"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
April 16, 2013
Developing Africa: How Church Members Can Help
by Imo Eshiet

Having schooled and worked in Africa all my life, I have intimate knowledge of the overwhelming challenges facing the pristine and dazzlingly beautiful continent. I also have deep insights about what could be done to place it on the path to recovery. More than 70% of Africans are choked by poverty, ignorance, superstition, disease and utter neglect. Western missionaries who have served there can readily validate these statistics, perhaps with more finesse than my closeness to its coarse reality allows me.

The vast arable lands in Africa notwithstanding, food insecurity is rampant in part due to climate factors since controlled in advanced countries. Official criminalities also contribute to famine and retardation. Education and health, as indeed almost every aspect of the human development, indices taken for granted in the West are in a starkly deplorable state of disrepair. In Nigeria with its demography of 167 million people, a staggering 70% of the population barely scrapes through life with nothing remotely close to what low income folks know in the West. Cringing impoverishment is widespread, although the nation is the world’s sixth largest producer of oil, a product it consistently sells for over $100 dollars per barrel.

The situation is so unbelievably dehumanizing that burgeoning numbers of its citizens annually troop out from the country to escape the grind and humiliations. In 2011, the nation was the 10th highest among asylum seekers in the world. The consequences of such high numbers of people fleeing their homeland are dire. In terms of global security, there is the danger of spreading terror, disease and accelerated human trafficking if the stampede is unchecked. Such huge movements of people could also retard Church growth and programs as trained leaders migrate from their locality.

The fight against poverty is one area where church members can intervene with inspiration, drive and foresight. While the Church is helping lift millions out of want, church policy does not allow for political involvement or the provision of structures that can best be handled by local institutions.

Leaders of many sub Saharan African countries today are products of early Christian missionary schools. The first wave of graduates from the west coast to the southern tip of Africa received their training from Fourah Bay College started by the Church Missionary Society in 1845 and becoming the first university in that region in 1876. Remarkably, timber from an old slave ship was recycled as roofing for the college. In addition to schools, these groups also set up clinics, hospitals and dispensaries to facilitate conversion to their faith. Most of the elite south of the Niger in Nigeria benefited from scholarships and incentives given by these groups. Though they recognize and appreciate the truth of the restored gospel when contacted by Latter-day Saint missionaries, these elite feel beholden to their old faith for this reason.

We do not need to ape those who arrived before us. However, given the thirst for knowledge in the land, assisting converts to satisfy their hunger for formal education and vocational training can have a domino effect. As Orson Card remarks in “Value in the Village”, when kids get proper education, they can make better choices about the friends they keep, the neighborhoods they live in and the kind of families they want to build. “By attaining certain income and educational levels”, Card stresses, they may “help their children enter a courtship pool that will lead them to happy, stable marriage. They try to find jobs that provide not only income but also satisfaction with the work they have done”.

In 2007, I visited the US for a conference. Using the opportunity to tour some colleges, I was shocked to see the sheer volume of books piled up in the hallways to be discarded in landfills. When told I could help myself to the books if I wished, my joy was ineffable. With the help of relatives, I carted the books away. But then I soon faced another challenge. I couldn’t afford to pay for the shipment to Nigeria where I knew my students would shed tears of joy to have those books regarded as outdated by institutions here.

As luck would have it, a family I met at Church heard of my dilemma and graciously offered to mail the books to me. The family even went further to buy the current editions of the books and sent them to me. When the books arrived, my house turned into an instant research center for both undergraduates and graduate students alike. Many students whose theses and dissertations were held up for want of access to books and journals were blessed by the kindness of that family because they were now able to complete and turn in their projects.

Having encountered extreme hardship in my quest for education, I was determined to help make the climb of others less arduous. The main issues were money, housing, books and equipment. I tried to scout for the few available scholarships for deserving students. While much sacrifice was required, frequent disruptions in school programs due to striking teachers, as government reneged on agreements, frustrated both time and effort to see the students through.

The climate of instability meant that when schools were shut down, students had to spend more time at home than at their institutions of learning and, as a result, plans and money spent on housing and resources went to seed. Whenever schools reopened, programs that could have been completed in a semester would be rushed through in a couple of weeks, thus making nonsense of structured process.

To get around the chaos, my wife and I even started building a school which we hoped could strive for globally acceptable standards, but along the way, cultural and political issues factored in and truncated efforts into which we had sunk our life savings.

I still believe setting up well equipped schools that run on time can make much difference in raising the quality of education and living standards of the students upon graduation. Students who acquire computer literacy, sound training in agriculture or exposure to courses that prepare them to pursue careers in the sciences, medicine, the social sciences and liberal arts stand a better chance of competent leadership in the future and pulling others up from depths that seem so inevitable in Africa.

My  dream is that there may be people everywhere who could volunteer to teach or support in other ways  if they knew about the desperation of African youths.  My hope rests with returned missionaries and others who might consider providing a place for LDS and non-LDS Africans to get an education not dependant on government salaries and policies, though not opposing government either.  As the church did in early Utah history and later in Polynesia and Latin America, maybe now is the time of need for education in Africa that committed LDS people could help facilitate.

As a career educator, I know that such a work could help shrink widespread disparities in the continent and serve as an elixir in a land where millions desperately yearn for knowledge and human capital development.

A Street in my Alma Mata: note the yawning potholes!

My high school going to seed due to neglect.

High School class in Nigeria.

I once took classes in this building!

I lived in one of these shacks in my high school in Nigeria

My high school clinic as it looks today!

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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