On sick leave in his native Tirol from his mission in (anglophone) Cameroon my classmate, Fr Hermann Gufler mhm, recently returned to Cameroon for a final farewell. He sent this diary of his emotional ‘exit’. (Fons Eppink)
Part I: Return Journey
So, I’m back in my native Tirol. I arrived here on 1st November 2017 direct from Elak-Oku in Cameroon, the place where I had ministered for the past fifteen years. Last summer, when I had radio-therapy, the condition of my left eye which originally was diagnosed as melanoma (a sort of skin cancer in my left eye) worsened. Except for light and darkness, bright colours and some movements I don’t see anything with that eye. The doctors tried different grafts or transplants with tissues e.g. from inside the mouth to pieces of placenta (!) but nothing took “root”. There was nothing left to which the doctor could attach these transplants so that they could grow and produce new cells. The radiation had destroyed everything. In July I asked the doctor whether he would allow me to return to Cameroon to terminate my work there. And, since the Bishop insisted, to celebrate my golden jubilee with my people there. Since there was no movement either for better or for worse in the condition of my eye, the doctor allowed me to return to Cameroon for about two months.
An opportunity offered itself when three Shisong Sisters who had been on holidays in Brixen, South Tyrol, returned to Cameroon. I could accompany them. So, we travelled together to Cameroon on 8th September. In Douala we separated. The Sisters had arranged for their own transport up to Shisong and my confrere Fr Richard Njoroge from Mill House Bamenda came to collect me. The next day I was already in Bamenda. Fr Poulson Pasala mhm, my successor as Parish Priest of Elak-Oku, had also arrived in Bamenda-Nkwen to take me back to Elak. Since I could no longer see with my left eye I could no longer drive any vehicle. I had to rely on a driver from now on.
The following day was Sunday, so we stayed two nights at the Mill Hill House in Bamenda and only left on Monday. Although that day was a “ghost-town” day (cessation of all commercial activity including traffic in protest against perceived discrimination of anglophone Cameroon by the central government) we travelled to Elak. Private cars are usually not given any trouble. We reached Elak safely. I was tired but happy to have arrived. I had hardly settled down in my room, when the first people arrived to greet me. The greatest shock for me was, when I heard that our Sisters (a Cameroonian/Canadian Congregation) who arrived in Elak in 1995, had packed all their belongings and returned to Yaoundé without saying a word to the people, not even the priests in the parish nor the Mayor (but they had gone to see the Bishop in Kumbo). As for me, I wasn’t really surprised. Since the time the Sisters came to Elak, they never managed to settle down. My idea had been that they would take over the Health Centre in Mbam but that never materialised. Well, it was the end of a long, sad saga! Right from the beginning I was not happy that these Sisters were appointed to Elak Parish.
The next few days I discussed with Fr Poulson a sort of timetable for the handover. For Fr Poulson having worked first as a MEP (Mission Experience Program) student and then as a priest in Elak Parish it was not so difficult to take over. I had already shown him the book keeping and the office work, the organisation of the pastoral work and the drawing up of the trek list, the visitation of outstations, the administration of our primary schools, the catechists, etc. He was already heavily engaged in the organisation of my forthcoming priestly jubilee. But one thing I still had to introduce him to were the different projects in the parish.
On top of the list was the building of a new church in Balichim. Before I fell sick and had to return home, part of the church in Balichim, built of local natural stone in the 1950s, had collapsed. Before I left we had to completely pull down the church. It would have been too dangerous to leave it like that. When I saw how unhappy and disappointed the Christians of Balichim were when they saw their church levelled to the ground it broke my heart. We managed to arrange the small, old priest’s house on the Mission compound so that they could use it their temporary church. Before I left Elak, I promised the Christians in Balichim that, whatever happened, they would get their new church!
During my sick leave at home, I wrote an article for our Mission magazine about what happened in Balichim. The article stirred the hearts of many benefactors and they sent in donations for the construction a new church in Balichim.
So, when I returned to Cameroon on the 8th September 2017, one of the first things I started to do was to arrange for the construction of the new church in Balichim. Together with my “experienced” contractor Jerome, we transported sand, stones, cement, timber and other materials to Balichim. The contractor got some people to start moulding cement blocks. For the building of the church I calculated that we would need about 1.600 cement blocks. After one week the blocks were ready and we could start with the building since the foundation had been laid already. In the meantime, the carpenters had made the door and window frames. After less than two weeks the walls were up and a concrete tie beam all around the top of the walls reinforced the building. Next the carpenters made the rafters and secured them on top of the walls. After nailing on the purlins, we were ready for the aluminium sheeting.
Fr Poulson was a great help. He had to be my driver. Maybe it was better like this. He got more experience and learned more about supervising a building. It was my secret wish to still celebrate Mass in the new church before my return to Tirol. Anyhow, with about two weeks to spare, the roof was on. Fr Poulson organised the celebration of the Eucharist in the new church on Monday, 23rd October, although the walls were not yet plastered and painted and there were no windows or doors yet. At least they had a roof over their heads!