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Burkina Faso Mennonites forge faithful identity
November 7, 2008
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — With only about 500 active church members among the 15 million people living in the former French colony of Burkina Faso, Mennonites are virtually unknown – except for their reputation as peace builders.
According to Calixte Bananzaro, the 11 Burkina evangelical denominations partnering in biblical translation acknowledge peace building as one of the biggest contributions Mennonites have made.
Bananzaro, 50, is a pastor and National Coordinator for a Bible translation project in this economically challenged West African country. A Muslim until the age of 22, he considered Christians “pork eaters and drunkards.” He first met Mennonites when he got a government job and moved to Orodara. One of the pastors in the Mennonite Church there was a former childhood schoolmate of Bananzaro’s, and they renewed old ties.
His personal story and coming to faith is scarred with spiritual struggle. A dispute with a university professor forced him to repeat an entire term. He found this injustice so troubling that he “lost the taste of living” and attempted suicide three times.
Bananzaro often visited a Baptist centre in Ouagadougou to play its guitar. After the university incident he went to the centre one last time, planning to take his life upon returning home.
“It was here that I met the Lord,” he says solemnly. “A very strong voice told me ‘Stop” when I tried to leave. I tried again and this happened a second time, when others at the meeting invited me to stay, saying, ‘This is not a secret meeting.’”
Later, he was befriended by Siaka Traoré, the current president of the Burkina Faso Mennonite Church. Today, Bananzaro is often called upon to help resolve conflict.
Growing the faith
Bananzaro observes that for new Mennonites, developing maturity in the faith is a challenge when there are only seven Mennonite pastors in Burkina with sufficient training.
“One problem is that our young people are not prepared to move directly into church ministry. They want to study, get secure employment first and then help out the church.” Bananzaro himself taught English and German for seventeen years while helping the church. Now he sees the need to give one’s life over to work full time for the church.
Jeff and Tany Warkentin are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Ouagadougou. They are helping to start a church, called Foyer Evangélique Mennonite de Ouagadougou for Mennonite university students who come to the capital to study. Bananzaro serves as advisor to and co-leader for the young congregation.
“Having Jeff and Tany work with the Foyer is an opportunity to help local students listen for the Lord’s voice to guide them in their faith and life in the church,” says Bananzaro.
God at work
Bananzaro believes strongly that God is at work in the lives of Burkinabé Christians, and that role modeling is a strong witness.
“When [villagers] see how Christians prosper, they believe that missionaries are financing them. [But] Christians in the village are all [cooperatively] working as one family, and people see the difference there.”
Bananzaro’s own witness emphasizes the fruits of faithfulness that make for peaceful living.
“The message I give them is that Christians don’t spend a lot of money on traditional ceremonies. We don’t marry a lot of wives, and we don’t drink alcohol. We use our money for other things, and this makes us look more prosperous, and people notice this… trust your Lord and lead your peaceful life and you will not be afraid all the time. I see this is what the church is bringing to people.”
Mennonite Church leader a respected voice for peace
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Mennonite peace theology has played a role in national politics here – but it’s a virtually untold story.
Banazaro Calixte, 50, Mennonite church leader and Bible translator, related how President Blaise Compoaré sought to diffuse controversy and conflict: Compoaré has been implicated in the 1987 murder of Burkina’s popular and charismatic President Thomas Sankara during a 1987 coup d'état led by Compoaré.
On Feb. 21, 2001, Compoaré appointed a council to name a “Day of National Forgiveness”, after a continued political crisis following the suspicious 1998 death of investigative journalist Norbert Zongo. Zongo, an outspoken critic of the government, had himself been investigating two other suspicious deaths possibly implicating the Compoaré’s brother and chief advisor, Francois.
Compoaré appointed a council of Burkinabé leaders to advise him on how to implement such an event. When eleven evangelical denominations were approached to appoint a representative to the council, they choose Siake Traoré – today the President of the Burkina Faso Mennonite Church –because of his well known peace building beliefs and values.
Although a newspaper article at the time attacked Traoré for getting involved in the activity of what is popularly viewed as a corrupt government, Traoré stayed on. “This led to an opportunity to engage the president in dialogue about forgiveness – that it is more than just words,” said Bananzaro.
Subsequently, the council recommended and Compoaré announced a government compensation fund for all families of victims of political violence.
On March 30, 2001, the President delivered an apology for all crimes committed by his government before 30,000 people who filled a stadium in the capital of Ouagadougou, and further pledged to make the day an annual "day of remembrance for human rights and promotion of democracy."
Compoaré’s act of public contrition was heavily criticized at the time. Opposition leaders called it a government bid to evade its legal responsibilities.