04/21/2015, 00.00
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An Indian missionary in northern Cameroon, infested with Boko Aram

by Piero Gheddo
The testimony of Fr. Xavier Ambati, PIME, from Andhra Pradesh on mission ad gentes in Africa. The animists villages seek a path to modernity in Christianity or Islam. The Islamist Boko Haram militia kidnap, kill, recruit new fighters among the young unemployed. A group of Chinese technicians have been in the hands of the Muslim extremists for a year. The Christian faith is spreading among young people and families.

Milan (AsiaNews) - North Cameroon is heavily infiltrated by Boko Haram who have spilled over from Borno state in northern Nigeria, where Islamic "Sharia" law is applied and almost every day there are schools and Christian villages victims of Islamic extremists.

The border between Cameroon and Nigeria, more than 2 thousand km long, passes in forests and steppes without a dividing barrier. Boko  Haram easily enter and recruit young unemployed Muslims, sending $ 250 a month to their families (teachers and nurses earn about 70-80 dollars); but if these young people want to leave, they cut their throats and those of their families in Cameroon; they assault villages, stop buses and slaughter Muslims who can not read the Koran and Christian men; they bring their women and children as hostages to Nigeria. Western embassies have ordered their citizens to withdraw from North Cameroon, divided from the south, where Islam is not prominent, by 900 km of forests.

Who has remained in the North? Missionaries and nuns to assist their Christians. North Cameroon has about 7 million inhabitants, 1.5 million are Muslims and 350,000 Christians, but the majority of the population is still animist and various tribes tend to be converted to Christ. It is real mission ad gentes terrirtory.

If there was no foreign religious personnel in the North, the four local dioceses could not survive. Since 1967 the PIME has been present in the South and since 1974 in North Cameroon, where it works in two dioceses (Maroua and Yagoua), especially among the two tribes, Ghizigà and Toupurì, with a dozen priests and brothers, including the Indian priest Xavier Ambati, who has an interesting story to tell.

Born in 1968 in Nandigama in Andhra Pradesh to parents who were teachers in Lutheran schools; Xavier still speaks with admiration of the rigorous training of the Lutherans. At 22, when he was already studying at the University, he converted to the Catholic Church and was ordained a PIME priest in 2003. He has been in North Cameroon for 11 years and in recent years has come into contact with Islamic extremists and Boko Aram.

At first he was in Mouturwa, a parish founded and then handed over to the local bishop. Father Xavier then went to Kousseri (Islamic city, 100 thousand inhabitants) on the border with Chad and Nigeria, where Fr. Giovanni Malvestio was building the church, school and parish for the few Christians in the city. While in Kousseri, Monday through Friday Xavier went to found a Church in Waza nearby the eponymous National Park and 7 km from Nigeria.  On Saturday and Sunday,  he returned to Kousseri to help in Sunday services.

Father Ambati in animist and Muslim villages

Interviewed in Milan, Fr. Xavier says: In Waza a French missionary had built a large brick room which served as church, a meeting place and school. I had no home and I slept on a mattress in the church. I brought 5-6 young Christians from Kousseri with me, the people met us, we talked about Jesus Christ and the Church, we toured the villages to look for Christians, but they were few.

We told them that a Catholic mission was to be born in Waza, leaving images of Jesus and Mary in their huts. Those interested in Christianity gave us their name and we promised to return. I spoke French, the young people translated for me into the local language. Sometimes I celebrated Mass with a chapel full of people but were few took part in communion, together with my young people. Six or seven villages built chapels in mud and straw, a sign that they wanted to learn about Christianity.

In 2013 the Boko Haram infiltrated Cameroon from Nigeria. The Cameroonian army intervened and at Christmas and Easter in 2013 when I celebrated the Mass, there were about 30 soldiers who defended the church, the people were almost all animist. In those border regions, if we do not take steps to immediately introduce Christianity to the animists, they become Muslims. Animism no longer counts in the modern world, so you have to choose: either you choose to become Christian or you are forced to become Muslims.

With the Catholic young people who were with me, we brought something to eat from Kousseri, but we usually ate what families of the villages offered us. Sometimes I bought millet in the local markets and ate millet porridge with some families; with polenta and some dried fish and other animals of the forest, such as mice, and some boiled forest grass. It is what the people eat and soit was our food too, morning, noon and night. A true repentance but the young people who were with me ate it willingly.

A "Work camp" for young Cameroonians

Christmas 2012 was one of the most solemn feasts which I celebrated in Waza, shortly before the arrival of the Chinese. To prepare for Christmas, with the help of Father Giovanni Malvestio and diocesan priest Fr David Menema (his collaborator in Kousseri), I organized, a "Youth work camp" for five days similar to what is done in Italy. In the isolated town near the National Park, the event was a remarkable success, also because Muslims also see Christmas as a popular religious festival.

