Abidjan, Ivory Coast ... [ANN] The space for her desk is carved out of a corner of an archives office at the church’s administrative headquarters. Surrounded by volumes of data, Ruth DePaiva, a Brazilian family life specialist, is more than ready to dismiss the surroundings. "How did you find me here?" she asked. "I am well hidden away."

She is quick to take me into her story, an exciting recital of issues, problem resolutions and a journey. DePaiva goes straight into the priority area of her daily preoccupation as a counseling specialist for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in West and Central Africa.

"Among the crucial issues here is a daunting task to effectively address the family planning situation," she states. Apart from dealing with the traditional customs and concepts, she is also often confronted by diverse teachings of other Christian churches on the subject.

"Some are for family planning, others are against. Some distribute the contraceptives freely, others sell them, even against the prescribed teachings of their confession. But generally, we are united in dealing with the issues and assist the governments which are also concerned with the problem," says DePaiva.

She explains that for Seventh-day Adventists, the objectives and outcomes are motivated by a decisive theological, moral and social approach.

"We are teaching that before increasing their families, husbands and wives should take into consideration whether God be glorified or dishonored by their bringing children into the world," DePaiva explains. Her program is tailored to audiences inside the church and for general public.

In her lectures, she considers the larger picture of the situation, including its economic, educational, social and emotional implications. From her Abidjan office, DePaiva travels throughout the region fortified by data and tools prepared by specialists working for the international bodies, such as the United Nations Family Planning Agency.

She becomes animated as she explains how her lectures deal with the male and female issues separately.

"I divide the families into two separate groups and ask them to work out certain themes by themselves and then bring the report to a joint meeting. The whole thing generates excitement as men and women then address their separate situation in an open, public forum." The lectures are often staged to include a meal. "When we are at a table together, we talk more readily. It is in such a setting that we can more fully explore the Biblical foundations for a happy home, as God intended us to enjoy."

Among the acute issues addressed by the church and other agencies, is a practice referred to as the female genital mutilation. "We are working as part of the campaign against this inhuman practice," she says. The support comes from UNICEF, and from the governmental agencies. There is some progress, she explains, but sometimes the program suffers setbacks. The recent coup d’etat in Sierra Leone halted the program. DePaiva sadly explains how women themselves demand to return back to their customs.

"For me, the whole issue has to do with equality of humankind. These and other practices push a woman to a role of a slave. All she does is bear children. She is not even allowed to enjoy sexual life. Should she only be treated as a procreative machine?" asks DePaiva.

DePaiva is equally concerned with the effects which polygamous relationships impact on family planning, and the role of women in a Christian society. These issues are being addressed in her ongoing study of how a Christian church should treat polygamy.

"I plan to present a case for a more effective and consistent approach to the way we should treat the polygamous family issue. The church has a tremendous responsibility to teach the Christian meaning of marriage, to offer guidance, as well as give pastoral support to those struggling with difficult marriage problems. I am set to treat this issue with a far greater consistency," says DePaiva.

"I am a victim of polygamy myself," says Nigerian-born Pastor Luka Daniel, president of the Adventist Church Africa Indian-Ocean Division, the headquarters from which DePaiva works. "Though I am a son of my father’s first wife, I know, first hand, what family tension and rivalry is. Anything that can be done to solve the problem of polygamy, I will go for it," he readily comments.

The Adventist Church does not approve polygamous family relationships. "Accommodating polygamy in the church would create more problems than currently exist," says Pastor Daniel. "And the matter is not one of logic or polemics. It is a deeply rooted cultural problem."

Speaking from his office, just a short distance away from the busy metropolis of Abidjan, Luka Daniel shares his hopes for Africa. "Unless modern Africa can accept the idea of equality of humankind, so that people can be treated as persons with individual rights, polygamy will continue. I look forward to a time this equality of persons will become the culture of the modern-day Africa. Then polygamy will disappear more readily. I don’t think that legislature or stringent measures will stop it."

Observing the modern trends in different parts of the world, among them the phenomenon of the so-called "serial marriages," as he puts it, Pastor Daniel is less than confident that the en vogue family life options have a better solution in the society at large. "Let us not move from polygamy to promiscuity, as seen in other parts of the world," he warns. [Ray Dabrowski]