Monday, October 3, 2011

Building a temple in the poorest place on earth??

Over the weekend, in their semiannual general conference, the LDS Church announced it is planning to build a temple in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Currently the church has temples (houses of worship more sacred than the common meeting-house, or chapel) in Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. Thus the Congo temple will fill a much-needed gap in central Africa, where the church is apparently thriving. For those unfamiliar, the DRC is often referred to as Kinshasa Congo (and formerly was Zaire) to distinguish it from the country to the west called Republic of the Congo, which has Brazzaville (just across the river from Kinshasa) as its capitol.

For context, DR Congo is the region’s elephant in the room, as it sits smack dab in the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa and is the continent’s second largest county. It has a population greater than 71 million, ~96% of whom are Christian, perhaps accounting for some of the LDS Church’s success in an unlikely region. The country has been suffering the appalling effects of the Second Congo War, which started in 1998 and has claimed the lives of ~5.4 million people (most to diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, and malnutrition). To this day, fighting continues in the east of the country, which makes it all the more shocking that the LDS Church is able to maintain a mission in the region (called the DRC Lububumbashi mission, which is in addition to the DRC Kinshasa mission in the west).

At first I was somewhat amazed at the audacity of the Church to build in Congo, as by some measures it’s the poorest country on the planet (~$300 per capita GDP in 2010). I have recently been reading the harrowing 2007 tale of a Belgian couple crossing the southern half of Congo in a Land Cruiser; this was the first such trip made in 20 years. They journey from Lubumbashi near the Zambian border to Kinshasa in the western-most part of the country, dealing with hostile, machete-wielding villages; washed out bridges; jungle walking paths substituting for roads; abandoned ferries needed to ford rivers; and an almost non-existent political-security infrastructure which leaves them vulnerable to the capriciousness of local officials. They somehow survive the insane journey partially through the network of (somewhat disenchanted) Catholic missions that dot the wild region.

Fortunately the LDS Church will be building the temple in Kinshasa, the capitol, which lies along the Congo river in the extreme west of the country and, while poor by any standard, has at least rudimental infrastructure, and a population of over 8m people. This makes it the second largest city in sub-Saharan Africa after Lagos, and the third largest in all of Africa after Cairo is included. While the city does have direct flights to Paris and Brussels, it apparently doesn’t escape from the lawlessness present in other parts of the country, as it has recently been estimated to have a homicide rate of 112 (per year, per 100,000 people; the US is 5 and Honduras is 78) and has been said to be one of the most dangerous cities in Africa. Nevertheless, this traveler (hsrinath, in the Lonely Planet Forum) has always seemed to have a lovely time of it in Kinshasa.

Any readers from the region want to live-blog the LDS Church’s efforts to overcome the political, legal, and physical hurdles which accompany the building of a modern house of worship in the world’s poorest state?

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