Seminarians

Bishop Michael Bibi visit from Bamenda

Interview with Bishop Michael Bibi, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Bamenda, Cameroon

 

 

Bishop Bibi, how are you enjoying your time here in Portsmouth Diocese?

Bishop Bibi: I think it has been wonderful, since the Friday that I came, I have very much appreciated the hospitality of Bishop Philip and all the priests and all those who are working here, and I really appreciate the fact that I had this opportunity to be here.

 

(Bishop Philip: Do you want to mention the pizza?)

 

BB: Of course I was very pleased because the first day I arrived here, Bishop Philip proposed that we should have pizza and we went out for supper and it was nice – it was a Friday – I actually enjoyed it - and that was the first time I was actually having pizza!

 

What does the twinning of the Diocese of Portsmouth with the Archdiocese of Bamenda mean to you and the people of your Archdiocese?

The twinning of the Diocese of Portsmouth and the Archdiocese of Bamenda is a twinning that helps us as far as evangelisation is concerned. When the twinning started in 1974 we have had a priest who left from the Diocese of Portsmouth and he came to the Archdiocese of Bamenda in order to work in the parish and have pastoral experience and we very much appreciated the work that they did as far as evangelisation was concerned.

 

And not only evangelisation, they got involved in other works that helped to uplift the lives of the Christians, as far as their faith, their education, their social conditions and their health was concerned. Now, with the existence of the Portsmouth Bamenda Committee, the link between the two diocese continues not only spiritually with their brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bamenda.

 

Recently we have also sent out some priests to the Diocese of Portsmouth as Fidei Donum priests and from my discussions with Bishop Philip he is very appreciative of the work that the priests have done and it is the intention of the Archbishop of Bamenda to see to it that we continue to send priests out here to be able to continue the work of evangelisation. And of course, if there is a possibility of having seminarians from Portsmouth come for pastoral experience in Bamenda, or even having some priests tomorrow who want to come for maybe one moth holidays or giving a year to have experience in Bamenda they will be very much welcome since we are already brothers and sisters and we want that bond and that link to continue.

 

 

What are your hopes for the future of that relationship between the two diocese?

So far we have been in the relationship for almost forty five years now, which means that a solid foundation has been laid already. My hope and wish is that the bond continues. Ever since the partnership started in 1974 we have had different bishops come and gone, we have had different members of the Portsmouth Bamenda Committee come and gone but the relationship is still there. So it is our prayer and wish that for the future this partnership should be there and once the bishops themselves take the lead in encouraging the partnership together with their priests and religious, then of course the members of Christ’s lay faithful, they will appreciate it. And I think we will continue to assist each other spiritually and in any other way.

 

You mentioned earlier the social work that was taking place alongside the evangelisation in Bamenda – are there any projects or stories or people that come to mind when you think of those?

When you look at the partnership that has existed for almost forty five years, a good number of young boys and girls have gone to school today thanks to the support that we get from the Diocese of Portsmouth, especially through the Archbishop Education Fund. Through this fund, the Diocese of Portsmouth, together with the Christians of the Archdiocese of Bamenda, they give contributions that help the Archdiocese especially in the rural areas of primary evangelisation to give the opportunity to children who otherwise would not have gone to school, to have the opportunity to go to school by providing their tuition, their uniforms, their books, and some of their educational needs.

 

There are also areas in the Archdiocese of Bamenda where there are difficulties in having portable water. The Diocese of Portsmouth actually helped the social welfare commission in order to provide water to those who could not have portable water. There are other schools like St. Paul’s and St. Blaze’s where we are still working to realise projects like that. ‘He who brings water brings life’ so you can imagine the number of people who are having life because of projects like that and it doesn’t concern only the Catholic Christians, it’s a whole village that is benefitting because of the partnership!

 

In the domain of health we’ve had lots of health centres that the Diocese of Portsmouth has helped us to be able to complete, to provide basic health equipment in order to facilitate the health needs of the people in the Archdiocese of Bamenda.

 

In the area of faith, of course we have the Maryvale Institute in Bamenda – I am a product of that support, because it is the Diocese of Portsmouth through the committee that enabled me to study at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham. I was director for the Institute for twelve years, and the priest who took over from me, was also sponsored by the Diocese of Portsmouth in order to do an M.A. in Pastoral and Educational Studies, and he came back and took over from me in order to help the whole work of evangelisation and catechesis in the church. The Echoes programme, the Anchor programme, are run by the Maryvale Institute – but it’s a programme that concerns the entire Archdiocese because Maryvale gets the material and is able to get to all the forty-seven parishes in order to share the faith with the Christians.

