By Dibussi Tande
“If Christianity seeks to be anything more than an effort to swindle a mass of mystified blacks, the churches of Africa must all join to come to terms with this question.”
"liberation of the oppressed must be the primary condition for any authentic inculturation of the Christian message.” Father Jean Marc Ela.
The death has been announced of Father Jean Marc Ela, one of Cameroon’s leading scholars, who has variously been described as “the nearest Africa has come to a liberation theologian in a Latin American sense “, the “Champion of a theology under the trees “, “Africa's first liberation theologian of note outside South Africa”, and as “one of the best known and most read African theologians not only in Africa but also elsewhere”. He died recently in Canada where he had been on exile since 1995. Born in 1936 in Ebolowa, Cameroon, Jean-Marc Ela was ordained priest in 1964. He subsequently earned doctorate degrees in Theology from the University of Strasbourg, France (1969) and Sociology from the Sorbonne in Paris (1978).
The death has been announced of Father Jean Marc Ela, one of Cameroon’s leading scholars, who has variously been described as “the nearest Africa has come to a liberation theologian in a Latin American sense “, the “Champion of a theology under the trees “, “Africa's first liberation theologian of note outside South Africa”, and as “one of the best known and most read African theologians not only in Africa but also elsewhere”. He died recently in Canada where he had been on exile since 1995.
Born in 1936 in Ebolowa, Cameroon, Jean-Marc Ela was ordained priest in 1964. He subsequently earned doctorate degrees in Theology from the University of Strasbourg, France (1969) and Sociology from the Sorbonne in Paris (1978).
A very prolific writer, Jean-Marc Ela published dozens books, the most popular being Ma foi d’Africain (My faith as an African) “which gave him world notoriety and African renown in particular”, Le cri de l‘homme (African Cry) “which attracted attention the world over”, and Voici le temps des Héritiers églises d'Afrique et voies nouvelles (co-authored with Christiane Ngendakuriyo; Vincent Cosmao; René Luneau but in which his contributions were so significant that he is generally referred to as the sole author). These three books have been described by many as his” essential contributions to African theology".
Jean-Marc Ela’s theology was largely shaped by his 14-year stay among the non-Muslim Kirdi population of Northern Cameroon whose life was characterized by misery, marginalization and exploitation by the state. As a result, according to Sundkler, “no one else expressed the 'cry of the African' with as much prophetic pathos as Fr. Jean-Marc Ela”. As Fr. Ela stressed in one of his writings:
How can the African human being attain a condition that will enable him and her escape misery and inequality, silence and oppression? If Christianity seeks to be anything more than an effort to swindle a mass of mystified blacks, the churches of Africa must all join to come to terms with this question.
But Ela’s theology was more than just about liberation. As Benezet Buju points out, “Jean Marc's theology cannot be reduced to theology of liberation as opposed to the so-called theology of inculturation”. In this regard, Fr. Ela called for:
...an African theology that incorporates oral culture, myths, symbols, etc. into its method and into the proclamation of the Gospel. For our theologian it is evident that his inculturating effort cannot be undertaken without taking into account liberation in a holistic sense, i.e. one that takes into account cultural identity and the political and socio-economic dimensions... For Jean-marc Ela, liberation and inculturation do not oppose each other. They ought to be placed in a relation of 'perichoresis' for an African theology that takes into account each and every person. (African Theology in the 21st century benezet Bujo, juvenal Ilunga Muya, 212).
Jean Marc Ela was a vocal critic of both the Catholic Church in Cameroon, which shunned him, and the Biya regime which forced him into exile in 1995. According to Paul Gifford,
For all his réclame in the West, it must be noted that Ela has been totally marginalised ('pas bien integré' is the standard euphemism) in the Catholic Church in Cameroon. In the early 1990s he used to celebrate mass every Saturday evening in a parish near the University of Yaounde, to which students would flock in hundreds. This mass was quite an event, being marked both by liturgical inculturation and radical, socially aware sermons. Ela taught at the University of Yaounde and at the Faculté Protestante, but not at Yaounde's Catholic University. He was in Rome at the time of the 1994 Synod of bishops for Africa, not as part of the official Cameroon delegation, but invited by an alternative group. When one inquired why he was so marginalised, different answers were given: that he is just writing for the West and what he writes has no bearing on the life of people in the villages, or that he is a sociologist, not a theologian.
But even more significant than his marginalization by the Catholic Church, was his persecution by the Biya regime for his critical stances on a variety of issues, particularly the regime's refusal to give in to the democratization clamor of the early 1990s. On August 6, 1995, Fr. Jean Marc Ela left Cameroon for good after being “alerted to probable attempts on his own life" (Gifford, 271). According to a 1995 memorandum by the Forum of African Intellectuals in the Diaspora whose members included Achille Mbembe and Celestin Monga,
The general reasons for this forced departure include the countless bullying, humiliations and harassments, in short, the multiple forms of persecution and the systematic violence that the Cameroonian state has unleashed against scholars, intellectuals, artists and creators whom it suspects of dissidence.
The immediate cause of Jean Marc Ela’s exile the repeated death threats made against him since the assassination of Fr. Engelbert Mveng…
According to the memorandum, during the "smoldering years" of 1990-1992, members of the ruling elite who belonged to the Head of State’s Bulu ethnic group (which was also Fr. Ela's) considered his stance on key issues to be detrimental to their interests. He was reproached for publishing articles critical of the Biya regime in “Bamileke newspapers” that were hostile to the regime, and for refusing to associate himself with the ruling CPDM. In the subsequent years, these threats became more specific and were even extended to members of his family. Fr. Ela was asked to either reaffirm his loyalty to the tribe or be branded a traitor. The threats began to take a more concrete form after the assassination of Fr. Mveng (his collaborator and another priest who was tagged a “troublemaker”) on April 24, 1995. On August 6, 1995, he left Cameroon for good.
Jean-Marc Ela’s international renown did not translate into national renown in his native Cameroon where he was not very well known beyond intellectual and religious circles - although his articles in “opposition” newspapers in the early 1990s gave him a certain following among a younger generation who came to know him only as a pro-democracy activist and not as the great scholar that he was. Ela’s 13-year exile ensured that the post 1990 generation of Cameroonians was completely unaware of the existence of one of the leading theologians of our times and one of the country’s leading scholars of all time. As the 1995 memorandum rightly pointed out, through his life and works, Fr. Jean-Marc Ela was “part of the intellectual patrimony of Africa, its moral conscience and the historic struggles of Africans trying to live full lives in spite of destiny, calamities and numerous challenges.”
In their seminal work on African Theology in the 21st century, Benezet Bujo and Juvenal Muya offer what is probably the best epitaph for the fallen priest:
Jean-Marc Ela will be one remembered by the future African generations as a benefactor and advocate who defended the identity and dignity of black peoples with a real Christian and priestly commitment.
May his soul rest in peace.
For Jean Marc's sample bibliography, check out his Wikipedia page.Get 10 Free International Minutes - PINLESS