Two reasons for festivities
BANJUL, The Gambia — The Baha'i community of this West African country had a double reason to celebrate last month.
The first was the opening of a new national Baha'i center in the coastal town of Bakau, about 10 km from the capital.
The second reason for celebration was the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Baha'i Faith to the country.
The consecutive festivities were held 24-26 December 2004.
Among the more than 200 people attending the opening and dedication ceremony of the national center, held on 24 December 2004, were representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim communities.
Also present were the nation's solicitor-general, Raymond Sock, and Mrs. Sock; the headman (Alkalo) of Bakau, Alhaji Luntung Jaiteh; a representative of the local mayor of Kanifing municipality; business people; and other dignitaries.
Baha'i participants came not only from The Gambia -- including remote areas -- but also from neighboring Senegal and from Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau, as well as other countries in Africa, Europe, North America, and Asia.
Eleven members of the Continental Boards of Counsellors attended part or all of the festivities.
An uplifting performance by the Dakar Baha'i choir opened the dedication ceremony, followed by the reading of messages from the National Spiritual Assembly and other Baha'i institutions and individuals around the world. Precious gifts from the beleaguered Baha'i community in Iran were presented and gratefully received.
The keynote speaker, Wendi Momen, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United Kingdom, told the gathering that the Baha'i Faith was centered on a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all people and all countries.
"Baha'is believe that by developing our spiritual nature, by acquiring those virtues and personal values that are truly reflections of the divine -- individuals are better placed to work with others to create communities and a world that is peaceful, just, prosperous, and united," said Dr. Momen, who first came to The Gambia in 1976 as a doctoral researcher.
The ceremony continued with a performance by Les Etincelles, a Baha'i dance troupe from Dakar. That was followed by displays of books and historical photographs and then a celebratory dinner.
The center will provide a venue for administrative and devotional meetings, study circles, children's classes, and social and economic development programs, such as free computer lessons for the public.
The program for the jubilee celebrations, which began on 25 December 2004, opened with performances on the balafon (African xylophone). The history of the Faith in The Gambia was told in both the Wolof and English languages. Then the Gambian Baha'i choir, The Nightingales of Gambia, made a dramatic entrance to the venue complete with drumming and songs.
The story of the introduction of the Baha'i Faith to The Gambia, by Fariborz Ruzbehyan, came from his grandson, Iraj Sarvian, who traveled to The Gambia from the United States for the jubilee celebrations.
Mr. Ruzbehyan arrived in The Gambia on 19 February 1954. For that service, Shoghi Effendi bestowed upon him the accolade of Knight of Baha'u'llah.
Shortly after his arrival, suffering greatly from asthma and fever, Mr. Ruzbehyan had to be admitted to a hospital but his seeming misfortune turned into delight when he was able to introduce the Faith to a fellow patient, Nelson Ethan Thomas, who soon became the first indigenous Baha'i.
During his two years in The Gambia, Mr. Ruzbehyan saw 300 people accept the Baha'i teachings, and he helped with the elections of six Local Spiritual Assemblies. He returned briefly in 1957 and purchased a house in Serkeunda to serve as a Baha'i center.
Other historical accounts at the festivities came from Baha'is who had left other countries to settle in The Gambia, and from Baha'is who had visited as travelling teachers of the Faith.
They recalled the dedicated service of many Baha'is who had since died, and also recounted many anecdotes of their experiences.
Among the Baha'is recalled with great affection was a dedicated pioneer from Ghana, Yaw Asare, who served on the National Spiritual Assembly and passed away in a tragic accident in 1992.
The first Gambian woman to be elected to the National Spiritual Assembly, Ramatoulie Dem, was warmly remembered by her granddaughter and namesake.
Others who were spoken of with great admiration included Baha'i teachers and administrators Shala Ardekani-Neyestani, Muhammad Djalali, Rose Camara, and Inayatullah Fananapazir.
Stories were also told of the inspiring visits of Madame Ruhiyyih Rabbani and other Hands of the Cause of God, including Musa Banani, Enoch Olinga and Rahmatullah Muhajir.
The program on 26 December 2004 began with the reciting of prayers and verses by Baha'i children from Lamin Village.
The keynote speaker, prominent Baha'i author Moojan Momen, who had served the Faith in The Gambia as a youth in 1968, addressed the participants.
"In the past, revolutions and social upheavals really only changed the few people at the top and left the masses at the bottom," Dr. Momen said.
"In this day, a truly extraordinary change enunciated by Baha'u'llah is in the process of being realized. This change puts the affairs of the people in the hands of the people.
"It is an empowerment that requires great changes in the traditions, thinking, and acting of the people. It is not something that will occur suddenly; rather it is a gradual but inevitable process."
Members of the Continental Board of Counsellors, Beatrice Asare of Ghana and Tessema Asfaw of Ethiopia, also addressed the gathering.
The joyous celebrations concluded with a picnic at Sanyang Beach.