HOW I MISSED BEING A MASS BOY
I definitely harbour lots of heart-warming moments of my five years at my alma mater, Sacred Heart College (SAHECO) in Mankon (Bamenda). However, there is one recollection that always brings me grief and a sour taste in my mouth. It is the fact that throughout the period I spent at the institution, I was not able to become a mass boy, which was one of the big dreams I brought with me from my primary school, Saint Francis School Bambili, popularly known as “Tseywih”.
Even so, my bitterness does not stem from just the fact that I was not made a mass servant, but rather because before missing it, I had come so close to it! In fact, the opportunity was within arm`s length, and then eluded me. I was like a runner who runs a good race but falls just before reaching the finishing line, while all the others who come after him successfully jump over the line and actually finish the race.
What happened was that when we were in Form 1, our college chaplain, the Rev. Father MacMahon who was a priest from Ireland and our English Language teacher – while Mr. Raph Awa, a look-alike junior brother to the late Bishop Pius Awa, taught us English Literature – announced in class that those students wishing to become mass servants should come to his office on a certain day and at a certain time.
I was one of the first to turn up on that day. So great was my anxiety! This longing was kindled back in primary school by a number of factors. One was that I had two classmates who come from Mamfe and whom it seemed had connections with family members who had studied at the Minor Seminary in Buea known as Bishop Rogan College (BIROCOL) and gone on to become priests. My two classmates who were Peter Ako and Anthony Egbe with whom I grew up at the Agric. Farm (today IRAD) in Bambui talked a lot about the mass boys they had seen and the wonderful way in which they served priests at mass. Peter didn’t only do the talking, but also simulated the action, which gave me a burning yearning to experience it myself.
The second factor was that our primary school had a highly vibrant, committed and competent choir master who was also one of our school teachers. His name was Nicholas Foleng. Each time I attended mass in the school church and his choir was in action, I was so thrilled and elated that I already started dreaming of the next Sunday when I would return to mass, just to listen to this melodious and angelic choir. So, I looked forward to mass at school with baited breath. The third reason was that whenever I attended mass down in the Bambui Catholic Church which was special because since Bambui was the Parish headquarters, that was where all the priests resided. There was also a large Teacher Training College on the same campus as the church. It was also in this same church that I was baptized, with by gaodfather being the agricultural engineer, Bah Elias Fondo Tita Sikod. So, mass there was usually heavily attended by the students in their different attractive attires and the several priests who succeeded each other at mass.
The mass servants at the Bambui church were also in a class of their own because their dressing was more impressive and the ceremony itself more colourful. I loved to watch them process with the officiating priest, walk reverently and majestically, bow, hold the bible for the priest to read from it, ring the bell three times to acknowledge the blessed sacrament and help the priest in pouring incense on even more burning incense so that its sweet and heavenly smoke and aroma filled the whole place and appear to left us all up to heaven. The mass boys were simply heroes in my eyes.
When all of us mass servant hopefuls were gathered in Fr. MacMahon`s office, he said a word of welcome to begin. Then, he informed us that since mass was served by two boys at a time, he would like us to pair up. We each got up and found a partner. But lo and behold, each person I turned to was already paired up and I found myself standing alone, all alone; the odd one out. I was in the middle of nowhere, isolated, rejected, rebuffed and I would even say, ostracized. It was very disappointing and embarrassing.
The priest asked me: “Azonga, where is your partner?”
At a loss for words, I said “Father, I… I… “
He interrupted me: “Well, it`s clear you don`t have one and I`m afraid you won`t be part of this anymore because you can`t serve mass alone” Just to confirm his conclusion, he counted the number of us present: “One, two, three… Twenty. You see, you are the odd-one-out because you are all together twenty in number. I`m afraid that`s it then”
I protested. “Father, but can`t I go and look for someone outside of here?”
“No, you can`t do that.”, he said, in a very unfeeling and peremptory manner, and added: “It`s too late!” He asked me to go back to class and I immediately burst into tears and left his office. Some of my classmates who stood in pairs laughed. The man of God was unmoved.
I felt very bad. I really could not explain what had happened. Had my mates known ahead of time that the chaplain was going to ask us to choose partners and already chosen theirs before the meeting without telling me? Was it a collective conspiracy against me? Or was it a coincidence?
It was the after-lunch private study period prior to sports time when students returned to their classrooms and studied quietly under the supervision of a Class Prefect who was in Form 5, the highest class at the school at that time. Today, the highest class there is the Upper Sixth. Our Class Prefect was Gabrel Ngiliwih. There was a classmate of his who always came to study with him at such times in our classroom. His name was Tiyouh. On this day, both of them were in the classroom, as I walked in.
Seeing me returning alone, the Prefect was naturally surprised and asked: “Where are the others?” I didn`t answer him. I couldn`t speak. I was too filled with grief. So, I just walked straight to my seat and sat down. Fortunately, he didn`t insist.
Shortly after that incident, Edward Sakwe who was in Form 3 and was the school Sacristan – a job he shared with another classmate of his, Pius Tomdio – arranged for me to be reading the scriptures during mass. He also made me to be one of two Form 1 boys that joined both of them in scrubbing and cleaning the sacristy on Saturdays during manual labour. I do not remember who the other Form One boy was. I can recall that when Edward first told me about reading in church, I asked him how I would know that it was time to get up and go to the pulpit. “Do so when the priest and the congregation sit down for the first time after the mass has started”, he replied.
In later years, I was joined in reading in church by two other classmates, one of whom I remember was Hyacinth Nkuo who is today a medical doctor and elder brother to Prof. Theresa Nkuo-Akenji, the current Vice Chancellor of the University of Bamenda.
We read gospel lessons during mass until we got to Form 5. One day, the principal, the Reverend Brother John Phillips (from Scotland) announced during morning assembly that he would like to see all the mass readers in his office straight after assembly. When we gathered there, he told us that he was not happy with the way we read. He reminded us that when reading during mass, we should remember we were reading for the congregation and not for ourselves. So, in order for our audience to understand the message clearly, it was necessary for us to read slowly and audibly instead of “in parrot fashion” as we did. We got the message and from that day, we slowed down and were never again reproached by him.
It is true that after missing out on being a mass boy, I became a mass reader while none of my classmates who became mass boys also became mass readers. Reading this account, you might think that it was therefore a draw game, one goal on either side. But no. It wasn`t, as far as I`m concerned. I was still down by a goal. Strictly speaking, reading in church isn`t the same thing as being an altar boy and if I had to choose between the two even today, I would still choose to be an altar boy. That is why I`m still so saddened and so embittered about what happened on that day.