A long-running military conflict in southwestern Cameroon disrupted what should have been a celebration for the United Methodist Cameroon Mission Initiative. However, United Methodists are keeping the flame of faith and brotherly love alive for all those in the affected areas.
Because of the crisis, several churches in the southwest were unable to send their representatives to the annual meeting attended by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and Côte d’Ivoire Conference representatives June 18-23 to evaluate the Cameroon Mission Initiative, as it will soon be a district of the Côte d’Ivoire Conference.
“The biggest challenge we are facing this year is the crisis in the English-speaking area, which makes impossible the organization of meetings and activities in the southwestern circuit of Fako-Meme," Lisette Che, Cameroon Mission Initiative youth coordinator, read from her report to the gathering.
Conflicts between the French-speaking Cameroonian government and Anglophone rebel forces have been going on for the past three years. Consequently, many lives were lost, villages were burned down, and thousands of people fled to neighboring Nigeria and government-controlled cities.
Mary Eben, a member of Jerusalem United Methodist Church of Douala, is living proof of what victims of the crisis are experiencing. On April 23, 2018, around 1 a.m., people dressed in military uniforms set fire to houses located in Eben’s village of Mamfe. She fled and took refuge in the forest, where she spent eight months.
For the past six months, Jerusalem United Methodist Church has assisted her. The church has already helped with her safe delivery of twin daughters five months ago. Today, the church sponsors her for the pastry classes she is taking and offers her money to live on.
The effects of the crisis are fresh in the victims’ minds.
Pastor Emmanuel Kekia Nkongho, 62, a retired chief-sergeant from the gendarmerie, managed to attend the meeting. He still remembers being attacked by Ambazonian secessionist fighters, known as “Amba boys,” last May when he was the pastor of three United Methodist churches in Sumbe, Akiriba and Defang.
“They took me for a traitor. I was beaten, beaten, beaten and beaten. I sustained wounds on my left eye and other parts of my body. My son, who works in Douala, had to send money,” he recalled.
Upon his return, the Amba boys allowed him to reopen his churches, but told him not to mention the political situation in any of his sermons. According to the pastor, nine out of 12 churches in the area are closed. He said he is praying for a “United Cameroon.”
Synthia Ashu, a 30-year-old student at University of Buea, also attended the meeting. Ashu recalled having to flee the area in October 2018. On her way, she noticed how desolate some of the neighborhoods were. “Before you know it, you have tears in your eyes. If you do not shed a tear when you see these bodies, you are not human,” she said.
While escaping from the region, Ashu agreed to go with her neighbors, who begged her to get them out of this dangerous area.
“They knew I have family in Douala, which is a safe town,” she said. She accommodated 15 people in the family’s three-bedroom house.
Despite the danger, the church was present in places where the government could not be to assist the displaced.
With a group of women, Ashu went to the Mbanlangi forest, in the district of Mbonge, near Kumba, to look for church members who could no longer attend prayer meetings and provide them with necessities. The women were dressed in United Methodist church uniforms to be easily identified and be allowed to move freely in the area.
Beatrice Diffang, president of the United Methodist women of Douala, was among this group of women who visited the refugees. She described these visits done “under crossfires” as risky. The refugees told the women they were the only persons who have visited them in the Mbanlangi forest.
“No church can flourish if 50% of its members are isolated,” Diffang said. She hosted 12 people in her house in Douala.
Friday, June 21, was a day of national mourning decreed by the government of Cameroon. Hence, participants of the Cameroon Mission Initiative meeting observed a minute of silence during the morning devotion led by the Rev. Julienne Carmel of Blessing United Methodist Church in Yaounde. She asked to pray for the soldiers who died during the crisis — “our sons and brothers who descended into the pit during the national crisis,” she said.
The actions of the church during this crisis should go further, according to Um. During the morning devotion, she recalled her maternal pain as she witnessed the death of the country's children, before placing the church in front of her responsibility. “We have a duty in the face of history to help Cameroon in an intercommunity dialogue,” she said.
The Rev. Phillipe Adjobi, on behalf of Bishop Benjamin Boni, assured Cameroon's mission of the support of the annual conference of Côte d'Ivoire in this initiative.
“We are in solidarity with you, and we do not stop praying for you because, without peace, we cannot serve God serenely,” he said concerning the nearby crisis and also the fight against the Boko Haram terrorist group in the north of Cameroon.
Broune directs French news for UM News and is based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.