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The Story of David and Esther Tanyi

April 30, 2018 — 5 mins

- Adam and Eve of the Bahá’í Faith in Cameroon

Enoch Tanyi Nyenti (Oxford, UK: George Ronald, 2016), xiv + 242 pages. Available at George Ronald and at Amazon.ca (Kindle edition). Reviewed by Moojan Momen for The Journal of Bahá’í Studies.

The success and progress of the Bahá’í Faith has frequently depended on the perseverance and self-sacrifice of individual Bahá’ís. One of the greatest successes in Bahá’í history was the marked progress in the spread of the Bahá’í Faith throughout the world that was achieved during the period of the Ten Year Plan (1953–63) initiated by Shoghi Effendi. A major part of this plan was the movement of individual Bahá’ís (known as “pioneers”) from one part of the world to another. In this way, many countries where there had previously been no Bahá’ís were opened to the Bahá’í Faith. This ten-year period saw an unprecedented increase in this movement of pioneers. Those who were the first to move to a country where there were no Bahá’ís obviously faced many stresses and difficulties. Many were relocating to countries with whose culture they were unfamiliar and whose language (or languages) they did not know. Although some were supported financially by Bahá’í funds at first, the aim was for these pioneers to earn a livelihood in their new location. During the first year of the Ten Year Plan, all those who moved to a country that had been designated by Shoghi Effendi as one to be opened to the Bahá’í Faith were given the title “Knight of Bahá’u’lláh.” Afterward, this title was bestowed only to the first pioneers who resettled to a virgin territory.

One of the most remarkable stories of the Ten Year Plan was the manner in which the Bahá’í Faith spread across the central belt of Africa and into West Africa. Prior to the start of the Ten Year Plan, the Bahá’í Faith had been brought to East Africa by a number of pioneers in a Two Year Plan (1950–52) coordinated by the British National Bahá’í Community. In Uganda, Enoch Olinga came into contact with the Bahá’í Faith in 1951 and, in February 1952, became the third Ugandan to declare his faith in Bahá’u’lláh. The following year (the first of the Ten Year Plan), Olinga left his native land to become a pioneer. On 27 August 1953, Ali and Violette Nakhjavani set off on a historic road trip from Kampala in Uganda with three Ugandan Bahá’ís who had volunteered to open new countries to the Bahá’í Faith. They left Samson Mungono in Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and Max Kenyerezi in French Equatorial Africa (now the Republic of the Congo). The last leg of this difficult journey was completed when, on 16 October 1953, they drove into Victoria (now Limbe), the capital of the British Cameroons, to drop off Olinga, who, as a result, became the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for that country.

Olinga’s arrival in Limbe is but the beginning of the story that is the central focus of The Story of David and Esther Tanyi. Two days after his arrival, Ali Nakhjavani walked into the Basel Mission Bookshop to buy some film for his camera. He also needed to buy some malaria tablets, and the person in charge agreed to show him a shop where he could buy them. This person was Nyenti David Tanyi. On the way, Nakhjavani explained that he and his wife were accompanying a Ugandan who had come to Limbe and needed a place to stay. Tanyi agreed to help Olinga and gave Nakhjavani a map that would enable Olinga to find Tanyi’s house. Olinga began to visit the Tanyi household and speak of the Bahá’í Faith. Within a short time, first Jacob Tabot Awo, then David Tanyi, and later Esther Tanyi and many others who were staying at or frequenting the Tanyi household became Bahá’ís.

These new Bahá’ís had scarcely had time to learn anything much about their new religion when, in early April 1954, Olinga read to the assembled new Bahá’ís a telegram from Shoghi Effendi urging that five territories in West Africa be opened to the Bahá’í Faith before Ridván 111 B.E. (21 April 1954). Immediately, there were many volunteers, and five were chosen. Between 10 and 14 April 1954, these five young men, accompanied by Nakhjavani, traveled to their respective pioneer posts. They flew to Lagos to obtain West African passports and then drove David Tanyi (aged 26) to Lomé in French Togoland (which later became Togo). Next, they drove Edward Tabe (aged about 14) to Ho in British Togoland (now the Volta Region of Ghana) before continuing on to Accra, where Benedict Eballa (aged 16) boarded an airplane to Kumasi in the Ashanti Protectorate. The same airplane took Martin Manga (aged 19) on to Tamale, the capital of the Northern Territories Protectorate. These last three territories were later incorporated into the state of Ghana. Samuel Njiki traveled separately to Douala, French Cameroons. All five of these young men were named Knights of Bahá’u’lláh. Despite the departure of these young men, the first Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Limbe was formed on 21 April 1954.

This book is is about Nyenti David Tanyi, the Knight of Bahá’u’lláh for French Togoland, and his wife Esther. In going to his pioneer post, David had to leave behind Esther, who was pregnant with their first son (the author of this book) and could not travel with him (she joined him a few months later after she had given birth). He also gave up a promotion to a job that would have made him financially secure in Limbe—and this to go to a country where he neither knew the local languages nor the colonial language, French, and where, for that same reason, he would find it difficult to obtain employment. In addition, he would be without friends or family; indeed, he faced the censure of many of his friends and family who were not Bahá’ís for making such a seemingly rash and ill-advised move.

As The Story of David and Esther Tanyi recounts, Tanyi was soon joined by two American Bahá’ís, Vivian Wesson and Mavis Nymon, but they were unable to obtain residency visas and had to leave after a few months. However, the teaching work went well and Samuel Gbogbo became the first Bahá’í of Togo, and shortly afterward Emmanuel Ocloo and a number of others also. As a result, the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Lomé was formed in April 1955. The Tanyi home was the center of the community.

This book details all the difficulties that the Tanyi family endured both in Lomé and, from 1957 onward, in Tamale and other cities in Ghana, including unemployment, lack of language skills, opposition to the Bahá’í Faith, poverty, disease, and isolation. As the book reveals, these problems were faced and overcome. It also contains short biographies of the other four Knights of Bahá’u’lláh named earlier. My only criticism of the book is the lack of an index.

We are fortunate to have an author such as Enoch Tanyi Nyenti who has exerted a great deal of effort to uncover and disentangle all this information, using both the written notes of his father and interviews with his mother and others to do so. He has persevered in chasing down missing information and resolving contradictions such as the identity of the first Bahá’í of Togo. He is to be given every credit for producing a readable and enjoyable book that sheds light on the Bahá’í history of a part of the world from which we have few accounts.