13 December 2017

From Dublin to Douala

“So where is Douala?” you might well ask. It’s the chief port and largest city of Cameroon. That’s the triangular shaped country east of Nigeria. My old geography teacher referred to that area of Africa rather unfairly as “the armpit of Africa.” Other than memories of a world cup soccer team with a George Best of a player called Roger Milla, I would never have given it a second thought either, except, I happened to meet someone back in 1990.

My brother Gary, met Blaesius Fultang while on a missions trip to Cameroon in the late 80’s. Blaesius then visited Ireland in 1990, came to a conference and developed a friendship with us in Ireland which has deepened and expanded over 20 years.

He enticed me to visit his hometown of nKongsamba. For a first time, greenhorn visitor to the African continent I was half expecting something resembling a scene out of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but instead, discovered an enthralling land. In spite of the prevailing circumstances, not conducive to a white man from Kildare, I was hooked and captivated. The people in Blaesius’ church, the openness of their hearts, their ability to laugh at seemingly serious situations, their zest and desire to know God in deep and transformational ways, in addition to the sheer splendour and verdure of the natural beauty of the place, all combined to allure me back.

At the time I expected this would be a one off trip, but other influences were obviously at work. Suffice to say I’ve since visited Cameroon many times, and it has become a regular destination in my global journeying.

Reflecting back over these many visits, and a few adventures along the way, one of the highlights and exceptional events was the building of the school. So what is so special about building a school in Africa? People, mission organizations and charities are doing it all the time. I initially thought the same when Blaesius mooted the idea one evening, while sitting on his veranda overlooking the slightly hypnotic view of the descending mist enshrouding Mount Cameroon. Great idea! Let’s go with a small, corrugated roofed, wooden walled, concrete slabbed structure. Bear in mind that the standard and type of education in this part of the world is very different to what we might expect here in Ireland; most schools can be risky environments, especially for girls; corruption and immorality is the order of the day, and only a small minority can avail of the few expensive alternative, privately run schools.

Well, Blaesius had a somewhat bigger and grander vision. Initial plans were drawn. Not far from the town of nKongsamba, various segments of land were bought, bargained for, negotiated over, and the purchase was finally completed. Foundations were dug. I was there at the time. No JCB’s, motorized diggers or cement mixers, just BS&T (blood, sweat and tears!!) In soaring equatorial heat, stage one was completed, often in rains so heavy that the vertical falling drops even indented the freshly hardened virgin cement.

Over the next two years this work of faith progressed. From various sources and corners of the earth bits and pieces of finance, equipment and even labourers came. An example of this was my friend Terry Brosnan and his young son Terry Jr., now a plain clothes Garda in Dublin. Terry is an experienced stonemason from the small village of Mountcollins on the Limerick/ Kerry border. Terry felt God prompting him to go to Cameroon and volunteer his expertise for several weeks. He helped build walls, foundations and pillars and much else besides. It was a very different environment from Mountcollins, but Terry and Terry felt at home, and both are still remembered fondly by many there.

Eventually the official opening day arrived. Some things stick in the mind more vividly than others. So many “events” in our lives just happen, are experienced and then form a blur in that ever-fading tapestry of stored memories. But not this one! On a very hot day, conspicuously the only white man for miles, I sat in the front row under a canopy beside my good friend Blaesius with Helen, his wife, and his family. New schools of this magnitude are not an everyday occurrence in this part of the world, so every official, police chief, tribal chief, witch doctor, regional governor and many more besides, crammed into the 5 acre site for this special occasion. Even some high-ranking government minister appeared with his burly, perspiring bodyguards and enjoyed making his grand entrance.

Speeches were made, school children sang and marched enthusiastically, even those who had opposed the project for various reasons took the opportunity to get their moment of glory. As if giving a short speech of self-congratulations fooled any of us! One of the many miracles about this enterprise is that it was completed without paying any bribe to anyone, anywhere. Those of you who know Africa will appreciate this. Amazing! The best moment was when Blaesius spoke from his heart, Helen read a poem she’d written and we witnessed His presence descend upon this unique gathering.

Since then the school has developed further. It has capacity for nearly a thousand pupils, boarders and day, caters for both French and English speaking students and regularly wins awards for its grades nationally. But it’s the atmosphere of hope and respect and the changes in the students’ lives that strikes the most when one visits. As someone remarked to me, “This school is like as if the Kingdom of God has come to town in physical form.” I ponder the theology, but I sure know what he meant!

Just when I thought I had settled back to more tranquil visits and times of ministry in Cameroon, Blaesius has embarked on another “mission,” located across the road from the school. A hospital! If a school can be used to such effect in the proclamation and witness of the Gospel, then how much more, in this rural and under-serviced province, a place of quality medical care and compassion.

But… this next chapter in the story will have to wait for another telling. Meanwhile I hope this short testimony of a man’s vision, sacrifice and his ongoing walk with Jesus will encourage you. Even during these times of much economic uncertainty and instability, opportunities abound for men and women of faith to make a difference and see His Kingdom on the earth advance.

Larry Hill