Landscaping

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

A Visit to Ouida and Moving to the New Chapel

Three Branch Relief Society PresidentsLast Saturday the Relief Societies of all three branches had a combined Birthday party celebrating 167 years of Relief Society. Each president talked and they did a little skit about Relief Society. After the skit they did an activity where they chose certain people to choose a slip of paper out of a bowl and then do something or answer a question. I was relieved that our first question was, ” What is the theme of Relief Society?” and the second was to tell where in the scriptures you find, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” [John 3:16] Easy to answer, and we did not have to make fools of ourselves. Some had to imitate animals, sing a son, or act out something. President Lokkosou stole the show when he drew a paper that said, “Do a native dance.” He thought about it for a minute and then started doing the dance that we have seen where they bend their knees and move their feet and shoulders back and forth to the rhythm of the music. It was a side to President Lokkosou that most of us have not seen before, and everyone loved the show! I felt bad as it took me by surprise and I did not get my camera out fast enough as it definitely was a “Kodak moment.”

After this activity, President Felicete announced that we would now hear from both branch presidents that were there and Soeur Black. I thought that I must not have heard right but Elder Black said that I had better get up there as I was on. Boy, was I mistaken when I thought that baking the cake was my only responsibility. My baby French was absolutely useless so Elder Black translated and I talked a little about when the Relief Society was organized on March 17, 1842 and the sisters were counseled by the Prophet Joseph Smith to give service to one another and others in need. They were also counseled to instruct one another and their families by learning the principles of the gospel. The same counsel is as important to the sisters today as it was then. That was a mighty short talk. After the talks, the sisters served sandwiches, beesap and cake. No matter how much food is prepared, it all disappears.

Three Branch Relief Society PresidentsOn Tuesday we put Elder Samutamu on the airplane to return to his home in Congo after serving for two years. He has been the zone leader here and was an excellent missionary. It is always sad to send a missionary home when you know that you will never see him again, as it is so easy for a missionary to have a special place in our hearts. Elder Kra came back from Lome with us and spent five days with Elder Samutamu before he left for home in Cote d’Ivoire. They served together in Abidjan as assistants to the president so it was good that they could spend some time together.

Zone visit to OuidahBefore Elders Samutamu and Kra left on Monday, we told Elder Samutamu we would take the missionaries on a special activity of his choice. He chose to go Ouida, the birthplace of Voodooism that we have talked about on the road to Lome. Portugese Slave CastleThe first stop was a Portuguese slave castle that has been rebuilt exactly as it was in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The word castle gives entirely the wrong impression as it was definitely not a castle for the slaves. The slaves were imprisoned in an area behind the castle, and if one died or misbehaved they were thrown in the alligator mote. That is certainly not my idea of how life should be in a castle. Slave ArchWhen the ships arrived, the slaves were taken down a road to the ocean to be taken to Europe, North America, Brazil, the Caribbean, etc. Trafficking human beings is a sad thing and slavery was certainly a sad chapter in the history of the world. The interesting thing is that it was normally the different warring tribes that rounded up each other to be sold as slaves to the white traders. We followed the slave route out to the beach and saw a few historic things along the way. Lunch at the BeachAt the beach we had fixed some sandwiches for lunch and found a quaint little pavilion some folks were willing to let us rent for an hour to eat our lunch. We were also going to see the python Temple which we understand is a monument to Voodooism, but when we arrived we found it was closed from noon to 3:00 and we had to get back to Cotonou by 4:00 so we missed that part of the tour. That will be another P-day activity. All in all it was a good trip and a little diversion from the normal routine.

