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Pa Sumbele, The Last Of The Basel Mission Teachers (II) 

CameroonPostline.comIs there one special experience in the life of Abel Nkane Sumbele which did more than any other to shape his character – as a person and as a great teacher? The sprightly 83-year-old points to a ‘miracle’ that happened to him in 1959.

The former Education Secretary of Presbyterian Schools and National Secretary for all Protestant Education with a meticulous knack for recalling dates, events and names, tells the story in this exclusive interview how, as a frustrated young man, he took a vow with God, which vow bloomed into a miracle that changed his life for good.

“I took a vow with God that if He gave me admission and scholarship into university, I would give up something I cherished very much; drinking and smoking. And the miracle happened in 1959. But first let me reconstruct my Sasse episode and others which eventually led me to the miracle.”

I passed through Sasse for six terrible years. I was coming from Nyassoso and people from Basel knew about Sasse. When I got to Sasse, I found Cameroonians there. But I had gone there knowing that it was a Catholic institution and I knew I would have problems so I took a decision to smile at every problem.

So whenever I was called a name non-conformist, I bowed and smiled and said, “Yes, Father.” I didn’t say thank you. My born enemy (one of the missionary fathers) would even tell me “I don’t like the way you think.” Even the Bishop found me one day working on the road when people were in church. Because when you didn’t go to church, you had to work. He said I had to work because I didn’t go to church, I said, “Yes, my lord,” with a smile. But one Father loved me like his son.

Father Cunningham took an interest in me right from Form One. And anytime I had problems with the Principal and I was punished and all that kind of thing, he would console me and say, “Don’t worry, you will pass out…” We remained friends until he left. I became principal when he was still principal.

When I took up the job of Principal, I took it seriously and decided that as a Principal, to bring up children, you must be hard on them. Hard! Because people come from various homes. So the early batch suffered in my hands. We were dancing. I was there night and day. Sometimes at 3 am or 4 am I was in the school. And many times, I found something wrong. So the students thought that I had some mystic powers, yet it was only my commitment to my work.

Vow With God, Longevity

The secret of my longevity is this; when I taught in Bali; you know I was very frustrated the way I was treated. I was a frustrated young man of twenty-three/twenty-four when I got to teach in Bali and was told that I would never go to university. I joined groups of people to enjoy life and Bali was a good place for that kind of thing.

There was a lot of mimbo; this and that… After three years of that kind of enjoyment, I said to myself, “if I continue like this, I’ll end up as grade two teacher. So I began to withdraw from that company and began studying and joining them only on weekends. When I got the A’ Level Pure Mathematics, they were surprised. They said, “When were you studying?” But I was studying.

I then took a vow before God; that if I had admission into university (there were only three universities in West Africa then – Fourah Bay, Ibadan and Legon), if I had a scholarship, two of things were impossible those days, if God gave me those things, I would give up something I cherish very much; drinking and smoking. And in 1959 the miracle happened.

I appeared for a scholarship interview and got a scholarship. God had played his part, so it was now my turn. So when I got to Freetown in September 1959, I reminded myself that I took a vow. But I joined the ‘bad’ guys groups – September, October, November and December. On December 31 – I was 30 then – I made a public pronouncement at an assembly; “this is the last day I am taking alcohol, this is the last cigarette I am going to smoke.”

Everybody cheered. Of course, they thought it was a joke. Mr. Athanasius Kome; who was providing these things, thought it was a joke. A day passed, a week passed. A month! And Kome called me and said, “Abel, you mean you are really serious?” I said it was a vow I took with God. That is how I gave up smoking and drinking. By the time I came back after five years I was looking younger than when I went. And I have kept away from those things.

Second, I do a lot of exercise; I am always on the road. Thirdly, I eat wisely meaning that I don’t eat too much. I avoid a lot of carbohydrates. You don’t fill your belly with cocoyams because the next moment you are going to pass them out. I have a menu where everything has its place. I remember abolishing corn-chaff when I took over in Kumba; the students were feeding on it everyday. I abolished cocoyams and Chief Ntoko was very angry with me.

Fourthly, there is God’s blessing because my class that passed out in 1949, there are only three of us alive – the famous Morris Ambeno; he was older, Sylvester Dio is in Sokolo. When I examine the teachers who taught in Bali, I am the last Basel Mission teacher. I have a lot of old-age problems but I am happy with them; I have eye problems but I see.

Sumbele had not much for sloppiness. Sternness was his joy. When he came back from Britain at the end of 1976, the Cameroon GCE Board started in 1977; “that is when I got on board there.

When I joined the GCE Board, I had an argument with Ndam Njoya over the marking of the GCE when he was Minister of Education. I wrote a memorandum that when we were starting the GCE, it should be marked in the Northwest and the Southwest; Bamenda and Buea, because they were the centres; with one or two in East Cameroon and that anybody who was going to be involved in the GCE should be people of known integrity and honesty.

For example, those who had changed their ages should not be involved because they were dishonest. Such things I put down and the Minister was very unhappy about it especially as I had not put down my own name for marking GCE. I said those who are teaching should be those who are marking and I had not taught for two years.”


