Most of us are familiar with the teaching that one day the gospel will fill the entire earth, and that all people will someday embrace or at least have access to the church teachings in their own language. The church publicly espouses its intense desire to proclaim the gospel to every kindred, tongue, and people, yet when it comes to Africa, or at least certain parts of Africa, it would seem that actions speak louder than words.

I taught various courses on African history at BYU in the late-1990s. During Fall Semester, 1998, I invited the late Dr. E Dale LeBaron to take 50 minutes to discuss the role of the Church in Africa to about 25 students enrolled in one such course. As the author/editor of “All are alike unto God” (Bookcraft, 1990), a short volume of oral histories and testimonies of African converts to the church, Dr. LeBaron was then a popular speaker and noted church authority on the subject. His experience in Africa went back decades, in fact, having served as a Mission President in South Africa in the late-1970s when the revelation was received in Salt Lake allowing black males to hold the priesthood.

I asked Dr. LeBaron about this experience: could he describe to my students what it was like to be the first Mission President to send missionaries into the black townships of South Africa? He said that at the time in meetings with church leaders “one of the brethren” took him aside and warned him that it would not be wise to allow the church in South Africa to develop like it already had in New Zealand, where darker-skinned Maoris had joined in such numbers as to seriously alter the demographic profile of the church, in a way that had certain negative consequences, about which Dr. LeBaron did not elaborate. Dr. LeBaron, however, said to my students that he took this as wise counsel to “go slow” in South Africa. He therefore did not call upon his missionary force to actually proselyte in black townships, but merely asked (white) members to share the gospel with their black friends and associates. In a nation then under Apartheid rule, with strict segregationist racial policies in force, this was a “go slow” policy if there ever was one.

At this point in his narrative Dr. LeBaron noticed the stunned look on my face, and he immediately moved to his slide projector; his images filled the rest of the hour and I didn’t have a chance to ask him any further questions, such as: how is it, that the church would not want a “black” church in a country that is/was about 90 per cent black? What would be the negative consequences if such a thing were to occur?

In some parts of the continent, the “go slow” policy appears to continue to prevail. I have been traveling to East Africa nearly every year since 1992, for language study, for historical research, and to give lectures. For a few summers I also led groups of BYU students to East Africa. I accompanied Dr. LeBaron, for example, on one of these student programs in 1994; in that year we stayed with LDS families, interviewed individual members of the church about their spiritual experiences, and saw the church up close in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Particularly in Kenya the church appeared to be doing rather well; one aspect of the church that members seemed to appreciate, and which differentiated the LDS Church from other Christian denominations, was the lay priesthood. The blessings of the lay priesthood were obvious to see: male members of the church took active and leading roles; instead of having a Sunday church experience confined to sitting in proverbial silence in the pews, listening to a pastor from overseas, and then returning home, Kenyan Mormons appeared to be fully engaged and to take great satisfaction in every aspect of the three-hour meeting bloc. The priesthood leaders I met appeared to be enthusiastic and competent about their church service. All services were in English.

I lived for nearly all of 1995 with the first Tanzanian family to convert to the church, the Mfundo family of Dar es Salaam. Philip, the father, served for years as a branch president. At the time the church had been in existence in Tanzania—a nation of about 37 million people—for only about four years; there were three branches in Dar es Salaam, and none anywhere else. The church was adopting an official “centers of growth” policy, which emphasized building up a cadre of committed and competent local leaders in Dar es Salaam, before expanding anywhere else. All services were in English; all the North American missionaries I knew, with only a couple of exceptions, never learned Swahili, the national language. There were no Books of Mormon or proselyting materials in Swahili, and when I went on exchanges with the missionaries they noted that they often walked the streets looking for satellite dishes on the tops of houses as evidence of the prosperity of the residents inside, and their presumed command of English. Then, as now, only about 6-8% of Tanzanians have any fluency in English.

I spent most of the summer of 1998 shuttling back and forth between Dar es Salaam and Ndengele, a tiny fishing village on Lake Nyasa, where BYU had donated fishing nets, and where we were trying to establish and operate a village fishing cooperative. By that time the church had published a volume of selected chapters of the Book of Mormon, translated into Swahili, although very few were actually available in East Africa. I took one copy to Ndengele, and as I was about to leave with my students for a couple weeks, I gave it to a friend of mine there, explaining the whole story of Lehi’s family coming across the ocean to the Western Hemisphere, the restoration of the gospel, and so on. I left the copy with him, and when I returned a couple weeks later, he appeared delirious with happiness. He said he had read the whole book, and had told many others in the village about Lehi and his family, about ancient prophets in the Americas, and so on. He had formed a reading and study group, and several people—as many as ten—had already come forward, requesting baptism. They were only awaiting further guidance from us.

It was my sad task to inform him that due to the “centers of growth” policy, and because Ndengele was a two-day trip over terrible roads from Dar es Salaam, there would be no missionaries, and no baptisms in his village.

Philip Mfundo has since passed away, but his wife, Emma, remains active in the church in Dar es Salaam. I visited her only a couple weeks ago. She reports that church services are still in English, that there are now five branches instead of three in Tanzania, and that the missionary force continues to receive no training in Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa, spoken by over 100 million people.

Finally, a few thoughts … If there is a “field white, all ready to harvest,” it is Tanzania. Christian missionaries have for long been active in the region, with remarkable success, and without legal restrictions. Starting from nothing just over a century ago, the country is now about half Christian, and most Mormons convert from other Christian denominations. The country is generally safe, politically stable, and developing rapidly economically, albeit from a very low base.

The LDS church in Tanzania, however, after nearly 20 years of existence, has only a couple hundred or so members appear each Sunday because it conducts services in a language unknown to the vast majority of Tanzanians, and because its missionary force is hopelessly hamstrung. Most live in rural areas or small towns, yet the church does not seem that interested in Tanzanians who live outside major cities.

Thus, the “centers of growth” policy has failed, in that the church remains needlessly irrelevant to the lives of millions of potential converts. Or, worse, the “centers of growth” policy has succeeded in its apparent aim to slow or at least (too) carefully modulate the growth of the church in this part of Africa, and perhaps others as well.