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 4. These Lovable People

HOLY CROSS Mission lies on a rugged plateau in Northwestern Liberia about 1,600 feet above sea level. It is a hilly country and covered with a dense tropical forest, broken only by the clearings for villages and farms. Due to the long rainy season, roughly from Easter till Christmas, during which we have a precipitation of about 100 inches, the country is well watered. There are now not so many wild animals as in former years, though in areas not too far distant elephants, wild buffalo, leopards, monkeys and bush hogs abound. In the rivers one finds not merely fish of various sorts but crocodiles and the pygmy hippopotamus; and of course birds of all sizes and colors in the trees. Wild guinea fowl abound everywhere.

Interesting as all these flora and fauna will be to the student of natural history, for us missionaries they can never have the first place. Our main object is to bring to the primitive aborigines the religion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is for the people that we have settled in a foreign land. It took us a [25/26] long time to comprehend the customs, language and religion of these Bandis; but an understanding there must be if any sort of permanent results are to be expected. For the sake of emphasis, let us repeat that our people are primitives, not savages. Their culture is much older than ours, no matter how different it may be. Only too often it is the habit of us Americans especially to smile in a superior way when confronted by a philosophy of life differing from our own. Hence, we must begin by adopting a sympathetic attitude towards a people not as yet mechanized or regimented.

Bolahun just happens to be situated in Bandiland, but also close to Kisi, to west and northwest, Loma to east and northeast and Mende to southwest. We touch them all through our schools and evangelistic activities. No matter by what name or location known, all these tribes have certain fundamental concepts in economy, religion and social structure. It would not be wise to pad our pages with anthropological data, interesting as they would be. We must content ourselves rather with their general characteristics. We shall need to remember the fact that as always with general observations there must be many exceptions due to local circumstances or traditions. The natives have no written account of any sort, yet there exists a striking unanimity of thought guiding human relations for corporate and individual welfare.

The foundation of the primitive society seems to center in the idea of balance; from which spring the peace and unity of the community. When a man steals his neighbor's rice, or his wife, or cutlass, this tribal balance is upset and must be restored by some sort of public restitution. If there are plague or famine, death or calamity of any sort, the malefactor must be hunted out. Some malicious person or evil spirit has upset the local balance, which at all costs must be restored. Interwoven with this and an integral part of the pattern we find a strong sense of loyalty to the Chief and to the clan. This may involve much [26/27] patient endurance with perhaps some loud grumbling; but genuine respect for the elders both living and departed must be shown in order to keep things in place.

Along with this strong, indeed compelling, sense of balance we must not fail to mention the fear which pursues everyone everywhere as long as life lasts. The true Negro entertains a firm belief in the mystical properties of things and of their active participation in the events of daily life. So, we meet a wide spread fear of evil spirits and of the devil-doctors who are supposed to control these hostile forces. It seems to be this fear of unknown powers which forbids innovations of any sort. We may call this stagnation if we will, but certainly it makes for social security and a genuine tribal stability. Many a time we missionaries have been told, "We country people fear you too much." That refers not to any dread of personal violence, but because they are ignorant of what secret power we may possess over persons and things. They fear that we may upset the status quo, the balance of the clan.

Keeping these fundamental principles in mind, we can now proceed to a brief description of some aspects of tribal life. At the risk of being tiresome we must reiterate, indeed we must stress, the unity of the individual with family, clan and tribe. Life is a unit, bound to the customs of the ancients as also to present environment. Hence we learn that society is a primitive type of democratic communism and we begin to see the outline of its principal tenets. Land is held in common and is not for sale. While individuals may cultivate small kitchen gardens for themselves, the big rice farms or other plantations are community projects, in which no man can say, "This is mine." That applies to the land only, for the crop belongs to the planter. Men fell the trees and clear the ground by burning. Women plant the crop and keep it clear of weeds. Children drive the birds and as best they can scare off the pilfering monkeys or ravenous wild hogs. When the harvest comes everyone turns out [27/28] amid great jubilation to reap the fruit of their labors. Thus it is that, except for the aged and the very young, all contribute to the social welfare and help preserve tribal balance.

