Marlon Millner: How Was Cameroon?

How was Cameroon?

Glad you asked. It was awesome! This was my first trip to Africa, and one cannot make any generalizations about Africa from visiting one country, so I will focus on Cameroon.

I went to Cameroon for the Eighth General Assembly of the All Africa Conference of Churches. The AACC (also known as CETA, from its French name) is the largest ecumenical body of churches in Africa. I went as part of a youth delegation from the Black Church Liaison Committee of the National Council of Churches (USA) and the World Council of Churches, although the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) is the only major historic black denomination not a part of either group. Our group was made up of all adults, young adults and resource people, and black Americans, and Africans.

My desire to go to Africa has been a long time coming. Many of my good friends are from the continent, from places like Sierre Leone, Nigeria, and South Africa. Others are from the diaspora: Haiti, Bahamas, Latin America, Britain. All have influenced me and my understanding of Africa. One of my earliest memories of Africa was the assassination of Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt. I remember vividly being in the room I shared with my older sister, in my family's two-bedroom apartment in Greensboro, North Carolina, watching his funeral on TV. Sadat was killed in 1977, when I was 4, after signing the major peace accord with Menachem Begin of Israel.

My other early memories are of books my dad, a former history teacher, had about Africa. My dad is no Pan-Africanist or Africentrist, as I am, but I remember several books about Africa's quest for independence, and about colonialism, and one book in particular that I ultimately took from my dad's library: The Lost Cities of Africa by Basil Davidson. Works like Davidson's influenced my intellectually appreciative view of Africa. When I became a teenager, the anti-apartheid movement was reaching steam, and I remember big protests about divestment, and learning about people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. In 1990, when Mandela was finally released, I was blessed to travel from Winston-Salem with the Emmanuel Baptist Church, and the Rev. John Mendez, to Atlanta to hear Mandela speak at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the Georgia Tech campus. I fell asleep during the speech, and was more interested in pretending to be a college student than I was in Mandela, but that sparked a real black nationalism in me. I went on to become president of the black student group at my high school, and to really push on issues about racism at the predominantly white school.

I then went to Morehouse. One of my close friends during my college days was Mandla Kumalo, the nephew of Nelson Mandela and his ex-wife, Winnie Mandela. Mandla's father is Winnie's brother, and the current South African ambassador to the United Nations. Mandla and I talked a lot about Africa, and I eventually became a black studies major at Morehouse, though it did not have a black studies program. I fell in love with Africa. Scholars like Chiek Ante Diop, Molefi Asante, Kwame Nkrumah, Franz Franon, Chinua Achebe, and W.E.B DuBois engaged my mind. I learned about ancient Egypt, Nubia, Cush, medieval kingdoms like Mali and Songhai. I studied the Caribbean, and movements like Negritude and Pan Africanism. I learned about Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Marcus Garvey, the Harlem Renaissance. I learned about how early Pentecostals like Bishop Robert Lawson had a high view of Africa and were themselves Pan Africanists.

All of this led to me again having the opportunity to hear Mandela again in 1994 in Atlanta, after he was elected president of South Africa. I definitely stayed awake this time and it was a momentous occasion. In my senior year, I applied, unsuccessfully, for a Fulbright Scholarship to go to South Africa.

So, here I was in 2003, and I had a chance to go to Cameroon. Cameroon? Never heard of it. I did know how the Cameroon soccer team had advanced in a recent world cup soccer event, but beyond that, I didn't know anything about the place.

It is a nine-hour trip from Paris to Cameroon. This is not Mali or Morocco; this is deep in the heart of Africa. Although a portion of the Cameroonian border is the Atlantic, the country is officially considered to be in Central Africa. Cameroon is about the size of California, and has a population of 15 million. The country was formerly two colonies, one British (the north) and one French (the south). Many in Cameroon are bilingual, or really trilingual, including their indigenous language (so much for us intelligent Americans, who can barely speak English!).

When the plane landed first in Doula (Dew-aah-luh), the economic center of the country, and the largest city, I immediately felt as if I had arrived at home. I fell in love immediately. Of course, it is a developing country, and of course there is great poverty and devastation. But I think when we are really spiritual, we don't fall in love with strip malls, and skyscrapers, and cul-de-sacs. When we are really spiritual, we fall in love with people, and with God's creation, and that was my focus in Cameroon. I was reminded that most of the industrialization of America really was a post-World War II event. My parents can remember outhouses, and homes with no running water and no electricity. That was just 50 years ago in many parts of the United States, particularly for black people. We have to keep that in mind when thinking about Africa. The Western world outstripped the "two-thirds" world in the last half of this century because the wars became economic generators for industrialization and suburbanization in America and in Europe.

Economic and political theory aside, I loved Cameroon. After leaving Doula, we took a 30-minute flight to Yaounde. The young adults from a local ecumenical group welcomed us at the airport. They road with us to our hotel and sang songs in French and native languages. The assembly was in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. There were no expressways leading to Yaounde, and most people don't realize that even so-called more developed countries like Israel or Poland don't really have freeways. Again, Route 66 comes to mind. I am told Cameroon has never had a major conflict (e.g., a civil war) since its independence. And Cameroon has close ties to the United States. The oldest and largest Peace Corps program is in Cameroon and one street is named after President John F. Kennedy. The U.S. ambassador, unusually candid, also told our delegation that more military officers from Cameroon had graduated from West Point than all other African countries combined. Finally, he said every strain (type) of the HIV virus for some odd reason is found in Cameroon (even types only otherwise found in Asia or Latin America), so a lot of HIV research is going on in Cameroon, including work by John Hopkins University.

