Twinning of the fraternities of Vitrolles (France) and Foumban (Cameroon)

Cameroon is a beautiful country, where people should be able to live happily. It has natural resources: water (despite there being two seasons; the rainy season, when there can be up to 10m of rainfall, as in Doula; and the dry season, when not a drop falls, as in Foumban from roughly October to March); timber; fish; arable crops (with maize replacing millet, the former being easier to grow and more nourishing); cocoa and coffee; fruit (including citrus); root vegetables; livestock; and more.
I went with the CEFAN agricultural engineer in a 4x4 pick-up truck to the hilly region of Noun (where Foumban is) to see the palm oil and maize plantations owned by the diocese, which are used as money making activities to finance its needs. agricultural programmes run by CEFANagricultural programmes run by CEFAN When in the forest, I saw by the side of the track little red mud houses with corrugated iron roofs, surrounded by banana and palm olive trees, together with small strips of cultivated land on which maize, beans and peanuts were growing, and I thought that this was a place where people could eat happily and have enough to eat – and in a better environment than the shanty towns of Douala or Yaounde. I thought back to the shacks surrounding the New Bell Fraternity, which are made of wood and rather rusty metal, with polluted water running down the middle of the street. There are now primary schools in most of the villages if one is prepared to walk a bit, and the people of Cameroon are used to that!
They have another advantage, namely a very young population. As early as 7 a.m. you will meet long processions of schoolchildren on the roads going to their classes but in these classes there may be 80 to 100 pupils! But what does the future hold for these young people? There isn't much work to be had, and when there is, it is badly paid.
A lot of the boys operate 'taxi bikes' with their Chinese-built 150 c.c. bikes, often working for a boss. These bikes are a very handy way of getting about in town or between the villages, even if their drivers have to 'slalom' to avoid the all too frequent potholes on the local roads, which (apart from the main routes) are badly maintained and rarely surfaced.
This Cameroon vitality is also in evidence in parish life, where various choirs enliven the Mass with their characteristic dances and songs in local languages. The liturgies last a long time (2 hours or more), as the liturgical texts are often read in one or two of the local languages, and the celebrants are often very talkative. I enjoy sharing these people's lives on Sunday; the church is full, and even on weekdays people come to Mass - at 6 a.m.!
So, what are the problems? Well, ethnic differences, and then the lack of water, which is not always drinkable in the streams during the dry season, unless you have a well or are connected to the mains (but this is expensive, which is why the diocese has had two wells dugs in the Malantouen region, where it has bought 200 hectares of land). There are various illnesses, including malaria which affects virtually everyone. And AIDS, but that’s an unmentionable subject. The earth tracks become washed away by the rain and are often impassable in the rainy season except in a 4x4, which means that some villages become isolated, and their inhabitants can't go and sell their onions and tomatoes.
It is a pity that the Government doesn't invest more in major projects of general benefit, such as health (there are no more anti-insect projects to fight against malaria; treatment is not free; if you go into hospital, you have to bring your own cottonwool, surgical spirit, bandages, sheets and food), education (there are no longer any scholarships), or infrastructure (such as roads or electricity - there are constant power cuts).
Meanwhile, every day the TV and newspapers run stories about financial corruption in public companies and bodies. Corruption is a plague at all levels of society, and its evils are felt mainly at the bottom end: work is badly done, materials “disappear” – which is all the more reason to seek to be honest and to have a professional conscience. The brothers too are affected by these work problems.
Life is very hard for many people, such as the women who come on foot from the neighbouring villages three times a week, carrying loads on their heads, to sell their vegetables in the market, and go back again with some soap, paraffin and oil. They remind me of the widow of Zarepthath (1 Kings17:12). I now understand better that a family which has given up everything to help their child get an education and a good job then expects that he in turn will help his other brothers and sisters; it is only fair.

However, there have been some generous and effective initiatives. CEFAN (an agricultural training centre), which Herve used to work for, provides young people with both theoretical and practical vocational training in the fields of agriculture and livestock management, so that they can enjoy a better life while staying in their villages. And with the same end in view, and working on the principle of "he who receives also gives", various projects give people in the villages the opportunity to have real economic influence in their region. In Douala, there is a vocational school set up by private donations, which trains vocational engineers in five years and helps them to find work when they graduate. It has a scholarship scheme to help its students meet the cost of their training.
And I must say that I find people quite peaceable here, despite the harshness of their life. They accept with a certain wisdom the life they are given, which has its joys and sorrows and will ultimately end in death, at least on earth. That is the order of things, and one must trust in God. "The West does not accept that suffering is an integral part of life; that is why it is always unable to find strength through suffering" (Etty Hillesum, Etty: A Diary 1941–194, London: Jonathan Cape, 1983). Survivors of the Haiti earthquake were reaffirming their belief in God, despite their awful experiences in the course of which they had lost family members and possessions – something that was incomprehensible to the journalist reporting it.
In our secularised countries we are proud of our technical ability (which is indeed very useful) – but don't we also often want to be the masters of our own life and destiny? But life is a gift, it is greater than we are, and God is the giver (see Hannah’s prayer 1 Samuel 1:11). Haven't we lost our feeling for God and the transcendence of all human life, created by God for all eternity?
And yet, when I see these young schoolgirls who have their first child at 15 or 16, and then another, before marrying a man who also has children of his own, I wonder what sort of education those children will receive, some of whom will be cared for by their grandmothers. There are not 200,000 abortions as in France; children are accepted into the extended family, but many problems still need to be resolved.
You can see the sort of conversations I am having with Edouard, Eric and Leo.Patrice  with the brothers of FoumbanPatrice with the brothers of Foumban As the brothers have been in Foumban for 40 years, I can make the most of the network of friends they have built up day by day. Edouard speaks the local language very well, and people come to see him every day: people pass the house, and if they see the door and windows open, they come in to say hello, and sometimes stay for more than an hour - there’s so much to talk about!
So I am pleased that I am going back to spend another year with them, for as long as my health allows me to be useful, even though it is not always so easy when you are a white person, with all the historical baggage that that term carries with it, which is always present in people's collective unconscious.