The rest of the week was taken by the move from the old chapel to the new. We got a running start by using our pickup to move the library and a lot of smaller things on Friday. On Saturday there was one final baptism held that morning and then we had hired a truck to move all the bigger items such as tables and benches. Proper care for the benchesWe discovered too late in the process that we had not counted on Africans being task oriented. The only concern was to get the job done. How it was done was of no consequence. I have seen more care exercised in moving baled hay than that used to handle the beautiful African wood benches and tables. (By the end of the day Elder Black’s white shirt looked like he had been hauling hay!) We probably have a refinishing job on our hands now but it only seemed to bother Soeur Black and me. Everyone else seemed perfectly happy. It would have been nice to have time to do the remodel work necessary on the new chapel before moving everything in, but time did not permit. Another load on its waySince we had to be out of the old building by April 2, we just had to move everything and will have to work around it as best we can. Anyway, now everything is in the new building and other than scratches, dents and a few pieces of broken glass, it is more or less intact. Everyone was happy and helping. I guess we will survive also. When the moving was just about finished, a few of the sisters decided to go to one of their homes and fix pate for all of the members who were there helping. Well, pate just isn’t complete without chicken, so we ended up with quite a meal. Fingers work better than forksWhen the food was ready, we went to help the sisters transport it to the new chapel. When we arrived they were all dripping with sweat. In fact, it looked like they had just stepped out of the shower, They climbed in the back seat laughing and having a good time. Then much to our surprise they broke into a hymn singing, “Come, Come Ye Saints, All is Well.” I looked at Elder Black and started to laugh as it helped put things in a better perspective for us. Yes, we are still learning!

Today we held sacrament meeting in the new building. We did not have any water or electricity yet so we only held sacrament meeting and then went home. Depending on how much work we are able to get done, that may be the pattern for a few Sundays.

Ouida Beach

A Lesson on Faith

A couple of weeks ago, Soeur Black talked about our teaching a lesson on faith. The past few weeks we have had a real live lesson. Alma’s discourse on Faith tells us that as you have faith and see it rewarded it leads to more faith. Right now our faith is pretty strong. I may have already shared some of this so if it sounds familiar I apologize but for my own record, I need to record the story from start to finish. The story starts back to about last October when a Hussier (probably our equivalent of a Deputy Sheriff) showed up at the chapel and gave one of the members who happened to be there an eviction notice if we didn’t pay the rent within 24 hours. That caught us completely by surprise since the area office in Accra is supposed to take care of those little details. Without going into a lot of detail, by the time the real estate people in Accra and the Church attorney got involved, it came to light that in fact the rent was due on April 1 and here it was October and no rent had been paid. I guess you could not really blame the landlord for being upset, but it would have been decent of him to contact us and let us resolve the problem. It was a typical African story of the Attorney here supposed to negotiate a new contract but did not have it done etc., etc. After a lot of finger pointing, the rent finally got paid and all was well.

Before this happened, the Branch Presidency had grumbled a little about our facilities. It was probably fine at the start but now the only way we can get everyone seated is to use a balcony, which leaves the chapel basically exposed to the street and all the moto engines, honking, neighbors yelling or whatever. Everything happening on the busy street automatically becomes a part of our meetings. Also it was quite expensive since the contract that was signed a number of years ago provided for a percentage increase in the rental fee each year. I took advantage of the whole scenario to tell the Area Office that perhaps we should find new facilities, which they more or less grudgingly approved and then I held a meeting with the Branch Presidency for discussion of the matter. That was the shortest meeting we have held in Africa. They just said “let’s move” and that was the end of the story except for the work of finding a new place. Adding to the frustration is that fact that in Africa you are normally required to give 90 days notice to the landlord before vacating a rental and the renewal date on the lease was April 1. This means we would have to notify the landlord by January 1 that we were leaving.

During November and December Soeur Black and I didn’t have much time because of the branch division, but we looked a little for a new building without finding anything. As the notification date came I spoke with the Branch Presidency again asking if we really dared do this. Again the response was a resounding yes. They expressed confidence that we would find something. We weren’t sure who “we” were but we were getting suspicious it was Soeur Black and me. During January and February, we started really looking hard. We looked at over 40 buildings. Some were new and way too nice and expensive. Others were dumps. Some were under construction. I think we probably knew real estate about as well as anyone in Cotonou. Most were too small. We were mainly looking at large homes hopefully with enough bedrooms to serve as classrooms and a living room big enough to seat 150 people or so. That is quite a large order. We continued to pray as if everything depended on the Lord and work like it depended on us. When the first part of March rolled around and we still had nothing, we really began to worry. It didn’t help any that we were now spending almost half of our time in Togo and were told by the area office in Accra that it would take them at least 8 weeks to do the paperwork to rent a building. We had less than 4 weeks left.