Yaounde, like Jerusalem, is a city set on a series of hills. And it is a large city of more than a million people. One of the things about Yaounde that reminded me of the U.S. was the yellow taxis. They have gypsy taxis, too. And if you think a New York cabbie is aggressive, please don't go to Yaounde. There are almost no traffic lights in Yaounde, and of the few they have, many do not work. So the cabbies do all manner of things to navigate through traffic. I met a wonderful young man, bilingual, named Alfred, who drove me around a lot. There are no street signs either, or they're on the sides of walls, as in London, so it was hard to know streets. Each day it seemed a taxi took me a different way to the same place.

We stayed at a modest hotel called the Mansel Hotel. Think Motel 6. I didn't particularly mind, although the critters wanted to keep us company. We were supposed to stay at the Hilton—the only major Western hotel in town—but it was $160 a night. It takes 500 Cameroon francs (called "say-fahs") to equal one American dollar, and the dollar kept dropping against the CFs all week.

One of the many interesting aspects of being in Cameroon was food. We had this inside joke in our group—"It is finished"—taken from Jesus' last words on the cross of crucifixion. A group member was at the Hilton, ordering a hamburger, when the waitress came back and told my friend, "It is finished," so my friend replied, "OK, go ahead and bring it out." Finally, one of our older mentors who came on the trip, said, "She means there is no more hamburger meat!" So the term "it is finished" now has new meaning for us. They ran out of food a lot in Cameroon, and food production is a major issue in Africa. However, there was great hospitality, and many of our hosts went without food so we could eat, although if I never see another fish head, rabbit's leg, or antelope limb, it won't be too soon.

The All Africa Conference of Churches General Secretary is Bishop H. Mvume Dandala, of the Methodist Church of South Africa. Dandala was an important anti-apartheid leader, who stepped down as head of his denomination to lead the AACC. I found him to be a compelling speaker and his spokesperson said he could be the next president of South Africa. This spokesperson, by the way, was a white (Afrikaaner) Charismatic. We had an interesting discussion about faith and politics.

Before attending the main assembly, I attended pre-assemblies for youth and women. The performances of the various women and youth choirs were amazing. I now know for sure where step shows came from! And this thing about slapping money on the altar when folks like T.D. Jakes preach—that comes straight from Africa. Many of the women's groups that performed put out a basket. To encourage them, you were supposed to get up, dance towards the basket and drop money in it. Forget worship and praise music, give me the drums and steps of those choirs! It was amazing and I loved the more indigenous forms of worship.

Let me simply say that more of us need to go to Africa. We have so many wrong impressions of what Africa is. And the Africans have wrong impressions about us. There is great trouble in Africa, but there is also great hope. Many of the young adults I met—Kenyan, Ghanaian, Malawian, Congolese, Ugandan—are very  concerned about the image of their nations and their continent in America. That's why we can't focus on South Africa, but must remember Swaziland and Lesotho too. They know about T.D. Jakes and Mary Mary and Donnie McClurkin. They know about P. Diddy, Jay Z, and Kelly Price, but they are also very committed to using the church as a place of spiritual and social empowerment. They don't split personal salvation from social change.

Unfortunately, not enough African Pentecostals were involved in the AACC, and not enough Pentecostals period are involved in real, institutional ecumenical movements. We often shun ecumenism because we believe that white liberal Christians are merely humanists. And to be sure, some are. However, when I was in Africa, I felt that what brought us together as African Christians was so much more important than doctrinal disputes about speaking in tongues or the rites of baptism. Some important black Pentecostals were very ecumenical: Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, founder of the Bibleway Church, for example, or COGIC general board member Bishop Ithiel Clemmons. Many of the Africans are Charismatic-type Christians, and even the mainline worship there would be much more lively than mainline worship in the West. African Christians at the AACC, even young people, have a high view of the scriptures, and don't necessarily embrace the whole agenda of white liberal ecumenism. What they embrace is the need for cooperation and coalition for Africa to not just survive, but to thrive.

Toward that end, I have become even more committed to crossing denominational barriers, respecting other Christians as Christians, and becoming more internationally informed—not by the news media or by the American government, but by interacting with people themselves. So much of what I now know about Africa is not from books, but because of this trip, and because of all the friends I've made through my life who were African and told me things that challenged stereotypes.

I had the opportunity to be a part of a media team from my delegation, and I made a video that targets youth and Pentecostals, to engage them more in the United States in getting to know Africa and the ecumenical movement. I hope that video will be ready some time early next year. If you would like to know more about the project, or if I can share more information with you, please let me know.

For those of you who are African, or have spent much more time there than I, please forgive me as I still learn, and become more informed. This has been a growing process, one that has had great impact on me spiritually and culturally. I hope this one message begins to give back to others what I so undeservedly received by the gift of this trip to Africa, to Cameroon, to a place I am still inclined to call home.