Cameroon celebrates golden time
YAOUNDE, Cameroon — When there were only a handful of Baha'is in their country, five young Cameroonians left home to take the teachings of the Baha'i Faith to nearby lands.
Their actions in 1954 won them the designation "Knight of Baha'u'llah", a title given to individuals who brought the Baha'i Faith to new territories.
The five Cameroonian Baha'is were following the example of another young man, Enoch Olinga, who had left his homeland of Uganda to bring the Faith to British Cameroon less than a year earlier, in 1953.
In a message to those attending the golden jubilee festivities of the Faith in Cameroon held here on 22 and 23 August 2003, the Universal House of Justice referred to those dramatic early days as it extended congratulations on the "outstanding accomplishments" of the Baha'i community.
"An enduring model of consecrated labours," the Universal House of Justice wrote, "has been set by a host of devoted believers, including Enoch Olinga, and the five Cameroonians who likewise arose to become Knights of Baha'u'llah."
Cameroon is now comprised of the former French Cameroon and part of the former British Cameroon, which merged in 1961. It is about twice the size of the United Kingdom and has a population of more than 15 million.
Home to more than 250 tribes and ethnic groups with nearly as many languages, it is often referred to as "Africa in miniature".
The first National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Cameroon was elected in 1967. The Baha'i community, now 40,000 strong, has 58 Local Spiritual Assemblies.
Among the accomplishments of the Cameroon Baha'i community are contributions to their nation in the form of social and economic development projects.
The Baha'i Agency for Social and Economic Development, founded by the National Spiritual Assembly, has worked with the United Nations Development Fund for Women on a program in the eastern province aimed at improving family life and easing the lives of women.
As a result, women in villages instituted a communal cultivation program, which increased income and improved the quality of life. This led to further cooperation with international agencies.
The Baha'i agency has also worked successfully in family education projects in central and northwestern provinces and assisted in programs to eradicate river blindness.
Since the 1980s, Baha'i radio programs in the northwest and in Buea have been helping communities improve their family life and the education of children.
Weekly religious and moral education classes for children and study meetings for parents are also held. The Baha'is also organize interfaith activities, which serve to close gaps in Cameroon's multireligious society.
More than 560 Baha'is from all regions of Cameroon attended the 50th jubilee celebrations, including Knight of Baha'u'llah, Benedict Eballa.
Other guests came from Australia, Botswana, Canada, Equatorial Guinea, France, Morocco, Rwanda, Uganda, United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
Among the guests of honor was George Olinga, the son of Enoch Olinga, the Knight of Baha'u'llah for British Cameroon.
Mr. Olinga spoke of his recollections of his father, who initially established a cohort of believers in Limbe, spent the rest of the decade in British Cameroon, was later named a "Hand of the Cause" and rendered historic services to the worldwide Baha'i community until his passing in Uganda in 1979.
Also present at the event were former member of the Universal House of Justice Ali Nakhjavani and his wife, Violette.
In 1953 Mr. and Mrs. Nakhjavani undertook a strenuous two-month car journey across Africa from Uganda with Mr. Olinga and two other Baha'is to establish the Faith in Cameroon and other countries.
At the jubilee, Mr. Nakhjavani delivered the keynote address and later spoke on the spiritual destiny of Africa.
In a tribute to Mr. Olinga, Mrs. Nakhjavani spoke of the "purity" and of the "exemplary courage" he showed at the age of 27 by leaving his home in Uganda to become the first Baha'i in Cameroon.
He arrived in British Cameroon within hours of the deadline set by the then Head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi, on the last day of the Holy Year (1953) commemorating the centenary of the Revelation of Baha'u'llah.
In early April 1954, Shoghi Effendi told Mr. Olinga that he wanted some Baha'is in Cameroon to take the Faith to five other countries and territories by 21 April, the holy day known as the First Day of Ridvan.
According to Mr. Nakhjavani, there were more volunteers than needed so the Baha'is decided to choose the names by lot.
Four of the five chosen then traveled to Nigeria and, with the assistance of Mr. Nakhjavani, obtained the travel documents necessary to undertake their mission.
Samuel Njiki went to French Cameroon (now part of Cameroon), and David Tanyi arrived in French Togoland (the present Togo).
Three others went to territories now part of Ghana: Edward Tabe moved to British Togoland, Benedict Eballa to Ashanti Protectorate, and Martin Manga to Northern Territories Protectorate.
Cables were sent to Shoghi Effendi before 21 April to advise him that his wishes had been carried out.
The achievements by the Baha'is of Cameroon were among the most remarkable in the 10-year plan (known as the "Ten Year Crusade") which took the teachings of the Faith around the world.
The five men were later designated by Shoghi Effendi as Knights of Baha'u'llah.
For Mr. Olinga's part in the achievement, Shoghi Effendi gave him the title of Abd'l-Futuh, a Persian name meaning "the father of victories".
Meanwhile, so many people had become Baha'is in Limbe through the efforts of Mr. Olinga (the first Cameroonian Baha'i was Jacob Tabot Awo) that a Local Spiritual Assembly was able to be formed there by 21 April 1954.
Other guests of honor at the jubilee festivities included Joan Lincoln, Counsellor member of the International Teaching Centre, and her husband Albert Lincoln, secretary-general of the Baha'i International Community.
Mrs. Lincoln spoke about the role of the International Teaching Centre in supporting community development. She also talked about her personal experiences in the Cameroonian Baha'i community.
In his speech Mr. Lincoln spoke on the activities of the Baha'i International Community.
The program also included a talk by a member of the National Spiritual Assembly, Francois Guebe, on "50 Years of the Faith in Cameroon".
Chairing the sessions were Tiati a Zock, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors; Christine Tchamegni; and members of the National Spiritual Assembly Honoree Atem and Alexander Tatah Eyong.
Also present at the festivities from Buea in Cameroon was Dr. Mihdi Samandari, Knight of Baha'u'llah for Somalia, who, with his wife Ursula, moved to Cameroon three decades ago to aid the Baha'i community there. Mrs. Samandari, also a Knight of Baha'u'llah, passed away this year (see here).
The celebrations included songs at regular intervals in the program and two evenings dedicated to cultural performances.
Some 15 performance groups from all parts of the country, each comprising about 20 people, presented songs, poetry, and traditional dance.
Following the celebrations in Yaounde, Mr. and Mrs. Nakhjavani, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln and some other guests of honor, went to Limbe to visit the Baha'is of the southwest province.
They also went to Buea where they were received by the paramount chief, and traveled to Douala, a city that has special significance in the history of the Cameroonian Baha'i community.
Mrs. Meherangiz Munsiff, a young Indian woman, arrived there in April 1954, for which she was honored with the title Knight of Baha'u'llah.