–How The Hope & Purpose Ministries Association Is Filling The Development Void In Oil Rich Peninsula
By Ajong Mbapndah L
Cameroon and Nigeria were at the brink of war, and it eventually took decades hearings at the International Court of Justice, and later diplomatic efforts led by the late UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for peace to be brokered. Yet, the oil rich Bakassi Peninsula adjudged be Cameroonian suffers from mind boggling neglect.
For Rev Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen, a Roman Catholic Priest, Isangele, Bakassi was not the kind of station you may want to be in for Pastoral duties for a myriad of reasons. Land locked, no vibrant Catholic community, amenities for modern life grossly missing and more.
Far from wailing, Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen embraced his Pastoral duties with passion, braved the odds, and is giving fresh hope to his Parishioners and the people of Bakassi with the Hope and Purpose Ministries Association. From building of Church infrastructure to water projects, bridge construction, and growing agricultural projects to give meaning to life for people in Isangele, the Hope and Purpose Ministries Association is giving fresh hope to a forgotten people.
“We are happy with our clarity of vision; we see great light and progress coming to Bakassi through our relentless passionate efforts,” says Father Elias Mengnjo in an interview with PAV.
May we start with the introduction of your parish and how you ended up there?
Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen: My parish is Saint Michael the Archangel parish Isangele, Bakassi. The parish was created by Bishop Emmanuel Bushu of Buea diocese in 2012 and erected on April 26th, 2015. My first appointment to this parish was in 2014 under the then Buea Diocese. with the creation of Kumba diocese I was again sent there in 2017 where I have been serving till date.
The Parish has a population of about 100 Christians majority being children which for me is a sign of great hope for the future.
Our Parish has a total of 13 mission stations and yet only one is accessible by land. Without a good transport boat as it is the case with us here leaving insecurity aside, it is practically very difficult to function as a pastor here.
What is peculiar about our parish is that it is in an enclaved and remote area and the population continues to suffer from post-traumatic war experiences as many inhabitants were displaced and lost their family members and properties during the Bakassi crisis.
In what shape did you meet the parish and what has changed under your leadership?
Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen When you look at the population of our Parish, you can realize that it is actually a special parish. The Parish was created without the necessary infrastructure. Besides the old church building with open and bare windows for decades, there was equally no Parish house. What I met was temporary mission station structure where priests spent just few days before going back to Ikassa which was the mother Parish by then.
I remember, I had to buy dishes, pots, gas cooker and water storage facilities since my predecessor due to hardship just borrowed all these from Christians who in turn collected their belongings upon his departure. Thank God I had some little funds with me to do all these initially. What shocked me still was that our marriage register was embarrassingly blank. No marriages celebrated.
Despite the poverty situation I met the Parish without any income generating project. However, the first Parish priest had acquired a 6-hectare piece of land from Amoto community. He equally nursed some palms which provided a base for me to begin and to continue in his footsteps. There was no drinkable water, no electricity no communication network and this made life very unbearable.
As to what has changed in my leadership, we have celebrated 3 marriages since I took over the parish, hence our marriage register is no longer embarrassingly empty. We have baptized some few adding to the community members. As for infrastructure we have continued to renovate the church building by putting window glasses and painting to make it beautiful for the liturgy. We have begun the construction of the parish house and the building has progressed right up to lintel level awaiting roofing. We have already established a plan to build a sacristy whenever we are through with Parish house construction.
Under my leadership we have made great strides towards improving the living conditions of the population. We initiated electronic boreholes for the whole village, and this has benefited the community with drinkable water and have greatly resolved the pronounced stomach problems that the population hitherto suffered from. We installed a satellite communication network that benefits not only the priest but also villagers to communicate with their relatives out of the Bakassi Peninsula. Consequently, our Parish house is now a liaison communication point where information easily comes and goes out of the village.
We installed a 6-battery solar system unit that provides electricity for the parish house and also benefits the community members to charge their phones and equipment. Besides the 49 hectares project for Hope and Purpose, we have opened are developing a 20 hectare of palm farm for the parish community in view of generating income for the future. These and others are the changes that have taken place under our leadership.
How is life like generally in the area, what potentials does the area have and what are some other key challenges?
Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen Life in the Bakassi Peninsula is generally very difficult. In the first place Bakassi is enclaved with no roads and no communication network. we have no electricity, and most areas still face the challenge of portable water. There is no single market in Isangele which is the headquarters of Bakassi and consequently there is generalized hunger. Some people survive on biscuits and peanuts for their daily meal. Our nearest market is nearby Nigeria, and the poor population suffers from sporadic attacks and looting from pirates in the water in their endeavor to go buy from Nigeria and survive their families.
In terms of potentials, it is worth noting that the area is located along the Niger Delta and is not only limited to being rich in oil reserves but there is much forest and valuable wood in Bakassi, the water is full of fish, shrimp and all sorts of rich aquatic life, we have vast uncultivated land in Bakassi, the soil is very rich and agriculturally friendly.
Moreover, the Korup forest which is more than 600 years old is rich with various species of birds, animals, trees and medicinal plants. This is a wonderful touristic asset for Cameroon but for no roads leading to Bakassi.
