Hilda Bil Muluh
BY HANS NGALA
As a young African Christian from Cameroon in West Africa, I can confidently say that our Christianity is often not purely biblical. In many places across the continent, biblical Christianity is blended and mixed with African Traditional Religion (ATR) as well as various superstitions. Of course, Westerners also fall into the traps of syncretism. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Many factors account for this mixing of various elements in African Christianity. Some of these reasons include: a reverence and almost obsessive fear of the dead; as well as attaching mysticism or the ‘supernatural’ to things we don’t fully comprehend. All of these are further compounded by poverty and sometimes a gross misunderstanding of the Bible.
This is precisely what Hilda Bih Muluh, the author of The Girl with Special Shoes, experienced growing up in Northwestern Cameroon. It’s an area where nominal Christianity is widely practised and simultaneously powerful waves of Pentecostalism—mainly from our next-door neighbours, Nigeria—have found fertile ground.
Meet Hilda Bih Muluh: A Girl with Special Shoes
Writing in the first person throughout The Girl with Special Shoes, Hilda was born with muscular dystrophy. Even in more developed countries, muscular dystrophy is a formidable condition. But born in Cameroon, Hilda found it doubly hard to cope with her condition, since those with disabilities are largely ignored in Cameroon or—worse —viewed as those who’re cursed; in need of deliverance.
Being the sole student in her class with a disability, at a government-run school in Bamenda, Hilda writes: “As the only student with a disability among thousands on our vast campus, I envied others’ ability to move around easily, their independence, their pride, their life. I felt like a helpless victim in an arena full of curious spectators who were not sure how to help” (p8).
She adds, “At a time when disability was frowned upon as a curse in my society, I was trying to break the mould and live like a ‘normal’ being.” Reading this story I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ interaction with the man born blind in John 9. One can almost imagine those who saw Hilda crawling on all fours—because her family was too poor to afford a wheelchair—asking: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
But Hilda had a stubborn faith and a relentless desire to learn. She took advantage of the long hours trapped at home. She pored through all of her dad’s book collections from Reader’s Digest, even reading entire sections of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. This developed reading ability, Hilda says, helped prepare her to become one of the finest journalists in Cameroon. For she would end up working for the state broadcaster Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV) as well as hosting a primetime show Luncheon Date, listened to by millions of Cameroonians.
In fact, when I was in my early teens, I used to listen to Hilda on the radio. I was part of the millions of Cameroonians who never knew that this ‘microphone queen’ was in fact disabled. With them, I might not have believed you if you told me she was. So Hilda is truly a living testament that, with God, all things are possible; and that disability should not mean inability.
Disability: A Blessing or a Curse?
The Girl With Special Shoes is sure to have a particular resonance with African Christians. For many of us have been conditioned by today’s prosperity gospel preachers to believe that every difficult situation is one from which we must be “delivered.” Hilda offers readers a fresh, biblical perspective on suffering and sickness. Her book shows that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” but that “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3).
For me, The Girl With Special Shoes is similar to Elizabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor. Both Hilda and Elizabeth saw their suffering and loss very differently. Elizabeth Elliot’s husband Jim was speared to death by the Auca Indians of Ecuador. But she treated this as an opportunity to minister to them. So, as tragic as Jim Elliot’s death was, together with the other missionaries who died with him, their blood was the water that nourished the gospel seed. And when the widows of all the five murdered missionaries forgave the tribe and made a trip of their own to the jungle, many of the Auca Indians accepted the gospel.
The foreword of Hilda’s book, written by Joni Eareckson Tada, captures this theme too. Joni Eareckson Tada is a respected Christian teacher who suffered a lifelong injury, confining her to a wheelchair for nearly 50 years. Writing about living with a disability she says, “Even though our circumstances—and our disabilities—are very different, even though Hilda was raised in Africa and I was born in America, our stories feel so much alike.” She then adds, “Both of us have suffered rejection, disappointment, and pain,” as a result of something never chosen.
Disabilities Aren’t Curses
In addition to seeing God’s providential power for good in our suffering, The Girl with Special Shoes also highlights the need for a solid support system. For Hilda this was her family and friends, who helped her to both accept and manage her condition. This is very different to being seen as accursed.
This idea that suffering and sickness is the result of being cursed by God is the result of a warped theology. This theology believes God is there simply to give us everything we want, when we want it, and how we want it. It has a utilitarian view of God. Hilda admits to holding this view for some years. Yet God was undeniably at work in her life, through her condition. Former classmates paid for part of her university education at the prestigious University of Buea. She landed a great job with CRTV. Later she was selected as a Mandela Washington Fellow. Finally, she had the chance to meet Joni Eareckson Tada, the author of Joni, a book that had long encouraged her.
Hilda is a skillful storyteller. She brings her story to life in ways that resonate even with readers who don’t have a disability, as she speaks of the difficulties and the long waiting periods after graduating from university without a next step. Almost no radio stations were disability-friendly, lacking ramps for wheelchairs; another reminder of how society tends to ignore the disabled.
Africa Needs to Hear Hilda’s Story
The Girl with Special Shoes will wake the church in Africa up to the reality that we cannot pray every pain away; that we shouldn’t attribute a curse to every difficulty. For God uses even the most dreadful circumstance for his own glory. “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
READ ORIGINAL ESSAY HERE