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Timneng, Michael
1898 to 1968
Roman Catholic
Cameroon

 

Introduction

Michael Timneng (1898-1968) worked against great odds to lay the foundations of Roman Catholicism among the Kom people in Cameroon. He was born as a member of the Kom people, and reluctantly served as a retainer to the traditional Kom ruler (or foyn), Ngam. After fighting for the Germans in the First World War, Allied forces interned him from 1916-1919. While in prison, Timneng came in contact with German Pallottine fathers, who had been working in Cameroon since 1890. The Pallottines followed a model of mission that relied heavily on indigenous catechists. They taught Timneng Catholic doctrine and equipped him as a catechist in the hope that he would carry his new religion home. When he finally did return home, Timneng audaciously challenged the authority and polygamy of Foyn Ngam. With little assistance from foreign missionaries, Timneng stood bravely by his convictions and nurtured the young Catholic Church among the Kom. It is perhaps ironic that Ngam had earlier welcomed the Sacred Heart Fathers to establish a mission station among the Kom in 1913. But the direct challenge to Ngam did not come from foreign missionaries, but rather one of his own subjects. Timneng’s story sheds light on the relationship between foreign missionaries and indigenous initiatives in African Christianity. It also provides an example of the tensions that can develop between traditional religion and Christianity in Africa. Ultimately, however, Timneng’s story helps us understand why Catholicism in Cameroon is such a vital force today.   

His Birth

Michael Timneng was born in 1898 at Wombong in what used to be Western Grassfields of Cameroon. At age ten, the Kom Royal Palace conscripted him to serve in the royal court at Laikom as a retainer (chindo). Retainers were members of the ruling elite known as Kwifoin—the legislative arm of the traditional Kom administration—and they managed the royal household and acted as administrators and diplomats.

 Timneng found the job to be a difficult fit. He was accused of hurling a stone and wounding another retainer, after which he fled to his birthplace in fear of reprisal. This incident occurred at the outbreak of the First World War. Since Cameroon was under German protection, the German government asked Foyn Ngam to conscript young men for colonial military service in Cameroon. Foyn Ngam recommended Timneng for conscription. Timneng was an insubordinate retainer, and sending him off to join the German army was one way of getting rid of a thorn in flesh of courtly life.

As he was being taken from his mother’s hut, Timneng thought he was going to be returned to the palace to complete his service. When he was informed that the foyn was sending him to the army, he said, “It is better to serve the white man than to be a slave under Foyn Ngam.” Foyn Ngam is described in Kom history as a brutal leader who even had his own brothers and cross cousins killed by the Germans. It is also noted that his wives exercised undue influence on him. Together with six other stubborn retainers, Timneng became a soldier. With the defeat of the Germans in Cameroon by the Allied forces in 1916, Timneng and the six were interned at Fernando Po in Equatorial Guinea.

While in prison, they met the German Pallottine Fathers, who taught them Catholic doctrine. For three years, Father Baumeistter, who was one of the missionaries that started the mission station at Fujua in 1913, drilled the young men in the catechism, eventually baptizing them. At baptism, Timneng took the name Michael. He was also equipped to be a catechist. He was designated as the converts’ leader, and given the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church in German. While Father Baumeistter trained the young men in the Catholic faith, it was up to them to return to their own people with the new religion.

In July 1919, Timneng and his fellow converts arrived back in Kom dressed in German military uniforms. As custom demanded, they visited the palace and met Foyn Ngam. There, the foyn asked the returned soldiers to present the spoils of war. Timneng replied, “It was good you sent me to be killed by the white man. Instead of killing me, he has given me this small book to bring back and preach the Christian doctrine and restart the church you authorize them to build. The foyn showed no interest in his reply as he insisted on the presentation of war booty. If they had nothing to offer, they would be stripped of their uniforms and kept in the palace. To the astonishment of both the foyn and his advisers, Timneng replied bluntly, “This can never happen.” Their military uniforms emboldened them and protected them from being arrested by the local palace retainers. His hands tied, the foyn simply allowed them to return to their village, hoping they would live normal lives. But the foyn was mistaken. Once back in their village and without delay, Michael Timneng started a prayer group in his uncle’s compound at Wombong. This group soon attracted the interest of many, some of whom would become Catholics. As the membership of the prayer group grew, they moved from the compound of Timneng’s uncle into a church building. Interest expanded and two communities were formed at Wombong and Njinikom respectively.

