As told to Ann & John Lewis, 22 April 2020
In September 1991, after graduating from high school, President Sabwe Binene, age 21, began his electrical engineering studies at the Institut Superieur Technique et Commercial (ISCT) in Lubumbashi (Katanga province). Lubumbashi is located some 320 km from Kolwezi, his family home where he was born and raised, the ninth of ten children. While attending ISCT in Lubumbashi, he lived with his second-oldest brother and his family.
After completing his first academic year in August 1992, he returned home to Kolwezi for the holidays. In response to members of his Kolwezi branch who wondered when he would serve a mission, he explained that he felt he needed to finish school. His branch president called him and told him it was time to serve a mission. He said no, he wanted to finish school (3 more years). His parents wanted him to go on a mission and his mother, in particular, pressed him and asked why he was delaying. He told her that he felt very strongly about finishing school and preparing for his career. Sometime after that he had a feeling to go visit his District President who was his uncle and lived some distance away. He did not know why. When he got to his uncle’s home, he was waiting in the living room and saw a red-and-white book across the room that caught his attention. He was drawn to it and went to pick it up, fascinated to see what it was about. It was “The Miracle of Forgiveness” by Spencer W. Kimball. He felt compelled to read it. It fell open in his hands to a page about idolatry. It talked about idols in ancient Jerusalem and then idols today like jobs, money, and putting off missions to go to school. He got the clear message that earning a diploma can be an idol if it takes priority over serving a mission. He said his body started trembling like a leaf and he knew God was speaking to him. “No person, God.”
He went home and told his parents what had happened and that he felt an urgent need to serve a mission. Everyone was interested in his change of heart. When they heard the story, they confirmed his feeling that God had spoken directly to him. He immediately met with his Branch President and began filling out his application to serve (October 1992)—doctors, dentists, photos, etc. At the end of November 1992, they sent the completed application to the mission president in Kinshasa, President Homer M. LeBaron. In early January 1993, President Binene was notified that President LeBaron would visit him for an interview in Kolwezi in April 1993.
Unfortunately, during 1992, civil unrest was growing within the Katanga province fueled by politically motivated tribal movements in some corners of the province, targeting the immigrant Kasai people of the neighboring province. The Binene family were Kasai. President Binene’s parents had migrated from the Kasai province (Luputa) with their then-small family in search of better employment opportunities. President Binene was born and raised in Kolwezi (Katanga province) and knew no other home. By February 1993, the unrest had intensified into violence in Kolwezi and Likasi, a city located about 200 km from Kolwezi, as well as in many other important towns of the Katanga province. The Binene family were on high alert as they observed the violence and bloodshed coming closer and closer to their home and at one point in March 1993, they decided to flee under the darkness of night. Though President Binene was anxious to begin his missionary service, he had no choice but to leave with his family and begin the long journey to his family village of Luputa in the Kasai province.
Traveling by rail was the safest way to make the 570 km journey from Kolwezi to Luputa, so the family moved their belongings to the land around the train station so they could catch the next available train. In May 1993, after about two months camping at the train station, his mother and about 10 family members were able to get seats on the train. Their trip to Luputa took about six days. In June 1993, he and his father, along with some members of the church, secured passage in one of the uncovered freight wagons on the train. The trip took more than three months to reach Luputa. About three months of the journey were spent at the large Kamina train station, where they decoupled from the electric train and waited for their wagon to be connected to a diesel train that would take them into the Kasai province. This time in Kamina was unimaginably difficult and many died. They slept in their train wagon, but food was very difficult to procure with many of the locals unwilling to sell to them. They also had no clean water, no toilets, no showers, no protection and an abundance of mosquitoes. Many became ill with dysentery, cholera, and malaria. In addition to their waiting time in Kamina, they experienced several wagon breakdowns along the journey which sometimes left them stranded for days at various outposts in very difficult health, safety, and sanitation conditions. They finally reached Luputa in September 1993. Sadly, many people had perished along the way due to illness, hunger, assaults by the natives in some of the train stations, and electrocution (riding on the metal top of a “closed wagon” and accidentally coming in contact with the overhead electric cable powering the train). Remarkably, every member of the Church made it safely to Luputa.
