Presented by Carol Krentz, St Paul's Lutheran Church, Steinbach, Manitoba at the Mission in the World Lunch at the ELCIC National Convention in Winnipeg - July 22, 2005
My trip to Cameroon started with my grade nine Sunday school class last year. I had a lesson on mission work. I told them about this course, Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages (TESOL). If they were interested, it could open the doors for them to do mission work. I guess I had a good sales pitch because they asked why I didn't do it. I said I was too old but of course they said I wasn't.
I took the TESOL course and then I approached Pastor Maier at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Steinbach. He directed me to the Volunteers in Mission program run in Winnipeg by the ELCIC office. After talking with Kelvin Krieger, I contacted Pastor Kolleen Karlowsky-Clark, coordinator of the Manitoba Northwestern/Ontario (MNO) Companion Synod Working Group. She said that a covenant agreement had been signed between the MNO Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cameroon (EELC), and this would be an ideal place for me to complete my practicum.
This covenant was signed in 2003, and when I met EELC President Thomas Nyiwe in Ngaoundere, Cameroon, he told me I was the first visitor from the MNO Synod to visit. I also presented him with map of the synod.
Of the six weeks I spent in Cameroon, I stayed for one month in Ngaoundere teaching English at the College Protestant. This was definitely a culture shock for me. The classes were very large—about 50 students per class—with ages 11 to 18 in the two classes that I taught. The students have to pass an exam to continue to the next level—that is why there is a big age difference. This school is a private school run by the church. In the public schools, it is one teacher for every 100 students. Each school has a different colour of uniform. At this school, it was light blue.
Cameroon is a bilingual country with French and English. But it is mainly French. When they heard I was from Canada, a bilingual country, they said "Oh so you know how to speak French." I said I didn't.
The College Protestant is known for its singing. They have a choir called the Gospel Singers. The group travels a lot for concerts. I attended one of their concerts in Ngaoundere and it was excellent. I also brought home one of their tapes, so I could listen to their music at home.
A local family invited another teacher and myself for a traditional meal of cous-cous. I had heard about this meal and was looking forward to trying it. One bite and I had second thoughts. This reminded me of mixing flour and water and making a paste. This was then dipped, using our fingers, into a near raw beef stew. After taking some time to swallow my first bite, I made sure my other bites were very small. This is not a nutritious meal, but an inexpensive one, since it comes from the manioc plant. If the family had more money, this meal would be prepared with corn instead. I noticed the children in this household had a red tinge to their hair, which meant they were suffering from malnutrition.
I traveled numerous times to the town of Ngaoundere, about a 10-minute drive from where I was staying. Most of the time my traveling was done by motorcycle taxis. There was no shortage of motorcycles there, and whenever I wanted a ride I'd put my hand up and in a few seconds, there was my ride.
Going to the Internet Café was always exciting. It was a real treat to hear from my family and friends, and let them know what I was doing. I always felt very safe traveling in Cameroon.
I was there in the dry season, so the grass was brown and it was very dusty. The soil in Cameroon was a red colour, and when I traveled on the local bus I was covered with this red dust.
After spending a month in Ngaoundere, I took the local bus—which is more like a mini van—to visit some of the Lutheran seminaries. My first stop was an eight-hour ride to Garoua Boulai. Traveling in Africa is very different from here—there are no gas stations, no restaurants and no washrooms. I packed myself bread and water for the trip—plus toilet paper which came in handy when we stopped by the bushes at the side of the road.
In Garoua Boulai, ELCA missionaries Tim and Annie Reynolds met me. They showed me around the seminary and I got to meet Yadji Doko and his family. Yadji had many fond memories of his time in Canada.
On my next stop, the dean Rev Joseph Ngah met me in the town of Meiganga. I was very impressed with the class size at these seminaries. They had about 16 students per class. Here I can see where a lot of learning takes place.
The next bus was jam-packed with Muslims. The bus driver knew a little English, and found a good seat for me. The Muslims had to stop along the way for prayer time. The bus driver dropped me off at the side of the road where there was a sign with a cross painted on it. This was Meng.
Pastor Etienne Fomgbami and his family welcomed me into their home for five nights. I had met Pastor Etienne and his family when they spent three years in Canada, based in Winnipeg. He spoke at the church in Steinbach and also held a seminar. He was very happy to see a visitor from Canada.
Pastor Etienne was teaching the evangelists at the Bible School in Meng, a three-year program to be a lay minister. A two-year program is for the catechists. A catechist or an evangelist can run one of the many churches in Cameroon. A minister comes around about once a month for communion and baptisms.
