Listening to God in Cameroon

by Audrey Skervin


At the heart of Revd Alison Tomlin’s Presidential message to the Methodist Conference in July was a call to listen to God and to embrace God’s passion for people. ‘We talk about God as central,’ she said, ‘except, of course, that the God we serve tends to spend a lot of time on the edge, on the periphery, on the outside, not within our buildings, not within the places we choose to call home, but out there with those who have been discarded, rejected, those who are distressed and distraught.’


In August, Alison travelled to Cameroon to see the work of two MRDF partners that are supporting people forced to live on the edge by poverty, but whose lives have changed dramatically thanks to support from MRDF.


Before we had nothingL~


‘Before we had nothing,’ Fadi Matu told Alison. ‘We know everything now.’ Fadi, who is part of a Muslim community in Sabga in North West Cameroon, explained how the opportunity to take part in MRDF-sponsored gardening workshops had changed her life. ‘We didn’t know how to work the farm, but MRDF’s partner showed us how to use seeds. We had a three-day seminar. Now we are providing for our families.’


MRDF’s partner in the area, the Presbyterian Rural Training Centre (PRTC), was founded in 1968 to support local farmers. At the time, the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon was running a mission hospital where they treated many malnourished children. Setting up PRTC was their way of addressing the root causes of the problem. They believed Christians should be taught to produce food in a better way – to overcome malnutrition and increase their incomes. PRTC now helps people of all faiths and denominations, and this is how Fadi and other members of her community came to receive this training.


Fadi is part of the Nasara Women’s Group, which has been getting support from PRTC for the last two years. Group members explained that, traditionally in their community, women didn’t leave the home to work, but since they have had the training they have started a market garden. It has been such a success that they are now renting another plot and have opened up a group bank account, supported with a business management workshop run by PRTC. They have also learnt how to make their own washing powder and body lotion, which has improved the health and hygiene of their families.


Education for a lifetimeL~


Supporting communities like the one in Sabga is only part of PRTC’s story, as Alison discovered. She visited the organisation’s main training centre, which was set up to improve the prospects for poor farmers by sharing information and research on sustainable agriculture and farm management. Most of Cameroon’s rural population is dependent on subsistence agriculture, but damaging practices have led to poor soil fertility and low production, leaving many to live a hand-to-mouth existence.


At the centre, PRTC offers local young people the opportunity to take an intensive 37-week course, which covers all aspects of rural livelihoods, including sustainable farming, livestock management, fish farming and nutrition. HIV/AIDS classes are also a key component of the education programme. The training centre is based within 800 hectares of land owned by the Presbyterian Church. The area incorporates woodland with a variety of tree species that students can use for research, a tree nursery, a medicinal plant nursery, a fishpond and grazing land for cattle. The facilities also include basic dormitories as trainees stay on site in term time, giving them time to work on their land in between.


More than a training courseL~


Alison met Cyril and Imelda Ngong, who are both graduates from PRTC’s training programme. As a result of what they learnt and a 300,000CFA (£380) loan from PRTC they have started a small shop, the only one in their area. Imelda grows beans, cabbage and aubergines and makes washing powder and cakes, which they sell in the shop. Cyril has also set up a timber-cutting business. At PRTC, he learnt which trees to fell (those which soak up a lot of water) and also business management skills. He replaces the trees he cuts down with ones which bees like, as he has some beehives. With the extra income they have from all these activities, they have bought a plot of land adjacent to their current rented premises, and started building their own house and shop.


PRTC’s contact with its students doesn’t end with the graduation; all of the trainees receive two years of follow-up support to help them apply what they have learnt. There are usually about 25 people on this course and PRTC provide all food and accommodation, the cost of which is heavily subsidised by MRDF. Jos Solange, who graduated in 2006, received advice from PRTC after his course to help him grow okra and tomatoes. ‘I didn’t know anything about farming before, and now I know lots, thanks to PRTC and you,’ he said. ‘Now I can eat with my family – and even feed others.’


Passing the miracles alongL~


Leo Mbanda is also helping others, as a result of receiving training in medicinal plants from PRTC several years ago, which again was funded by MRDF. The plants can be used to prevent and treat common illnesses, and are a much cheaper alternative to visiting a doctor or buying medicines. He now has his own thriving medicinal garden organisation, which employs seven people. He grows some plants in large quantities for the government, and also gives lots of the plants away to needy people locally. He sends his staff to PRTC for training.


‘Congratulations to PRTC,’ he exclaimed to Alison. ‘What you see here is thanks to their efforts. Many people can’t afford to buy these plants, so I give them away for treating children and women.’


Not forgottenL~


PRTC is not the only MRDF partner working with people who live on the edge. Community Development Technical Volunteers Assistance (CDVTA) is also active in North-West Cameroon, focusing its efforts on supporting elderly people who often feel forgotten by society.


CDVTA runs clubs for the elderly, where they can sit and share stories, whilst knitting and weaving. Some take gardening classes, and sell what they make and grow to generate an income to support themselves and often numerous grandchildren. A high incidence of HIV/AIDS among the young has turned the elderly into carers in their old age.


Raymond Mah, a father of ten, showed Alison his garden, where he was growing celery, cabbages, basil and sugar cane. He used a mix of sheep and goat dung to fertilize his beds. ‘We got training in the club garden, and some seedlings,’ he said. ‘This will mean I can get an income and feed my family. It will help me buy palm oil for cooking and pay my children’s school fees.’


We can forget our painsL~


Attending meetings at the elderly clubs give the members more than ways to make some money – it gives them a sense of community. Teressa Tung lost four children in a year - three daughters and a son. Her daughters all died from AIDS-related illnesses. They initially believed that witchcraft or malaria had caused their sickness and by the time they were diagnosed with HIV, it was too late. Teressa’s son suffered a stroke shortly after his sisters’ deaths but she was unable to pay for the medical care he needed.


When asked her what the club meant to her, Teressa said: ‘When we are alone we just think of our problems all the time, and they become too much. But when we sit together and talk we can forget our pains.’


CDVTA also provides home care support for those who are housebound. Alison met Lucas Fanjang, an elderly blind man, in Boyo. ‘Being a member of the old people’s club brings me joy,’ he said. ‘I take my stick and they show me the way to go. I also received a blanket from CDVTA.’


Tell them the difference they’ve madeL~


At a special meeting in Ndop, Committee President Mbengwa Thomas Mbah expressed his group’s gratitude to Alison for the support of Methodists through MRDF. ‘We thank God for your presence here, which indicates your love and concern for the security of the elderly and the improvement of their livelihoods. We thank you for considering the pride of the elderly people by eliminating idleness through the creation of gardens and farms. CDVTA’s contribution towards the improvements of the livelihoods of the elderly people in [this] area has been enormous. For example, the provision of identity cards, garden seeds, farming equipment, blankets and lamps, to name but a few, have been highly appreciated.’


Mbah’s message of thanks was one of many that Alison promised to bring back to MRDF supporters in the UK. ‘I will carry back the gratitude of people that someone from outside has been willing to pay attention,’ she said. ‘We need to find ways to tell people the joy and the freedom and the hope they’ve brought in people’s lives. It’s not just about the practical things. People said, again and again, “tell them the difference they’ve made to our lives.”’

Audrey Skervin is Media Officer for the Methodist Relief and Development Fund.
METConnexion Winter 2010 pp6-7