The Kirdi are a little known primitive population of north Cameroon-animists dispersed among far more powerful and organized Moslems.
Not even he, Simon Mpecke, a purebred African of south Cameroon, had ever heard of them - at least so it seemed to him, before 1954. Yet he was an intelligent and dynamic pastor of souls, with the responsibility of a large parish in Douala, the most populated and prosperous maritime city in south Cameroon.
The name of this unknown people, one thousand kilometers away, so poor and needy, lit a light and a hope in the heart of the priest. He must get to know them well, to love and help them. He makes a resolution: "I will be their missionary."
Since 1946 the Oblate Missionaries (O.M.I.) had been working in north Cameroon, under the guidance of Mons. Plumey, OMI, the bishop of the immense diocese of Garoua (183 sq. km.) which was later to be divided into Garoua, Maroua-Mokolo and Yagoua. Don Simon wrote to the bishop, expressing to him his desire, but received a provisional answer. An African priest who abandons his thickly populated parish to go as a missionary to another area of the black continent? This would be a stupendous novelty, something really too "prophetic". Could the original diocese and its bishop accept such a great sacrifice?...
Don Simon is a man of faith, of patience and determination. He renews his request to his direct superior, Mons. Mongo, the first native bishop of Douala, who, one fine day, replies to him.
- "Simon", he tells him, "you have been asking me for some time for permission to go to north Cameroon. I do not permit you to go, rather I order you to go there! When up there, if they ask you why you left Douala to go so far away to the opposite end of the country, you will reply." My bishop, Mons. Mongo, sent me here because he is convinced that our Cameroon Church. will not be planted solidly until it rests on two good legs: that of the South and that of the North.
Simon's heart overflowed with joy; it was not just he, through his inspiration, who wanted to set out, it was God Himself sending him, through the bishop!
Don Simon arrives in Garoua in February 1959. Mons. Plumey and the Oblates welcome him joyfully and want him to feel perfectly free. Yet the shortage of missionary personnel makes it impossible to offer him a companion to carry out his plans.
"Mons. Plumey", - Simon writes, "tells me to go and explore the Mora district to find a suitable place to found a mission. But first it is advisable to pay a short visit to the Little Brothers of Charles De Foucauld at Mayo-Uldemé. No sooner said than done. At Uldemé, Brother James tells me that there are various tribes in the area, but there is one particularly open: the Mada. And he adds: "it will be a. good thing to begin with them; then, through the Mada, there will be a possibility of reaching the other tribes."
"In agreement with a European physician, Dr Maggi of Italian extraction who intends to found a hospital, I choose a favourable place for the new mission: Tokombere. It is in the plain, but very near the mountains and, above all, it has good water."
"Things were not easy at the beginning, for everyone was mistrustful, everyone, both Moslems and Kirdi. The Moslems, in fact, knowing we were there for the Kirdi, were anything but enthusiastic at the idea that we should work for their evolution and advancement. The Kirdi, on the other hand, looked upon us with mistrust for two reasons: because we wore clothes, while they ere almost naked, and because we lived in the plain, the undisputed kingdom of the Moslems.
"The Kirdi mountain tribes were divided among themselves and often enemies. For example, the Muyang were at war with the Mada. If a Mada succeeded in capturing a Muyang, he would sell him at once to some Zulgo, who in his turn would sell him to the Mandara."
Baba Simon, as he was to be affectionately called by his people before long, did not lose heart. First alone, then with an African priest and finally with others coming from Europe, he begins to carry out his plan of constructions to draw people: first the school, then the little presbytery, then the house of the African Sisters and the domestic science school for the girls and finally the fine church built with stones brought down from the mountains. The altar was constructed with the old sacred stone of a village, because, Baba Simon notes, "these mountains of ours have sacred stones, just like our distant ancestors in Europe, and it is right that we should "rebaptize" them for worship of the true God."
Baba Simon, a true son of Africa, realizes that there are values to discover and develop in the soul of these mountain people in order to be able, gradually, to construct a true but really African Christianity. And his discoveries go beyond all expectations, so far as to make him write:
"If I had not Jesus Christ to make known to them, I would have nothing and gone back home to south Cameroon long ago. Jesus is the summit, the peak, the Ngar, as is said in the Mada language, of creation; without Him, creation would be a body without a head. It is stupendous that, with the Incarnation God should have raised man up to Himself in Christ. If I had not had Jesus Christ, I would have gone home because I have discovered that the Kirdi have a faith like the Jews.
"The Kirdi in Africa are those who have the most perfect concept of God. All that I could teach them about God the creator was already known to them. One day I had sent a catechist to the Zulgo with the following precise instructions:
"Speak to them about God who created everything, who made everything: the mountains, the millet, the plain... They must believe in God and love Him.
"On his return, the catechist said to me: "I told them everything you taught me and do you know what their answer was? We already knew everything you have said to us; it was really not worth your coming such a long way".
