In my village, there is a grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Each year, in the month of February, pilgrims gather to spend a week in prayer. I can remember that at about the age of seven, I was teasing my sister, saying that one day I would become a nun. But this idea disappeared around the age of twelve. But when I reached the age of 18 – when the time to choose for my future – the idea manifested once again. I then felt called from within to become a nun and to serve the world. I told my mother and all my sisters only to find out, quite curiously, that I was not supported by any of them. With the exception of my aunt, my entire family was against my call to this vocation.
At some point I began to work with Msgr. Thomas Mongo and confided in him my need to serve the Lord through becoming a religious sister. After listening to me explain the situation, he asked me for permission to call my mother. He asked her to come to meet him, and then asked her how many children she had. And so then he said: “Jeanne, if you have eight children, why are you reticent? Could it be that God wants you to give him one of them?” It was then that my mother realized that she had to let me enter religious life. When I took my vows, she cried tears of joy at seeing me so happy.
Can you speak to us about the congregation for whom you perform your work?
The Congregation of the Servant Sisters of Douala is a diocesan congregation which was founded by a Spiritan priest, Msgr Mathurin Le Mailloux, who, when arriving in Douala, felt the mission was solely supported by priests and that there was neither an indigenous congregation nor an international congregation.
So, it began with the Sisters of Mary and the Servants of Mary. When the diocese was divided, the Daughters of Mary remained in the political capital of Yaoundé and we stayed in the economic capital of Douala. This is how our congregation was born. We are available to move into any situation where there are urgent needs, especially those related to education and health.
You recently sent a project request for construction to Aid to the Church in Need. Can you describe it for us?
We are currently living in the noviciate where our congregation first settled more than 100 years ago. We thought at first we would be able to do repairs, but experts told us that the buildings held such risks that they couldn’t repair them. This is why it is important to rebuild one or two new ones such as the old buildings with dispensaries, a college and a residence for girls and boys – we thought of settling the sisters above and the children below with the teacher. Seeing as our diocesan community is aboriginal, we have few subsidies issuing from elsewhere.
You underwent training at the Instititut de formation humaine intégrale de Montréal (Montreal Institute for Human Integral Formation) Can you tell us what the formation offered you in concrete terms?
It is thanks to Aid to the Church in Need that I was able to undergo this formation. First of all, it allowed me to observe what was going on within me and give me the tools to handle myself. Consequently, it allows me to better help others, now. As the majority of the children entrusted to us by their parents are children with problems, I must accompany them and listen to them so they can uncover their abilities. I was able to salvage a few who are now pursuing their studies at university. One of them went to university and has found work. In the meantime, there are others who cannot continue because they do not have the means, one of who is in his 2nd year. This formation allowed me to better respond to my human and spiritual vocation.
We know that Cameroon is surrounded by countries with rather tumultuous climates these days. For example, western Nigeria and Boko Harem, or the situation in the east of the Republic of Centralafrica where the rebel Seleca group is exercising Islamic rigorist pressures or in northeastern Chad where Seleca seems to be grouping together as well. Would you say that Cameroon is currently subjected to these harmful influences?
I feel more like in Cameroon there is a collaborative spirit between the religions. For example, when there is a marriage between a Protestant man and a Catholic woman, both a pastor and a priest come to celebrate the marriage together. Or again, when the Pope came to visit, there was a sense of unity among Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. It touches me very deeply to see that we can intermingle harmoniously with one another.
How is your community celebrating the Year of the Faith?
We did a three day pilgrimage to Marie Anvers, where the first missionaries of the Catholic Church settled. Msgr John Bosco wanted to highlight the importance of feeling everyone engaged, as much in the celebrations as in the exchanges about faith. Further, keeping in mind the Pope’s message, our Superior asked us to meditate and to share on four themes, one per week. For example, yesterday, we spoke of the biblical teaching where we look at the courage of the apostles in their commitment to persist to the very end.
If I asked you to tell us about an experience that was particularly moving for you over the course of your career, what would you talk about?
I would speak to you about my work in the prisons. This year, I committed to not staying in our health center to attend to patients. I go down to the villages, to the neighbourhoods, to live with them. We organized our work by neighbourhood. The Édéa prison happens to be in my neighbourhood. So I decided to see how the prisoners live inside and I was deeply touched. I then chose to contribute with what little that I have to offer.
When I entered, I was astonished to see the conditions in which they lived. I didn’t think that human beings could live in such conditions. They are crammed together and the heat is suffocating. You know, it is very hot in Cameroon. They go in their cells at 5pm and do not come out before 7am and spend the night awake. They have skin eruptions, hernias, some have diarrhea. I was stunned. Moreover, there is no sense of hygiene. People eat without washing their hands, they eat where they urinate and defecate, and there are no garbage cans…
It allowed me to evaluate how I could be of service. Others have boils and abscesses. I was obligated to go and see the nurse to verify the contents of the medicine cabinet. I saw that there was no medication, no basic necessities, not even a bandage. I invited the nurse to come to our health center in order to give him the necessities so that he could help them a little. I will return in any case to treat them.
What kind of help are you looking for from people?
First of all, if there are people who come as tourists, I invite them to come and see us so they can witness to this reality which they probably would have a hard time believing. I have never seen this elsewhere, myself. You know, the images that you see in the newspapers and on the television do not reveal the gravity of the situation.
I even went to see the prefect of the prison to tell him “This can’t be true! This is not alright! Being in prison does not mean one is supposed to die. Being in prison is about changing one’s life and returning to society.” He told me he would do something, but he did nothing. So, perhaps people can send us medication or make donations to Aid to the Church in Need on our behalf.
But if I had a message to transmit, it would be that of finding the means to help young people who are without parents and some of which are undergoing treatment for AIDS. They need encouragement to go to school. There are obviously many challenges.