Monday, January 19, 2009

Cameroon is linguistically diverse to a degree that is difficult for Westerners to grasp. Geographically, it is about the size of California, so to understand what it's like here, imagine a California in which every major town or city spoke a different language. Cameroon has nearly 300 distinct languages. Although French and English are the official languages and are used for much of commerce and education, few Cameroonians claim either as their mother-tongue. In the small church that we visited yesterday, the members of the congregation came from many different linguisitic/ethnic groups, some in the French speaking part of the country (where we live) and some in the English-speaking part in the Northwest. Thus the church is bilingual. Parts of the service were in French and translated into English, but occasionally there was a bit in one language or the other, without translation. Cameroonian English isn't pronounced just like American English, so amusing misunderstandings take place. For example, when I heard yesterday, "The Lord has many ships and cares for them all," it took me a minute to realize that he was talking about sheep. (As a knitter who also cares about sheep, I should have caught on right away.) I was reminded of a sermon I heard preached years ago. One of the differences between Cameroonian English and American English is that here they sometimes vocalize an s or soft c (making it sound like a z) when we wouldn't. So it seemed to me that the sermon in question was about world peas. For forty-five minutes, the speaker expounded on the topic: what the world needs more than anything else is peas; only God can truly give us peas; we should pray and work for peas. At first I kept from laughing just by biting my lip, but soon I was covering my mouth, and eventually I had to pinch my nose while covering my mouth. All hope was lost when he ended the sermon by raising both hands to the heavens and crying out, "Lord God, send us peas!"
The sermon at church yesterday brought out a huge difference between Western and African cultures. The general topic was the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation on Scripture, and fellowship. In the West, the first two are usually thought of as private practices. Although many Christians attend Bible studies or pray regularly with other believers, having a private devotional life is what we assume to be the key to spiritual growth. This entire sermon was about the need to meet with others for those two activities, and individual practice wasn’t even mentioned. I’m reminded of the reaction of Cameroonian friends when Paul used to go on overnight flights. They would sometimes offer to stay with me or send one of their children to do so. It seemed incomprehensible to them that I didn’t mind and even enjoyed having an occasional day or two alone. This is why, when I greet friends on the street, they will never stop with a simple, “How are you?” That is quickly followed by a second question, “And your family? Is everyone well?”

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