Koza, Thank You and Goodbye!

By: Fr. Pedro Marcelos Peñaranda

(An open letter from a Seminarian in the Mission in Cameroon)

Completely Lost
I arrived in Cameroon November 6, 1988. After nine months of struggling with the French language in Belgium, I set a foot in Yaonde from where, after barely five days, I went north to Koza. That was in the dry, hot season. I felt I was completely lost in a very different world. For the first time in my life I saw black every which way I turned, as if I was dreaming. But it was a happy dream, I realized, after a few days of adjusting my eyes.

Two Doors: Language and Food
The first hurdle to face was: inculturation, adoption, contextualization, integration-choose your term. In my case, it was to enter into the house of the Mafa people, both in the literal and figurative sense. There are two doors leading one to establish relations with a people other than his own, especially if he wishes to pursue it to a certain dept. These two doors are their language and their food.

Gymnastics of the Tongue
Neither the one nor the other way was easy for me. To study the Mafa language requires a lot of patience, initiative and creativity, because there is not much opportunity for formal studies. Even the few mimeograph materials available only offer confusion, for there is a choice of several sets of orthographic styles, according to the researches and propositions of different linguist. We count on out fingers the missionaries here to succeed in speaking it straight, even after ten, fifteen years! That is because of complicated vowels, dithongs and consonants normally not found in the international alphabets. The tongue has to do a lot of gymnastics. Worse, the Mafa language is quasi-tonal: plenty of words or even syllables can have totally different meaning depending upon whether one pronounces them high, low, or neutral tone! But despite the difficulty, I did try my best, and believe I have succeeded in making a little progress.

The Harmattan Brings Meningitis
It is on the level of languages that I worked the hardest, because even until now I still find it difficult to adjust to their food. In order to understand this difficulty, it is necessary that I describe first to you the region and the manner by which their meal is prepared. The Mafa region is extremely poor especially compared with the fertile south. The land is wild and dusty. Wild, but I would say majestic and at the same time; these enormous heaps of rocks and stone which rise up to 1,494 meters towards the sky. They are all naked and brown, except for a few small thorny trees here and there; everywhere they are inhabited and cultivated, even up to the summit, while the slopes are carefully preserved from erosion by beautiful terraces. Dusty, it is because of the sand blown by the strong winds from the Sahara desert, called “Harmattan”. Indeed at times, on days on end, these wild but majestic mountains disappear from view due to the thick fog of the desert sand which penetrates even into the inner crevices of our dwellings. In less fortunate times, this cruel Harmattan brings with it the terrible plague of Meningitis.

Not a Single Drop of Rain
The yearly struggle for survival is won by planting millet during the June-September rainy season. For the rest of the year, not a single drop of rain fall from the sky, and vegetation in the region is virtually nil. Even the cows and goats have to content themselves with dry grass. Still, the worst problem is the lack of water, hence of hygiene, and hence the threat of all sorts of disease. Even our toilets in the mission house, for instance are of a very “natural flavor”; we cannot afford the luxury of flushing it with water. It simply a question of getting used to the smell, of course, but there is never a way to drive away the cockroaches and the big lizards. When the dry season is at its peak, we have to wait sometimes a couple days until the mission well gathers enough water, which is really big trouble for us especially when we have to welcome some important visitors. For many here, the water available is often unclean: They usually dig deeper and deeper each time into the sandy, dried up river beads; that’s explains why amoeba attacks are very common. Because the people themselves have no idea of the disease causing bacteria and microbes, they search for the culprit among the evil spirits and the “soul-eaters”.

The Delight of Burnt Excrement
Now to go back to food, the daily bread here is boiled millet, formed into a ball and dipped in sauce of herbs and bits of dried small salt water fish. The “millet ball” is prepared twice a day only, or even once, during “la periode de soudure”, between the last reserves and the new harvest. For the strangers this meal is difficult to eat because it is actually, if unintentionally mixed with sand, its grains being earlier pounded on bare ground and later crushed by hand into flour using flat stones. And their traditional salt? It is produced by filtering water through the ashes of burnt excrement of cows and goats.

Shared Poverty versus Poverty amidst Plenty
I am witness to the difficult life among the poor communities in my country, the Philippines, but here I am deeply touched by a much different level of poverty. Of course I must admit that the poverty in our country constitutes a graver scandal because it is poverty amidst abundance controlled of rich, powerful families while here, it is a “shared poverty” which touches more or less all the sector of the population.

I felt I was completely lost in a very different world.

Salt is produced by Filtering water through the ashes of burnt excrement of cows and goats