Cameroon: a Glimpse of Cistercian Monastic Life

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Mbengwi, Bamenda

At the end of a month long visit to the Mill Hill missionaries active in the NW province of anglophone Cameroon I feel an urgent need for some personal space, a quiet day, to allow the multitude of impressions I have gathered to sink in – so that 'my soul can catch up with my body'. Duncan McGilvray mhm who has been my traveling companion over the past several days does not need much persuading. And so we set off for a day's visit to the Cistercian monastery of Mbengwi located not far from Bamenda.


Bro Gilbert

Upon arrival we are met by an infectiously smiling Brother Gilbert , the monastery's guestmaster, whose charm instantly diverts us from our original intention as he invites us for a guided tour of the monastery.

We begin our tour appropriately by viewing the chapel and are assigned our places in the choir for participation in the fixed communal prayer. Ora et Labora, prayer and work, are the basic building blocks of monastic life after all. (To this well-known dictum ascribed to St Benedict needs to be added 'Lege' – read, study – monks will tell you). We then move on to discover that this monastery has a dizzying variety of income generating projects. A piggery, a carpentry shop, candle making, a large vegetable garden. But the most interesting and most profitable undertaking of all is the herbal garden with its small processing plant. All types of cultivated and wild herbs and bark are ground or liquified and put in bottles and jars for sale as herbal medicine. Malaria, typhoid, tumours, stomach upsets, rheumatism: you name it, there is a natural cure for it. Bro Gilbert even persuades us to take a sip of one of the liquid concoctions for ?? ? I only remember that it tasted very bitter.

Next we move to the large cowshed and corral. Bro Gilbert explains that the substantive herd of beef cattle is taken out for grazing every morning under the watchful eye of several Mbororo herdsmen. But my Dutch farmer son's eye also spies some Friesian cows left behind in the stable. They get special fodder and produce the milk used to make the monastery's truly delicious yoghurt. We even get to sample it!

"How about security?" Duncan inquires, aware of earlier nasty incidents here at the monastery. Brother Gilbert laughs out loud: "The Chinese have saved us by introducing their motorbikes into this country. Now all those potentially delinquent unemployed youths run motor taxi services. A true blessing!"

We pass the small cemetery. A former Mill Hill missionary lies buried here! Fr Jan Brummelhuis mhm joined the monastery when he was well into his sixties after a lifetime of service as a missionary in Anglophone Cameroon. Monastic life had attracted him from his earliest youth, he once told me, but the vicissitudes of life had led him to become a Mill Hill missionary. However, his youthful dream never left him and he was overjoyed when it became a reality in retirement. Brother Gilbert speaks of him with obvious admiration.

"He was unbelievably strong and an indefatigable worker. At times our abbot would confiscate the keys of the tractor to stop him working!"

The evidence of his energetic activities is still visible all over the monastery's farm area: rusty farming equipment, an aging tractor which is still in use, and a cross on the hill overlooking the monastery – a pet idea of his.


Bro Duncan MacGilvray in the driving seat

Founded in 1963 from the monastery of Mount St Bernard in the U.K. this Cameroonian Cistercian community currently counts 28 members. Like other such male monastic communities in Africa it has gone through many ups and downs. At present conditions for the election of an abbot remain unfulfilled. At the occasion of the golden jubilee of the monastery in 2013 the monks reflected on the theme: 'How to make a new start?' Didn't Gregory of Nazianzen, one of the early Church Fathers coming from the Eastern monastic tradition, once reflect that in the spiritual life we go 'from beginning to beginning to beginning without end?'

And our day of silence and prayer? That day, or rather what is left of it after this extensive tour, follows that same recurring rhythm.

Fons Eppink mhm