Sometime during the first few days of March, we received a call in Togo from one of our real estate people (we probably had 8 or 10 by then that we had gathered up) that he had the perfect building for us. We had heard that before. The “Demarcheur” or real estate finding people get one month’s rent as a standard fee for finding a property. That is a pretty nice fee when the average wage earner probably make $5 or $6 per day maximum. We had plenty that told us they had just what we wanted and then would try to convince us that the 3 bedroom dump they showed us was just exactly what we needed. This Demarcheur was so excited we contacted him as soon as we got home and he didn’t even want to wait until the next day so we went and picked him up to see the house. Proposed Gbedjromede ChapelIt turned out to be a large building that was used as a school for some time. It is located on a quiet street less than 250 yards from the current building and probably a couple of hundred yards from the Branch President’s house. It has a large room that can be used as a chapel and about 16 or so other rooms as classrooms. Also on the 2nd floor is a large covered area that we can use as a cultural hall for activities. We were very excited and I went down the street to see if President Lokossou would like to come and look at it. He came and to our surprise greeted the landlord as a long lost friend. They have known each other and been friends for years. Without belaboring the point, we now have the key to the new building even though Accra still does not have the contract written and will be moving all of our things from the “old” chapel next week. It is not a finished product as you can see from the picture and will require some work but it is a well built building and will make a nice meeting house with plenty of room.

When I told President Desiree that we had located a building he simply said “I knew you would. I have seen it happen over and over again since I joined the Church. Just at the last moment, things always work out.” I guess faith is just a way of life in Africa. These people have a lot to each us and we are trying to learn all we can while we are here.

Here is what Alma says:

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge. . . .

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow. – Alma 32: 26, 28-30

So this seed grew and yes it was a good seed and yes it began to enlighten our understanding and it is delicious to us. We have much to do and much to learn before we come home in 6 months but all is well in Africa.

Soeur Nadia and Zone Conferences

If you haven’t been fruit shopping at Tokpa market in Africa with Soeur Nadia then you haven’t really lived. On Wednesday, with President and Sister Ayekoue coming, a zone conference here on Thursday and another in Togo on Friday, Soeur Black finally agreed to get some help and we prevailed upon Nadia to come and be a domestic for a few days. Soeur Nadia was a lifesaver in CotonouNot only is Nadia a good worker, she is also a good shopper and a good cook. She should be on a mission but does not read French so she doesn’t feel qualified to go. Soeur Black put her in charge of fixing an African Dinner for the Ayekoue’s when they arrived on Wednesday with Soeur Black as chief assistant and then for Thursday’s zone dinner the roles were reversed. Needing fruit for both days, we took a trip down to Tokpa. What we always consider “dirt cheap” and just pay is never good enough for Nadia. All negotiations are in Fon, and we are invited to keep quiet until they are finished. The parties rarely look at each other during the negotiations but look away down the street as if there is no interest whatsoever on either part. After a little of this, she loads up 40 oranges into a sack and tells Soeur Black to give the lady 1,000 cfa ($2). Further along we load 30 nice pineapple and are instructed to give the lady 1,500 cfa ($3). On that one Soeur Black’s conscience got the best of her and so she gave the lady an extra 500 cfa. Mangoes are still a little expensive at $.60 each (bargained down from $.80) etc. It is quite a fun experience, and the stacks of tropical fruit are just incredible. My job is to help carry everything we buy along the way, but if it gets really heavy then Nadia carries it on her head. We keep trying to make enough fruit salad that the elders can eat all they want, but we haven’t yet succeeded. When it was time to make the salad we cut up the pineapple, mangoes and papaya then squeezed all 40 oranges into juice. The juice was then poured over the fruit and mixed with grenadine syrup. It was very good and, yes, this time we about a quart left over so I assume the elders got all they wanted. We made enough in Cotonou for Lome also. At the border a custom guard wanted to know what was in the bucket and when Elder Black told him fruit salad for today’s dinner, I thought it may be confiscated but he just smiled and said, “Bonne appetite.” Nadia also helped Sister Ayekoue with little Happy which was a big relief.

The potatoes did not fare as well as the fruit salad. Soeur Black baked about 16 lbs of potatoes then fried them with some bacon and ham to get a close as we could to Dutch oven potatoes. We reasoned that since we were having rice also that should be enough for Benin and Togo. By the time dinner was finished in Benin they were all gone, so we had to start over with another 15 lbs for Lome.