In the political sphere, the Chief is always elected, and usually for life. But, in our particular part of the Liberian Hinterland, we have known chiefs who have been deposed from office; and because of "humbug,"--i.e. upsetting the balance. The Chief with his elders, "big men" as they are called, together with the medicine doctors all have special functions; he to rule, they to advise. No man can be called a member of his tribe or clan until he has been initiated into the secret society known as the "Porro Bush." There the lads are instructed in tribal traditions and taboos, and used to receive circumcision. They are taught obedience to law, respect for their elders, as well as their duties and obligations in society. It is of interest to note that in these initiation ceremonies, lasting for several years in some localities, slave boys as well as the free were taken in. Of course slavery in all parts of West Africa is now outlawed, but we are told that in the olden days slaves were treated very well as a rule, so that in a town a stranger could not distinguish them.

When we approach the economic structure of this native society we discover at once a most complicated system. Polygamy, barter, quid pro quo to maintain tribal balance all enter into the picture, not to mention the widespread greed for power. Money, in our Western sense of hard cash, used to be quite scarce. How, then, does a young man establish himself and pass from the status of "small boy" to that of a "big man"? Except in distant centers like Monrovia, a fortnight's trek from us, banks are non-existent. All the land belongs to the family or clan, but the women and children always belong to some man personally. The bride, be she number one or fifty, is acquired by the payment of a dowry to her family. Cattle, goats, cloth and a bit of cash totalling $40 or $50 in our currency is what is expected, and may be paid on the installment plan. Thus a man [28/29] invests his earnings in human flesh. The more wives he has the richer he grows, for the women all work for their husband by producing children as well as by the labor of their hands. Occasionally some able woman, usually wife number one, will make a name and a place for herself, and even become the town chief. Thus our Bolahun is named for one such (Mbolo-Lahun), and Ma-Samba-Lahun goes back to some female chieftain, Samba.

The men as a rule are either farmers, hunters, blacksmiths, weavers or tailors. Iron they know and use and to a limited extent other metals too. Their work is seasonal for the greater part and consequently done rather by fits and starts. Both men and women are strong physically, competent and willing in their jobs, though by our standards neither industrious nor efficient. Various reasons have been set forward to explain this situation. Some would blame the tropical climate, others the inadequate diet, which consists primarily of rice and palm oil. Without doubt, both these factors enter, but when we consider the crude tools for working, and the natural tendency to accommodate themselves to existing conditions, we can better understand the general poverty and contentment therewith. Neither yesterday nor tomorrow mean a thing. Like wondering children, they live for only today with its immediate needs and opportunities. Yet, in one thing above all else they are most provident, and that is the making of rice farms.

As for religion, it is a primitive type of animism. Briefly expressed, this means that while they believe in one God, He is not worshipped. He created the world and all that therein is, but no longer entertains the slightest interest in it. Along with this, every object has its indwelling spirit--trees, rocks, streams and even the growing crops. Of these spirits some are friendly and need no special attention; but those hostile must be propitiated. According to popular ideas nothing ever happens from what we call natural causes. Thus, if a person dies, for weal or for woe some evil spirit has taken him to the abode of the "old people," [29/30] the abode of his forefathers. Someone has "put bad medicine" (i.e. has worked an evil charm) upon the deceased. The malefactor must be found and punished because the family balance has been upset. Hence the necessity for sacrifices, chicken or some rice or cloth. They call it salei (medicine), an antidote spiritually for the tribal upset.