 

Presbyteries have been constructed, churches have been completed or are ongoing because of support that we have received from the committee here. I think we really have to thank God that yes, we need the spiritual partnership, praying for one another and assisting on another spiritually, and at the same time we also have to look at situations in which the Diocese of Portsmouth has come in in order to help some of our Christians in the Archdiocese of Bamenda who are in basic need of certain things in order to make their lives to be different and I think the partnership and the relationship has actually changed the lives of many people and we do appreciate it.

 

For people here in the UK who might be unaware, could you tell us a little about the tensions at the moment in Cameroon?

In November 2016 we had some problems when the lawyers wanted to have a law translated into English and they wanted to have the opportunity in the courts to be able to speak in English rather than speaking in French since Cameroon is a bilingual country. When they made their request the government did not accept and they had to go to the street to demonstrate but the military came and chased them away from the street and injured some of them and some of them were arrested.

 

The teachers too had been complaining because the English system of education which we inherited from Britain, was sort of being assimilated by the French system. They were getting people who were from the French area coming to the English area to teach subjects like physics, biology and all the rest, in a language that they were not versed in, which is English. So the teachers saw that doing this was like making the English speaking Cameroonians not to have the best education and they had some points that they wrote and brought out publicly and they called for a sit down strike in order for the government to solve the problem.

 

The government actually initiated dialogue, the dialogue that the government initiated with the teachers’ trade union and the lawyers was going on and we were happy that it was going to resolve the problem but unfortunately the Minister of Territorial Administration which is the Home Office, decided to ban the group and arrested some of the members – some of them left the country. Since then it became very difficult for the government to dialogue again because the group that they were dialoguing with did not exist. So most of them started operating from out of the country and because of that the problem has been degenerating, right up to the point of 2018, which according to my opinion was the bloodiest year, because the leaders of the Southern Cameroonians who were Anglophone and in Nigeria, they had a meeting and the government arrested all the members who came for the meeting – out of Cameroon, and brought them to Cameroon and locked them up.

 

And because of that, on the 11thof February 2018, the people in the two English speaking regions said ‘look, we are not going to celebrate the youth day again and we don’t want any government persons here until you release our leaders’. That was the beginning of the tension, they arrested the divisional officer, they were arresting people and they put in place the ghost town, the kidnappings and all the rest. So the problem has been degenerating which has actually made pastoral work difficult for us, but our prayer and wish is that the government should be able to initiate a frank and open dialogue so that we can resolve the issue, we cannot resolve the issue by force, because violence only begets violence. But with true and open and frank dialogue we could be able to sit together and discuss the issue and look at how concretely we can put in place measures that could help to resolve the crisis.

 

 

Do you find that because the Church is in the French and the English speaking parts of Cameroon that it is able to be a unifying force?

We have twenty-six diocese in Cameroon with twenty-eight bishops, divided into five ecclesiastical provinces and four of the provinces belong to the French speaking bishops and one of the provinces is the English-speaking province, which is the Bamenda ecclesiastical province, where I come from. Of course, the bishops with their own backgrounds, as an Anglophone, I understand the problem better than another bishop who is not from the English-speaking region.

 

But what we have done with most of the communications that we have written, we have tried to explain the problem and propose concrete solutions and measures that can help to address the problem. And at the level of our episcopal conference we have also informed our brother bishops about the situation and the reality. My prayer and wish is that all of us putting our heads together, we should be able to look for concrete ways and means in which we can resolve the problem. In about three or four communiques from the national episcopal conference, the bishops have continuously condemned violence either from the government or from the boys of the Anglophone areas, they have encouraged frank and sincere dialogue to look into the causes of the problem and see how to resolve it. I am sure the Church at the national level, if the government think that we can be of help, that the bishops can be of help, I think we can easily form a commission at the national level in order to see how to ensure that dialogue.

 

I read that you yourself in December had a few hostile encounters, involving threats to your life. Would you be able to tell us about that?

Yes in December the bishop of Kumba had a meeting but he had planned a profession with the Sisters of Saint Therese, a diocesan congregation to take place on the sixth of December. I had also arranged to do another profession in the French speaking area on the seventh. So, since he was away, it was difficult for him to finish the meeting and come back for the profession because he had to do a pastoral visit in one of the Anglophone parishes, so he asked me to take the Mass, which I accepted.

 

Of course, driving from Bamenda to Kumba, you can’t drive without meeting the boys on the way. I met the first group, they were very kind, they saw that I was a bishop, they let me pass. I met the second group, they didn’t want to listen to me, they asked the driver to reverse the car, they took my phone and the phones of the driver and his brother. They asked us to accompany them to a forest, which we did, we had to obey. One of them entered the car with a gun, but when we went there we saw other cars were there, other people were there. When the other boys discovered that I was a bishop they said they should give back my phone and that we should go.

