I was brought up in an agnostic/atheist family. There I said it. Not only did we not go to church, but I was Bible illiterate until the age of 16 when my English class read “The Bible as in literature.” Being brought up in a very religious town, with deeply spiritual friends, my lack of spiritual knowledge and acceptance caused a deep rift between myself and my closest friends. After years of attempted conversion, visits to numerous churches, we all came to the same conclusion together: My soul could not be saved. However, despite my sins, our friendships surprisingly stuck and are still going to this day. We became closer to each other for our honesty, because if our journey together had taught us anything, it was tolerance.
I quickly discovered in my town of Bafia that religion is important to many people, but of different faiths. Whether it’s a mass at the Catholic church, or a Protestant prayer before a meal, or a Muslim celebration, everyone seems invited to the party. The one time I went to mass, I was so worried about being the only one to avoid taking communion, only to be shocked that half of my row stayed sitting too.
Today was a perfect example of tolerance and accpentance, with “Eid al-Adha,” or the Feast of the Sacrifice (I had to look this up, so I hope I’m spelling it right). From what I was told, the feast celebrates Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his only child for God. Fortunately for him at the last minute God showed mercy and allowed him to slaughter a ram instead. To celebrate, each family offers lamb or sheep to their guests, who come and visit from house to house, hopping from dinner party to dinner party. As I wandered through the neighborhood with my counterpart and fellow teacher Gautier, we must have run into half of the school, all dressed up, and enjoying their time stuffing themselves with the best food Bafia has to offer.
Our first stop was of course chez our boss, who had of course invited all of the important people in town, from the mayor, to the prefect, to the head commandant of the brigade. I was quite surprised when the principal insisted I come and sit with the important people, and even more so when the prefect demanded I sit next to him. This of course was a great opportunity to start up a debate, especially with the commander, who had kept me in his office for two hours the first time I met him, complaining about Americans. “The American people always have an ulterior motive. They’re always sneaking around.” I smiled when the prefect defended me by saying, “I believe, sir, that you cannot judge each person by their country’s actions. Rather, each individual is unique, and must be respected independently of his or her nation.” I was glad to see that Mr. Prefect (no pun intended) had truly grasped the concept of acceptance, by judging each person by their own character.
Once Gautier and I got to the next dinner party, the conversation was a little less heated. Rather, one of the non-Muslim guests was inquiring about the celebration. He listened intently as the host explained that this was one of the most important holidays of the year, and once pleased with the reply, echoed what one of the other guests had told me earlier: “Here in Cameroon, we love to celebrate together, no matter what religion. Any holiday can be our holiday.” Although he implied any excuse for a party, this party was without alcohol, and did not involve crazy dancing or music. Instead everyone appreciated the honor of being invited all the same, sipping on grape juice to pretend it was wine. He like the other Christian guests may not have completely understood the sacredness of the holiday, or why Muslims refuse to drink alcohol, but that didn’t matter. What did was the fact that he respected their faith as legitimate, and embraced it as part of his own culture.
Cameroon is not the only tolerant place I have lived. Reunion Island and Tanzania have a similar spin on sharing acceptance. The different religions may not always completely agree with each other, for example I have yet to find many devout Christians into polygamy (minus extremist Mormons perhaps), and few Muslims who are down to eat ham and bacon. However, they find common ground in their culture. What makes us all united is finding commonality in the way we live, the way we eat, the way we educate our children. We take pride in our country when it is doing good things, and suffer together when it does not. We speak the same languages, we work in the same offices, we take the same transportation. We will never all be exactly the same, but none of us are, as the prefect pointed out. We are individuals, regardless of race, religion, or gender. And we are all different. Once we can find that common ground, can we learn to embrace tolerance, and acceptance. And hopefully, then we can understand that terrorists, like Boko Haram, have abused the term “religion” to do horrible things. But that’s a rant for another time.