The spirit of man is associated with a shadow. The common belief is that the departed can and do appear in dreams or even as wild beasts. Hence the not infrequent sacrifices at trees, or at graves, or at rocks. They are to allay the havoc wrought by angry and hostile spirits. Some of these salika are simply fantastic, as when a fowl is killed over the grave of some ancestor and expires with its feet up as a sure sign that the soul of the departed is "satisfied" and rests in peace. Generally speaking, all these offerings are to appease the wrath of inimical forces unseen to us. They also help to dispel personal fears. That fear of malicious spirits hangs like a cloud over every man so long as he lives. Because it is an everyday matter, an integral part of personal and communal existence, it can never be ignored. This fear of the unknown is the basis also for the various tribal and family taboos, and as such creates a well-nigh insuperable obstacle in the path of progress. Without a doubt it does help to preserve social order, even though it stifles any individual thought or effort to improve existing conditions. Just as among civilized folk a child is restrained by the frightful hobgoblins the nursemaid brings to life, so it is among our primitive people.

The political unit among the tribes in this section of the Hinterland is the clan, or family, in which the Chief assumes absolute responsibility for law and order. Thus in our particular district, the Wawoma Section of Bandi, except for the Christian mission town of Bolahun and a couple of Mohammedan Mandingo villages, the dozen or so native towns compose pretty much one family under Ama Ngafua, the Clan Chief. When we first opened the mission we did so as "Fofi's strangers." Fofi [30/31] was a Mandingo and a Moslem, and also at that time Paramount Chief of this immediate area. He invited us to "sit down" and open our work on family land, as we did gladly. The location was not for sale, so we could not purchase it. Foil and his Wawoma Clan accepted us as their permanent guests, most generously making room for us. We do not have a dense population, but (not counting the Monrovia metropolitan environs) ours is considered the most thickly settled portion of the country.

The native villages are always fascinating, with their conical thatch roofs all scattered about in picturesque confusion. The spirit-filled corner stone is the center, as might be expected; and not far away there usually stands the wide open palaver house, which is really a sort of town hall for the chief's court and other general meetings. Most of the towns crown high hills but are never far from a good supply of running water, normally a stream at the foot of the hill. We are told that the custom of placing inhabited centers up so high derives from the old war days, when it was so necessary to have a location capable of being defended. Now that tribal wars and the horrors of the slave trade have disappeared, thanks to the vigilant oversight of the Liberian Government, much more attention is being paid to the arts and increasing skill in developing the amenities of life. African singing and dancing and drums have been famous for centuries Iron tools are known and used; leather articles, jewelry and personal ornaments are made from gold and silver coins. Incidentally, if we offer payment with a coin which shows the picture of a defunct monarch it is handed right back with the remark, "No good; he dead." Perhaps one of the lasting contributions we have made has been the introduction of real carpentry and the use of cement and iron nails and hinges. Native huts have not one scrap of metal used in their construction. They stand as marvelous tributes to the patience and ingenuity of the architects, poles, rattan, grass thatch and [31/32] mud for the walls being the basic materials. A door is chopped from the flange of some giant forest tree, all one piece.

In a group of people like these of ours who never have had any written records, their history is vague even among those wise repositories of tribal tradition, the old men and women of the community. As far as we can understand, this entire area was covered originally with dense forest in which dwelt some bands of Kono people. But several centuries ago came the Kisi people. They are reported to have journeyed along the coast from the Far East and to have settled first in Sherbro, Sierra Leone. They then fought their way up country to where they still are, finding the land empty of inhabitants except for the pygmies in the high bush. Judging from their type of language and some of their customs, these Kisis represent a branch of the Bantus, and possibly from the Congo Basin. The people through whose territory they had to battle their path from Sherbro northwards were of the Mende and Cola tribes.

It is quite impossible to fix any definite dates, but all the local historians agree on the great wave of migrations due to the Mohammedan push from the East. Apparently as late as about 200 years ago the large group of Lomas arrived, a most virile, warlike horde. The Kono towns were easily liquidated and their inhabitants scattered far and wide, partly to become the present Vai people in and about Cape Mount due south on the coast, while others fled to what is now north central Sierra Leone. But the Kisis refused to budge, as did also the Colas to the south, for all of lower Bandiland as it now is was then theirs.

