By Victor Epie Ngome
As flowers in bloom always attract bees in search of nectar, so do prominent and powerful people attract praise-singers scheming for opportunities. But the buzz and the flutter of wings soon drift away once the bloom fades. Posthumous praise as a fashionable expression of our generosity is an exercise in futility. It is often too little, sometimes too much, certainly too late to be useful to the departed.
The Very Rev. Nyansako Ni-Nku is certainly unaware of the tsunami of tributes that his departure has triggered, but none of it would surprise him were he to attend his own funeral. As head of the country’s biggest indigenous Church, he lived in a glass house and spent every minute before the mirror, dealing spontaneously with huge outpourings of the praise and his humanly fair share of blame.
Not being a bandwagon person who does things because everybody else is doing them, I am happy to publish this valediction for the Very Rev. Nku, knowing that he already knew before his death what I thought of him.
A few months back, I called him to request that he reads and, if possible, forewords my soon-to-be-published book titled My Church and I. The book discusses a number of experiences which may have shaped my perception of the Church and helped me to ask existential questions about my faith. Asking him to read it at that stage is a testament to the faith I had in him, not just as a former Moderator of my Church, but as a dependable, personal spiritual guide.
“Sure. I can’t wait to read anything from you”, he said in a voice that was something of an apology for its usual vitality. “But send it in about a month. Just give me time to finish something else I am reading now.” I knew him as a voracious reader; so, I wondered a little what it was that he needed a month to read. “Victor, you know with my present state of health I have to go easy on a lot of things,” he added, as if he had read my mind. That was the second time he was mentioning his health.
The first was about three years ago when I called him to participate in a programme I was doing for CRTV on Presidential Inaugurations in Cameroon. By then, he did not sound as frail as this second time.
I sent him a soft copy of the book and could hardly wait for his reaction. But, for obvious reasons, I did not want him to feel under pressure. So, I waited. And now you know how the wait ended.
Of course, a book about my Church and me would be incomplete without mentioning his name. I had known him from his time as Communication Secretary. That is when he showed great appreciation for, and sent very profound contributions to my radio programmes, including a very insightful poem titled, “Tell me another story”. And then I came to know him even more as Synod Clerk and as Moderator.
The following excerpt from my book was never intended as a eulogy. Indeed, he was the first person to have read it, if he did.
Baptised By The Moderator
My family takes great delight in the fact that our daughter, Lombe, was baptised by Rev. Nyansako-ni-Nku, then Moderator of the PCC. I am everything but a personality cultist, yet we counted it a special grace to have him baptise our daughter, for the same reasons you choose godparents for your children. It had to do with the image he cut as Vicar of Christ – his decorum as the human head of our Church. His sermons were short, concise but filling; simple in language but educated and educating in essence. In them you could sense an unworldly awareness of the world and where it was headed. You could see one who was not only learned but permanently learning, trying to equip himself to help listeners deal with the confusions of arrogant learning. The doctorate he carried was an honoris causa, but without ever referring to it himself, he flew daily in an orbit where many wearing professorial mortar boards have a hard time finding their feet.
This is not to swell the Very Rev. Nku’s head, but I hope you can see why, until his death, many, throughout the PCC, still preferred inviting him to solemnise their weddings, conduct their thanksgivings and funerals – because, in the Church, there is a dearth of shepherds of his stamp.
Is he a perfect man? Far from it. Perfection is not part of the human condition. Like all of us, he is just a man with feet of clay, but clearly with his head and heart in the things of God, and his imperfections copiously tempered by a most disarming dose of humility. I recall one of his junior colleagues travelling to Buea to rebuke him for something improper he had allegedly done. He did not share details with me when he returned. “All I can say is that the man is, indeed, a pastor. His attitude was a quiet lesson in humility and contrition,” the pastor said.
