by Rev. Fr. Jude Iroh, MSP
Even before I joined the Missionary Society of St. Paul, I had longed to work in places where the Christian population is small. The Block Rosary and the Legion of (Mary) prayers said for the conversion of Russia and for the end of apartheid in South Africa inspired me to desire hard mission areas like Russia and the then apartheid South Africa. After my priestly ordination and one-year pastoral experience in Nigeria, I was posted to South Africa - a posting I received with a lot of enthusiasm because of my earlier desire. However, that enthusiasm was short-lived. As months rolled by, it became clear that those posted to Cameroon Mission were not to go eventually. I was asked if I would like to go to Buea Diocese in Cameroon. My immediate reply was "If you have decided to send me to Cameroon, why ask me?" On December 3, 1996, I flew into Douala, and a few days later, I reported to the diocese of Buea, at St. John's Parish, Kumba. The realization of my earlier mission desire had begun.
Buea diocese is one of the first mission areas in Cameroon where the Missionary Society of St. Paul started work. Some time ago, we had over ten MSP working in this diocese, but presently there are only two.
The diocese covers the then South-West Province of Cameroon with its provincial capital at Buea. It is a mountainous area. In fact, the Cameroon Mountain (also known there as Buea Mountain), the second highest mountain in Africa, is located there. The main occupation of the area is farming. The soil is fertile and crops grow almost all the year round. With a sparse population and a fertile ground, many other tribes settled there in search of greener pasture. Due to the deplorable state of the roads in the area, movements of people and goods is difficult. Christmas on Mission Soil
Barely four days after my arrival at St. John's parish,Kummba, I went on a trek, i.e., visitation to the outstations. St. John's had thirty-six outstations with just only a priest to cater for their pastoral needs. My journey on foot in Kumba brought to memory the description of St. Paul's missionary journey in the Acts of the Apostles. It was part of my program as the pastor to visit the outstations to see things for myself. From December 11-15, I was on the move, visiting one outstation after another. In all, I covered fourteen different outstations. In most cases, I passed a night at one place. At a point in time, I asked myself, did the Lord not once say, "Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head?" The trekking was quite discomforting. However, I had the opportunity, as it were, to celebrate Christmas Mass in three different churches. I was weighed down by hunger and fatigue, and to say the least, I experienced ministry burnout.
I became initiated into long distant trekking business. As a new man on the job, I had both the zeal and a sense of adventure. These propelled me on to visit some churches in the outstations that had not seen priests for quite a long time before my arrival. The numerous difficulties I experienced during those journeys on foot can be described as my own "baptism of fire." On one particular day, after Mass at a place called Bakumba I proceeded to another outstation, Ngwandi. The mere sight of hills to ascend and descend was very terrifying because I had not seen such hills prior to my coming to Buea.
At first, I discovered I could not climb some of them. It was indeed an uphill task to go on with those high hills facing me. The 'Afro Hill' was remarkable among the so many I had to climb. I did everything possible to climb across it but to no avail. It was rough, stony and rugged. After managing to reach the peak, the parish jeep I had, went off. My companions and I had to remain there, suspended on the hill. Every effort to start the vehicle was futile. The alternative was to allow it to roll down the hill. While on motion, I lost control of the situation because of a stone the vehicle had hit in the process. I eventually landed, surprisingly, on a level ground instead of the valley or even the stream down the hill. It was face to face with death. Deep within me, I was not afraid. "As if like a lion, I rose with some kind of renewed strength to continue the journey.
The rest of the journey was on foot. It took my companions and me about three and a half hours to go from Ngwandi to Weme. The next two villages to visit took another five and a half hours before we could set our feet on them. We had to walk on local bridges made of robes "Hammock" Those with me were great sources of encouragement for me. As I reflect on these experiences I can picture vividly their faces beaming with smiles and their great faith which inspired me in those days.
I can still recall the joyful celebrations that greeted the arrival of "Fada." These were usually accompanied by songs and dances. It was something I often looked forward to. The celebration is explained by the fact that the pastoral needs of the people are left in most cases in the hands of untrained catechists. This is caused by the shortage of priests. Thus, each time a priest arrives, he stays with them for some hours or a night. He listens to their needs and problems. At times he goes on house-to-house visit. During his stay in a place, the sacraments of reconciliation and baptism are celebrated. He rounds off the visit with the Eucharist.
The pastoral work in rural areas is interesting but also full of challenges. One needs to be interiorly motivated and convinced of the work because, as it were, the conditions in which rural people live are such that have "no charm to attract us, no beauty to win our hearts." Yet our vocation as missionaries is primarily towards them and they are also the ones who most need our services. Besides the suffering and poverty that one encounters, the inner satisfaction knows no bounds.
It is to our credit as Missionaries of St. Paul that we are quite committed to the people and they love us and highly appreciate our work among them. Our apostolate in the diocese includes the establishment of small Christian communities, school management, etc. There is a lot of work in the school apostolate. There are many mission schools with dilapidated structures in dire need of support from generous individuals and groups. The target of our school apostolate are the youths upon whose shoulder lies the future of the local church as well as the universal church and also that of their country and the African continent. Based on our own experience, I would encourage the brothers wherever they may be working to be determined and unflagging in missionary zeal so as to help spread the Gospel of Christ.