Father Antonino Melis, is a Xaverian missionary of Italian descent. Since 1985, he has been on a mission in Africa: Chad and Cameroon. Specialized in medical examinations, he practiced this profession before joining the Xaverian congregation. He later discovered anthropology and linguistics in Africa. He did a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Tours in 1999 in France and for years, he has been collaborating with Italian universities . Among his publications there are two dictionaries (Masa-French and Gizey-French). Since 2011, he is the General Director of the Cultural Centre and Museum of the Logone Valley. In this interview with Father Louis Birabaluge, coordinator of the Centre for African Studies of Xaverian Missionaries, Father Melis introduces us to the Centre. He asserts that even though the Centre is a secular institution, it should be thought of as one of the realizations of the intuitions of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, on brotherhood and social friendship (October 2020).
Louis Bira (LB): Father Antonino Melis, how did you get the idea of setting up a Cultural Centre?
Antonino Melis (AM): Passionate about cultures and languages in particular, I have seen over the years the great cultural change in action in this part of Africa, and especially among the Masa population. I have seen many things disappearing in the indifference of all. I thought something had to be done, because the people today do not realize what is happening. I was discouraged by researchers I contacted, especially those who worked in this area in which they built their research careers. But others encouraged me, first of all the Bishop of Yagoua at that time, Bishop Emmanuel Bushu. He entrusted me with the task of studying a diocesan museum project. Subsequently the meeting with the Spanish Jesuit José Luis Ferrer gave a different view. He advised me to set up a Centre more open and with a secular orientation.
LB: What is the Cultural Centre project for?
AM: The aim of the project is to help new generations to maintain and value their cultural roots without giving up their origins. It is to help them to learn to live in a globalized world, assuming their specificities and cultural richness. The Cultural Centre and Museum in the Logone Valley is a place of dialogue and inter-community meeting, a place in which people of different languages and cultures learn to overcome their ethnic characteristics and live together in harmony. Because now they are part of one community. In this line, the project seeks to promote capacity in the entire population. Capacity that will help ensure that the local cultures of this territory do not disappear. Thus the cultural richness and future of this region are in the hands of the human communities engaged in the construction of a new and prosperous society, in which everyone can exercise his or her rights without exclusion for ethnic, gender or social reasons.
LB: Who attends the Cultural Centre?
AM: The Cultural Centre is made up of three different but interconnected parts: a school library with all the text books, open to students and pupils in the afternoon and with the possibility of studying in the evening; a scientific library in the humanities concerning the populations of the region, dedicated to university students and researchers. It is frequented mainly by those who are writing a dissertation or thesis. There is also a computer room with free internet for students. Added to this is the second major component, which is the Ethnographic Museum of the Populations of the Logone Valley, which is not yet open to the public but is being built.
LB: How are the activities of the Cultural Centre funded?
AM: The Cultural Centre is governed by an association recognized by the Cameroonian state, which includes the Diocese of Yagoua, the City of Yagoua, Sana Logone (a Cameroonian NGO) Globalmon (a Spanish NGO) and Africa degna (an Italian NGO). The members of these associations seek the funds first for the creation and then for the operation of the Centre. Indeed, much of the funds for running costs of the Centre come from Spain and Italy. A secretarial service and two rooms to accommodate researchers also provide a small income.
LB: In his new encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti (October 2020), Pope Francis calls for a universal brotherhood that takes advantage of the cultural richness of all peoples. Would the Cultural Centre project be an fulfillment of the pope’s wish?
AM: I can answer with the affirmation; even though the Cultural Centre is a secular institution. Indeed, we find ourselves fully in this expression of the Pope. The Centre’s project states:
“This Centre must promote a profound cultural transformation. It helps to rebuild individual relationships of commitment, solidarity and respect; group relationships of democracy, tolerance and organization, and social relations, enhancing human rights, work, autonomy, gender and equity. In this research, we must identify the new values that must prevail in this Centre of Culture and Ecomuseum which defines itself as public, autonomous and self-managed entity.”
LB: What are the challenges facing the Cultural Centre?
AM: The need for such a Centre is due to a loss of appreciation of the cultural traditions of the Logone Valley region by its inhabitants. Forgetting the origins involves a weakening of cultural identity that limits the energies and possibilities of society in order to face a successful future. Added to this, is the sudden encounter with the globalized world, and the youth attracted by certain aspects of modernity, not always the best. Current educational training in Cameroon and Chad, on the other hand, does not generate spaces for its students and teachers to promote and claim their local customs. The means of communication have an influence on children and young people. They are driven to adopt practices alienated from their cultural values. Our challenge is to accompany the younger generations in this transition from a traditional world to a globalized world, without the latter eliminating the former. And there is a great task here, when one is aware of the power of modern means of communication.
LB: A word of hope?
–AM: In countries such as Cameroon and Chad, where power is confiscated by a small minority and young people are abandoned by the rulers, the youth who attend the Centre consistently, who study, often with an empty stomach, and fight for their future, are signs of hope for a better future. Young people who once fought a permanent war and are now facing the same blackboard studying Maths or Physics exercises are a sign that a better day of peaceful collusion and collaboration is possible. That is the reason for our hope.
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