"Actually, the Kirdi of the mountains, like all Africans, believe in one God. But other Africans think of Him as a very distant and lofty God who takes no interest in us. In the south, for instance, I never saw my father praying to God. But for the Kirdi God is the Father, and not just of all men in general, but my father: father of everyone of his many children each of whom is aware that he is known and loved personally. Knowing God as the Father, the Kirdi pray to him, offer him sacrifices, celebrate him, sometimes perhaps with too much beer... : It is marvellous anyway for poor animists to feel that.
"But when one day I spoke to an old leper about the Trinity, of a God in thre'e Persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - he confessed: "That's something I didn't know ".
Where and how these primitive highlanders drew lofty and marvellous truths, not only of the creation but also of God the Father, is a mystery. Certainly not from the Moslems who surround them, nor from Christians in the neighbourhood, almost non existant at that time. Did they learn them from some old "sage" of theirs or had they come into touch with a flourishing Christian community in that region in preceeding generations?".
With the Gospel in the hand
"From the catechetical point of view, I began with the Gospel. Yes, I began to simply narrate the Gospel in the various villages".
"In the various villages": those who know the zone realize what this simple expression of Baba means. It means interminable journeys under the blazing sun, along rocky paths sometimes fit only for goats, through the famous "terraces" - real miracles of ingeniousness and constancy on the part of the highlanders to preserve the arable land which is regularly swept away during the rainy season. Seen from a distance, these "terraces" give you the impression of an immense flight of steps at the top of which the villages perch, with a certain number of groups of huts, known as saré (surrounded by a fence, above which the thatched roofs rise).
How often Baba Simon trudged along those paths and visited the villages and each the individual saré! And after whole days spent catechizing, he sleeps the night on a mat, in the hut reserved for guests. His catechetical system? To present and explain the Gospel, especially the parables which appeal so much to these simple souls.
But he soon realizes that he cannot be everywhere and that short explanations are not enough. So he chooses the more intelligent boys who learn parts of the Gospel by heart to be able to repeat it to the others. And thus he succeeds in forming catechists to whom he explains the Sunday Gospel separately, so that they can give the homily later in their own dialect to their people.
To bring to maturity and not to uproot
More deeply than European. missionaries, this Cameroon apostle feels the necessity and the difficulties of evangelization, and the risk of setting aside the local values of his people. He wants, therefore, to enlighten, help and wait patiently for them to reach maturity without uprooting or distorting what is precious and. good in their and his own African mentality and culture.
"To become a Christian for a Kirdi," he writes, "is to break completely with his past in a far deeper way than is necessary to become a Moslem. Islam, in fact, can more easily be made to agree with ancestral customs for it permits polygamy, over-eating and the ritual sacrifices of sheep and so many other things. But for a Christian it is a very different matter. The Catholic religion does not fit in with the sacrifices of this mountain people and flings them into the so-called Western civilization which is not theirs. And so a chief, called Nglissa, cannot send his son to school because this would betray the whole mountain; the boy would be lost to the clan because he would either become a Christian or a Moslem. And the chief, like so many others, feels that we - Christians or Moslems - want to annihilate them by drawing them into our culture. They do not know how to save their own identity: that is their drama ».
A tragedy of fire
Baba Simon knows their drama and respects it, at the same time doing everything possible to solve it with African wisdom.
One episode shows this clearly. On 11th of March, 1973 a dreadful disaster shocks the whole north: the car that is bringing the students back from N'Gaundéré for the holidays catches fire; eleven die in the flames.
One of the victims, of Muyang race, had been sent to the boarding school by Baba Simon. On hearing the horrifying news, the parents and a number of the villagers come down to the mission to throw the responsability for the death of the boy on the missionary. Was it not he who had sent that poor little one so far away, to study?
They surround the mission, yelling and cursing in a threatening manner. The most hot-headed become violent, breaking two windows and a door. Entering into the church, a warrior, in an act of open defiance and offence of the God of Christians, hurls his spear in the direction of the sky; it gets stuck in the vault!
The missionary's heart is heavy at the news of the death of the innocent children but at that demonstration he remains calm. Some days later, the elders come down from the mountains again; they have realized that it is not the fault of Baba Simon - he who has always acted for their good, even though they have not agreed to accept his Gospel. He has suffered as much as they have and did not deserve that remonstrative scene. The elders want to repair for their violence.
The Father receives them, without lamenting. He only says: "You can see the material damage; it is not important; a new door and windows will be made. But... come with me". He accompanies them to the church, points to the spear still sticking in the vault and asks them severely: "What about the offence to God? How to atone for this? Well. I don't know. Your elders and your wise men know. Go back to the village and talk it over." No reproach or personal lament - just an appeal to their conscience, to the wisdom of their elders for the serious offence to God. Will they respond?
A few days later, the elders and the families arrive. They bring a sheep and slaughter it in front of the church: it is their sacrifice of atonement. Baba Simon watches and does not interfere: he respects their beliefs and their act of expiation.
It seemed all over. He too thought so, but no. To his great surprise and joy, a few days later, he sees a little group of men who come for the first time to listen to the word o£ God! His respect for their traditions and their religious life had had an effect on them and had brought them closer to the mission than all his preceding efforts.