First arrest: Bi Wa’ah, the runaway royal wife

The Christian faith had already emboldened Timneng in his stand against the foyn’s authority. Perhaps the foyn would have continued to tolerate this marginal insolence, but soon Timneng’s faith posed a challenge to the foyn’s own household. As Timneng preached against polygamy and witchcraft, many royal wives began to flee the palace and take refuge in this new community of Christians. The first royal wife to join the Christian prayer group was a young woman named Bi Wa’ah. She first encountered Timneng’s community while on a visit to her mother. She found freedom amidst the gathered believers and she refused to return to the palace. Timneng was soon accused of “taking the foyn’s wife.” He was asked to return Bi Wa’ah to the palace. He refused because she had joined of her own volition. His response to the foyn’s request was further interpreted as contempt. Timneng made it abundantly clear that he could not send her away. Palace retainers were sent to arrest Timneng for failing to obey royal orders and he was locked up in the palace. Bi Wa’ah was also forcefully taken back to the palace. They were both subjected to severe beatings. Timneng was released after several weeks and Bi Wa-ah rejoined the royal household. As tempers calmed, Bi Wa’ah escaped again to rejoin the Christian community, and this time she was followed by other royal wives. By 1923, twenty-five royal wives had fled the palace, taking refuge in the new Christian villages at Wombong and Njinikom. This situation was shocking and completely unacceptable to the traditional authorities. The emerging Christian group consistently disobeyed the royal orders of a ruthless foyn. Wanting to regain his traditional position of authority and his wives, the foyn hatched a plan to re-arrest Timneng.

Second arrest: The horror of torture

Two palace retainers were sent to start a fight on the church premises in order to justify Timneng’s re-arrest. They arrived and forcefully seized corn from a young boy who had come to sell it and attend catechetical instructions at Timneng’s Church. When the boy yelled and requested payment for the corn, they told him to go and ask Timneng to come and pay. When Timneng overheard the row outside the church, he rushed out and found the retainers and ordered them to pay. As he insisted, the retainers yelled back at him saying: “Go tell your God to come pay!” Furious at their insolence, Timneng gave them a good beating. Unable to contain Timnneg, they ran back to the palace. A few days later, the foyn sent a contingent of forty retainers to arrest Timneng for attacking palace retainers.

After his arrest, Timneng was detained for two months. In his absence, his followers continued to gather and pray for his release. During his detention Timneng was beaten, tortured and forced to carry feces every day. He continued to preach his faith, saying that if his listeners did not convert to Christianity, they would go to hell—a message he brazenly delivered to the foyn. Foyn Ngam was so furious that he ordered Timneng to be beaten. Timneng challenged Ngam’s authority to such an extent that the foyn asked if he wanted to take the throne. Timneng retorted “I am not a member of the royal lineage and therefore have no ambition to be a ruler. I am a commoner preaching God’s gospel and nothing more.” [1]

After undergoing this inhumane treatment, Timneng was taken to the magistrate court in Bamenda on two charges; viz., taking the foyn’s wives and beating palace retainers. On the first count, he was accused of encouraging the foyn’s wives to become Christians. In response to this accusation, Timneng said everyone was free to attend his church, and he could not force anybody to attend his church services. On the second count, he denied having beaten palace retainers, and no one provided evidence to the contrary. Since the court did not have enough evidence for either charge, Timneng was acquitted. Jubilant crowds welcomed him back to Njinikom, and even more people became Christians. Timneng also embarked on the monumental task of translating the German catechism and prayers into itangiKom, the mother tongue of the Kom people.

Third arrest: The closure of the church

Angered by the outcome of the trial in Bamenda, the foyn decided to close down the church. He dispatched a contingent of retainers under the leadership of a senior palace retainer, Ngong Fundoh to close the church. When they arrived, Timneng was away in Shisong to meet the resident parish priest whose jurisdiction included the whole of Kom. The royal party met only seventeen Christians. With his band of retainers, Ngong Fundoh arrested the seventeen Christians, sealed the church, and ferried prisoners to the palace where they were detained.

