Adventures in Cameroon

The French-speaking Cameroonian government decided to ban all vehicle movement in the English speaking parts of Cameroon. Fleeing from Limbe we encountered numerous roadblocks where the military stood somewhat menacingly with machine guns at the ready. At each stop, our skillful negotiators talked our way through till we reached the border of the French-speaking part of Cameroon. We successfully passed the border and moved onto Douala and eventually Kribi, where we are now staying for a few days before returning me to the airport in Douala.

The tensions between the French government and those that speak English date back to the end of World War II when the world was essentially divided up between the victorious allies. Why a nation-state was divided between two powers is a mystery to me. However, it highlights a continual colonial insensitivity. An insensitivity that threatens to tear apart an essentially peaceful people. Apart from government officials, there is very little animosity between French and English speaking people. We are now in the French region and my faltering attempts to communicate have been met with compassion and understanding. My hosts speak French so that helps, however I sense no real issue with the fact that they obviously come from the English-speaking side of the country.

Meanwhile, the discrimination from the French government continues. Schools have been shut down in Limbe and other English speaking cities and on weekends like the one we have just been through trade and commercial activity is severely affected by restriction of movement. It was quite alarming to see the efforts the government was going to in order to ensure that there was no uprising of the people on the anniversary of independence (1stOctober). In addition to the roadblocks, as we were leaving Limbe a military vehicle approached from the opposite direction, men at the ready and one soldier manning the heavy artillery gun mounted on the vehicle.

 

Cameroonpic

Yet despite the inequalities and intimidation, the quality of life does not appear to be incredibly different and the people on both sides of the divide are keen to get on with running businesses, engaging in community activities and generally just living life. My hosts suggest that the only way forward is for the UN to acknowledge the need for a two-state federation, essentially that each part of the country would be governed autonomously. And so there would be French-speaking Cameroon and English-speaking Cameroon as it was before independence. They believe the way to achieve this is similar to the uprising in the Arab Spring, yet even in this it appears lives will be lost. The fact that lives will be lost carries with it an inherent injustice as the discrimination and intimidation are from a colonial force desperate to hang onto power, a government that is not reading the signs of the time and is not governing for all the people. This is a disagreement on the grounds of power and control, not race, religion or anything else that tends to divide. These tensions are exacerbated due to the imminent elections to be held on the 7thOctober, with many Anglophiles seeking refuge in the Francophile parts of Cameroon. Most are expecting that the elections won’t actually change much in the country, with the government enforcing controls and ballot rigging being expected. Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s elections, as always it will be the people with little or no power that will pay the price of freedom. We can only hope that through their sacrifice, true justice and freedom will emerge for all Cameroonians.

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Family, Can’t Live Without Them…

I haven’t seen my Mum and Dad for close on 12 months, and today is the day. In a little over 4 hours, we’ll meet them at the airport and there will be warm embraces, opening the opportunity to share life face to face for a week. I’ve been married for close on 21 years and for the majority of that time we have lived interstate from both sets of our parents. I sometimes wonder what the relationship would be like with my parents if we had lived closer together. Would we have shared Sunday lunches, regular family outings, done more life together, or would we have been distant emotionally, like we are geographically.

Don’t get me wrong I and we as a family generally have a good relationship with my parents. There are issues we see quite differently and aspects of each others’ lives that we don’t fully understand, but on the whole things are positive. We are certainly products of our respective generations. The baby boomers tending to work for the security that their parents never had, or at least perceived they didn’t due to war and the Great Depression. For us in the Gen X camp we experience the legacy of individualism and a breakdown of community including extended family. In the midst of that whilst there still is a strong urge towards individual acquisition, aging as a generation there is an increasing search for the meaning of our existence. Our children in turn are tending to be more conscious of the environment, politics and broadly speaking the betterment of the world.

In all of this what is family and what part does it play in our continuing development as people? According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the 2012-13 statistical year, Australia consisted of 8.9 million households, 74% of these were family households. That’s 20.1 million people living in famiies! A family household is described as couples living in registered marriages, de facto, step and blended, single parent and parents with visiting arrangements. Families with children of any age make up 58% of family households (3.9million), 74% of those have dependant children, 2.8 million with at least one child aged 0-17 years. 14% of families were single parent families (http://goo.gl/SkSqIG).

Family in this context is seen as people living together in predominantly a single household or at a stretch, when a parent lives elsewhere. Those in the conservative Christian camp have been concerned about the constant barrage on this unit. They would see the ideal family consisting of a Mum, Dad and their biological kids, known as the nuclear family. The term is a relatively new one although there is some evidence that the concept dates back to before industrialisation, perhaps even thousands of years. Since industrialisation, the nuclear family has been seen as a viable financial unit. From the 17th Century in Western Europe and New England the nuclear family concept has thrived due to the influence of the Church and successive theocratic governments (http://goo.gl/tuJW3).

