SBC Life Articles

West Africa: An Overview

Could West Africa be won to Christ over a glass of sweet tea?

Maybe, if you drink it with the right people: village chiefs, religious leaders, heads of family clans, young trailblazers of the future.

That's exactly what some Southern Baptist missionaries in West Africa are doing. Several people groups in the region savor an elaborate tea ceremony: The host brews and serves progressive rounds of strong, hot tea to guests. Each glass gets sweeter, symbolizing the growth of friendship. Friendship opens ears — and hearts.

They Yearn for Living Water

But the 287 million people of West Africa thirst for something far sweeter than tea. They yearn for Living Water.

God desires for the people here to worship Him, according to Randy Arnett, IMB regional leader for West Africa. "They just don't know it yet," he said.

Arnett and other IMB missionaries in West Africa intend to tell them. But they can't do it without a major increase in participation by Southern Baptists. The IMB has set aside all of 2006 to focus on reaching West Africa with the Gospel.

The Challenge of West Africa

• There are 1,612 people groups spread across twenty-two countries — an area nearly as large as the continental United States.

• More than three hundred and fifty of those peoples have no access to the Gospel. Half of the region's population is unreached (less than 2 percent evangelical). IMB workers currently work among only fifty-two West African people groups.

• Half of the region's people are Muslim. About 40 percent of West Africans claim Christianity in some form. However, African traditional religions — animism, ancestor worship, fear of spirits, belief in charms, and spells — permeate the area, influencing both Muslims and Christians.

• Ethnic and social conflict, unstable governments, and poverty haunt many parts of West Africa. Malaria, AIDS, and other diseases are widespread. Life expectancy is under fifty years. Malnutrition is high; literacy is low. More than half of West Africans live on less than a dollar a day.

• Then there's the climate — hot and hotter. In some areas, high humidity makes it hard to function. In others, drought parches the land.

"It's dry, dirty, and hot," Arnett freely admits of the region he loves. "It's not a tourist destination. If you want five-star hotels, air conditioning, and a McDonald's on every corner, this isn't the place for you. But we have God-called men and women who have said, 'I will forsake the comforts and security of America, and I will come and live in this environment.'"

Reclaiming West Africa for Christ

Some say the unreached peoples of West Africa will never be reached.

They're wrong.

"They said Muslims would never listen," reports a missionary prayer update from Guinea-Bissau. "(But) Muslim villages are crying out for Jesus Christ. Village chiefs are requesting pastors, missionaries, or laymen to come and teach them about Jesus. Muslims are taking the JESUS film to their villages because there aren't enough believers willing to go themselves."

In Senegal, a missionary answered a knock at his gate and found a Muslim imam (worship leader) standing there.

"I was told to come to you because of what I've been hearing (about Jesus) on the radio," the imam said. "I've been listening for ten years, and I believe Jesus is the Son of God. What am I supposed to do about it?"

Today, he's telling people the chronological Bible stories designed for Muslim listeners seeking truth.

"We are going to reclaim West Africa for Jesus Christ," says Randy Arnett, the International Mission Board's regional leader.

IMB missionaries in West Africa have three main strategies:

Engaging — Contacting and beginning work among unengaged peoples who have no access to the Gospel. Southern Baptist volunteers and churches will play an increasingly important role in this effort.

Advancing — Helping missionaries and local believers effectively evangelize and disciple engaged people groups, setting the stage for church-planting movements.

Co-partnering — Relating and cooperating strategically with national Baptist partners at every level.

Looking for Thousands of Volunteers

IMB missionaries are looking for more God-called men and women to join them in reaching the big, "pivotal" people groups of the region who can, in turn, reach others. They're looking for thousands of Southern Baptist volunteers. And they're looking for hundreds of churches willing to take on the strategic challenge of locating the many "micropeoples" — populations of fifteen thousand or less — and sharing Jesus with them.

The IMB's missions team in West Africa needs you — your prayers, your commitment, your resources, and your church — to help.

The IMB set aside all of 2006 to focus on reaching West Africa with the Gospel. That is the focus of this year's Week of Prayer for International Missions.

For resources and information on praying for the peoples of West Africa, serving there as a missionary or volunteer, or strategically involving your church, visit GoWestAfrica.org.



West Africa Fast Facts


The region is composed of twenty-two countries with a population of 240 million.

The country of Nigeria accounts for 45.7 percent of the region's population.


Approximately 75 percent of the region's population is under thirty years of age and 45 percent is fourteen years of age or younger.

The region has 1,612 people groups. Of these groups, 355 (22 percent) have not heard the name of Jesus. Currently, fifty-two people groups representing 28 percent of the population are being reached by the IMB.

In a recent report for the countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate was estimated at 6.5 percent in 1999. It is now projected to reach 9.3 percent in 2010. Also by 2010, it is estimated that there will be 3,288,000 AIDS orphans.


The people of West Africa are subsistence farmers, producers of dark blue cloth, fishermen, nomadic cattle and sheep herders, seamstresses, retailers, government workers traders, and merchants.

Of the population, 39.4 percent claim to be Christians and 50.1 percent is Islamic.

Another 10.5 percent of the population is involved with African Traditional Religion (ATR), sometimes called Animism. ATR, which involves the worship of ancestors, is the way a large number of Africans, including many who claim Islam or Christianity, look at the world and experience life.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges