Cameroon Centenary: Festive Thoughts to Accompany a Festive Occasion

A centenary celebration opens the mind to greater vistas. Today we cherish dreams and visions. The coast of Ambas Bay has seen great happenings and prepares for more.

Today, 26th of March 2022 we engrave the names of the first four Mill Hill Missionaries on our beach. Their footprints on our shores marked a new  friendship  that would impact our country far across forests and rivers and mountains. These men became part of us; their memorable presence and that of many after them has made us proud and made us a people of high ambition. Their Christian mission continued the long line of missionaries who had earlier landed along this very coastline.

We remember the illustrious Joseph Merrick in Isubu land, Bimbia. He came to stay with this tiny tribe with a lively slave trade. The undoing of slavery had been a strong inspiration for this freed slave and his mission to his home continent. “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But do not grieve: God sent me before you to preserve your lives.” That message he brought to Fernando Po and then to the mainland

Many Christians had come here before him since 1472 but no message of Christ had ever reached Ambas Bay in over 350 years! But from 1840 till 1890, that changed with the return of many African freed slaves, fervent Baptist missionaries of Christ. They came from the Caribbean and brought teachers with them to open schools. Even Alfred Saker with his missionaries of the London Baptist Missionary Society, came here via Jamaica, island of inspiration and missionary zeal. We rightly honour this pioneer missionary, Alfred Saker, with a monument Down Beach. In 1858 he brought his Christian settlers, driven from Fernando Po, to begin a  new settlement,

Bethel in the place called Fo which was later renamed Victoria. Thus he laid Christian foundations for the further progress of all of Cameroon as he would do in Douala.

With the coming of the German Empire, our coastline opened up to other Europeans, not only Baptists. The change immediately brought out the negative impact of Christian division and we were made to witnessed fierce and unbecoming competition between the various denominations as Bismarck had already predicted. Bitter rivalry brought fanaticism and even destruction.

Germany soon changed her role from Protector to colonial and imperialist conqueror. From December 1887 the Basel Mission, with the strong backing of the government in Berlin, brought  Dr Munz, Pastor Bohner and others from Europe. The Baptists sold their missions to them: infrastructure and faithful! Then the North American Baptist Mission, many of German descent, followed up to continue the    erstwhile    Baptist    Church.    Other

German Baptist missionaries created a separate Baptist administration The coastline of Fako now was home to three Mission centers: Bimbia, Bethel and the Basle Mission, Down Beach. Roman Catholic missionaries, the Pallottines, followed in 1893 but they remained out of town, in the hills of Bonjongo. Bishop Vieter established a Catholic Mission in Victoria Down Beach only in 1908.

That move was partly but importantly motivated by linguistic if  not tribal concerns. By then Fako had seen a considerable influx of Ewondo Catholics and bishop Vieter felt he had to cater specially for them. He brought the parish priest of Yaounde, his Vicar General, Karl Hoegn, to open Bota Parish and the Ewondo language was to be used to accommodate the Ewondo speakers. That attempt was futile and fruitless, because the Ewondos in Fako had already learnt a language that served them much better than their own language: Pidgin, a language without bounds. The Pidgin language was a homegrown amalgam, clear home entertainment, home advantage, perfect social communication and conviviality. It never competed or interfered with official and academic language but it allowed people immediate contact with those from far beyond their own tribe, also from beyond Cameroon.

And so Vieter’s Ewondo experiment was bound to fail. Other efforts to extend the use of Bali and Douala beyond their tribes of origin in the Grasslands and the Forest Zone petered out for the same reasons. Pidgin created bonds, a “We-We” that became part of our own local as well as personal culture, our soul and it determined much of the local identity of Western parts of Cameroon which other parts of Cameroon direly lack till this day.

The First World War then changed the constellation of the Cameroon nation. Unfortunately great institutions for unity and progress of the population disappeared like the centre for the development of tropical agriculture of Dr Preuss here in the Bota Botanical Gardens. Also Sasse, Einsiedeln, an emerging national Catholic intellectual centre with teacher training, catechist formation and a seminary was lost. Its graduates were already in active service all over Cameroon. It was effectively taken off the map from 1914 till 1939.

European nationalism broke down missionary endeavour in our parts of Cameroont. The British would not allow any Germans to return. Nor would they welcome French missionaries, not even those who had been their allies in the war. In practice they tried to prohibit Cameroonian lay leaders and catechists to start or continue Church activities, based as they were on German formation and leanings. Traditional leaders and British rule at times connived and re-enforced each other to unleash a veritable persecution of Christians.

The population instead learned to celebrate their own subjugation by joining in festivities like Empire Day. From nowhere a narrow nationalistic Anglo- Saxon pride was imported and foisted on to them to fill their dreams: Sasse was reopened in 1939 only as an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ secondary school. Many saw that as wonderful progress. But it could not stand in the shadow of the emerging, nation-wide, intellectual centre Einsiedeln was growing to be.

In the negative nationalistic atmosphere after Word War I, Churchill, Foreign Secretary in London, managed to convince Cardinal van Rossum in the Vatican to ensure that only a British missionary organization would come to British Cameroon. That arrangement was in fact a great defeat for Pope Benedict XV who had vigorously opposed European nationalism wherever he met it.

Yet that was the point of entry of the Mill Hill Missionaries who agreed to Rome’s request to fill the gap for Churchill. And so in March 1922, while the mountain was burning, the new Prefect of Buea Prefecture Mgr John Campling landed in Victoria with three more Mill Hill priests: Frs Benedict Robinson, Michael Moran and William Kelly. Unbeknownst to the small-minded politicians of the time God did prepare a gift for us as only God can.

Soon enough Mill Hill showed off its true colours: it was after all an international organization. And on 4 December 1925 a new Prefect Apostolic landed in Bota: Mgr Peter Rogan. He was born in Gibraltar, a son of a British Army Man. But he was Irish and as a young priest lived through the exciting days of the Easter Rising and Irish independence from Britain. And to his great satisfaction he was more and more surrounded by a Mill Hill workforce of international character.

Mill Hill Missionaries, trekking and visiting, became very much part of the local Church and society. They championed the wide use and acceptance of pidgin, which became their main language for teaching doctrine and for preaching. Pidgin was indeed a bonding, a unifying power between the many tribes in western Cameroon, a strong root for its conviviality and national soul.

Alongside their religious input Mill Hill Missionaries also made an impact in the fields of education, health care, charity, micro-finance, agriculture, technical assistance and formation, sports and social amenities and indirectly but substantially by producing outstanding civil leaders.

I personally thank God for the years I worked in then Victoria and Bota, from 1972-1977. I have grateful memories and high praise for the ecumenical spirit that prevailed in Victoria in the mid – seventies. Christian congregations, their clergy and leaders, their institutions and youth organizations had joint services and activities. There was a lively spirit and it produced important Christian civil leaders. It was as if only one mighty virtual cross towering over Ambas Island drew all of this land and her churches together, less than a hundred years after the Bremer Conference to decide on mission in Cameroon had declared that Reformation Protestants should consider themselves ‘as at war with Rome’. God had shown his better plans for us, and kept a dream alive that Christians united can face the present day onslaught on truth,” the great lie” which seems to command the world in so many places and hides crime behind man-made law and imposition, distortion and destruction, corruption and violence, crime, misery and war. We, Christians have a formidable task at hand. Our united stand must be convincing. A daring Christ is alive in us. We are all missionary.

May God bless our country and its wonderful people with true Christians, true compatriots and friends on all fronts, from the coastline where we celebrate today, to the furthest away hinterland: Cameroon.

Fr Arnold Verhoeven MHM

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