Don’t hear me wrong, I like the nuclear family, I’m a product of one and I live in one and I’m very happy about that. However over the years as we have lived away from family an interesting phenomenon has taken place. Those around us have become family. At times those I have been working with have taken on parent roles, there has been and continues to be brothers and sisters, comrades in the work that I have felt closer to than my own flesh and blood. At those times my family has been geographically distant, at times understanding the work and standing with me, other times not appreciating the journey in the same way as those around me. I’m writing this conscious of the way my own family particularly my Mum and Dad may feel when reading this, however I’m wrestling with the role of family verses other forms of connection.

Whilst I’m reflecting predominantly on the relationship between parent and adult children, I’m also aware that as a nuclear family our relationship with our wider family has not been particularly strong. I’m not in regular connection with any aunties or uncles, similar on my wife’s side and for her there is only one sibling out of three with whom she has regular connection. Now there are all sorts of reasons for this, however the role of the broader family has certainly been picked up by colleagues, friends and those around us.

There are some idealists who want to structure society so as to encourage familial care, particularly as family members age. However because of life choices, conflict and a whole plethora of other reasons, I see this as unrealistic and have experienced and see developing new types of family emerging on the landscape. I long for the day when the communities that we live in, though they may not be flesh and blood actually reflect family, where people can experience deep connection, where they can have the freedom to explore who they are and develop towards their discovered potential.

From one ideal to the next… we may never reach what I am describing however as we look at the universal brother and sisterhood that my faith points to we see a Dreamer who dreamed that the world He created might one day reflect the perfect community that He experiences. My sense is that as we work towards this ideal, we are joining with Him in His longing and struggle and that’s got to be a good thing.

To Stand in Solidarity

Dictionary.reference.com defines solidarity as a union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, peoples. Whether it’s implied in the definition or not, I’ve always associated solidarity with a fierce loyalty, the romantic image of freedom fighters standing together against a common oppressor. Of course in recent days the romance has been totally removed with the sad news of Melbourne teenager, Jake Bilardi’s http://goo.gl/41Mjkq suspected involvement in a suicide bombing in Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State. The radicalisaton of Jake and others like him is a powerful reminder of what the promise of identity, purpose and belonging can do for someone who lacks it. Jake’s situation is sad with neighbours saying he had become more aloof and disconnected since his mother’s death in 2012.

It seems vulnerability led him to the internet where he was befriended by a propagandist from the Islamic State, which led to his eventual journey to Iraq via Turkey. My point in all of this is that perhaps Jake was looking for someone to stand with him in solidarity. Not to join him on his eventual quest, but to be close enough to him to hear his pain, to point him to meaning outside of his eventual choice towards violence and death. To help him sift through his beliefs and determine which ones were life giving and which ones would lead to death, his and others. Various politicians, includingGreens deputy leader and member for Melbourne Adam Bandt are calling for money to be given for on the ground responses, so that people in Jake’s situation are not radicalized. These issues are always so multi-faceted, whilst there may be the need for specialist programs, there is also an urgent need for communities to be strengthened so people like Jake don’t fly under the radar, so others who are experiencing pain and heart ache don’t turn to substance abuse, crime or worse.

However, our approach needs to be different. Quite often, in the past when money has gone into community strengthening, it has been used for bandaid measures, a picking up of individuals from the bottom of the cliff. Whilst necessary at times it is not a long term, sustainable approach to caring for and strengthening communities. Linked to this there is currently a lot of debate around the funding of welfare services and payments to people experiencing unemployment, disability etc. Australia has become known as the welfare state, a justifiable title, but have we really had people’s long-term interest at heart?

In days gone by the nuclear and extended family were seen as the main support for the individual experiencing difficulty. With an increase in mobility, family breakdown and estrangement, sadly for many this is no longer the case. Some would wistfully look back to those days and say we need to recapture our sense of extended family. They might be onto something as there is some evidence of an increase in 3 generation households. However for many they will never have that sense of family and here the community needs to play a part. I don’t think there would be much argument to the perception that as a nation we have generally become quite individualistic and our sense of community beyond our house and our interests is generally fairly limited.

A few years ago a friend and I tried to get a pilot program going called Spare Room. We were seeking to encourage people of faith who might have had a spare room to open their house and lives to a person experiencing homelessness. We worked hard to combat the stereotype of homeless people all being alcoholics and incredibly desperate and needy, we were offering support and training but to very little fruit. It is difficult for people to consider welcoming the stranger, offering hospitality with no strings attached.

But if we are to recognize our common humanity and to stand in solidarity with others, particularly those who are suffering, perhaps that is the response we need. We have become too reliant on the professionalization of care, seeing those hurting in our community pseudo cared for by workers that could never hope to replace the therapeutic value of a loving, embracing community, based on relationships of mutuality, concern and empathy.

If we are to go down this path, what will this cost us? Financially a lot less as a nation and as taxpayers, even if the cost of some of our caring was subsidized. As individuals, yep there would be a cost, a sacrifice, a giving up of something, but I wonder what the return would be. We know the accumulation of stuff and the pursuit of wealth are not a guarantee of happiness. We lament the loneliness and pain that at times we all feel, if we were to open our lives up to the stranger perhaps in some way that would be lessened and in helping we may even be helped.