The Bakassi Peninsula has so many touristic beaches that could host resorts and Will attract tourists from within and without. You discover all these along the seaside as you travel to Bakassi from Idenau by sea.
As for challenges, the core leaders of our Parish and most community members are in a situation of notorious concubinage. Since the creation of the Parish in 2012 we have just three marriages under hard struggle. Being such a small community, so many interwoven relationships prevent marriages. Being so enclaved as well, it is difficult to convince girls from the city to come live there for Marriage purposes. The end result therefore is a vicious cycle of promiscuity.
The concept of single motherhood is very common since the women hardly marry or are married to nor stay in marriages and consequently there is generalized cohabitation. The burden of child upbringing and education in Isangele lies on these poor women.
Given the fact that it has been a war zone, so many military men who fathered children here once transferred abandon the burdens to the poor girls here. Sad to say that most children here lack balanced parental love and care. These are the Christians one has to deal with.
Syncretism is common especially with the influence from Nigeria. Most of the Christians seek protection from charms and will readily rush to Nigeria to pay huge sums either for charm or for destructive purposes known as “Mbiam” Swearing of “juju” or “nyamkwe” or “mbiam” is so common among the population.
Most community members are very lazy and consider manual work as stress. Consequently, there is so much stealing including food from people’s farms and houses in the area. This also accounts for insecurity in the waters from piracy.
We also have the challenge of rural exodus because everyone wants to make it out of Isangele due to the pain of surviving there and mostly the old, the aged and the sick are those that are left. The end result is that the village becomes scanty, unproductive, and boring.
Can you shed light on the Hope and Purpose Ministries Association that you created?
Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen: Actually, when I came to Bakassi Peninsula in 2014 life was unbearable and I had to resort to hunting fishing trapping gardening and eventually farming in order to make a living. I realized that the income levels of the population were so poor especially from their offerings on Sundays (ranging from 3000frs to 10000frrs ie less than S10) as our financial records would attest and I could equally read poverty and misery in the faces of those I encountered on the streets of Isangele.
Almost on a daily basis I was thinking of what and how I would eat the next day. I for one felt the real pain of an empty stomach and an empty pocket. This is not the normal lifestyle of a Priest in our area because normally most priests have breakfast lunch and supper at ease. I had to ask God for the grace to bring out something positive from my suffering and from my pains. I always remember and pray for one priest, the then Principal of Saint Francis college Fiango, who would go into his store and give us some food stuff especially to survive with as no one else seemed to know our condition and we didn’t think it wise to move around crying our poverty from door to door begging for food from other Parishes.
I still remember vividly a list in my file well preserved of foodstuffs which we forwarded to the Bishop’s house upon his request and after he approved those in-charge refused to give us the food stuffs and for my very first time I banged the Bishops door and told them that I will never return to ask for anything. I kept to my words.
In all these painful situations, I decided to light a candle than curse the darkness. To bring him in the midst of despair. To fight to resolve the food security issues through agriculture and to fight against poverty through offering opportunities for young people and creating jobs. These are the core values of Hope and Purpose Ministries Association Cameroon.
How do the activities of the Association tie with your Pastoral Ministry?
Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen: From the moment of our creation, we focused on touching lives. Due to the hardship in the area, we worked on creating opportunities especially for the youth, exploiting our immediate environment to create wealth, in short, we are actually out to fight and why not eliminate poverty because even from the perspective of our theology grace builds on nature. As a pastor I attend to all the duties that I have in the parish and given the fact that it’s a farming area I have decided to make agriculture a hobby but am fully conscious and committed to my pastoral duties.
Moreover, given the post war traumatic situation of which the population of Bakassi is victim, the experience of bringing Hope and purposefulness in the lives of people places me on a better pedestal to minister to the lives of those affected by the Bakassi war through preaching, teaching, and counseling. Our association activities are therefore not just an appendix to the Bakassi condition but a welcome good news to it.
In terms of the achievements of the association, what are some that you can share with us?
Elias Mengnjo Bongayen: We have constructed electronic boreholes and continue to supply portable water to the community. We have installed a 6-battery solar system in the village to help address electricity problems but also to promote and encourage the use of clean energy.
We have installed satellite network to facilitate communication among the community members with those out of the community. Hence it is easy for us to send and receive information.
Of course, our 40 hectares project is the biggest in the area and through this project we have provided job opportunities for young people thereby raising their income levels, we have directly or indirectly employed close to 100 young Cameroonians in the project. we are addressing issues of food security as we now supply consumable palm oil to the local population and even beyond, and then we are also encouraging farmers to plant cash crops so that they can raise income for themselves and be able to solve their immediate financial problems as well as foster the education of their children with ease in the near future.
We have constructed wooden bridges and even maintain roads with our very hands to show an example in the area of voluntary service as well as promoting the sense of the common good. Moreover, using our little resources for all these endeavors equally fall in line with our business ethical principle of giving back to the community.
How is the association funded and what are some of the resources you need to help enhance its growth and productivity?
Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen: From the initial stage of the project, it has been funded solely through the donations from Deacon Larry Oney and Andi Oney founders of Hope and Purpose Ministries worldwide with their strong belief that the preaching of the gospel message or evangelization must be accompanied by a certain degree of entrepreneurship. As we started with sanitary harvesting in 2022, the income we get has equally assisted greatly in maintenance and expansion of our project. However much still lies in store to be done thus requiring more financing.
What then are the resources we need? we need trucks for transportation purposes, housing for workers, a more than 50 hectares capacity processing unit, we need funding for our fish and pig farming since our vision encompasses animal husbandry. It should be noted that our project is conceived to carry out a cycle or chain production. The by-products of palm will constitute anima/birds/fish feed.
What has been the reaction of your church hierarchy traditional and political authorities to the work of the association?
Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen: Hope and Purpose Ministries Association Cameroon has been a welcome news to my bishop Mgr Agapitus Nfon. One of the reasons he sent me back to Bakassi was to ensure the progress, success, and sustainability of our project there.
However, we face a lot of resistance from some locals who think that we have simply come to grab their land. In this light, they consider the idea of a Rev. Father’s involvement in agriculture as a taboo and a sure sign of derailment from the mission and mandate of Christ to preach the good News.
We continue to face repeated attempts to destabilize our project through sabotage and to jeopardize all we have for humanity in the area by some individuals for their selfish motives.
Recently some individuals attempted exploiting the situation of political unrest to tarnish our image before security and the administration. Due to xenophobic tendencies they refer to every worker we bring from outside as “amba”, that is separatist fighter without any single proof. They thus present our Association as a threat to public security with the aim of destroying our relationship with the government and consequently crumbling our initiative. But all these manipulations have failed because by God’s grace we have been consistently focused on our goal. We keep reminding all who relentlessly fight to crumble every developmental initiative such as ours we consider that it is due to human limitations of wickedness, selfishness, greed, jealousy and ignorance.
These limitations are equally the challenges that have continually made us stronger. The human limitations are not strong enough to hold our vision captive. Our passion for the common good is so strong that no amount of selfish interest can blur our vision or distract us from our goal. We have not ceased to remind all negative people of that “If you blow off my candle, it doesn’t make yours to shine any better but if you allow my candle to shine alongside yours, we will have sufficient lighting in the room and all of us will see better.
How do you envisage the future, what other big projects do you have in mind for 2023?
Father Elias Mengnjo Bongayen: Despite our challenges we look at the future with great hope and expectation. Our vision will expand in the nearest future to include animal, bird, and fish farming. We look forward to having permanent workers on salary rather than concentrating on hired labour. We look forward to working in solidarity with other small holders and why not transport and process their produce in our project site the more reason we must envisage a processing unit of higher capacity. We are more determined and committed to succeed and are so passionate to see our dreams realized.
As for the projects we envisage for 2023, we look forward to addressing our needs of food preservation. Since we envisage to produce birds, pigs, and fish we need a good energy source and deep freezers. Hence, we need a good lister generator or a strong and sustainable solar system (clean energy)
We need to establish our piggery, poultry, and fish farm. In this light we will effectively manage the waste from our palm processing. It is good to note that the kennels are feed for pigs and birds. The slush is feed for fish and pigs and then the droppings of pigs and fowls constitute feed for fish. Hence, we shall ensure a chain or cycle production, and this will generate more opportunities and ensure more capacity building for the youth.
We envisage in the near future to spear head the creation of a micro finance for purposes of financial education and management among the population since no such thing exists here. While encouraging a saving mindset, we will also safely handle our finances as we cannot keep sales from such a huge project as ours under the pillow. This endeavor will require heavy financing.
Furthermore, we need capacity building for all our workers to enable them to acquire the required skills in various sectors to effectively manage our project. This will entail lots of cost to get the experts do the job.
Any last word to the potential partners out there on what support will mean to the association and to the governmental or authorities on what to do to address the plight of the people in that area?
I thank you immensely for bringing Hope and Purpose Ministries Association Cameroon and all we are doing for humanity in the Bakassi Peninsula to the limelight. We remain a committed, reliable, passionate, and trustworthy partners in fostering community development through touching lives. We welcome donations from any well-wishers and assure you that your support in a while will certainly take us a mile in our dream journey.
To our government, our Association remains the greatest peace lover and peace giver. We give equal opportunity to all Cameroonians willing and committed to work with us and that is why we keep rejecting all xenophobic and discriminatory philosophies being forced into us by some few individuals in Isangele for selfish motives. Over 100 Cameroonian youth have come to discover and work in Bakassi through our Association.
Moreover, our multiple farm operations keep the youth employed and focused thus avoiding any unnecessary distractions. We look forward with government assistance to reversing in the near future the unfortunate situation of rural-urban migration which is negatively affected the Bakassi Peninsula.
We believe that if our nation is to emerge, each of us must make our little efforts from our little corner and that is why we keep reminding all who relentlessly fight to destroy our initiative of this: “IF YOU BLOW OFF MY candle it doesn’t make yours to shine better, but if you allow my candle to shine alongside yours we will have sufficient lighting in the room and all of us will see better”
We are happy with our clarity of vision; we see great light and progress coming to Bakassi through our relentless passionate efforts and your support.