After a while, when peace was finally patched up, Loma men began exchanging wives with Kisis and Colas along the territorial borders, and from this fusion in a sort of no-man's-land emerged the families known as Bandis. Their earliest settlements clustered about Kpaka Fasa, the magnificent bald rock 2,000 feet above the level of the sea, plainly visible a few miles to the northeast of Bolahun. By a strong and quite unanimous [32/33] tradition Halipo and Kolahun are their oldest towns. We shall have to relate thestory of Halipo elsewhere. The Bandis today, while not to be compared with Kisis or Lomas for numbers or the extent of territory occupied, inhabit roughly a strip about 25 miles wide running from French Cuinea to the north all the way to the dense Cola Forest in the south. But primarily it forms what in these days we term a border state between the Kisis and the Lomas.

As before mentioned, it is impossible to establish exact chronology, but it does seem that not long after the Loma people had won their home by force of arms and the whole country was in an uproar from the tribal wars, there appeared another swarm of valiant warriors from north and east. These were the Man. dingoes, brave soldiers all, very intelligent and for the most part devout Moslems. They joined forces almost at once with the struggling little Bandi outfit. To this day the Bandis are grateful for their timely succor. Kisis were pushed further west and Lomas further east, while the Colas had to retreat to their present habitations in the dense forest land to the south, till Bandiland assumed approximately its present proportions about a century ago. Mandingo influence and the Mohammedan faith are still powerful factors with which we have to deal.

We must beg the reader to realize that this brief account of the tribes hereabouts has been compiled, not as accurate history, but as the sum total of local tradition gathered from sources which we believe to be reliable. We meet a surprising unanimity as to the broad outlines of the story, though with considerable confusion in details. Thus, the Loma people to this day bury a man facing east, because "that is where the old people came from." We have mentioned the Bantu type of speech among the Kisis; and a study of their customs would seem to point back to central Africa. The Colas traditionally always have been mighty hunters of big game, but not specially noteworthy as soldiers. As intrepid elephant hunters in the high bush they are [33/34] famous. These indications are but a few of many (old place names among others) that tribal memory of origins is correct.

We need not tarry for long over Mohammedanism which we meet here in a debased form. Aside from refusal to eat pork and drink palm wine there is little to distinguish them outwardly from their heathen neighbors. But when Ramadan comes--the "hungry moon" they call it--the followers of the prophet are more conspicuous, for they generally feast all night and rest and sleep all day. Always ready for an argument, suave, highly intelligent even though the unprincipled rascals that they are at times, they conform readily to most of the local customs and beliefs. Their unfailing reply to our Christian preaching is, "If God is one, how can He have a Son?" Their artistic skill manifests itself in their really beautiful leather work and in ornaments of silver or of gold. The men are fond of wide flowing gowns, and their women always appear spruce, industrious and modest. Their mullahs usually can sing the formal prayers and read the Koran in Arabic, though having no idea what the words mean. As might be expected, they are all absolute fatalists. Ask a man how he is feeling today, and you have the unfailing answer, "Thank God." All this makes a long step up from heathenism, though quite deficient from the Christian point of view. They are ardent missionaries, too, and even we cannot but feel impressed when at sunset they unroll their mats on the ground, face Mecca and begin the sonorous "God is God and Mohammet His prophet." All which adds up to one distressing fact. They are almost impossible to convert, so exactly does their religion suit them.

These then are the people we are sent to evangelize. How we meet this background of a non-Christian, most ancient culture we shall try to relate. Tribal wars, slavery, human sacrifice with its attendant cannibalism have to be reckoned with no longer. But customs like polygamy and witchcraft still stand firmly entrenched in native society. We aim to give the Christian [34/35] converts our Faith. We use schools and medical work as handmaids to our effort, aided of course by modern social and psychological techniques. We encourage our flock to retain all their local customs insofar as not contrary to faith and morals. Our principle is to foster and build upon all that is good. That supplies our first point of contact, which every teacher knows he must have. God first, and His Holy Church must be proclaimed.

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