Sumbele loved to be at the wheel of humility. I remember a parent came to meet me “to honour people like me who know everything”. And told him, Papa, you are mistaken. The days are gone when one man knew everything. Your son whom you are looking down upon knows things that I don’t know.

I told the man that boy speaks French, I don’t know French. You see, the subject of study was limited by the time I was in Sasse. You studied academic Latin, not French. Then History, Geography, English language. When we came from Standard Four to Sasse, we didn’t know enough English. So they spent the whole time teaching you English language and Arithmetic because when you got to Form Two you would meet people who came from Standard Six.

And so the subjects were very few there, you couldn’t have ten subjects. But today, students can do even fifteen subjects. Or twenty. They know a lot of things. Of course, when you are doing twenty subjects, you tend to be diluted because you don’t concentrate. When people left Standard Four those days and they wrote English, you admired them. They were better than our present day secondary school students; even university students.

I think the problem is that we are facing expanding knowledge. It is expanding so widely that if you don’t want to be left out, you must join the group of expanding things. Although you can not chew them; know them in detail as when you do few things. Children these days manipulate computers and play games on cell phones. So we cannot say standards have fallen. Ok, I agree that standards of English have fallen. What can we do about it?

Dropping Standards?

Pa Sumbele teacher training was halted and then brought back, they started giving it a nine-month course. I did a two-year intensive teacher course. We were being trained for headmastership in primary schools. Teacher training is the place where you can have a revolution in education if the teachers are trained properly. He confesses that sometimes when he passes near PHS Kumba, he can’t believe his eyes.

When I pass near my former school I find a forest in the school. I left PSS Kumba in 1981 after 17 years, perhaps the longest-serving Principal. The Principal complains that they have small children, but I say during my days, I had less than 400 students but the school compound was always neat.

A week after we were back from holidays, that compound was neat. My former school PSS Kumba could be said to have progressed in many ways. As I said, I decided to keep the school below 400 students because I wanted to know every child and help every one of them.

And you cannot know too many people. But the church was not happy with me that I was keeping the school below 400. The British standard was 35 students a class. I used to have 800 applying to come in and I had to cut it down to 400. So many people were disappointed, especially the girls’ section where the parents thought their girls were safest.

Yes, my school was the first modern co-education school. It was the first school where they tried both boys and girls. And now when I think about the Kumba Presbyterian Ex-students’ Association, KUPEXSA, generally, old students’ organisations have a problem; Sasse has. In fact, I am connected to three schools; I came out of Sasse, then I taught in the second one; CPC Bali, for seven years.

I am a member of the mother chapter of SOBA. I am connected to Bali because I am one of the Cameroonians who taught in Bali and I think I am the only one surviving. So whenever they have their meetings, they invite me. Every student organisation has a problem. Sasse, the oldest, has. Each association has a peculiar problem.

Don’t compare any girls’ school association with any boys’ association because the girls’ associations are more united. One woman proposed at their convention that the problem came from the first batch. She asked me to invite them and talk to them because they were not coming to meetings. One of them was even a member of the Board of Governors of PHS Kumba; he refused to attend because they were going to question him about his association. But I hear he changed his mind and is now an important man in the association.

My only advice is that no association should envy another association because none is perfect. If you have a good leader you will be sure of a following. It is leadership that causes an association to go ahead or not. Sasse College did very well when Edmond Agbor was President General for a long time. Then we changed to somebody else who caused a lot of trouble with money and was removed in 2010.

God’s Other Blessings

God blessed me with four children. I married in 1965. I was thirty-five years old. The same year of our marriage, we had a pair of twins, but the girl passed away. She nearly took the mother with her. Twenty months after that, I had a boy; Victor Sumbele. Twenty-seven months after that, I had Joshua. He is an engineer. Then twenty-three months after that, I had a girl. The day the mother delivered the girl, I was to do interviews with students in Mutengene, then someone told

“Oh, Sango you have a girl now.” I went down on my knees, and said “thank you God for this girl. And this is the last.” After that we did nothing to stop conception and God listened to my prayer. But having lost my wife in Bamenda, I met my present wife in Britain at a students’ meeting. I got married the second time but on condition that my spouse should be 40 years and above; I was fifty-seven. Secondly, that person must be working. Thirdly, the woman must not desire children.


I was involved in the KNC-KNDP and I nearly missed a scholarship because of being involved in politics. When I came from Nigeria, there was KNC headed by Endeley. Then Foncha started KNDP. The Vice President of KNPD was Njume Messape, who was sending me messages; “if you don’t join this party, you will not get a scholarship.” After that I decided, no party politics. But whenever I vote, I vote a person of integrity no matter what party they belong to.

Abel Nkane Sumbele would like to be remembered as one who accomplished what he dreamt he would be able to do; to bring up Cameroonians of integrity, honest, hard-working and true to themselves because in my own life that is what I have tried to be; humble, believing that everybody is somebody.

First published in The Post print edition no 01335

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