An African by blood and race, Fr Simon had always been anxious to respect genuine African values. All he wanted was to purify them gradually in view of a true but really African Christianity and Church, which would promote social progress and brotherhood among the various races in the continent.
My key: the school!
To bring his people to maturity, Baba Simon thinks of the school as an indispensable means. His first commitment is to construct it and then to do everything in his power so that it will work efficiently, as well or even better than the other schools in the district. The area is Moslem and so it is necessary to reckon with the local notables. With his loyalty and warm friendliness, he has established good relations with them, starting with the chief.
"The chief of the canton, Tikerere," he notes, "is an extraordinarily good and wise man. I have never had trouble with him. Our relations have kept on improving until both of us have grown old. As the mission is in his canton, I can say that I have never had many difficulties with Moslems".
But it was also necessary to reckon with the people to get them to send their children to school.
So he used to repeat: "The school is a kind of key, a key which opens many doors. I give it to you so that you will be able to open so many doors. You have my key now. It is marvellous! Where previously I could not go because I could not leave you, now I can. I have given my key; I will no longer come running after you to say: 'Come this way!' Woe to me, in fact, if I tried to influence you, because now through the school you could easily open another door.
At the beginning, during the firs t instructions, they will tell you what to do and what not to do. But the day will come when you will be capable of acting on your own. Education becomes a good key to all doors; and you will be able to judge for yourselves what door to open in your future. Certainly if you have problems, you can ask: "You who know my past situation and my character, can you give me a piece of advice?" I will give it, but it will only be a counsel not an order."
"I did everything possible," Baba Simon says, "to give a really sound basic education to the children. I wanted my school to be equal to the others in the Cameroon, in fact even to be a little better, because I have always had an... obsession: I am the only Cameroon priest here : I am not European and French is not my native language. If my school, with the help of the Sisters, who are also natives, were to be a failure, it would be all up with us. But if it is a success, people can say what they like, but they will all be forced to admit that the mission is sound and making progress."
The results equal his efforts and his hopes. And he comments: "But our highlanders are intelligent! When put in the same conditions as others, they do as well as anyone else. And perhaps even better! The ones in the south who are in my school are not the first and I did not see one of them go out of the district with his diploma".
Fr Simon's dream was to enable his boys of animistic origin to become capable of taking part in local life like all the others. When some of them found it too difficult to attend the secondary schools, he sent them to good private schools which gave every guarantee.
And in addition to the teaching in the school, how much other work, especially for the young! Not just in words though, as he used to repeat: "We must teach them hygiene, to dress sores at the dispensary; we must teach them everything, convince them of the friendship we have for them... this is Christianity for me."
To take my place
Baba Simon feels now the weight of the years and infirmities: he has lived his life fully. The mission and the school are now well established, the Christian community is growing and he thinks of a simple way to ensure the continuity of the work: to entrust its direction to his young collaborator, Fr John Mark Ela; also an African.
He begins by handing over to him what is dearest to him, which is the Mada and Zulgo tribes. And then gradually, everything else, without traumas and regret, with evangelical simplicity: "John Mark, take my place"!
And with the certainty that his work will go on, he dies serenely on the 13th of August, 1975.
The Oblate missionaries, at whose side he had worked for 16 years, his Christians and the whole of his Kirdi people - even those who have not yet decided to embrace the Gospel - remember him with affectionate veneration and gratitude. Baba Simon, the first African priest in north Cameroon, continues to live among them in spirit.
The young people, of Cameroon in particular, can rightly repeat: "Among all those we have known, priests, brothers and laymn (nearly all European), one of the best is Baba Simon, an African like ourselves!".
"Ussé, Ussé, Baba!"
Joan, a nurse at Tokombéré, meets old Didgan, who is still an animist, some months after Baba Simon's death. Among other things they speak of the bereavement which the whole mountain people have suffered with the missionary's death. And the nurse offers him a photo-souvenir.
The old man takes it with both his hands and exclaims: "Ussé, Ussé, Baba, Baba Simon!" (Ussé is a word of greeting and thanks); he smiles at her, moves his head and makes a whole long speech as if the photo had brought him not the image but the living presence of the deceased.
One of his wives comes up, takes the photo and repeats fervently - a dozen times - the same affirmation: "Ussé, Ussé, Baba Simon!".
Joan asks a little provocatively: "where is Baba Simon now?"
- "There are two things", the old man answers after a moment's silence, "the body and the spirit. Baba Simon's body is like millet which remains in the ground. Like herbs that are not picked or a tree that falls it becomes earth. The spirit, on the other hand, goes with Jigla (God) and lives with him."
- "How does one live with Jigla?"
- "No one", the old man says sententiously, "has seen Jigla and no one can say how one lives with him... Life goes on: I, Didgan, have children, who have children; when I die, I will continue to live in them."
- "And Baba Simon who had no children?"
- "Baba Simon is the father of our spirit; and the spirit never dies!"