They arrived to no jobs, no home, no food, and no organized branch of the Church. But with the help of extended family in the area and an abundance of faith and determination, they figured out how to survive. The village had no electricity, so there was no way for President Binene to use his electrician’s training for income. Luputa was a small agricultural village so the family lived off of what they could grow in the fields. President Binene became a farmer. Slowly they began to prosper enough to care for their family while also caring for the Church. There were about 150 members of the Church who were displaced from Kolwezi to the Kasai province at that time. About 50 of them remained in Luputa and formed the first informal group of the Church there, meeting each Sunday to study the gospel together in a Sunday School setting. For three years, President Binene helped his family and helped the Church, never able to communicate with any Church leaders about the mission assignment he had not been able to fulfill.
In early 1997, a Kinshasa-based counselor in the mission presidency came to visit this little group of Saints he had heard about who were holding Sunday School meetings only. The Luputa members had sent their tithing to the mission president in 1995. As a result of his visit, the first branch was organized in Luputa July 20, 1997. President Binene was called as a branch missionary and a branch clerk. He was a faithful, hard-working missionary and the one branch became three by 2001.
When the counselor in the mission presidency visited in early 1997, President Binene was able to talk to him about his deep desire to serve a full-time mission. He was told that he was too old to be eligible and was counseled to move forward with his life—to marry and have a family. This was disappointing news for him, but he accepted it and looked ahead. Within a few years, he met Sister Lilly Kabumba who was a friend of one of his fellow branch missionaries. They began teaching her the gospel and he baptized her in April 1999. He had always been impressed with her and decided she would be a good prospect for marriage, so they began spending personal time together. He said she was difficult to convince. She lived with her grandmother and was very devoted to caring for her and was not looking to be married. But over time, he won her over and eventually spoke to her parents about marrying their daughter. After a one-year engagement, they were married January 8, 2000. She was a schoolteacher, age 23, and he was a 29-year-old farmer.
After welcoming two children to their family, they decided to relocate to Kinshasa where President Binene could finish his electrical engineering training and find more opportunities. She went ahead with the two children and moved in with her family, who had also relocated there. He stayed behind to work and save for the move and also to continue building the Church. After two years of this, on March 26, 2006, the mission president came to Luputa to form a district which would include the three local branches and a fourth that would be created at that time. President Binene was called as the District President. He tried to reason with the mission president about his situation but was told this was a call from the Lord. He asked for some time to talk to his wife and pray about it. It did not take him long to feel that this was the will of the Lord and he and his wife decided to accept the call and change their life plans. Even though Kinshasa made the most logical sense, they would exercise faith and accept the Lord’s will. Sister Binene and the children came back to Luputa where she taught school and President Binene retrained as a nurse, beginning his schooling that same year, September 2006. Together, they helped build the Church. And, two more children were born.
Also in 2006, the Binenes decided to start their own private school. They began with a pre-school in September 2006, and it grew each year into a thriving, successful school with many employees. The District eventually became a Stake on June 26, 2011, with seven wards and five branches. He became the Stake President. Then he was called as president of the Côte d’Ivoire Abidjan East Mission, beginning his service July 1, 2017. He finally got to serve that full-time mission! His whole life never turned out the way he expected it to, but he is grateful he has been watched over and blessed in wonderful and unexpected ways.
In conclusion in President Binene’s own words:
What changed my decision? I believe that this is the power of speech, so I truly testify that all writing is inspired by God and useful to teach, to convince as I was convinced to accomplish a full-time mission, to correct, to instruct in justice see 2 Timothy 3:17-17.
I am also convinced of what the Book of Mormon says: “The preaching of the word … had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them” (Alma 31:5).
And now, as the approaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.
Also, I learnt that we must be patient when some things do not go well, there is a time for everything, and God has a plan with all of us.
It was anxious to me to stop with my studies because I was certain that God called me serve but why I could not do this or to continue with my studies and realize my dream to be an electrician engineer.
Whatever time that may elapse God’s plan end up being realized.
–Pres Binene never received a mission call, but he always wanted to serve.
–The Binenes decided to move to Kinshasa to find more opportunities, including opportunities for him to finish his electrical engineering studies.
–The humanitarian service couples assigned to Luputa did great work and had a big impact on the entire community, including the Church members.
–This mature Church leader has only been able to attend the temple maybe four times: South Africa when they were endowed and sealed, Salt Lake City for his first mission president seminar, Accra (2 trips for mission president seminars). Amazing.