Light of the spirit shines in the Congo

August 29, 2003
Children at the opening ceremony.

BRAZZAVILLE, Congo Republic — Teachings on peace prompted Anselme Nkouka to become a Baha'i during the earliest years of the Baha'i community here.

"I became a Baha'i because Baha'is even then spoke of peace when no one else did -- Baha'u'llah's message was addressing this issue," said Mr. Nkouka.

An interview with Mr. Nkouka was part of a documentary film shown to participants as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations held from 29 to 31 August 2003 to mark the introduction of the Baha'i Faith to this country.

Like Marie-Joseph Sommere and Francois M'Bemba, who were also shown in the film, Mr. Nkouka, now 86, learned of the Baha'i Faith through the man who brought the Faith here, Ugandan Max Kanyerezi.

The Baha'i community, which now has 20 Local Spiritual Assemblies, celebrated its golden jubilee by honoring the struggles of the past, looking forward to its future and enjoying the present.

The event involved 28 theatrical and musical performances, including a play by a theater troupe from Pointe Noire.

"Everyone wants peace today, and everyone talks of peace -- it is quite a common topic -- but in the past, it was not so common," Mr. Nkouka said.

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Peace remains a vital issue in a country that has suffered through severe political and social unrest.

The national Baha'i center -- the venue of the jubilee festivities -- was seized by the communist regime in 1978 and occupied for 14 years.

During that period, the Baha'i community was forced to stop its organized activities. Baha'is supported one another through mutual encouragement and informal family contacts, but without their elected administrative bodies.

In 1992, a new democratically elected government gave legal recognition to the Baha'i community.

The Baha'is reinstated their administration, regained use of the national center, and energetically resumed their activities.

Although there has been civil unrest, including two civil wars since 1992, the country, with its 2.9 million population, is now healing from its wounds. In Brazzaville, on the edge of the mighty Congo river, buildings are being repaired, and roads paved. The city, its stately avenues bordered by flamboyant and mango trees, is mending slowly.

Today, the Baha'i community is actively contributing to the development of the country through conducting children's education, providing opportunities for artistic creativity, holding capacity building study circles for adults, and welcoming the public to spiritual gatherings for prayer and readings from holy writings.

The jubilee celebrations, attended by 200 Baha'is, began with a brief welcome by the chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly, Ruffin Kinzuku.

Then, as the message of the Universal House of Justice was read, the Congolese Baha'is stood up out of respect.

"That you are coming together under such auspicious circumstances," said the message, "is a testimony to the tenacity, resolve and unflagging devotion of the followers of Baha'u'llah in the Congo Republic, who have been able to maintain their integrity as a community while the society around them erupted in conflict."

The Baha'i Faith came to the French Congo (then called the Middle Congo, now Republic of the Congo) on 20 September 1953 when Ali Nakhjavani and his wife, Violette, driving a small car through the jungles from Uganda, dropped off Mr. Kanyerezi in Brazzaville.

Mr. Nakhjavani, a recently retired member of the Universal House of Justice, and Mrs. Nakhjavani, an author, attended the jubilee as guests of honor and received a heartfelt welcome.

Speaking in French, Mr. Nakhjavani addressed the crowd on the great destiny of Africa. He recalled his reaction when only 20 years old to first reading the description in the Baha'i writings of black people as like the "pupil of the eye" through which the "light of the spirit shineth forth".

Mr. Nakhjavani: "And I said to myself, Ali, why did God make you white? Why didn't God make you black? Why weren't you born in Africa? Why were you born here, in Asia? I am telling you the truth; those were my thoughts when I realized the high, exalted station Baha'u'llah gave the African people.

"His words, dear friends, were not compliments but the truth for the world to see."

Later, in a two-hour question and answer session, Mr. Nakhjavani addressed topics ranging from Baha'i scripture and history, to personal spiritual growth.

Mr. Nakhjavani also spoke at the grave of his friend, Gudratullah Azemikhah, who contributed greatly to the Baha'i community after arriving, two years after independence, in 1962.

Mrs. Nakhjavani enthralled the audience with an account of the historic journey she and her husband undertook in 1953. They dropped off Ugandan Baha'is Enoch Olinga, Samson Mugono, and Max Kanyerezi at their respective posts in the Belgian Congo, Middle Congo and British Cameroon, as part of the worldwide project for the expansion of the Baha'i Faith.

Also present at the celebration was Dr. Ezzatullah Tai, 73, originally from Iran and now of France, who played a key role in assisting the growth of the Congolese Baha'i community.

Other guests of honor included Joan Lincoln, Counsellor Member of the International Teaching Centre, and her husband, Albert Lincoln, Secretary-General of the Baha'i International Community in Haifa, Israel.

Mrs. Lincoln conveyed inspiring news from around the world, of Baha'i communities actively engaged in activities similar to those in the Congo: children's classes, capacity building study circles for adults, devotional gatherings, and projects to help rebuild the society.

In his public address, Mr. Lincoln paid tribute to the endurance of the Baha'i community.

"To extract the true and deep meaning of the event we are gathered here to celebrate, we must place it in its proper historical and human context, a scene in which the dominant color is not that of a rose but of red, the red of blood, of heart and of sacrifice."

Mr. Lincoln said that we had to accept trials because they were part of a larger process of "finding a way to live together like the global human family we are and were created to be".

Mr. Lincoln's speech was applauded by Mr. Roger Packa, Cabinet Director for the High Commission charged with Moral and Spiritual Education, a branch of the Presidency of the Republic of the Congo.

National television news reported the jubilee, and Mr. Lincoln gave an interview on the radio and on one of the country's most popular TV shows.

Brazzaville Baha'i Urbain Niamba said the jubilee gave him a new vision of the future of the Faith in the Congo.

"I am sure that the creativity present in the celebrations will encourage more use of the arts and culture among the youth in the Baha'i community."

[Report and photographs by Violetta Zein in Brazzaville.]