When Dr. Yacouba Sanon set out to pursue his call to ministry, he knew it would take him away from his home in the West African country of Burkina Faso. Although missionaries first visited Burkina Faso in the early 20th century, when the area was under French colonial rule, a majority of the population there still practices either Islam or a traditional religion.
Sanon’s parents were among the first converts in their village near Bobo Dioulasso in western Burkina Faso; even after moving to Bobo Dioulasso his family remained in the religious minority throughout Sanon’s childhood. When he was pursuing higher education in the 1990s, Burkina Faso did not have an accredited seminary, so Sanon traveled to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire to attend West Africa Alliance Theological Seminary (FATEAC).
Sanon’s struggle to access high-level biblical training highlights a problem that many potential Bible scholars and teachers in the region still encounter—and one that Sanon hopes will change as Christianity grows more prevalent in West Africa.
Christianity in Isolation
Sanon became interested in faith at age 12. “I started asking myself, ‘Am I really saved?’ I perused the Bible, trying to answer that question. My answer came through several verses: Acts 4:12, Acts 16:31, and Romans 10:9. In those passages I read that there is no other name but Christ’s through which we can be saved, and that by confessing Jesus Christ as Lord, you’ll be saved and your sins will be forgiven.” He found Christian community to support him in his faith at a church in Bobo Dioulasso, where he sang in the choir and took long-distance Bible study courses. But he felt isolated in his neighborhood, where he did not know any other Christians. “All of my friends there were Muslim. It wasn’t a threatening environment—we lived together and respected each other. We weren’t forced or coerced in any way to embrace the Muslim faith. But we felt isolated when celebrating all the activities that involve families—baptism and other celebrations. We didn’t participate in the same feasts and holidays as our neighbors. Even as a young child, I was aware of that separation.”
“Because we were such a minority in our area, one of the verses that shaped my faith was Romans 12:1–2, which talks about offering ourselves as a living sacrifice. The exhortation is, ‘Do not conform to the world.’ I took this seriously because I was surrounded by people who lived differently than I was raised. I knew only two or three other Christians throughout high school. This verse helped me to be different and to try to walk according to what I understood from the Bible, even when no one else did.”
Journey to Ministry
As a middle school student, Sanon began to feel called to ministry. “I went to a Christian youth camp and responded to an altar call to serve the Lord full time. I knew I wanted to be committed fully to ministry and service, but I didn’t know how.”
Following that call was not easy. Not only did Burkina Faso lack an accredited seminary, but Sanon and his parents could not afford higher education unless it was through the state-run university. Sanon decided to pursue the opportunities that were available to him, even if that meant postponing his entrance into ministry. “The call was still somewhere down in my heart, but the fire was not as bright as it was in the beginning. So I started to develop my own plan for what I was going to do.”
Sanon moved to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for university studies. “At that time, people could only study what the government directed. I was sent to a natural sciences and geology course of study. I spent two years there, and then I quit.”
Frustrated with his career trajectory in academics, Sanon took a job with Christian Children’s Fund of Canada, a nonprofit child sponsorship program. He worked there for two years as a coordinator, liaising with the Burkina Faso Evangelicals Relief Organization. Then, in 1993, FATEAC opened in the coastal city of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. “Immediately I knew that this was the place I needed to go.” In 1994 Sanon moved to Côte d’Ivoire with the goal of studying to become a pastor. After Sanon received his master’s degree in theology, he and his wife moved back to Ouagadougou, where he pastored a church and taught part-time at two Bible schools—one in Ouagadougou and one in Bobo Dioulasso. But Sanon kept in touch with his colleagues at FATEAC, knowing there was a need for African professionals to serve as faculty and staff members. In 2007 the board of directors of the seminary sent Sanon to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, with a scholarship from ScholarLeaders International. In 2014, after receiving his PhD, Sanon returned to FATEAC as a professor of Old Testament.
Christianity in West Africa
Côte d’Ivoire suffers from the same violence and poverty that plagues much of the region. Sanon says that attempts to combat these problems through evangelism and social work offer incomplete solutions to the enormity of the problem. “I’ve been challenged recently through reading a book by Fr. Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest and professor at the Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame, who talks about the role of the church in African society. His premise is that the African church needs to think theologically about the problems our nations face. We need to ask: What are the sources of all those problems? What makes violence, war, poverty, and corruption so prevalent and enduring in Africa? I want to see the church address these questions in a meaningful way, seeking theological answers and trying to come with a clear road map. Perhaps the church cannot solve these problems outright, but it can at least propose some theologically grounded paths for us to pursue in the future.”
This year, both Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire will be participating in major elections, which are already spurring separation and disunity among rival political parties. Sanon believes the way the church presents itself on these (often tense) national issues is crucial. “In the past, it has been very challenging for the church to play a neutral role and at the same time play a prophetic role in the political process. It hasn’t been easy for church leaders to be above the political game. The church must learn to speak with a clear voice, but without partisanship.”
Need for Leadership
Sanon sees training leaders as integral to bringing change to Côte d’Ivoire and the surrounding region. But his difficulty in finding high-level biblical training mirrors the decided lack of theological training available in West Africa. Often those seeking higher education have to look for opportunities to study in Europe, Canada, or the U.S.—options that present financial difficulties, possible separation from family, and the task of reconciling a Western education with a non-Western context upon returning to Africa. While Sanon is grateful for his own experience in Trinity’s PhD program, he sees the further development of accredited seminaries and universities in Côte d’Ivoire as essential to its progress.
Sanon is excited to train the next generation of scholars and pastors within their cultural context and in their local language. “The religious landscape in West Africa has changed since the 90s: The church is growing fast, the urban middle class is growing fast, and there are more educated people in churches.
“There are many African-initiated churches that are led by pastors who have little or no theological training. Pastors without access to education have a hard time meeting the needs of people with university degrees. So my classes are full of young people willing to learn. It’s encouraging to see people who have started some kind of ministry—pastoring or teaching somewhere—realize that they need additional education. Several of my students lead churches, but they did not have previous formal training. So they are able to recognize the mistakes they used to make in interpreting the Word. One of them is the director of a Bible school, yet he is a second-year student at FATEAC.”
Sanon sees the value of having seminary education readily available. “The training I received in the U.S. equips me in a very strong way to also train others to use biblical knowledge to address modern social issues. The benefit of having a French-speaking seminary in French-speaking Africa has been enormous. The people we are training will be the channel through which the good seed will be spread to other pastors and congregations in Côte d’Ivoire and around Africa.”