BERTOUA, Cameroon -- One warm, quiet evening toward the end of my stay in Cameroon, I took a break from my research on refugees to follow up on an invitation to dinner at the home of a community of Passionist sisters I had met over the course of my travels around the city of Bertoua. After a brief moment of prayer in their simple chapel, we sat down to a veritable feast representing the dual origins of the sisters grouped around the table: Cameroonian pineapple served alongside Polish sausages.
The evening unfolded pleasantly, the conversation ranging from the cultural significance of food to airport security horror stories. For me, this dinner represented the essence of what I have come to understand about Cameroon during my three months there: an unexpected blend of the familiar and unfamiliar, all held together by a fundamental sense of community and hospitality that is at the core of the Cameroonian way of life.
Bertoua is the main city in the East Region of Cameroon, a region that has, by all accounts, been one of the most neglected in terms of development. Change is beginning to happen in the East, but there are certainly problems that remain. The chief concerns at the moment are universal access to education and the quality of health care -- there have been recent problems with malnutrition and cholera.
The Passionist community in Bertoua, founded 15 years ago as a mission by sisters from Poland, works to tackle both of these major problems, by running a preschool on the grounds of the Cathedral of the Holy Family and a health clinic in Tigaza, one of the neighborhoods. In addition, they run youth groups in the local parishes and make home visits to families who are struggling with various problems, often with HIV/AIDS. For a relatively small community, with eight sisters having professed their final vows and nine others at various stages in the process, they have taken on quite a bit of responsibility.
In the days following my dinner with them, I was able to have conversations with several of the sisters, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of what motivates them to undertake such important but challenging work. Although they come from a wide range of backgrounds and each sister has a unique story of what brought her to this particular community in Cameroon, there was also a surprising amount of concurrence in what I was told.
The sisters all agreed that while it was undoubtedly God who brought them to the Passionists, it is difficult to explain the exact process of being called to religious life. It is something mysterious and often unexpected.
One sister had been in the process of becoming a lawyer. On the brink of accepting a scholarship to finish her studies in Nigeria or Canada, she sensed that something was missing from her life. Acting on a series of dreams in which she found refuge at a convent, she sought out the sisters and, in the end, abandoned her life as a jurist for one as a preschool teacher and member of the religious community.
She admitted to still finding herself surprised by the transition from time to time: "Here am I, teaching in the nursery school, where I don't even earn a salary! But it's good, it's good. I would not say I regret. I mean, it's God. I cannot say it's any other thing but God. And there's a lot of joy in that." Similar themes rang throughout the other sisters' stories as well. None had plans, originally, to become sisters, but each found herself pulled in that direction by some sense of a greater purpose for her life.
All agreed also that, contrary to popular conceptions, religious life provides them with more rather than less freedom. The sisters are conscious that outside perspectives often posit that "we close ourselves in the convent, we're like prisoners, all of that," and even admitted that, before being called to religious life, they themselves had the idea that "religious were people who were frustrated in life, they lacked where to go to."
But each sister has come to see the beauty of religious life and to affirm the falsehood of these perceptions. Each woman asserted that it is her work with those in need that gives her a sense of purpose, and that this work is more possible and effective because of her status as a sister.
As one sister put it, rather than being responsible above all for a husband and children, "I'm free to love everyone."
The sisters do much reflecting on the opportunities and challenges for the future of religious life in Cameroon. The sisters from Poland, especially, are able to make the comparison with the status of religious life in Europe and North America, and suggest that "religious life is beginning in Africa." They are inspired by the vibrancy they see in the life of the church in Cameroon.
But this is not to say that religious life encounters no obstacles in Cameroon. In a culture where having children is the ultimate sign of honor for a woman, making the choice for a life of celibacy can be a difficult one. One sister confided, "When I said to my father that I wanted to become a sister, he refused. He refused directly."
Family influence can run both ways, however. The sisters pointed out that sometimes girls are encouraged to join the order because of the prestige it brings to their family. Between this and the fact that life as a sister guarantees a basic level of material comfort to those who previously may have had to struggle to meet their needs, the sisters revealed that it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the true motivation behind a vocation.
At the conclusion of each conversation, I stopped with my questions to allow each sister to say anything else she would like me to know, and they were unanimous in enumerating two hopes. First, they mentioned the importance of prayer in their lives -- "in prayer, God is there, he gives patience and the grace to overcome all of your problems" -- and ask for their community to be held in prayer. Second, they made a plea to young people, wherever they might be in the world, not to hesitate if they feel a call to religious life. In every case, this was the final sentiment expressed: "Engage yourself in religious life. It will change the world."
[Angela Butel is a student at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn. She was in Cameroon recently studying pluralism and development.]