I confirmed that for myself years later, after I wrote some unflattering things about the Rev. Nku. In a magazine op-ed titled, The Nku I Know, I said that, as far as the Presbyterian Church was concerned, Nku had no match as a preacher. And I dare say that has not changed. As for whether he is a good pastor, I admitted I had never been his parishioner to be able to judge. However, considering the whole PCC as the Moderator’s parish, one could assess him from how he managed the Church and its pastors. I then listed his successes and failures in handling a number of things that had happened in the Church during his watch, and left the reader to draw his/her conclusion.
“Victor, I read your article,” he told me the very next time we met. I had known he would, and was not worried about how he would take it, since I knew I had not maligned him in any way. However, if he chose to take offense, it would be disappointing, but just as well.
“I liked it,” he said with a very candid expression on his face.
“Seriously, I did,” he insisted. “First, as a writer you know your onions, and you always make delicious reading. But on a personal note, I would have been very disappointed if you had tried to flatter me because I am your friend or your Moderator. That would not have been the Victor I know and respect – the one who tells it as it is”.
Coming from him, that was quite uplifting. I knew he had no reason to flatter me.
What a huge contrast between that and my encounters with his two successive successors! The one would piously listen to my mediation, thank me copiously for my concern, but resolutely pursue his destructive agenda. The other, for five years and counting, could not stand the sight of me for daring to tell him he may have been wrong in something. As Fela Ransom Kuti would sing: “Make wuna see how people different.” And that is why I would feel privileged that one Moderator baptised my child, but would almost not accept communion at the hands of another.
Nku & Term Limits
When President Biya was amending the Constitution of Cameroon to remove his term limit, I discussed with the Rt. Rev. Nku the role one could expect the Church to play. I will spare you the details of that conversation since everyone knew its outcome – the Church was silent.
Only months later, it was time for elections in the PCC itself, and there was a lobby in the offing for the Constitution to be amended so as to enable the Rt. Rev Nku, who had served his second and last term, to seek a third. After trying unsuccessfully to dissuade the pastors who masterminded this lobby, I wrote to the Synod through the Moderator, arguing that such a move would be “dangerously analogous” to the kind of thing we just witnessed in our country, where a handful of schemers, claiming to speak for the people, called for a Constitutional amendment, and because it suited the fancies of a self-seeking leader, they pulled it through, much to the discontent of the population.
If we did the same thing now with our Church’s Constitution, many will say, ‘no wonder the PCC was so disappointingly ambivalent at that moment of national crisis.’ As incumbents, that is the stigma they (Nku and Asana) will have to wrestle with, if they allowed the constitution to be changed for their sake.
We can’t see ourselves dumping the Rev. Nku into the Church archives like his predecessors, when we feel he still has so much to offer. But I am sure with exposure from his 10 years of incumbency, the Church in Africa and the World knows it can continue to draw from his wellspring of experience, even more freely after he leaves the office of Moderator of the PCC. He has the makings of a PCC Mandela or Jimmy Carter.
In the end, I felt vindicated when Rev Nku just let the matter die.
In his retirement, he kept an uncomfortably low profile, worshipping in his local Kumba Town congregation the few Sundays he was not invited to speak at or celebrate marriages, thanksgivings and memorials elsewhere in the country.
I did not stay close enough to know how often his successors had recourse to his counsel, but when the Church started losing spiritual speed and altitude, many blamed him for standing aloof. To those who approached him on the subject, his answer was quite telling: “How do you advise someone who listens to nobody?” He was reportedly accused of encouraging opponents of the new regime and, for that reason, side-lined to the extent of not even being invited to ordinations happening in Kumba.
Someone did say the grave is the richest place on earth, given the wealth of unshared knowledge and wisdom so many get buried with. If this is true of the Very Rev Nku, it is certainly a shaming indictment of the petulance that took hold of the PCC after him. I do know one or two who claim, or are said to be his spiritual sons. Having groomed replicas of himself for the future is certainly the greatest legacy he could have left the Church. But they will have to grow their midget feet to fit his big shoes. For that, they need a diet rich in humility, the fear of God and more love for the job than for the perks it fetches. But we have seen relay races where a maverick teammate grabs the baton but runs in the wrong direction. May that not be the portion of the PCC.