Missionaries are generally disliked by the secular linguistics/anthropology community. Why? Because missionaries do not come to the field as neutral observers, but with a desire to see change. Missionary linguists do not come to merely preserve and describe languages, but to see the Bible translated and then confront the culture. And Dave and I desperately want to see the Bakoum culture confronted and changed.
Do not get me wrong, there are aspects of Bakoum/Cameroonian culture that I love and miss. I love the brightly colored cloth custom made into form-fitting, eccentric dresses. I love walking down the street and seeing an individual, standing by himself dancing to music that no one else can hear. I love how everyone sits outside in the evenings and talks until the sun goes down while goats, chickens, and babies wander around freely.
But then there are some aspects of their culture that I cannot accept because they are harming the neighbors I have come to love. So much so, that they are actually ensuring that an already impoverished people remain in poverty. What I see around me in Cameroon is not a tribal religion that supports a rich culture among its people. Instead, I see a commitment to a system that enslaves its followers. The primary damaging belief comes from their perspective on the afterlife. The worldview of the Bakoum is dominated by a belief that when one’s relatives die, their bodies are buried but their spirits stay in the village. And generally speaking these spirits remain to torment the living — unless they are appeased. They are a force that is behind almost all events in life and the job of the living is to manipulate them to ensure the safety of the individual and the community.
The ramifications of this core belief touch on almost every aspect of their lives. For instance, our neighbors will go out to their fields all day to work, and then they haul what they harvested on their backs, sometimes for miles, back to the village. The women then work to prepare the food and then the family sits down to eat. If some of this food falls off of someone’s plate, he assumes that one of his deceased relatives is hungry. So, out of obligation, he sets his plate of food on the ground for the ghost and walks away. The food is wasted and the true hunger is unabated.
And then there are funeral celebrations which need to be conducted in a very particular way, because if the deceased feels dishonored, he will torment the family. Therefore, there must be 6 days of weeping, sleeping by the grave, dancing, and so on. And for this to happen, it absolutely cannot rain. So in order to stop the rain, a family member follows the prescription of a local shaman and spends money that he does not have on kerosene. The shaman then tells him to pour out this expensive gift onto the ground. That formula supposedly stops the rain, even if that means their children will not have money to go to school for the year. Precious money that is so hard to come by is not used to start something like a small business, but instead is spilled on the ground to appease a ghost who is not even there.
And, in Bakoum culture, there is no such thing as an accidental death or a death that comes from natural causes. The reason for death is always due to a curse on the deceased or because a neighbor transformed themselves into an animal in order to kill him. At funeral ceremonies there is a time to determine, through casting lots, the person responsible for the death. As can be expected, this leads to extreme suspicion and strife between the members of the community. I have seen adults stand on either side of our street and scream at one another for hours upon hours, accusing one another of such evils. And then, when the time comes for the community to work together to fix the pump of the local well, there is such division that they refuse to work together and the pump never gets fixed, again leaving people in need.
Sinking in the Pit that they have Made
Our neighbors do not like being in poverty. They want change. They want good education for their children. They want affordable health care. They do not want to have to work sun-up to sun-down while having malaria. They do not want to bury yet another child. They do not want to die in their beds alone without anything to relieve the pain. They know that this is not the way things are supposed to be and they cry out against this suffering. And we cry out with them.
But what they do not see is that their allegiance to their traditional religion is actually allegiance to their poverty. They do not see that the Father of Lies is behind it feeding them falsehood in order to keep them poor and dying. Their traditions lead them to hunger, wasting what little money they do have, and disunity.
Psalm 9:15 says “The nations have sunk in the pit that they have made; in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught.” Our friends and neighbors see that they are in a pit but what they do not see is that every time they make some kind of sacrifice for the spirits, they are digging themselves deeper into this pit. They see that they are caught up in poverty, but what they do not see is that they themselves lay down their own traps every time they go to the local healer.
It is easy for members of this community to blame this person or that for their poor state. It is easy to blame corrupt government. It is easy to blame Western companies who come in and make themselves rich by pillaging the country of her natural resources. We could also blame the West for not offering more aid. While there is validity to many of these causes, the Bible calls us to examine ourselves before we cast blame on others. I pray that the Lord would open the eyes of the Bakoum to take a long, hard look at their system of religion and see that it has a hand in the poverty they so detest.
The Role of the Missionary
The role of a missionary is to place the Bible side-by-side with the sacred traditions of the culture and call people to choose. For instance, the Bible illustrates through the story of the rich man and Lazarus that, after death, each one’s fate is irreversibly sealed. There is a chasm between Heaven and Hell that cannot be crossed. It is true that there are angels and demons around us, but one’s deceased grandmother is no longer present on this earth. Therefore, one is free to enjoy their meal without having to share it with her ghost.
Also, it is the God of the universe who controls the weather and if Elijah who was just a fellow human prayed to stop the rain for 3 years, we can humbly pray the rain would stop for this reason or that. We do not have to manipulate spirits nor God. He tells the Christian to simply ask for things.
Further, the Bible teaches that in Adam all die and so, while death is awful, it is inevitable. This idea could liberate people from accusing one another of murder without grounds. Accepting this inevitability would remove a major source of conflict between people and could maybe lead to people working together to learn to read, build factories, and dig wells.
The truth is, I am not neutral. I cannot look at the poverty and suffering of my friends and neighbors and content myself to describe it, catalog it, and then leave. The Lord has given us a great tool in the Bible to see beyond our culture, to see our cultural sins, to understand the schemes of Satan and to be set free through truth. It would be a great disservice to this people to withhold such freedom. If they accept the message we bring, will they lose part of their culture? Yes, of course. But in doing so, they will gain eternal life.
May such wisdom call out in the dusty villages of animistic peoples. And may they see that those who fails to find it injures himself and all who hate it love death (Prov. 8.36) But, for those that embrace wisdom, they will find that with her are riches and honor and enduring wealth and righteousness (Prov. 8.18).