 

I asked them, ‘what crime did we commit that you are bringing us here?’ They said ‘today is ghost town’ – the day that cars are not supposed to move. I said I didn’t know because it was a Wednesday, ghost towns are usually on Mondays, so I didn’t know it was ghost town. I said ‘I’m going to Kumba so what do I do?’ They said I could go to Kumba and from there to Kumba I had no problem, I didn’t meet any of them on the way and I had Mass for the profession.

 

On the sixth in the morning when I finished the Mass about one o’clock, the superior of the Sisters of Saint Therese said that sisters who had left came late for Mass because they were attacked on the way by the boys. They actually stopped their car, got their windscreen broken, asked them to kneel on the tarmac and still some of the boys among them said ‘no you can’t do this to sisters, let’s allow them to go.’ But of they had already destroyed their car and they had humiliated them and all the rest. The sisters finally arrived safely and they advised me not to go. I said, ‘but I have another occasion tomorrow at ten o’clock. If I go to sleep in Kumba, there is no way I can make it the next morning, and I don’t want to disappoint the sisters, so I am going to go. If I meet the boys, I will explain to them why I was on the way.’

 

The sisters actually mentioned that it was ghost town, nobody was supposed to move, because the president of the interim government of the Anglophones was going to court that day in Cameroon, those who were arrested in Nigeria, so on those days they don’t want people to travel. If I had know that I would not have accepted to go to Kumba but I did not know about it so I said I was going to go. Leaving Kumba, after driving for about twenty miles, the road was all deserted, I did not pass any cars. I did not see a human being in any of the villages along the road. Then the boys just came on the road and stopped the car with their guns so I stopped.

 

They saw that I was a bishop but they didn’t listen to me.  I said ‘I’m going for a Mass’ but they said, ‘no you’re not supposed to move today’ and they asked us to follow them. They were leading with their motorbikes, some of them with guns. They took us to a certain part of the forest, when we reached there they asked me to park the car, to come out. They themselves sat down and asked me why I had to move on that day. I said ‘I am moving because I am going for Mass, just for Mass.’ They said ‘did you not know it was ghost town?’ I said ‘I only heard it in church when the sisters said they were attacked, if I had known it was ghost town I would not have moved.’ They said ‘you have disobeyed the law of the land, so the consequence is that we are going to burn the car, we are going to kill you people so that it will send a message to others, so that they know you should not disobey when we say there should be no movement.’

 

And so I just took time gently explaining to them what I think about the cause and what I have gone through already, because according to them the fact that I was moving meant that I was not supporting what they were doing. I told them that the very next month after my episcopal ordination, the government took us to court, they were asking children not to go to school. I just explained what I have gone through as a bishop and all the rest as far as the struggle is concerned and after that I told them there is no need for you people to keep us here and I pleaded that they would let us go.

 

They were not willing but we had quite some time of dialogue and all the rest and eventually they sent somebody to get a match to burn the car and they called for other people to bring motorbikes so that they could take us on motorbikes to another part of the forest where we were going to stay. So we were helpless, we were in their hands and we were just waiting to see how it was going to end. It was interesting at one point I asked their leader, just a young boy, I asked him whether he had a rosary. He told me that he used to be an altar boy but that he didn’t have a rosary. I asked him if I could give him one, he said yes, so I went to the car got a rosary and gave it to him. Then I asked the other boys, ‘do you also want me to give you rosaries?’ they said yes. I gave them rosaries and the souvenir of my ordination and I asked them to pray for me.

 

After sometime they said ‘we have to let you go’ after they have kept me for more than four hours. But they advised me, ‘you can’t go back to Kumba, neither can you continue, it is already past six, so the best thing to do is to look for a place in this village spend the night and you can leave in the morning.’ So when they brought us out of the bush there were some people around and one of them was a Catholic Christian and he said he could accommodate us in his house so we went and spent the night there. He prepared us good food, we had some potatoes and chicken and something to drink. The next day at five o’clock we left and by nine o’clock we arrived where I was to celebrate Mass the next day.

 

The good thing is that they did not touch us, it was just their language and they way they spoke. I knew I had to be gentle in talking to them to let them know that my driving out on that day was not out of anything disrespect to whatever they are fighting for but just that I had a spiritual commitment that I had taken and I took it without knowing that it was a day when it was not advisable to move. Because once they say it is ghost town, we try to obey it because once they see you on the road, you do not know what may happen to you, so we try to obey it as much as possible. When it is an ordinary day you do not have any problem. So that is the experience and we thank God, because after that I had planned to go to Nigeria to meet the refugees and many people did not want me to move again on that road. I said ‘no I have already tested it, so I will go and I am going to meet people who are in need of help, who are in need of support.’

 

When you were being held by the boys, did you expect to be let go or were you preparing for the worst?

