Solomon Tilewa Johnson, archbishop of the Province of West Africa, was the spiritual leader of over a million Anglicans in the region. In 1990 he became the first Gambian to be appointed as the country’s bishop, a see also covering Senegal and Cabo Verde, and represented his Province, to which he was to be elected as archbishop in 2012, at the Lambeth Conference of 2008 and 1998, speaking to the assembled church on Christian-Muslim relations, one of the subjects of his particular expertise.
A popular figure throughout the worldwide communion, Tilewa Johnson also played a prominent role in Gambian public life, serving as chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission from 1997 to 2000, and taking part in several national bodies and educational establishments. He was named “Person of the Year” in 2012 by the Gambia News and Report, for his “singular achievement” in service to education, The Gambia and humanity as a whole.
Tilewa Johnson considered the advancement of moral and social education one of religion’s most important roles, and was a passionate believer in the necessity of inter-faith dialogue to promote peace, tolerance and equality. As a Christian leader in a predominantly Muslim country, he recognised the need to reach out to and bring together young people from all religious backgrounds – something he achieved through pioneering use of social media.
“The kit for my ministry, and particularly for my youth and education work, is as much my laptop and my Facebook page, as it is my cathedral and my crozier,” he said at eLearning Africa 2010 in Lusaka, Zambia, at which he was a keynote speaker.
Solomon Tilewa Johnson was born on the 27th of February 1954 in Banjul, then, as Bathurst, the capital of the colony of British Gambia, which gained its independence in 1965. It was while at school that he became a close friend of the future Muslim cleric Baba Muctarr Leigh, with whom in adult life he was to champion the cause of religious tolerance. Tilewa Johnson gained his diploma in Theology from Trinity College, Umahia, Nigeria in 1980, going on to study for his B.A. at the University of Durham, England, from 1982 to 1985.
During the first decades of the post-colonial era and indeed up to the present day, many African countries – particularly in the Sahel – were riven by interreligious conflict. While The Gambia did not share this fate, witnessing the fragility of other countries clearly made a marked impression on Tilewa Johnson and strengthened his commitment to dialogue between faiths.
“[The Gambia] must never become complacent,” he warned at his eLearning Africa 2010; “we can see how deadly poor relations can be when looking at other countries.”
Recognising that an effective ministry requires effective communication, both within and across religions and denominations, Tilewa Johnson took to social media and the Internet, founding a Facebook group called “Feed my Lambs” Bantaba – the “Bantaba” being the sort of big, shady tree under which most deliberations take place in The Gambia. His belief in the power of ICTs for good was further confirmed by the success of the American Red Cross’s twitter campaign following the Haitian earthquake in 2010, which raised $5m in 48 hours.
“The Internet flattens hierarchy, reduces social distance, makes me closer to you and, paradoxically, makes all our serious connections more authentic. I witness how this helps the young people in the process of learning values and how to plan positive community actions.”
Tilewa Johnson was a gifted public speaker, with a knack for ingratiating himself with an audience while simultaneously leaving a lasting impression. eLearning Africa’s Adam Salkeld recalls his “infectious booming laugh which he used to break the ice and put people at ease”.
He was also a keen sportsman, and played basketball for The Gambia’s national team from 1970 to 1977. It was during a game of tennis, his favourite pastime, that he sadly passed away.
Among those to send messages of condolence and prayers were the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Imam Baba Muctarr Leigh. The Imam remembers how the late archbishop helped him when he was imprisoned for some months. “If you need something and you never tell me I will not forgive you,” he told Leigh’s wife.
To Leigh, Solomon Tilewa Johnson was “a drum major for peace, equality and justice for all Gambians. He cared deeply about the poor and the welfare of every Gambian and was not afraid to speak up his mind for tolerance, justice and forgiveness.”
Dr Solomon Tilewa Johnson died in Fajara on the 21st January 2014, aged 59. He is survived by his wife, Priscilla Gladys Johnson, and three children.