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Hindu festival in E. Africa illustrates need to proclaim Gospel

EAST AFRICA (BP)–Kneeling next to the gigantic bonfire, a woman fans the smoke closer — to cleanse her body. Nearby, a man rummages in the fire, hoping to extract a burning stick to take home. Others scoop smoldering ashes into containers. All hope these acts will cleanse their souls of any demons and bring good luck for the rest of the year.

Despite heavy rains, thousands of Hindus living in East Africa recently flocked to a festival commemorating the destruction of the 10-headed demon, Ravana, thousands of years ago. This ceremony, called Dussehra, celebrates the mythical victory of good over evil. Giant 20-foot effigies of Ravana, stuffed with firecrackers, are lit with flaming arrows.

A crowd gathers around a truck that carries actors depicting the tale of Prince Rama and the 10-headed demon. A South Asian man points out Hanuman, the king of monkeys. “There,” he says to his children. “He’s the hero. With his long tail, he set fire to the demons and helped to vanquish all evil in the world.”

The father ushers his children closer to the burning effigy as he continues the story.

Forced into exile, Prince Rama’s wife, Sita, was kidnapped by a 10-headed demon and held captive on the island of Sri Lanka, the father recounts. Rama searched for her and finally rescued her after she was located by Hanuman and his monkey army. The demon, Ravana, was destroyed by fire because of his evil ways, the father concludes.

“This is an important ceremony. It shows the triumph of Lord Rama over the demon king,” an East African Hindu woman says after kneeling in prayer next to the burning effigy. “Demons are around us every day. This is a chance for people to cleanse themselves of the evil within them, allowing them to follow a path of virtue and goodness.”

A small but influential South Asian population lives and works in East Africa. Those celebrating Dussehra are mostly Punjabi Hindus, descendants of South Asians who came to Africa as laborers for the British Empire. Today, around 500,000 live in East Africa and make their living as shopkeepers and businessmen.

Christian workers say the number of believers among South Asians living in Africa reflects the number of believers in South Asia — very few. A rough estimate of South Asians in the region has the number of Christians hovering around 300. Considering that 7,000 turned out on a rainy night for the Dussehra festival, Christian workers say more laborers are needed to help spread the Gospel.

Those workers ask Southern Baptists to pray that:

— chronological Bible storying can be done in homes of South Asians where idols and gods fill the bookshelves and walls.

— workers will be led to South Asians who have open hearts and are ready to hear the Gospel story.

— more laborers will come to help spread the Gospel in culturally appropriate ways.

— God will strengthen and enable Christian workers who minister among South Asians in Africa.
Outreach in East Africa: https://imb.org/cesa.