Sister Eileen

Franciscan Sister Eileen McKenzie and Fokum Grace (Mami Rosette) hug during McKenzie's 2014 visit to Cameroon.

When Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Eileen McKenzie went back to Cameroon, Africa, in 2015, she was amazed at the new housing and business developments.

When she went again a year ago just before the violence of the Anglophone Crisis began to escalate, she was shocked by the security.

“We were going through military checkpoints regularly. I think it was because it was the sisters’ vehicle and I was white, we weren’t targeted as much, so we didn’t have to get out of the vehicles,” McKenzie said.

When she traveled with a local man, they were stopped and separated.

“I was concerned at that point. I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’” she said; though they did make it through all right.

The FSPA and La Crosse Friends of Cameroon will host a town hall event to call for peace in La Crosse’s Sister City of Kumbo, Cameroon, from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday in the Cargill Room at The Waterfront Restaurant.

“We have a sister-city relationship. We have personal relationships with people who have studied here and others who have gone over there. We just couldn’t sit and allow that to happen without doing everything that we could,” said Lee Rasch of the Friends of Cameroon.

Rasch and his wife have visited several times, including with the Sister City delegation.

“What we found was this was a very open, friendly nation and it was relatively peaceful,” Rasch said. “There was conflict in bordering countries, in the Central African Republic, Nigeria and Congo, but Cameroon was kind of doing its thing in a peaceful way.”

The underlying conflict in Cameroon dates back to colonialism and the first World War. After World War I ended, Cameroon, which was a German colony at the time, was divided between France and England. Now Cameroon is independent and bilingual; however, some provinces primarily speak French and others speak English.

“Unfortunately, the cultures didn’t mix as well as you would hope,” Rasch said, comparing it to relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada or Catalina and the rest of Spain.

“This is colonial-related. This is not tribal-related or anything else,” Rasch said.

The capital of Cameroon was in the French-speaking portion of the country.

“There was a feeling of the English-speaking provinces not getting the same status and support,” Rasch said.

The conflict came to a head about three years ago, when the Cameroon government required all public schools and the court system to conduct all business in French.

“The teachers and the lawyers went on strike,” Rasch said.

The strike was focused on civil disobedience, McKenzie said, with lawyers and teachers calling for their rights and marching in the streets.

“Unfortunately, the government squashed them pretty hard,” McKenzie said.

The government called in the military and the violence spiraled from there.

While language is being used as a divisive factor, McKenzie said the issue was not about the people, but about a corrupt government.

“There are incredible resources in those areas, as well,” McKenzie said. “They’ve marginalized their power, and they’ve been taking the resources out all of this time.”

The fighting has shut down schools, made communication spotty and closed the state-of-the-art cardiac center in Shisong.

“The health centers are functioning, barely. They have teams that go out into the bush for basic health surfaces. They’ve had their automobiles hijacked, they’ve had their medications stolen,” McKenzie said.

The government has shut down the internet for months at a time; however, McKenzie and Rasch are occasionally able to get through to their Cameroonian friends.

“You’re talking with someone, a friend you’ve studied with … and you hear gunshots in the background,” McKenzie said. “They might not be able to be in their house. They say, ‘OK, government forces are around,’ two trucks came into Kumbo, so they go out into the bush for two or three days.”

Kumbo Mayor Njong Donatus, who oversaw the creation of the sister city relationship from the Kumbo side, was kidnapped and released last fall.

“The mayor is not there in Kumbo any longer. He’s in the capital of Yaounde. Some of the other people we’ve met in our visits, also have left. They’re in Yaounde because they’re fearful of being caught in the middle,” Rasch said.

Twenty Cameroonian sisters in a bus were traveling last fall and kidnapped.

“The superiors, they were contacted by people who wanted ransom. Then the following day they were released,” McKenzie said.

From the summer on, the violence got worse.

The last two months have been especially hard on Kumbo, particularly men. There are more than 200,000 internally displaced people and 50,000 refugees have fled to Nigeria, according to the Human Rights Watch, and both sides are using rape as a weapon.

“When you’re hearing that on a consistent basis, you think, ‘We have to do something,’” McKenzie said.

Rasch and McKenzie are organizing the town hall event to help raise awareness of the conflict and get people to sign a petition calling for peaceful intervention to end the conflict.

“We know the international community knows what’s going on. How much blood has to be shed in order for them to do something?” McKenzie said.

The group has been in touch with U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, who has been helping advocate for U.S. government action. While the U.S. State Department has taken some action — including sanctioning 20 military personnel, civilian actors and government ministers — the group is calling for more.

“What we want to do is keep the ball rolling and not assume it’s just going to keep rolling on their own,” Rasch said.

The event will feature a video of La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat and Mayor Njong, as well as panelists including three La Crosse residents from Cameroon.

“We’re also big advocates for prayer for peace,” McKenzie said.

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City government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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