March 12, 2016
At the beginning of Lent, at Ash Wednesday worship services, we receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Here in this part of Cameroon, Lent falls during the hottest, driest, dustiest part of the year. Dust is everywhere! It gets into one’s eyes and settles on every surface imaginable. It is almost impossible to keep anything clean for very long unless it is in a sealed container. While I find this very annoying, I have decided to try to let the ever-present dust be a reminder to me of that Ash Wednesday mandate: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This mandate that we receive with the ashes on our foreheads, of course, is to remind us of our mortality and our utter dependence on God. Here in Cameroon, it seems that reminders of mortality are as ever-present as the dust. Hardly a week passes during which I do not hear of a death of a family member or friend of someone I know. And all too often, these deaths are premature. (The average life expectancy in Cameroon is only 56 years.) Last week, for example, one of the women who cleans at the Institute lost her 26-year-old daughter. Last month, our groundskeeper lost both his father-in-law and a nephew, and one of our night guards lost his sister-in-law, who died just days after giving birth to her fourth child.
Poverty and a scarcity of health care professionals create a perilous situation. Many people do not seek medical treatment because they do not have the means to pay the basic charges for an appointment and/or the cost of transportation to a hospital or clinic. When people do seek treatment, they may not have access to a doctor, or they may not have the means to pay for the treatment prescribed.
When someone dies, an autopsy is rarely performed. So the question of why a person has died is often unresolved. Some people resort to mystical explanations – i.e., that sorcery was involved. Sadly, this can lead to all kinds of accusations and tensions among the person’s loved ones.
Many people find comfort in theological explanations – i.e., that it was God’s will that the person die. Honestly, I have a hard time believing that God wants so many people to die so young of diseases that are treatable. I think it comes down to a question of justice, or rather, injustice – the injustice of so many people living in poverty with such inadequate health care systems. This is a country that is rich in natural resources, but unfortunately, most of those resources are exploited by foreigners, and the profits that do come back to the country are hoarded by people in power rather than invested in developing the country. I find this systemic corruption infuriating, yet I feel powerless to do anything about it.
Of course, the cycle of life continues. The last week in January, during the week of exams for the first semester, one of our students’ wives gave birth to a baby girl. To my great surprise, they decided to name the baby after me. Here she is, the newborn Elisabeth Ann.
In other news, Cameroon celebrated the 50th anniversary of the “Fête de la Jeunesse” (Festival of Youth) on February 11. Once again, the students from the Institute marched in the parade, this time in suits and clerical shirts. They also had a special banner made with a prayer for security and peace in Cameroon. The far north of Cameroon continues to be attacked by the terrorist group Boko Haram, so I ask you also to keep the security of this region in your prayers. Please pray also for peace and stability to be reestablished in the Central African Republic, our neighbors to the east. Presidential elections were completed there last month, and the newly elected president will be sworn in soon.
+ Grace and peace +