Monday, September 04, 2006

The Spirit World in Cameroon

Here’s a good question for discussion: Is there any reality to the world of spiritualism and witchcraft as practiced by West Africans?

Because West African Christians sure think there is!

Two weeks ago, in one of the classes at our Pastors’ Training, Professor Ohouo was talking about the role of tradition in our Christian faith. It prompted a flurry of heated discussion. In particular, it exposed a fault line among Cameroonian Christians, between those who believe allegiance to Christ necessarily excludes any practice of African traditions, and those who believe that not all traditions are necessarily evil or forbidden.

This was a discussion that I knew better than to enter. Well, that is, until … Pastor Victor Essama stood up and began to tell the story of how his grandfather, who still lives in the village, has access to an herb which enables him to be physically transported certain lengths of distance -- instantly. The pastor relayed this story without a bit of irony or even a trace of humor. It was simply a matter of fact, and only an incidental detail in the longer story that he was telling. I couldn’t help but raise my hand, and ask, “Are you telling us that your grandfather can simply disappear in one place and appear in another?”

The pastor turned and said, “Of course.” All of the other pastors nodded their head in agreement. “Just like Philip did in the Bible!”

My jaw dropped in disbelief, and I raised my hand again. “You mean to tell me that there is a plant that dispenses this power? And that it exists somewhere in this country? Can someone please tell me how to get some, because this … I gotta see!”

The class roared with laughter, and we were off! I played the rationalist-Westerner role with relish, as the pastors reeled off story after story of magical healings, murders by witchcraft, construction projects that disappear overnight, babies which change sex after being thrown over logs, pygmies who vanish into thin air by touching a plant, jujus who wade underwater and emerge without a drop of water clinging to their clothes and carrying plates of grilled fish, demon possession … the pastors kept telling me one after another, trying to convince me that they were speaking of things that were real, and which had been seen and experienced in the real world.

I played into the game by absolutely denying that any of it could possibly be true.

And I have to be honest with you – I don’t believe it. I can’t. I would like to believe these stories, but my thirty-nine years of living in this world stand as my own witness against accepting such stories.

The stories spilled over into the lunch hour, during which the pastors charged me with having less than adequate faith in the Bible, which, after all, speaks of miracles and extraordinary spiritual happenings.

I told them that I could understand talk of demon possession and angels; that is something that many Pentecostals and evangelicals – even in America – believe in. But belief in the power of witchcraft, rituals, and other magically-kinds of things is something altogether different. It smacks of urban myths, UFOs and Elvis sightings.

I simply can’t accept the idea that an infant’s sex could change when thrown over a log in the jungle! No! I refuse to believe in a world where such things are even possible!

It finally became clear to the pastors that I will simply not believe until I see with my own eyes. “I admit it,” I said. “I’m a doubting Thomas. If I see it with my own eyes, then I will believe it.”

So they have begun making plans to cart me off to the village next time they expect strange things to happen. And believe me – I will blog about it!