Zone conference in Togo went real well considering that when we arrived there from Cotonou, all of the elders were already there so we put them to work real fast and we had the dinner on the table within 45 minutes. Of course, the chicken and potatoes and salad were brought already prepared from Cotonou. Conference Cleanup - note who is frowningElder Black and the missionaries cleaned up afterwards, which was a great help, and the Zone conference actually started a few minutes early with everyone having eaten and the dishes done.

Zone conferences are a time for instruction and spiritual guidance from the mission president. It is definitely a time for recharging and helps us keep on track as missionaries. The elders are all assigned to prepare a talk on a certain subject and then President Ayekoue randomly chooses two for presentation. Lome Zone ConferenceThis time the talk was supposed to be prepared on the remarks on “hope” given by President Uchtdorf in the last October general conference. If you have not read the talk, you need to do so. If you don’t have the November Ensign, it is on the Internet at www.ldschurch.org, then go to gospel library and magazines. You will have to look in the past issues of the Ensign, November, 2008 under the title of “The Infinite Power of Hope.” Matching zone conference dressesIt emphasizes that “Hope in God, His goodness, and His power refreshes us with courage during difficult challenges.” Ever since President Uchtdorf and his wife came to Blanding and spoke to the institute there, he has been one of my favorite general authorities. That was before he was even made an apostle.

Beyond that, we took a few pictures in Lome and will include one or two. Cotonou was a different story. When we were in Lome last time, we seem to have lost our camera. We knew we had it with us wh

The Road to Lome (Part II)

We promised the finish of our “Road to Lome” series this week. After the visit of President and Sister Ayekoue and the zone conferences there is much more to write about, but first things first. After our conference in Cotonou on Thursday, it was back on the “Road to Lome” on Friday. There are many trucks on the road. Not any that we have seen look like Kenny’s truck. They are more on the order of Dad’s old 1971 Blue Mountain Timber dump truck, although once in a while you do see quite a nice one. That in itself is fine but without proper maintenance and constant over loading, there are broken down trucks everywhere. We even noticed one that was still broken down in the same place as last trip. To warn other drivers of their predicament, the drivers cut off limbs of nearby bushes and lay them in front and in back of the truck. One of the biggest problems encountered is that some of them blow so much black smoke it makes it difficult to see the oncoming traffic in order to pass. Though not on the road to Lome, if you proceed north towards Allada, there is one place where the road goes down into a fairly large draw. From both sides the road going down is straight and smooth – a really good road. In the bottom the water has collected and the road has deteriorated and is full of large pot holes. The funny thing (or perhaps I should say interesting thing) is all of the semi trailer that have come loose from their trucks as they hit the bottom and are scattered here and there and just left. There were probably no less than five the last time we went that way.

Both in Benin and Togo there is a constant need for douane or customs stops and police stops. We have a hard time trying to understand why and what is being checked as they always wave us on through. They seem to like to stop the taxis and trucks. RoadblockThe police just drag some kind of barrier across the road and you have to maneuver through. Sometimes it is a portable metal panel but other times it is just some old drums, or tires or chunks of wood or a combination–whatever seems to work. It is the driver’s problem on how to get through! Mentioning things in the road, in a construction zone, it is common procedure to Construction Zone or roaddump whatever is in your truck right in the middle of the road close to where it is needed. Again it is the driver’s problem how to get around it. Sometimes it is great to have a pickup.

40 cent toll boothThere are three toll booths between Cotonou and Lome which slow us down as real mean speed bumps are plentiful. Some are a series of narrow sharp ridges and others are wide mountains to get over. At least the maniac drivers slow down three times during the trip. I wish they would spend the toll fees on fixing the roads. I wonder where our 1400 cfs per trip go.

OuidahOuida is the birthplace of Voodooism and then it was exported to Haiti and other places with the slave trade in the 1700s and 1800s. The Ouida area and even here in Cotonou is still quite heavily populated with its followers. We don’t know too much about it other than it is classified as an animist religion. Voodoo FlagChicken sacrifices seem to be important. They identify their places with a white flag, and we see many of them along the way. We have no desire to stop and ask questions.

There are many gardens along the way where produce is being grown to be sold in the markets. They are well tended and everything is done by hand. Gardening in TogoFirst the soil is prepared with a grubbing hoe then squared off and different vegetables are planted. Sometimes the watering is even done with large watering buckets which are carried from a nearby well.

