I am met in Yaoundé by a young Dominican missionary named Stanislaw Gurgul. He will take me into the forests of Cameroon. ‘But first,’ he says, ‘we will go to Bertoua.’ Bertoua? I have no idea where this is. Until now I had no idea it even existed! Our world consists of thousands – no, millions – of places with their own distinct names (names, moreover, that are written or pronounced differently in different languages, creating the impression of even greater multiplicity), and their numbers are so overwhelming that travelling around the globe we cannot commit to memory even a small percentage of them. Or – which also often happens – our minds are awash with the names of towns, regions, and countries that we are no longer able to connect meaningfully with any image, view or landscape, with any event or human face. Everything becomes confused, twisted, blurred. We place the Sodori oases in Libya instead of in Sudan, the town of Tefé in Laos instead of in Brazil, the small fishing port of Galle in Portugal instead of where it actually lies – in Sri Lanka. The oneness of the world, so unachievable in the realm of empirical reality, lives in our minds, in the superimposed layers of tangled and confused memories.
It is 350 kilometres from Yaoundé to Bertoua, along a road that runs east, towards the Central African Republic and Chad, over gentle, green hills, through plantations of coffee, cacao, bananas and pineapples. Along the way, as is usual in Africa, we encounter police guard posts. Stanislaw stops the car, leans his head out of the window, and says: ‘Eveche Bertoua!‘ (the bishopric of Bertoua!) This has an instantaneous and magical effect. Anything to do with religion – with the supernatural, with the world of ceremony and spirits, with that which one cannot see or touch but which exists, and exists more profoundly than anything in the material world – is treated with great seriousness here, and immediately elicits reverence, respect and a little bit of fear. Everyone knows how toying with something higher and mysterious, powerful and incomprehensible, ends: it ends badly, always. But there is more to it. It is about the way in which the origins and nature of existence are perceived. Africans, at least those I’ve encountered over the years, are deeply religious. ‘Croyez-vous en Dieu, monsieur?‘ I would always wait for this question, because I knew that it would be posed, having been asked it so many times already. And I knew that the one questioning me would at the same time be observing me carefully, registering every twitch of my face. I realized the seriousness of this moment, the meaning with which it was imbued. And I sensed that the way in which I answered would determine our relationship. And so when I said, ‘Oui, j’en crois‘ (yes, I believe), I would see in his face the relief this brought him, see the tension and fear attending this scene dissipate, see how close it brought us, how it allowed us to overcome the barriers of skin colour, status, age. Africans valued and liked to make contact on this higher, spiritual plane, to which often they could not give verbal definition, but whose existence and importance each one sensed instinctively and spontaneously.
Generally, it isn’t a matter of belief in any one particular god, the kind one can name, and whose appearance or characteristics one can describe. It is more an abiding faith in the existence of a Highest Being, one that creates and rules and also imbues man with a spiritual essence that elevates him above the world of irrational beasts and inanimate objects. This humble and ardent belief in the Highest Being trickles down to its messengers and earthly representatives, who as a consequence are held in special esteem and granted reverential acceptance. This privilege extends to Africa’s entire multitudinous layer of clergymen from the most varied sects, faiths, churches and groups, of which the Catholic missionaries constitute only a small percentage. For there are countless Islamic mullahs and marabouts here, ministers of hundreds of Christian sects and splinter groups, not to mention the priests of African gods and cults. Despite a certain degree of competition, the level of tolerance between them is astonishingly high, and respect for them among the general population universal.
That is why, when Father Stanislaw stops the car and tells the policemen, ‘Eveche Bertona!‘ they don’t check our documents, do not inspect the car, do not demand a bribe. They only smile and make a consenting gesture with their hand: we can drive on.
After a night in the chancery building in Bertoua, we drove to a village called Ngura, 120 kilometres away. Measuring distances in kilometres, however, is misleading and essentially meaningless here. If you happen upon a stretch of good asphalt, you can traverse that distance in an hour, but if you are in the middle of a roadless, unfrequented expanse, you will need a day’s driving, and in the rainy season even two or three. That is why in Africa you usually do not say, ‘How many kilometres is it?’ but rather ‘How much time will it take?’ At the same time, you instinctively look at the sky: if the sun is shining, you will need only three, four hours, but if clouds are advancing and a downpour looks imminent, you really cannot predict when you will reach your destination.
Ngura is the parish of the missionary Stanisław Stanisławek, whose car we are now following. Without him, we would never be able to find our way here. In Africa, if you leave the few main roads, you are lost. There are no guideposts, signs, markings. There are no detailed maps. Furthermore, the same roads run differently depending on the time of year, the weather, the level of water, the reach of the constant fires.
Your only hope is someone local, someone who knows the area intimately and can decipher the landscape, which for you is merely a baffling collection of signs and symbols, as unintelligible and bewildering as Chinese characters to a non-Chinese. ‘What does this tree tell you?’ ‘Nothing!’ ‘Nothing? Why, it says that you must now turn left, or otherwise you will be lost. And this rock?’ ‘This rock? Also nothing!’ ‘Nothing? Don’t you see that it is telling you to make a sharp right, at once, because straight ahead lies wilderness, a wasteland, death?’
In this way the native, that unprepossessing, barefoot expert on the writing of the landscape, the fluent reader of its inscrutable hieroglyphics, becomes your guide and your saviour. Each one carries in his head a small geography, a private picture of the world that surrounds him, a most priceless knowledge and art, because in the worst tempest, in the deepest darkness, it enables him to find his way home and thus be saved, survive.
Father Stanisławek has lived here for years, and so guides us without effort through this remote region’s intricate labyrinth. We arrive at his rectory. It is a poor, shabby barracks, once a country school but now closed for lack of a teacher. One classroom is now the priest’s apartment: a bed and a table, a little stove, an oil lamp. The other classroom is the chapel. Next door stand the ruins of a little church, which collapsed. The missionary’s task, his main occupation, is the construction of a new church. An unimaginable struggle, years of labour. There is no money, no workers, no materials, no effective means of transport. Everything depends on the priest’s old car. What if it breaks down, falls apart, stops? Then everything will come to a standstill: the construction of the church, the teaching of the gospel, the saving of souls.
Later, we drove along the hill tops (below us stretched a plain covered in a thick green carpet of forest, enormous, endless, like the sea) to a settlement of gold diggers, who were searching for treasure in the bed of the winding and lazy Ngabadi river. It was afternoon already, and because there is no dusk here, and darkness can descend with sudden abruptness, we went first to where the diggers were working.