I was in between. From what I experienced the possibility that maybe they would have burned the car, they would have killed us, it has happened to others. Or we would have been let free so I never knew. From the way they started speaking to us and with the way things were going, I was waiting for the worst. I actually was waiting for the worst and I remember I told them ‘if you have to do anything, you can burn the car, it is a car that the Christians donated for pastoral work, you can kill me, but allow these two young men, they are not missionaries like me, allow them to go, you can do anything to me and the car.’

 

So it really took me time to believe that I was to be let free, I knew that it was going to be a difficult situation from the way they were very hard and rude, they knew I was a bishop and everything. I remember one of them said, ‘when you put down the glass and we saw that red cap on your head we were very disappointed because when we saw this car coming we thought it was a government official. So we were disappointed because we were sent a man of God.’ So that was the situation.

 

Living with that imposed fear of the ghost towns and the control of the boys, how does that affect your personal faith and the spirit of your community?

We are living in a situation in which the present crisis brings up lots of difficulties, a sense of insecurity and all the rest but I think as Christians we have faith that the situation will come to an end. That is why in the whole ecclesiastical province and other provinces in Cameroon there are prayers being said every day. The bishops of our province have set aside Friday as a day on which we are to celebrate Mass and have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, in order to pray for the situation to be resolved. But to be honest, when there are days now for ghost towns in the two regions, many people do not want to go out, they stay indoors, which is normally a Monday.

 

But after that Monday, when you get out on Tuesday life is back to normal as if nothing was happening. In the Bamenda towns, some days you get gun shots between the boys and the military. And of course, to leave Bamenda town, to go to some other areas, the roads are constantly blocked. So to move out of Bamenda you have to find out whether the road is open or whether it is blocked before you make any movement which makes life very difficult and also insecure.

 

But, as we say, God never abandons his people. In the face of the difficulties and the challenges that we are facing, we know that He is with us, we continue to have faith in Him and we know that in His own time, a solution to the crisis will come about.

 

How do you continue the work of evangelisation in a time like that?

As far as the work of evangelisation is concerned, in the programme I had last year for pastoral visits I went to all the parishes I was to visit. The archbishop also went to most of the parishes but he could not complete all because of the situation, this January we have already looked at a programme for pastoral visitation and he will be visiting seventeen parishes and I will be visiting seventeen parishes. Our prayer and wish is that on that days that we are going out the roads should be open, but we are ready whether we are doing it by car or by motorbike or on foot. And we are also sure that we are going to meet the boys on the road, and when we meet them, either the military or the boys, we will explain to them ‘we are going to take care of the Christians’.

 

We cannot abandon them because of all the forty-seven parishes in the Archdiocese of Bamenda, we have not closed any of them. We have had some religious who are in charge of some parishes who decided to leave the parish to administer it from another parish in Bamenda but we said no, you go back there and they did not go so they left and we sent diocesan priests there. I think it will be a good way to witness, to go and meet the people and let them know that in spite of this crisis that the priests are there with them. The bishops can come out and meet them in their situation. And we have many convents, with all the difficulties we had their superiors wanted them to come out, we said no, we are going to remain there.

 

It is interesting because I had an experience in a parish in my diocese where most of the Christians went out to the forest and the priest was not there at the parish so they could not come back for Mass. After about two months we decided to send a diocesan priest to that parish. When they heard that the priest was back in the parish over the weekend the came on Saturday to attend Mass on Sunday and it was interesting because when they came they said ‘in the forest for the last two months we were having our service of the word and we have done our collection , our offertory and everything, this is the money that we collected while we were out there. And since we are Catholics, Baptists and Presbyterians, we divide the money into three.’

 

For me this was a great sign of witness, that in that difficulty they knew that God was still with them, they had faith in God and they could meet together to share the word of God. When they heard that the priest was back in the parish, where ever they were, they came back to attend Sunday Mass. After the Sunday Mass, on Monday, they ran away. Why? Because they are afraid that when they come back to their houses, the military will arrest them. Secondly, some of their houses have been burnt, so they have nowhere they can live.

 

One of the ways in which we have tried to handle the situation so that we are not indifferent to it is the setting up of the ad hoc committee, of Justice and Peace, Social Welfare and Health. These three committees at the archdiocesan level, they work in collaboration with committees at the parish level in such a way that if we have, for instance donations of either money, medication, clothes or any other basic necessities, the committee can arrange visits in a way to make sure they get some of these things.

 

Then we can be able to take care not only of the spiritual life of the people but also making sure that we can give them rice to eat, some soap to use and I think that will be witnessing to the gospel message. It is not enough to say ‘oh you are hungry? Make sure you have something to eat and drink’ when you do not actually give them something, no matter how little, to show that you have that concern towards their well-being.

 

 

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