I suppose we could go on and on with this series, but enough is enough. What would really be fun is to have each of you here for awhile so you could ride with us and see the sights and we could visit along the way. With the distance involved, that will probably have to wait. We will surely have more opportunities to send pictures of our travels as President Ayekoue told us that the only help in sight is probably September. After that, I guess it won’t be our problem anyway.

We are late getting this sent this week so we will end and talk about zone conference and related items next week.

Gas Station

Gas Station

Interesting road

Interesting road

Beach near Togo-Benin Border

Beach near Togo-Benin Border

The Road to Lome (Part I)

Life in Africa continues to be an adventure. Each day when we wake up we think that it will be just another day, but surprisingly enough there is something interesting around every corner. By now we should be accustomed to seeing anything and everything on heads, anything and everything on motos and anything and everything in taxis and in trucks, but we are still amazed and even amused at what we see.

Julianne and Precious in front of Banana TreeWe began the week by taking Precious Dike and her kids out to Calavie to visit Soeur Julianne. We have not seen her for a few weeks as with our schedule of going to Togo and attending the three branches here we are losing contact with some of the members. We enjoy Calavie as we leave the big city atmosphere of Cotonou for the smaller, quieter and greener atmosphere there. We made a simple lunch to eat on the trip there, and the kids seemed to enjoy that. Visiting CalavieBut when we were visiting it was so “exciting” that they went to sleep and even Elder Black joined in for a little snooze himself. Soeur Julianne doesn’t always make it to church because of the distance but she is a very sweet person and always enjoys visits.

Monday evening we scheduled a great home evening with Pierre, his wife Rosemond and their three daughters. Look at the CameraWhen we first do a home evening we usually do “I Am a Child of God.” Pierre’s wife is not a member of the church, and it is easy to teach some basic principles of the gospel in this lesson. We emphasize that we are all children of our Heavenly Father and he loves us no matter where we live or how different we look from each other just as an earthly father loves all of his children even though the children look and act different. A raging game of Don\'t Eat PeteWe played “Don’t Eat Pete” and ate chocolate cake. A fun time was had by all. (Pierre said that the girls want us to come again tomorrow, but we are already scheduled for the Dikes as it is Precious’s birthday and she has invited us to their house.)

Since we spend so much time on the road to Lome and back, we will attempt to take you on the ride with us. Surprises happen so quickly that I missed some good ones on Thursday going to Lome. We actually passed a guy holding up a dead leopard offering to sell it, of course. We carry on our headsI wasn’t fast enough to get the picture and also missed the big dead rats being held up to show for sale and not to mention the chicken with its head cut off. Even along the roads in the more rural areas you see people walking with everything on their heads from large bundles of fire wood to piles of bread. Vehicles are stacked to the axle-breaking stage with goods being taken to the marches, personal items in baskets, furniture, and even motos on the roof. Roads aren\'t always smoothThe road is pretty bad in places and it is a constant strain to try to miss the potholes. Many of the drivers here drive like maniacs, so you never know if a vehicle will be coming down the wrong side of the road towards you so he can get just a little further ahead of the guy in front of him. It is surprising how three vehicles will fit across the road if the occasion calls for it.

Fisherman on Lac AhemeThe rural area is very beautiful with many coco palms and other vegetation. There is one place that has a heart shaped tree which is always a landmark of the trip. We also pass Lake Aheme which is very beautiful and there are always fishermen in their long log canoes. There are many people selling fish along the road, but we have not stopped to buy any yet. They look a little too scary for me.

Both coming and going this trip the border was fairly easy to maneuver. As you approach the border there are lines of trucks stopped unable to go any further as they are not quite legal, we think. Border CrossingSome of the poor truck drivers have been there so long that they eat, sleep and even do their laundry there. It is hard to describe the border as there are so many people selling things, beggars begging, trucks trying to get through plus the motos, cars and people. One of the guards on the Benin side looked at my name tag and started to laugh and said, “Soeur Black, no, it should be Soeur White. You’re not black.” All of the guards, coming and going were friendly this trip. We are getting so many pictures and the blog is late this week so we will end there and continue our “Road to Lome” pictures next week.