Looking broader than our community, Alain de Botton writes on the news in his latest book (http://goo.gl/kK0Xef), raising questions about why some news stories grab us and others often leave us cold, including conflict and disasters from overseas. Aid agencies are well aware of compassion fatigue as the number of worthy causes around the world escalates. The challenge if we are to stand in solidarity is not to stare blankly at the screen and feel nothing when we see pictures of devastation, not to let $1.2billion be slashed from the Overseas Aid budget without batting an eyelid. Rather to let the pain of the world sink into the very depths of our being, not to become overwhelmed and to shut down, but to be touched at our core and in that way connect and stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. If we can do this perhaps we will have more empathy for those around us, those we are connected with who are doing it tough. And maybe then we will take part in the building of the community that we all need to thrive and flourish as human beings.

Beyond The Walls

During the week I had the honour of attending a World Vision Australia (http://goo.gl/mdPRq4) Conference, themed Beyond our Walls. It was a gathering of Church leaders, not that I consider myself a church leader, although according to Parker Palmer and his book on vocation, Let Your Life Speak, we are all leaders from where we sit. The gathering essentially a collection of World Vision partners was in part a thank you for the support and also an encouragement to move beyond the traditional walls that the church has erected for itself, which is the space that World Vision often occupies as it seeks to resource development around the world.

To aid in this exploration World Vision commissioned the McCrindle Group (http://www.mccrindle.com.au/) to do some research on the Church’s perception of the community, as well as the community’s perception of the church. The findings have been compiled into the Church Communities Australia Report.

The good news is that respondents are saying that the church is doing good things. However it goes down hill from there. These good things don’t seem to have relevance for them as individuals or their family, particularly when it comes to 7 key areas including their; spiritual, mental, social, relational, vocational, financial and physical wellbeing. This despite 61.1% of the population identifying as Christian. The research showed that over a month only 15% of the population will attend church at least once. 85% won’t enter a church, so as a culture bearer, the church’s voice and influence is diminishing.

The research went onto explore the blockers to engagement on both sides of the wall. From the community’s side there is a poor perception of church. Tod Samson, a leading Australian Marketer and presenter with the Gruen Transfer (http://goo.gl/CzcVd ) was stated as saying in effect, that Australians love the product but not the retail outlet. The church is seen as exclusive and that it just does its own thing. It’s also seen as hypocritical. Other factors for non-engagement include a lack of relevance and people’s general busyness.

From the church’s side, reasons stated for non-engagement include busyness, fear and a lack of confidence. Perhaps feeding into the lack of confidence there are deeper issues at play that church leaders would be perhaps unaware of or at least reluctant to explore in such a survey. One of these is discipleship, which is the teaching, training and mentoring of someone to emulate a master. In the church’s case that master is Jesus. He models world engagement in his approach to the poor and marginalized of his day. In subtle and not so subtle ways he challenged the systemic evil that prevented people from moving out of poverty. He was a proponent of an alternate politic, an upside down worldview if you like that saw the marginalized empowered to participate in society.

I see one of the key things missing for the church is a robust understanding or theology of these things and God’s broader concerns (including but not only personal salvation) and the lack of a spirituality that allows these things to be shown as inherently relevant to the world around us.

The research snapshot finished with a look from the church perspective on how responsive church ministries, services, communication and outreach were to church attendees (93%), local community (74%), 21st Century context (64%) and global events (57%). Again the sliding scale could indicate a number of things from busyness to a poor understanding or even lack of desire to engage with ideas and programs outside of the immediate needs of the congregation.

The news for the church isn’t all doom and gloom. Long time ABC journalist John Cleary pointed out that journalists as a group are not biased against the church, but they look to maintain a critical distance as part of a search for truth. They are not there to tell anyone’s story as such but to portray that truth. Unfortunately the caveat to this is that journalists working in a commercial framework are prisoners of the guidelines they are given. Also by nature they are suspicious of anyone that appears to be trying to sell them something. Cleary exhorted the leaders in the room to remember that we are 2-3 generations on from the church and the world being able to communicate effectively and that the church’s message will not be conceptually understood and in fact it might even be the wrong message.

Where once the community was happy with right belief being expressed, people now more than ever are looking for right action. The conference was very grateful for the presence of Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, who had asked for special leave from parliament to attend. Carrying personal integrity, sincere genuineness and a willingness to listen, Tanya provided a light to what has become a very dark political landscape. She encouraged the church to pick up on issues that show this right action, such as entrenched poverty, equitable access to schooling and for the church to join with community leaders that speak up for those who don’t have a voice. Interviewed by Tim Costello, Tanya expressed her dismay at the lack of response from the Australian community to the $11.2 Billion cut from the foreign aid budget. She commented that whilst Labor was committed to getting back to the target 0.5% of GDP it would take sometime, should they come to power at the next election.

Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision, well known in the media as preacher and activist wrapped the conference up well. His summary included the comment that preaching only makes sense in context, effectively in the context of action. If the church adopts this, then it and the community may be able to move to a point of meeting, perhaps just outside the wall or even on the boundary.