Project Canterbury

Within the Green Wall
The Story of Holy Cross Liberia Mission 1922-1957

By the Rt. Rev. Robert Erskine Campbell, O.H.C.
Formerly Prior of Bolahun and Bishop of Liberia

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, [1957]

Reproduced online by permission of the Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross, 2006.

Chapter 1. Eastward Ho!

PENDEMBU. There we were that hot morning of Saturday, September 30, 1922. Father Hawkins, Father Campbell and Mr. Harold Manley had spent a couple of days in the government rest house, an oblong building of mud walls and a picturesque thatched roof. Our sixty loads were lined up before us. The Paramount Chief Musa, who incidentally spoke excellent English, arrived with the necessary porters. After the usual noisy arguments as to who should carry what, the men lifted the assigned burdens to their heads and off they filed one after another into the "bush." Thus we left behind the last outpost of civilization we were destined to see for many a month to come.

Father Hawkins had been in Africa ever since February. He had been sent by our Superior, the great Father Huntington, to join a scouting party organized by Bishop Overs to tour the Liberian Hinterland and select possible sites for establishing evangelistic work among the untouched Moslems and heathen. [1/2] As a result of their findings, the Bishop had assigned Mosambalahun and the Bandi nation to the Order of the Holy Cross. In April Father Hawkins had returned to the Hinterland from Monrovia to select an appropriate location and if possible to start building. Father Campbell, newly appointed Prior of the mission, and Mr. Manley, engineer and builder, had just come from America to join him.

Thus we marched towards the sunrising over the rocky hills, being carried pick-a-back through sinister swamps, or steadied as we crossed streams on rickety bridges. After walking through shady "high bush" with impenetrable tangled creepers on either side we would emerge to a large rice farm in the full glare of the tropical sun. Then we would scale another hill, wade through the swamp on the far side, and finally balance ourselves as we inched our way across a swaying "hammock bridge" of skillfully woven creepers.

Wild flowers we observed in profusion. Birds of all sizes and colors flitted about in the trees but were mostly silent, as were the monkeys also. Butterflies blue or yellow we met in large numbers. When we came to a stream of driver ants crossing the road in military formation we had to step over them with care, for if disturbed they jump on one and inflict a painful bite. Of course there were those pests always with us, mosquitoes and stinging flies. But it was all so silent, the only sound being that of our own heavy shoes or of human conversation. Occasionally we would meet a group of men carrying long green hampers of palm kernels to sell in Pendembu, who never failed to flash a bright smile and a cheery word when we waved to them--words which we did not then understand. All these natives, including our own carriers, walked barefoot and clad with a minimum of clothing. The women we met were always modest in both dress and behaviour, though small children usually frolicked about in their birthday suits.

Then Giema, our first halt for the night. Amid great [2/3] excitement we arrived in late afternoon, very hungry, very thirsty, but quite undaunted. People thronged us, telling one another no doubt of the marvels they saw. It was our first experience of being in a town where we understood not one word. Thus we were escorted to greet the chief, dignified and courteous as ever. Through an interpreter he welcomed us, gave us the town and showed us the huts reserved for ourselves and our men. After a while he returned with quite a supply of rice and fowls for "chop," expressing once more his delight that we should honour him by sitting down in his town.

In the meantime we busied ourselves sorting out the supplies of food we had brought from England, setting up our camp beds, hanging mosquito nets in tight quarters and trying to settle ourselves in strange surroundings. All this of course in full view of the gaping, loquacious crowd without. Thus we lit our kerosene lanterns and ate the supper prepared by our steward boys. As always, weariness and a good meal soon produced drowsiness--and there stood the empty cots. So, we tucked the hanging ends of the mosquito nets under the bedding, shut the door, blew out the light and retired.

But did we sleep? Someone in town had died. All night the drums and gourd rattles kept going, together with a low moaning wail. When dawn finally silvered the East we were glad to get up, and as it was Sunday, to prepare for the celebration of the Mass, offered by Father Hawkins. It took some time to tidy up our quarters, but when that was done and after a cup of tea (i.e. our breakfast) we fared forth to view the town.

First we must visit the chief to inquire for his health. We found him surrounded by a curious assortment of chattering men, women and children, with everybody talking at once. But our arrival brought a sudden silence, for no doubt all had ears itching to learn what we might say to his Excellency. Compliments and many sweet words passed to and fro as we were asked for our welfare and comfort and replied to the usual [3/4] questions about the latest news. Then there followed the grand tour of the village. In the center of what might be called the public square we could not but notice the corner-stone, a large smooth rock in which the guardian spirit of the village is supposed to dwell. Hard by stood a small "devil house" containing the charms necessary to ensure public welfare; and the sacred tree, which none must ever touch. Not far to the left the large town palaver house rose to an impressive height, with its low mud walls and lofty thatched roof. It is used for town meetings and a court room where the chief hears lawsuits. To the side of this there was the chief's private compound, with ample quarters for himself, his wives and immediate family.

As is commonly found in all the older settlements, huts are scattered about higgledy-piggledy, sometimes with graves between them, sometimes with temporarily living chickens, goats or children. Certainly there are no streets. Each hut showed brown mud walls and a conical thatched roof; one narrow door and perhaps a window or two, with the customary charms hanging to ward off sickness and evil spirits generally. Then, on the edge of the village we had to step over the unbroken creeper which encircles the whole town. That forms a magic roadblock to hostile spirits which might wish to enter. Of these inimical forces the one they fear most is lightning. Beyond this charmed ring lay the kitchen gardens and the gnarled cola trees growing by the stone-encircled graves of the elders.

Here we met our first beggar. Did we have a bit of tobacco? It must be said that in Giema they did not pester us much, but during the days following as we penetrated ever deeper into the country, they became increasingly clamorous and insistent. 'ATe did not then know that it is the African custom to share what one has with his friends as a sign of good will, "cold heart" they call it. And, did not the missionaries have a plenty of everything? Were they not the friends of all the people? Just look at their sixty loads. One never begs from an enemy.

[5] Monday morning came finally, and we packed our luggage. By this time we had real sympathy with goldfish in a bowl, so little privacy had we enjoyed. Our porters then came and bearing those same loads melted into the surrounding forest along the winding trail. We bade the chief a cordial farewell, for he had really entertained us handsomely. We presented him with a suitable "dash" for his generous hospitality, and amid many smiles and much snapping of fingers we followed on the long trail to an unknown country.

The four days following were, with minor differences, a repetition of the first. Wednesday afternoon we crossed the border into Liberia, scaling the seven rugged hills requiring alternate "gas and emergency brakes" to the customs station at Foya Gallia. There Father Hawkins cleared our imports with the Liberian officials, so that on Thursday we covered the four-hour jaunt over almost mountainous terrain to our destination, Masambalahun.

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