A load of Plantains

A load of Plantains

Bread on Head

Bread on Head

Fishermen on Lac Aheme

Fishermen on Lac Aheme

The Heart Tree

The Heart Tree

Faith

This week we taught Helene Briga about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We talked about faith being the first principle of the gospel. Faith in our Savior Jesus Christ is a very personal matter as we believe and trust in Him, even though we have not seen Him. We need to nurture this faith as we do a seed that is planted in the ground. When we plant a seed we have faith that it will produce the intended fruit, tree or vegetable. At the same time, it must be watered, have sunshine, and the weeds controlled for it to grow. The same principle applies to faith as it must be nurtured by prayer, keeping His commandments and following the promptings of the Holy Ghost. It takes effort to keep our faith nurtured and growing. As we meet some or our challenges here we are constantly reminded that we must keep our faith nurtured.

We came home from Togo on Tuesday and had a meeting with a proprietor of another building, but he is asking for a very high rental price so it appears that another find is lost. But we keep reminding ourselves that we must keep the faith and “work like it all depends on us and pray like it all depends on the Lord.”

Elder Aka\'s BirthdayWe were in Lome for Elder Aka’s birthday so we had he and Elder Samutamu over for a birthday dinner. One of our goals is to fix a special dinner for each elder on or near his birthday. We really enjoy this self-appointed assignment as it makes them feel special and gives us time to get to know the elders better. I think being invited over to a sit-down, American-style dinner is a new experience for the most of the African elders, but we don’t see them frowning at Soeur Black’s cooking.

Sister Felicite Akoha has been the Relief Society President of the old Cotonou Branch ever since we arrived. We have become pretty well acquainted as we have worked on various projects and have talked about her before. When she joined the church a few years ago, her husband was initially in favor and interested himself. Then, something changed and he became bitter and it ended in a divorce, so she has been a single mom to two children for 3 or 4 years now. Sister Felicite is a qualified nurse and helps everyone in the branch including us. It is very comforting to have her as a friend whenever anyone including an elder is sick. Between having her in Cotonou and Dr. Stubbs in Accra we at least have some good consultation for such occasions.

A few months ago, she came over to our house all excited. She had been corresponding with an old friend that she had grown up with, who was living in Ivory Coast, and he had agreed to starting taking the missionary lessons. In addition, Elder Elvis Sahoui from Cotonou was the missionary who was teaching him. To make a long story short, he was baptized, returned to Cotonou and they were quietly married at the mayor’s office a couple of weeks ago. The happy coupleThey are looking forward to going to the temple as soon as they can. We didn’t even find out about the wedding until the day before, and we were in Togo so we didn’t get to attend. We decided it would be a shame to let the occasion pass without some kind of recognition, so last night the missionary Blacks sponsored a reception at the church in their honor.

Soeur Black made a small but beautiful wedding cake and also a nice arrangement of artificial flowers. For refreshments, we served a fruit cup, a slice of chocolate cake, candy the Southams had sent over, and the required pop. No fete here is complete without the cases of pop. The kitchen helpSoeur Estelle coached us a little on how to serve refreshments in Africa. Generally speaking, people are not well enough disciplined that you can allow free access to food set out on a table. First you have all the plates ready to go and put them on the big trays that women carry on their heads. These trays are quickly refilled, and everyone is served who is sitting down. Two men carried the cases of pop around and gave each person a bottle of pop. It actually went very well, and we served about 125 people. Felicite, Guy, Hendrick and LilianneSoeur Felicite and her husband Guy we so thrilled and so were her two children Hendrick and Lilliane. It doesn’t take much to please people over here. Maybe our receptions have become too extravagant at home.

The branches are getting well established and we now have three nice branches meeting in Cotonou now where we used to have only one. Soeur Black and I try to get to a couple of Sacrament meetings whenever possible. Today I almost had to leave one meeting because I became so amused. The downside of having three branches is that three times as much music talent is required, and we were already a little short on talent. Nevertheless, we have some of the branch members who are rising to the occasion even though they haven’t been taking lessons very long and it is difficult and scary. One such “volunteer” is Eric who used to be the Branch mission leader and is now the Branch Clerk of Gbedjromede Branch. His wife Estelle (They were married in the triple wedding a few months ago) leads the music. On the closing hymn, Eric began to struggle a little with the tune so Soeur Estella just reached down and turned down the volume of the piano without ever missing a beat. When Eric recovered, Soeur Estella turned him back up again. Eric was concentrating so hard on his playing, I don’t think he ever even knew he had been “quieted.” So goes things in Africa.