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The first rays of sunshine pierce the heavy fog that has settled in Mankon. It was in 1935 on one of the hills in this popular district of Bamenda, that the British Mill Hill missionaries erected the small chapel that has now become Saint Joseph’s Metropolitan Cathedral.
On 5 February, 56-year-old Archbishop Andrew Fuanya Nkea held an unusual mass. This was his first service since Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, presented him with the pallium, a liturgical ornament that expresses the close union of archbishops with Pope Francis.
A pilgrim of peace
With his mitre on his head and bright banter, Bishop Nkea lifted the spirits of a sparse audience, mainly composed of members of the various congregations of his diocese.
Unsurprisingly, his sermon revolved around peace. “When we are faced with a disturbing situation such as the one we are in, we must remember the words of Pope Francis, who tells us that at such times the world does not need empty words but active witnesses, peacemakers who reject exclusion or manipulation,” he said from behind the wooden pulpit.
In the arcane world of religion and power – as well as in the streets of Bamenda – Bishop Nkea’s commitment to resolving the crisis that is rocking the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon has not gone unnoticed. It is an important cause to this Anglophone from Lebialem, one of the six departments of the South-West Region.
Born in August 1965 in the parish of Saint-Matthias in Widikum, in the North-West, the young Nkea grew up between the towns of Kumbo, Buea and Tiko. In September 1985, he joined the large seminary of Saint Thomas of Aquinas in Bambui. He left in 1992 and was ordained as a parish priest in Mbonge, in the South-West.
When the Anglophone crisis started in November 2016, Nkea had already served as the bishop of Mamfé for three years. It was there that he built his reputation as a pilgrim of peace, through positions and actions that have remained in people’s memories.
In November 2018, he openly pointed out – without fear of repercussions – the army’s responsibility in the death of the Kenyan missionary Cosmos Oboto Ondari in Kembong. That same year, he visited the Nigerian state of Cross River, where there were more than 7,000 Cameroonian refugees, to shed a harsh light on Yaoundé’s failed humanitarian response.
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In his sermons, he condemns the many abuses perpetrated by the army. Braving the threats from separatists, he participated in the national dialogue organised in October 2019 and took part in the campaign to encourage pupils to return to school.
“We will continue to call on the ‘Ambaboys’ to come out of the bush and lay down their weapons,” he said. “Some of these young boys and girls are convinced that their fight is right. But they need us. Not to keep hunting them down, but to take them seriously, to listen to them and allow them to express their frustrations.”
“Frank and sincere dialogue”
“There is a problem in English-speaking Cameroon, and it needs to be examined in depth if we want peace in this country,” he continued. “Destroying schools is like shooting yourself in the foot. Only a frank and sincere dialogue can lead us to a lasting peace,” the prelate added, challenging anyone to see in his words support for separatist groups.
In this crisis, statements by public figures are often manipulated and taken out of context. However, Bishop Nkea is not afraid to put his foot in it, even if it means making people angry. “Only the truth matters,” says the bishop. His coat of arms has the words In spiritu et veritate (“In spirit and truth”) and this echoes values that the late Pope John Paul II, his main “model of spirituality”, held dear.
In Bamenda and English-speaking Cameroon in general, the church has a strong influence and moral authority.
In 1922, Fon Ndefru – chief of Mankon – ceded his land to the Catholic Church in the hope that “the missionaries and their God” would rid the place of the supposed curse that had earned it the nickname “Satan’s hill”. The mission was a success, according to the legend. The church built its chapel there and the people began to sleep again without fear of being haunted.
“Overcoming the darkness”
Nearly a century later, the people of Mankon have new expectations of the church and its representative. After four years of armed conflict, they want an end to the violence.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s visit to Bamenda further strengthened Bishop Nkea’s authority, and he has expressed his willingness to play a role in furthering dialogue.
In this respect, his close ties to political figures such as Asheri Kilo Fofung, the secretary of state for education, the Muna family and Social Democratic Front party chairman Ni John Fru Ndi could be an advantage. However, the most crucial step will be to convince the belligerents who are fighting on a daily basis of the need to bring an end to the cycle of violence.
The archbishop believes in this. “All these people we’re talking about, the military and secessionists, are my Christians,” he said during a meeting with representatives of the Cameroonian diaspora held in late 2020 in the US.
“I speak to them as I speak to anyone. Some listen; others do not. Like the Gospel I preach, some listen, some do not. But, season after season, the Gospel of Christ must continue. Light must overcome darkness.”
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