Cameroon: Rooted in the Grassfields

Cameroon: Rooted in the Grassfields



Portrait of a parish

Elak-Oku is a parish in the diocese of Kumbo entrusted to the Mill Hill MIssionaries

Number of Outstations: 28

Hermann Gufler mhm

Poulson Pasala mhm

Mill Hil team (assisted by diocesan priest)

Hermann Gufler mhm

Poulson Pasala

Francisco Omoding (MEP student

Ctr Hermann Gufler, Francisco Omoding

We leave Bamenda for Elak-Oku at 3 pm. The first part of the road past Bambui and down into the Ndop Plane is full of potholes. From the turn-off at Babungo the road is excellent. We travel through breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. If it were not for the harmattan haze all would be picture postcard material. We stop briefly at a spot overlooking lake Mawès (Mawès is the name of the ‘spirit woman of the lake’. The official name now is Lake Oku).

When we arrive at Elak-Oku parish we find a large crowd outside. Francisco Omoding comes to greet us. He explains that they have just been celebrating the baptism of Pa Chung, a well-known local herbalist in his nineties. We're just witnessing the tail end of a very special occasion. Hermann Gufler, my classmate and golden jubilarian, is a good friend of Pa Chung.

Pa Chung

I hear from our guide to Lake Oku the next day that Pa Chung is one of the most renowned herbalists of the region. People from all over come to consult him. He specialises in epilepsy. But late in life he saw more and more clearly that his healing gifts were a grace from God. So he decided to become a Christian. He shopped around. Baptists did not attract him since they demanded that he give up his practice. Catholics, he felt, are a little more flexible.

Hermann has taken an interest in local traditions and customs for many years and has written an expert series of ethnological monographies.

Over here people come to church at 5.30 am for adoration and the rosary, followed by Mass!

After breakfast Hermann leaves to celebrate Mass in an outstation. And MEP student Francisco proposes to take us to visit Lake Mawès. We pass at Elak Council first for a permit. We're assigned a guide to accompany us and give us the lowdown on all the mythical stories related to the lake.

Offering at base of tree

A series of solid stone-in-concrete stairs leads down to the lake. With good reason the government is promoting Lake Oku, as it is now called, as a site of interest to tourists. It is situated in a densely forested area. I admire the giant moss-covered forest trees lining the stairs as we make our way to the lake. At the bottom of the stairs a small area has been cleared for viewing the lake. Right on the edge of the lake at the bottom of a tree we find what turns out to be an offering. Our guide explains how a traditional leader or a herbalist might come here to bring an offering to implore Mawès, the spirit-woman of the lake. Earlier Hermann had told us of the yearly re-enactment of a Mawès related myth by the local Fon (traditional chief) involving walking around the lake and enacting rituals in various places in the company of many people.

Medicinal bark

Francisco wades into the shallows in search of a type of frog with 12 chromosomes unique to this lake. His search will prove fruitless as the frogs seem to be nocturnal.

Another phenomenon are the herbs and the bark of trees used traditionally for medicinal purposes. Our guide points out a tree called 'pygeum africana'. Its bark is reputed to cure prostate cancer! If only I had known earlier!

When we have had our fill of admiring the lake, and after I have taken loads of photos, we start again to ascend the stairs. Our guide, meanwhile, has told us that he will find someone to show us some beehives in the surrounding forest, after we expressed an interest. And so off we go along a forest path guided by one of the workmen of the forest centre. The beehive proves more difficult to fond than we had anticipated and we descend again along a steep trail to almost the level of the lake. Eventually we find a beehive. The way up from there almost kills me off. But our guide is inexhaustible and he goes off on a search for another hive. Again we move down on an even more difficult trail. This hive is really special, he tells us. It is hidden in a dense thicket with loads of thorns. And the bees are aggressive, he warns. When he has cleared a space for me to take a photo I get a painful proof of the truth of his words – the angry buzz of a bee, and, yes, the deed is done. We make a hasty retreat up a steep slope again. When we finally arrive at the spot where we left our car, I feel totally done for.

But this is not the end! On the way coming our guide had told us of a beautiful waterfall not far from here at a place called Tolon. So there we go again, far down a steep slope. The waterfall is truly stunning, even in the dry season. So it’s worth a few stops to catch my breath on the way up.

Fons Eppink mhm

Tolon waterfall

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