HOW BABA SIMON BECAME FATHER OF THE KIRDI

By Fr Fons Eppink, MHM

Mission Today

Summer 2001

'IT'S CRAZY, it's suicidal,' relatives told the young, just-ordained African priest as he described his vision of becoming a missionary in the mountains of Northern Cameroon. Then he told his bishop of his ambition to take the Gospel to that hard and arid territory, and the bishop too dismissed Fr Simon Mpecke's plan. It was quite unheard of for an African secular priest to leave the lush homeland of South Cameroon and venture into the remote north of the country. That was the work of missionaries.

But Father Simon never abandoned his dream of taking Christ to the Kirdi people who lived in the plains between those forbidding peaks. Finally, in 1959, 24 years after first asking, he was given permission to set out on his mission. At well over 50, he was embarking on a journey that was much more than the 800 miles distance: it was a journey to a totally different land, a culture shock in every sense.

And it was the beginning of an apostolate that was to mark him out as one of Africa's most amazing missionaries. He would become known as Baba Simon, Father of the Kirdi.

What he found on arriving among the Kirdi astonished him. He was amazed at the contrasts between the beliefs and practices of his own kind in the south and those of these unevangelised mountain people.

'Before Christianity, my people in the south,' he wrote, 'the Bassa and Bakoko, believed in a God who is distant high above the clouds, inaccessible and aloof Here among the Kirdi God is not the distant Patriarch but My Father Jigla Gwala). He is a Father who has many children and each of his children can call him his/her own. That's something really terrific.'

Baba Simon soon became a familiar figure among the sarés (clusters of traditional conical dwellings) of Kudumbar and beyond. Though well, past the age at which it is easy to do so, he mastered three or four local languages by listening to and observing the people as they spoke.

His sincerity and transparency quickly overcame mistrust. Doors opened that offered him a unique opportunity to discover the cultural personality of the Kirdi. He was even allowed access to the forbidden sanctuaries strictly reserved for the 'high priests' of traditional religion.

Several of these became his friends. One in particular, Nghssa, soon came to recognise in him a kindred soul. Baba sometimes spent a whole week with Nglissa as he performed his traditional ceremonies for the feast of Ozom za Jigla (Wine of God). Nglissa said of Baba: 'He was our son, our father, our brother, he was everything for us.'

Baba Simon saw that one of his most pressing tasks was to provide people who were the victims of so many forms of bondage with the means to liberate themselves. 'To live better and to preserve your culture, you must arm yourselves with knowledge,' he told them. Education and healthcare therefore became the cornerstone of his emancipation of the Kirdi.

Baba died on August 13th 1975 and every year the people to whom he brought the Gospel climb the hill of Kudumbar. They pray at the place where he built a simple hut of mud bricks among three or four sarés to which he would withdraw to meditate alone.

They are living out what Baba Simon had envisaged: a people quietly aware of their dignity seeking to dwell in the presence of the loving Father of Jesus Christ. Shortly before he died, Baba, a truly African mystic, wrote: 'Everything that surrounds me breathes God. The whole universe is a source of life. To place ourselves in the presence of God we only need to enter into ourselves, where he dwells, recognise Him in our actions and see him in our neighbour.

'When we die our body will be buried in God's earth where it will decompose into God and will wake up in the OCEAN of eternal life.... To believe is to become aware of life ... in God.'