When Timneng returned from Shisong and found his church sealed, he went to the palace. Arriving there, guards stopped him to ascertain his identity. He told him that he was the person the palace retainers came looking for in Njinikom. He had come to have his people released from the palace prison. The guards immediately arrested him and put him with the seventeen others. They were jailed for several weeks and the church remained closed.

This continuous molestation of Christians was reported to the British administrators of the colony. The growing tension and animosity between Christians and traditional authority could not be ignored. Mgr. Plissoneau of the Apostolic Prefecture of the Adamawa travelled to Njinikom in 1921 to visit the persecuted Christian community and he said a mass attended by over 300 Christians. After Timneng’s third arrest, British administrators D. O. Duncan of Bamenda and S. D. O. Roxton of Buea travelled to Njinikom to assess the situation for themselves. On their arrival they found the church sealed. Duncan and Roxton sent soldiers with a message asking the foyn to report to Njinikom. Terrified, the foyn arrived Njinikom and refused to go near the church. He instead sent his trusted servant, Ngong Fundoh who had sealed the church in the first place, to go and unseal it. Furious that he had been humiliated by the British administrator, the foyn returned to Laikom vowing never to set foot in Njinikom. He declared that he had abandoned that part of his kingdom to Timneng and the white man.

When Foyn Ngam died in 1926, Njinikom and its Christians gained more breathing room. The new ruler, Foyn Ndi, adopted a conciliatory approach, reconciling his Christian subjects with the rest of his people.

The Christian faith continued to flourish as the Christians received protection from the British administration and the new ruler. It is interesting to note that between 1919 and 1926, Timneng kept the faith alive by resisting all kinds of persecutions. It was not until March 1927 that a resident priest, Father Leonard Jacobs, was appointed to take over the good work of Michael Timneng who was appointed as the catechist. In 1931, Michael Timneng was made head catechist.

By 1931, Michael Timneng, without any formal education, finished translating the German Catechism into itangiKom. Apparently the little German he had learned while he was interned in Fernando Po was sufficient enough to perform this monumental translation work.

When Michael Timneng died in 1968 in his native village Wombong, the small Christian community he had established in 1919 had become a full parish with resident priests. Today, the territory that used to be controlled by that parish has become an archdiocese with over forty-one parishes.

The seed that was sown by the Pallottines and the Sacred Heart Fathers was nurtured and kept alive by Timneng and his companions. The area that once had only seventeen Christians in 1923 now has over two hundred thousand Christians. His legacy lies in his audacity and courage, his translation of the German Catholic catechism, the training of other catechists and the compositions of religious hymns that captured the spirit of joy in his Christian community. He championed monogamy and became a model himself when he married Martha Chituh. The couple had twelve children, all brought up in the Catholic faith. When the Archdiocese of Bamenda celebrated 100 years of Christianity (1913-2013), they remembered the early years (1913-1927) as a difficult time, but one presided over by the strong and audacious person of Michael Timneng. It was men and women like Timneng, as much as any foreign missionary, who were responsible for the growth of Christianity across the African continent.

Paul Nchoji Nkwi/Julius Tohmentain

 

Notes:

[1] Timneng’s personal notebook 1950.

 

References:

Evans-Prichard, E. E. “Social anthropology, social history.” In Vision of culture: an introduction to anthropological theories and theorists, ed. Moore, Jerry D. Pp. 95-106. New York, NY: Altamira Press, 2012.

Nkwi, Paul N. The Catholic Church in Kom, its foundation and growth. Afo-A-Kom Publications, 1977.

de Vries, Jacqueline. The Catholic Church, Colonial government and indigenous response in Kom. Leiden: African Studies Center,1988.

Tohmuntain, Julius Peeters. The Catholic Church in Njinikom parish 1927 – 2002. ICCASSRT Monograph No. 5,2002.

Warren, Rick. “The text of Rev. Rick Warren’s inaugural invocation.” In greatest speeches of historic black leaders. Angwonye, Ben C. ed. Benin City: Nigeria, Mindex publishing company, 2010.




This article, received in 2016, was written by Paul Nchoji Nkwi and Julius Tohmentain Catholic University of Cameroon in Bamenda, Cameroun. Paul Nkwi is a member of the DACB's 2016-2017 Advisory Council.