[A couple of weeks ago, our pastor at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco emailed us to ask whether we might like to write something on the topic of "new life" for an upcoming church service. Ann and I worked on it together, and sent it off, and yesterday Ann's sister Miriam read it aloud on our behalf. It's about our life in Cameroon, and it's a joint effort, so here it is. (Image: chapel of Catholic Procure, Douala, Cameroon)]
Greetings, First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, and we sure do miss you! From our vantage point in Cameroon, we figure we’ve taken the concept of ‘new life’ to a whole new level. For one year, we’ve literally chosen a life that is completely new to us. New country, people, culture, language, weather, foods, work, and everyday surroundings. This halfway point in our year is a perfect time to reflect on what we’ve been noticing around and within us, and we thank you for the invitation to do so with you. If you want to respond to this in any way, feel free to email us!
Poverty, AIDS, war, famine, corruption…the news most Americans get from Africa is not exactly brimming with resurrection and hope. But good news doesn't sell newspapers, as the saying goes, so maybe this says more about the media than about Africa. Where are the signs of new life in Cameroon, whose government is consistently recognized among the most corrupt in the world? The joke goes that they were voted the most corrupt country in the world, but paid to be moved to second place.
We're happy to say that in actuality, we see signs of resistance and resurrection here every day. Yaoundé, the capital city where we make our home, is bursting with new life and hope. Our neighborhood is near the southern edge of town, where the hillsides are dotted with half-finished houses, places where people hope to establish themselves and their families, each one a concrete investment toward the future. People flock to the city from surrounding regions, and from the dry deserts of the Far North, all hoping to find a better life in Yaoundé. There is a shadow side to this new life, as the city becomes increasingly crowded, crime increases, and there is never enough paid work for all. But the hope and determination that draw people here are beautiful, powerful forces. Like many others in Africa, Yaounde is a city of dreams.
We also see new life in the green and growing things that cover the immensely fertile regions of Cameroon. The markets spill over with fruits and vegetables and spices grown in the soil here, and even our urban area is sprouting with mango and papaya trees, banana and plantain trees, the huge leafy plants in the swamp behind our house, the riot of orange flowers in our backyard. Boys hack away roadside grass with sharp machetes, and land owners burn tangles of brush, but it all grows back eagerly. Even now, the rainy season is starting, and nature is staging an extravagant show of new life all around us. The glorious explosive rolls of thunder we lie in bed and listen to, so rare back home in San Francisco, remind us of our childhoods in Michigan, and herald new growth all around us.
The people we meet and the work we see going on here also resist the forces of death and discouragement and create more signs of resurrection. The neighborhood where we currently house-sit is full of expatriates and locals working together to translate the Bible into over 250 local languages. While we might not agree completely with the theology that motivates them, their work is important and empowering for the speakers of all these languages, as they work with local people to teach literacy skills and to capture African languages for the future, often writing them down for the first time. New life is breathed into each language as it is studied, written, preserved, dignified, and used in new ways. And those who do the work seem to find real fulfillment and positive collaboration in what they do.
RELUFA, the network of Cameroonian non-profits with which we work, also engages in numerous life-giving projects. We have some amazing and visionary colleagues determined to work for justice in their country, even when the odds seem insurmountable. Meeting beneficiaries of RELUFA’s micro-credit program, we’ve been impressed with their creativity and resourcefulness, and the way access to small loans gives new life and hope to people’s activities and aspirations. Granaries in the north help villages save their millet harvest to eat during leaner times instead of selling it off to speculators and then buying it back at a huge markup when times are lean. Lawyers and other advocates work hard to hold logging, mining, and oil companies accountable for how they treat the land and its people by confronting them with the human cost of their activities, and by persuading them to open their books to international public scrutiny. These truly are small resurrections in the face of death-dealing forces like poverty, hunger, injustice and exploitation.
Of course, the new life we notice here in Cameroon is not only around us, but within us too. As volunteer workers in a culture with a very relaxed attitude toward time, we find ourselves removed from the constant feeling of hurry that’s built in to our San Francisco life. For the most part, it’s been really lovely, allowing us to take time to read widely, cook meals together, explore the reaches of our neighborhood on foot, and (perhaps for the first time in our adult lives) get enough sleep – all the time! This unique opportunity to slow down for a year is definitely very renewing for us. We hope to bring home some enduring lessons about the value of living slowly.
Another effect we notice is our ability to be more present in our interactions with others, and to truly take time for conversations and social interactions. Everyone does this here, even foreigners, and people aren’t always thinking about rushing off to the next thing on their agenda. Although it took us time to get used to it, we now appreciate the fact that building relationships and interacting with others is an important part of life here, even of work and business.
Our relationship to each other also gets more time here, and consequently more growth. Here our work, home life, and social activities overlap almost completely, so conflicts and communication issues which would be easier to ignore in our busier and more divergent lives back home are pulled into the light. It’s hard work sometimes, but also a wonderful opportunity to face and deal with these things, getting to know each other and our marriage more fully in the process.
Another important area of growth for us has come through the challenges of adjusting to our ‘new life’ in Cameroon. We are certainly out of our comfort zones in various ways, whether it’s our inability to communicate well in French, the constant attention that comes with being a racial minority, increased safety concerns, personal requests for money and favors that would be out of place back home, or any number of other adjustments to an unfamiliar culture. While the everyday struggles of most Cameroonians serve as a good reality check, making our problems seem petty in comparison, it has been good for us to acknowledge our own struggles and accompany each other through them, widening our horizons in the process.
On a broader scale we are faced with gaping disparities of wealth every day, with the harsh realities of how many people of the world live. Our privilege is supported by complicated systems of exploitation that contribute to the misery of the poor, and the lack of simple solutions and clear courses of action is painfully clear. But even hard truths like these are laced with resurrection for us, in that we don’t want to give up. Being here has brought to life for us how important it is to engage with our world, and to act out of hope so that hope can remain alive. It's said that we can truly change only ourselves, so educating ourselves is a gift to the world, because from this can flow a lifetime of informed engagement and hope.
Finally, stepping out of our usual surroundings and into this new life has sharpened our perspective on what we’ve chosen to leave behind for a year. The relationships, the natural beauty, the food, the cultural opportunities, our spiritual home at First Mennonite, and the general vibrancy of San Francisco (as well as a mean temperature of about 60 degrees, as far as Chris is concerned) …our appreciation of all this grows deeper across the distance. There is much that we are excited to return to! When we do return, shaped by our experiences here in Cameroon, we hope to find ways to hold these new thoughts and spaces that this year is opening for us, to bring new life to the way we live and maybe to our community too.
We love you. Peace.