'If it is a boy child, offer it to God'.
Getting to know the Focolare Movement in Cameroon.
A chance meeting with Fred Nzekem on the road just outside the Mill Hill guesthouse in Bamenda, NW Province, Cameroon, tickles my curiosity. He tells me that he is a member of the Focolare community just down the road. For a long time I have been intrigued by stories I have heard about the Focolare Movement and its distinguished history in Anglophone Cameroon. We arrange to meet. A few weeks later we have a long conversation. A few highlights:
Bp Jules Peeters
Chiara Lubich's Gospel inspired Focolare Movement came to Anglophone West Cameroon in 1963 at the invitation and explicit request of the then bishop of Buea, Jules Peeters mhm. He had met Chiara at the first session of the Second Vatican Council and was instantly grabbed by her charismatic personality and the innovative movement she had founded.
The first team of Focolarini worked for three years in the hospital at Shisong. In 1966 an urgent request came from the Fon (local king) of Fontem to bishop Peeters to come to the aid of his suffering people. The high rate of infant mortality and other health issues in the Bangwa region was the cause of deep concern. And so the Focolarini were asked to leave the relatively well organised hospital at Shisong for a leap into the rainforest. Fontem was to become an outstanding model of Focolare involvement in Africa and a major centre of the movement's activities with a permanent Mariapolis (model town of Focolare training and formation for people of all ages and backgrounds). One of the early pioneers, Lucio Dal Soglio, has written an engaging book on Fontem's history entitled: Taken by the Mystery – the beginning of the Focolare in Africa.
Now, more than half a century later, there are a host of Focolare foundations in many African countries: Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Rwanda, Angola, DR Congo, to name but a few. The movement lays special stress on dialogue as a way of fostering unity and to create peace.
'So how did he get involved with the Focolare Movement to the point of becoming a consecrated member', I ask Fred Nzekem?
His acquaintance with the Focolarini dates back to his early childhood, he tells me. He used to encounter Focolarini at his uncle's and his grandparents' home. They were family friends. 'I was impressed with the ease with which they interacted with us. They shared our food and felt perfectly at home with us'.
When he is 18 he attends his first 'Mariapolis' formation and comes away hugely impressed with the simplicity and sense of service and equality of all the participants. 'There was even a bishop who joined in washing the dishes like everyone else'!
'I want this!' 'What is the secret?' The experience has awoken a strong desire for self-giving love in his heart. But how, and where?
Fred Nzekem with Noah Monday mhm
and Dominic Nyachoti mhm
He enters a period of discernment. It proves to be a difficult process. He has started giving a helping hand to Brother Engelbert Sorá mhm who is engaged in installing the lighting and various decorations in the newly built cathedral at Bamenda. Engelbert trains him on the job and a real bond grows between them. Engelbert's characteristic smile and welcoming attitude are magnetic. When the Mill Hill missionaries start a programme for training Cameroonian missionaries he considers joining.
But are the Focolare not his first love?
In 1993 he takes the decisive step of going to Fontem. A ‘Word of Life’ quotation from the Gospel he receives from the Focolare every month makes everything spring into focus: 'He who does not leave (hate) his father and mother….. ' (Lk 14: 26). It is a real wrench. 'I was working and my earnings sustained my family – I have 4 siblings. My father died in 1977'. His mother cries.
But some day later she will tell him this story:
“When I felt the pangs of child labour coming I left our home in Kikaikela’ki to go to the hospital accompanied by my sister. On the way there we were lucky to meet Fr James Nielen at St Augustine's. He accepted to drive us to the hospital. He drove very carefully and gently told me to sing 'Lord have mercy' all the while, adding 'if it is a boy child offer it to God!' It was a boy. It was you!”
His training and evolution towards a lifelong commitment as a vowed lay Focolarino take Fred to Loppiano (near Florence in Italy), Switzerland and Malta. After that follows an extended period of service in Nairobi, Kenya. Since 2010 he is back in his native Cameroon, first in Fontem and now in Bamenda.
'We do not wear a habit', he tells me. 'We blend in among the people, each member exercising his own profession. I work as an electrician. Our habit is our joy!'
It shows on his face!
Fons Eppink mhm