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‘Paris of West Africa’ draws mission focus

[SLIDESHOW=39387,39386]EDITOR’S NOTE: Ivory Coast was the country of focus for the 2014 International Mission Study by Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU). Find resources to support the study at wmu.com/IMS and imb.org/ims.

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (BP)– Standing beside Ébrié Lagoon, Hotel Ivoire rises 24 stories into a humid sky. The luxury hotel’s white tower is an Abidjan landmark. It soars high over the lush green landscape stretching out below and is hedged by gardens and pools. It is situated in the Cocody area, an affluent locale where embassies, Ivory Coast’s foremost university and wealth reside.

The hotel’s renovated lobby and sleek interior disguise the fact that in 2011, this place resounded with the tramp of military boots as French forces were quartered here. Protests and violent confrontations took place at the hotel gates, and Cocody turned into a war zone. The Golf Hotel, another resort farther east along the palm-fringed lagoon shore, came under mortar and small-arms fire. Not far away, the presidential residence came under attack to oust former president Laurent Gbagbo. But violence wasn’t limited to Cocody; it ran riot throughout the city.

A new day

While United Nations peacekeepers remain on the ground, Abidjan is rebuilding after a decade of war and political upheaval, which concluded with Gbagbo’s arrest in April 2011. The university reopened in late 2012 after it was wrecked by the 2011 period of conflict — combatants and vandals stripped buildings bare. Now new lecture halls, libraries, student buildings and sports facilities fill the campus.

Elsewhere in the city, outward evidence of the fighting is fading.

Perhaps the most notable change to the cityscape is the recent completion of a desperately needed third bridge crossing the lagoon that divides Abidjan. According to Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan, more than 200,000 vehicles converge on the city’s two other bridges daily. The new bridge linking the city’s northern and southern sections had been put on hold for a decade during the turmoil.

Then and now

Abidjan, home to about 6 million people, is the economic and industrial capital of Ivory Coast. It was also the political capital until 1983, when longtime President Félix Houphouët-Boigny (pronounced oof-WEH bwahn-YEE) relocated the capital north to his hometown of Yamoussoukro. And though Houphouët-Boigny transformed the formerly small Yamoussoukro into an impressive new capital — with buildings including the world’s largest church (patterned after, but even bigger than, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City) and an airport that could handle Concorde flights — official offices and embassies remained in Abidjan.

The coastal city of Abidjan is also a strategic port located on the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. Roads and highways leading from the port make it a travel hub for landlocked West African countries. These travel routes fanning out into the neighboring inland countries of Mali and Burkina Faso bring thousands to this growing metropolis.

For decades after Ivory Coast’s independence from France in 1960, Abidjan was the capital of one of the most stable West African countries, and its well-ordered infrastructure and tropical beauty earned it the nickname “the Paris of West Africa.” Its economy — based mostly on agriculture — thrived; in fact, it is the world’s largest cocoa bean producer and exporter. Other exports include coffee, rubber and palm oil.

But with Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993, that period of stability came to an end. Conditions in the country deteriorated with a number of coups, the devaluation of its currency, a recession and, most destructively of all, a short-lived (2002-2003), but not well-resolved, civil war.

Cultural geography

International Mission Board missionaries Mike and Heather McAfee came to Abidjan in 2007 to work with one ethnic group: the Mossi, who are primarily from Burkina Faso as well as Mali and Togo. Eventually, though, their job description expanded to the entire city, which is an extremely diverse place.

“Abidjan is made up of just over 60 indigenous language groups, ethnic groups that are indigenous to the Ivory Coast, and that’s not counting the immigrants that come from the other countries such as Burkina Faso, Liberia, Ghana or Mali,” Mike McAfee explained. Fortunately the McAfees don’t often struggle with multiple languages among the city’s inhabitants; as a remnant of Ivory Coast’s colonial heritage, French remains the official language of the country and its schools. In fact, Abidjan is one of the largest French-speaking cities in the world.

As the urban team leaders, it’s the McAfees’ assignment to not only understand Abidjan and its multitude of ethnicities and neighborhoods but also make an impact here for Christ.

Obstacles on every corner

“There are a lot of obstacles that we face. One of the biggest is what I call the ‘theology of place,’ where if you walk … or you drive around our city, you see mosques almost on every corner,” Mike McAfee explained. “I liken it back to being in the South because I’m from [Tennessee], and when you drive around the cities of the South, almost on every corner there’s a Baptist church.”

He estimated that 45 percent of Abidjan’s population is Muslim. There is also a strong representation of Roman Catholics, reflecting the French historical connections.

Mike McAfee said because of the cultural significance of worshipping in buildings like mosques and big, beautiful Catholic churches, encouraging seekers or new Christians to meet as small groups in makeshift places is difficult.

“There’s no loyalty to those small groups, so to get the small group to ‘church’ is the obstacle. How do you get them to realize that this small group is going to become a church? We just have to have patience, and we have to wait on that,” he said. “Yes, it’s good to evangelize. And yes, it’s good to start small groups. But when these people accept Christ, we have to have someplace for them to go.”

Another unmistakable obstacle the McAfees encounter in sharing Christ is the influence of African tribal religions.

“Islam and Catholicism allow them to bring [a degree of] that animistic belief with them,” Mike McAfee said. “What we’re telling them to do — and it’s an obstacle — is to drop all that … where Jesus says, ‘I’m the way, the truth and the life and no man comes to the Father except through me.’ We’re teaching them that Jesus is the way, not a way, and that they can’t bring their other beliefs in with them.

“It’s a big obstacle. They don’t want to. They want to continue on, and so we pray that they will be able to drop their other religions, their other gods, and only follow Christ.”

A church in every quartier

As urban church planters, the McAfees’ ultimate vision is to plant a church in every quartier, or neighborhood, in Abidjan. Mike McAfee estimated that there are 30 existing Baptist congregations — most with fewer than 100 members — in the city. To accomplish such a daunting task in this sprawling metropolis, the couple have turned to Southern Baptist churches in the United States to join with them to get the job done.

In July 2013, for example, a team from Valley Baptist Church in Searcy, Ark., came to Abidjan on a vision trip to consider how God might use their church in this city. The McAfees helped the team explore areas that would be good locations for a church plant as team members worked with translators and members of Treichville Baptist Church in Abidjan, which would be the ongoing presence.

Team members, translators and local church members went into areas without a Baptist presence and worked together in evangelizing, reaching out to the community and telling stories to the community to start small groups that will eventually become Baptist churches, Mike McAfee explained. A similar team came the previous May and was successful in drawing new members to an existing small church.

“I can’t do it by myself,” Mike McAfee said. “Heather can’t do it by herself. We need the churches from the States. We need the churches that are already here in Abidjan, and we all need to work together to start these churches so we have a place for people to come [to] worship God.”

One way U.S. churches can support the McAfees is by giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

“It’s only through Lottie Moon and … the Cooperative Program that Heather and I can come here and do what we do,” McAfee said. “It’s only through Lottie Moon and the Cooperative Program that we have a car to drive and a house to live in. If it wasn’t for that, we couldn’t stay here, we couldn’t be here doing what we do. … Through giving to Lottie Moon, believe it or not, you support us, you are on mission with us.”

    About the Author

  • Elaine Gaston