After my first meal at the Fomgbami household, I was helping put the food away. I asked where the fridge was and they said they didn't have one. This was very hard for me to imagine how a person could live with no fridge. Pastor Etienne's wife Jeanne did her cooking over a propane element—she did not have a stove or an oven and they had no running water.
The boys, Samuel, age 18, Josue, 14, and Elysee, 13 haul water every day taking turns. The boys thought this was the second worst job. The thing they hated most about living in Meng was biking to school everyday. The boys attended a public school in the next town and the seven-kilometer trip was difficult since the teacher often didn't show up. Samuel, the oldest, needs better education. Their daughter Zita remained in Winnipeg, and attends the St. Boniface University.
In Meng, I tried to use the foot pump, to fill up the 2 barrels of water. This was very hard on my knees and I gave up after the first small pail. I learned how to fry and boil plantain. I also know how to take a shower pouring water from a pail over my head. Surprisingly this uses very little water.
After attending a concert in their church, I learned that nobody arrives on time. I was a bit worried that we were late for the concert, but after an hour of waiting it finally started.
I never saw a single toy in Cameroon. The children were happy with a stick and a wheel. Cute little Emmanuelle, born in Canada, played with candy wrappers from the candy that I brought them. Her older sister Marina, age seven, enjoyed the pen and paper from Canada.
Leaving Meng was very hard on me. I thought I'd never be able to talk to anyone about my experience there without crying. The Fomgbami family has nothing. For my last meal with the family, the boys took the ironing off the table and found three lawn chairs to sit at the table, and the rest of us sat on the sofa. The African homes have the bare essentials—their floors are concrete, there are no ornaments—nothing to collect dust. This family spent three years in Canada having everything. Now they had nothing when they went back to Africa, but things don't matter to them.
Pastor Etienne and his family had morning and evening devotions. I spent Easter with the family and I was in church on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Attending church services is very important for the African Christians. Their services are usually two-and-a-half-hours long, with at least five different choirs singing. They definitely have rhythm. Pastor Etienne said a big problem was that everyone wanted to sing. We don't have that problem in my church. Taking the offering was very different in their church. At first I didn't know why every person was going up to the front row by row, but as I got closer to the front I realized this was their way of giving offering.
Pastor Etienne took me to a nearby village to attend church on Sunday morning. The evangelist spoke in French, while beside him, a local person translated the sermon in an African dialect and Pastor Etienne translated it in English for me. They were taking a special offering for a roof on the parsonage that was being built. They were short twenty dollars, and didn't know how they would get enough money to complete this roof before the rainy season started, which was pretty soon. I gave them the money and they were so happy. This meant the world to them and to me it was—what is twenty dollars to a person in Canada?
The people in Africa are the friendliest people I have every met. I was constantly shaking hands. Pastor Etienne took me to the bus depot and waited with me until my bus came. He also reserved the best spot on the bus for me, up front with the driver. This was important because otherwise I would have been sitting in the back of the bus with dust blowing in my face.
Some of these vans were donated prison vans from Europe, with the only entrance for the passengers at the back, unless you were fortunate enough to sit up front. These vans still had the cage in them for the warden and prisoners. I wasn't accustomed to all the police stops and the officers having huge rifles. In the prison van, I wondered how we were going to show our IDs since the only entrance was at the back of the van, but this was the shortest police check because we only had to hold our identification papers—my passport—in the air and then we were on our way.
The best possible news that I got following my trip was that Pastor Etienne was elected Vice-President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cameroon and he and his family will be moving to Ngaoundere. Here they will have better housing and their children can attend the College Protestant.
Last week I was in Fargo, North Dakota attending the Global Mission Event where I met numerous people who had been to Cameroon. I also met the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) doctors Holly and Tim Nelson who work at the hospital in Ngaoundere.
Holly gave me a tour of the hospital in Ngaoundere. When I asked her where the patients with AIDS were, she said the Africans don't like to talk about AIDS. They come to the hospital because they have TB, which means they have AIDS. Her husband Tim mentioned that he thought it would be a good idea if the church handed out quilts to all the AIDS patients—but this was not a good idea because then nobody would come to the hospital. They don't like to be labelled as an AIDS patient. In the hospital, a family member will make food for the patient and wash their clothes.
This makes me very thankful for the hospitals we have here. I've also realized that material possessions aren't important. God will take care of us. These people have so little, yet their faith is so big. An email sent to me said, "Do not value the things you have in life. But value who you have in your life." This seemed to be very true in Cameroon.
I'd like to thank the Canadian Lutheran World Relief for a grant, plus the MNO Committee for Mission, my home church, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Steinbach, the churches in Brunkild, Starbuck, Morris, the Evangelical Lutheran Women (ELW), Lutheran Life and my family and friends.