On Christmas Eve, I travelled from Kousseri to Waza with a seminarian and six young Christians, well received by the civil authorities, traditional leaders and other religions. After dinner, we prepared the Christmas Mass, explaining the meaning of the feast, teaching some songs and concretely showing them how Mass is celebrated on the feast day with music, singing, candles, incense and a procession with the participation of all. On Christmas Day it was a Sunday, we celebrated Mass in the presence of the Waza authorities, and many young locals. They had never before experienced such a solemn festivity.

After lunch we visited a village 15 km from the center called Tagawa, with tupurì and massà tibal people. Young people from Waza and Kousseri came as well as some local officials and amazed the village with an animated explanation in their language. Immediately after several families expressed a desire to become Christian. The local Islamic leader encouraged people to build a chapel to pray together, so that is what we did! On Monday we went to visit two other villages: Jiguina (15 km) with just one Catholic family while all the others were Muslims; in the second, Mada (5 km), there was a Protestant woman. In both villages, we presented the Gospel, teaching the Our Father. The next day we visited the village of Bonderi with a similar program, but this village is composed of 50 families of traditional religion and some Christian families including three Catholic and a Protestant family who want to join the Catholic Church. In this village there was more time and we blessed the huts and visited the sick.  There the people expressed their desire to have the regular presence of a priest. On the last day we still celebrated Mass in Wazà attracting many people and families and then we concluded the Youth Camp with a promise to hold another one for Easter.

These five days were very positive, both for the enthusiasm of the local youth and those who accompanied me from Kousseri, and because conformed the importance of the presence of the young seminarian from the diocese of Yagoua, sent to us by his bishop, who led the evening prayer and the Rosary, and gave daily catechesis to the young people present. In fact it was the local youth who provided us with bed and board to the best of their abilities in that situation of great poverty.

Boko Haram kidnaps Chinese workers

In the villages of the future parish of Wazaàthe Cameroon government decided to build a road from Kousseri to the south, also to determine the border with Nigeria. In 2013 the Chinese arrived and built the road for the Cameroon government, from north to south, over a thousand kilometers long; the road passes right next to our chapel and  for several months we lived with the Chinese, who were divided into groups along that route. The group that was in Wazà had big machines, trucks, bulldozers, caterpillars etc. The Chinese were living in prefabricated houses brought from China, they came set them up and then disassembled them when they left, they even produced their own electricity.

In early 2014, one day suddenly about 300 men of Boko Haram sprung from the Wazà National Park, all armed and hooded. They surrounded the Chinese camp and took away a dozen men, all managers and engineers, but not Chinese workers who are prisoners in China and only released to work in dangerous places. There were about 70 prisoners in our group, they got the most difficult jobs. Local workers were also taken on, but there are few Africans because they are forced to work hard and are paid very little. I heard that in China prisoners are given the option of working abroad for China for an indefinite number of years in return for freedom.

There were about thirty Cameroonians soldiers who were deployed to defend the Chinese workers, one of them fired at the militants but was killed, the others, seeing that legion of fighters, fled. The Boko Haram, told the people of Wazà, they were a real army, and it was impossible to stop them. Luckily I was in Kousseri with young Christians, or they would have taken us too. They told me that they brought the Chinese leaders to their command on the Nigerian border and to date they have not yet released. After this, the superior of the PIME in Cameroon and then the bishop, told me to leave: It had become too dangerous!

The bishop sends me to found a new parish

Some months later, the bishop of Yagoua sent me to found a parish in Waga, about 120 km from the border with Nigeria and Chad, also a territory infiltrated by Boko Haram. And here I sleep in a great church of mud and straw. I'm starting to make contact with the animists villages where I have found some Catholic families who thank me for coming.

I've already been to Maga in recent months with Fr. Giuseppe Parietti to see the situation, we stopped a few days and we toured some villages. It has become increasingly clear to me that it is a mission ad gentes, with many animists who want to become Christian. In Maga the situation is similar to the one you will find anywhere in northern Cameroon. The majority of people (who belong to different ethnic groups or tribes) are still animists. Each small village or each family goes its own way and has no point of reference for modern life, no support or protection. Even the tribal youth, educated to the worship of the spirits of the village, tribe or family, are disoriented and isolated, while Christians and Muslims have the Book (the Bible or Koran) and the Church or the Islamic "umma". As is the case in North Cameroon, the choice of a religion suited to modern times is inevitable.

In early September I will return to Cameroon and go to Maga to start the parish. It is believed that there are hundreds of Christians scattered in various villages, but who have been without a resident priest for many years: I do not yet know how many are left. There are also three African nuns who started a primary school, built by the Canadian nuns. In their house the sisters have a chapel, but too small for the parish. Many years ago there was a French missionary who came to Maga once a month, and baptized many.  He used a straw hut which today is falling apart. I will have to repair it, because I will sleep in the church. I have no one to eat with: the Canadian father ate with the Canadian nuns, but I'll eat alone. Perhaps in the beginning the Christians of the village will bring me something, then I'll have to find a way to get something to eat for myself, but I'll think about when I am on the ground. I believe that I will not die of hunger and a senior missionary told me that at the beginning of a mission you have to endure a bit 'of penance, because the foundations of a church is the cross of Jesus Christ.

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