Double cause for celebrations
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Members of the Baha'i community here had a double reason to celebrate this month.
The Baha'is marked the 50th anniversary of the Faith's activities in the nation.
It was also the first time in five years that the nine members of their national governing body could meet together in the capital.
The war that erupted in 1998 prevented members of the National Spiritual Assembly meeting here from then until now.
Congolese Baha'i Mayika Manseki described why the community was so happy to see all the National Spiritual Assembly members in Kinshasa.
"They are our liaison with the Universal House of Justice," Mrs. Manseki said, "and to have this institution we love so much present here with us is wonderful -- this is a sign of hope."
The jubilee celebrations in Kinshasa on 6 and 7 September 2003 began with the National Spiritual Assembly's message, read by its chairman, Nshisu Nsunga.
"Today our country is entering a crucial phase of its future," the message said.
"If the Baha'i model that our national community is striving to build, can in some way contribute to the renewal and construction of the infrastructures of our country, we humbly submit it for [the nation's] consideration."
A reconciliation program is now under way after five years of turmoil in this country, which was once known as the Belgian Congo, and then, after independence in 1960, by a variety of other names, including Zaire.
A vast country four times the size of France, it has a population of 56 million. It borders the smaller Republic of the Congo, whose Baha'i community celebrated its own 50th jubilee in August 2003. (See http://www.bahaiworldnews.org/story.cfm?storyid=246).
Attending the opening of the 50th jubilee festivities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was senior government representative, Jean Baptiste Nsa Lobete, Political and Diplomatic Counselor of the Governor of Kinshasa. He linked the jubilee to the rising climate of hope in the nation.
"Because the social development and the various economic endeavors of your faith across the country constitute a point of pride for all its members and leaders," Mr. Lobete said, "all of these wonderful results justify the respect that the authorities of this country feel towards the Baha'i community in particular when it comes to answer one or another of your concerns."
Some of the activities Mr. Lobete referred to include social and economic development field projects such as adult literacy initiatives in Kasai and Western and Eastern Kivu, community health projects in Southern Kivu, and community farming projects in Katanga and Southern Kivu.
Mr. Lobete particularly praised the Baha'i contribution to national education. The Baha'is have established primary and secondary schools in Katanga and throughout the country and centers for the promotion of the status of women and the education of children in Kinshasa and Katanga.
The vicechairman of the National Spiritual Assembly, Sefu Lemba, read a message from the Universal House of Justice that described the community as "stalwart and valiant" and said in part:
"Despite years of political strife and adversity that have severely torn the fabric of the society around you, the spirits of the believers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have remained unbroken, and you have managed to lay the foundations of a community whose influence is felt throughout the continent."
The program included songs from the Dawn of Carmel Choir, including performers who won acclaim throughout the Baha'i world as the Congo Youth Choir at the opening of the Terraces on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, in May 2001.
Among many others to sing were the Navvab Choir, and the Mona Choir from the neighboring Republic of the Congo.
The Millennium Theatre Troupe presented a play about the transforming effect of Baha'i teachings on family life.
Participants at the celebrations also learned more of the community's history, including the fact that there were esteemed visitors to their country 13 years before normal Baha'i activity could commence.
Those visitors were the then Head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi, and his wife, Madame Ruhiyyih Rabbani, who in 1940 drove across the eastern region of the Belgian Congo.
In 1953 Baha'is began formal efforts to start teaching the Baha'i Faith as part of a worldwide 10-year plan, directed by Shoghi Effendi, to bring the message of Baha'u'llah to the world.
Before that time, colonial authorities did not permit the promotion of the Faith by Baha'i pioneers (people who moved to the country to establish the Baha'i community).
Active attempts to spread the teachings began in 1953 when Ali Nakhjavani and his wife, Violette, driving across Africa from Uganda, took Ugandan Baha'i Samson Mungongo to the city of Kamina. (The Nakhjavanis carried on to the Middle Congo and British Cameroon.)
Congolese who had become Baha'is in Rwanda and Burundi moved back to settle in their home provinces.
The first Local Spiritual Assembly was elected in 1957, and there are now 541 assemblies. The first National Spiritual Assembly formed in 1970.
Traveling long distances within the country is often extremely difficult, so in some regional centers, Baha'is unable to attend the jubilee festivities in Kinshasa held their own celebrations in support of the main event.
Among the 600 participants at the celebrations in the capital were three of the first Congolese Baha'is: Louis Selemani, 81, Remy Kalonji, 83, and Valerien Mukendi, 83.
They were joined by a dozen former pioneers from Europe, North America and other parts of Africa.
One who could not make it was Ola Pawlowska, 93, though she participated in the celebrations by sending from her home in Canada a message of congratulations and love to a community to which she devoted three decades of her life.
Mulmaba Munanga, 51, a Congolese Baha'i, met Mrs. Pawlowska when he was a teenager. He has remembered words from her that changed his life.
"She would say, 'Mulamba, take this Faith as if it were your personal belonging because a personal belonging is something you take care of, something you love,'" said Mr. Munanga.
"As I always felt the truth of these words, I have always taken the Faith as a personal belonging and I have always wanted to serve as much as I possibly can -- if Baha'u'llah can give me the time and the strength to do so -- for the rest of my life."
Guests of honor at the jubilee included Mr. Nakhjavani, former member of the Universal House of Justice, and Mrs. Nakhjavani, an author, as well as Joan Lincoln, counsellor member of the International Teaching Centre, and Albert Lincoln, secretary-general of the Baha'i International Community. All four had spent many years as pioneers in Africa.
Mrs. Nakhjavani greatly moved the audience with her recollections of early visits she made to the country with Mr. Nakhjavani and later with Madame Rabbani.
Mr. Nakhjavani spoke at the gathering about the spiritual destiny of Africa and answered questions on subjects ranging from journalism ethics and the finer points of Baha'i law and scripture to personal problem solving.
Mrs. Lincoln updated the Baha'is on current projects and methods and paid a tribute: "We now see second and third generation Baha'is, and this is a true sign of the future of the Faith in this country, and all of this notwithstanding the years of conflict and adversities."
In the internal affairs of the community, the Baha'is have also made great strides, as pointed out by Laeticia Cigangu, a Baha'i for 26 years and an Auxiliary Board member.
Mrs. Cigangu said she remembered when she was the only Congolese woman in her local Baha'i community.
"Now," she said, "a quarter of that same community is composed of women. And nationwide, a good third of Baha'is are women."
"With the arrival of training institutes in our communities, you have to understand the Faith is not just something for Baha'is or intellectuals anymore, the way it was perceived for a long time. Now the Faith spreads through children's classes, so the next 50 years are full of hope!"
[Report and jubilee photographs by Violetta Zein in Kinshasa.]