we should be through with that part of our mission except for helping the elders stay legal.

Starting the Baptismal FontOtherwise, the chapel continues to thrust itself onto center stage. Work is progressing well but never fast enough. Before we left for Togo they had started the baptismal font. All blocks are made on site by hand. I asked if it was not possible just to buy the blocks and have them delivered to the job and I just got a funny look like “what is this guy talking about?” Blockmaking in progress (Note the Mold)Everything is done on-site with sand and cement. Building with wood is a foreign concept. Maybe that is because termites seem to eat anything made of wood. A lot of the painting is done now, and the once dark and dreary building is taking on a bright cheerful appearance with the colors that Soeur Black chose. Curing the blocksWe will send some more pictures as it gets finished in another week or so. We think it is going to be a wonderful facility for the church here.Pres Lokossou and Frere Pierre - Driving forces of Construction