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 6. Ma Samba's Town

MASAMBALAHUN lies on a not-too-lofty hill, at the foot of which to west and east run shallow streams of clear water. At the time of our arrival the village boasted of nearly 200 houses, one of the largest, most populous in all Bandi. The Paramount Chief and approximately half the inhabitants had a Mandingo background and thus were Moslems, while the others were obviously Bandi heathen. We must tell more of Fofi elsewhere. He exemplified the qualities of a perfect host, suave, dignified, always courteous and respectful. All up and down the country the people admired him for his personal integrity, 'his just decisions in lawsuits and real concern for the public welfare. Thus in his town it came to pass that we settled down in the three huts he assigned for our occupancy while our first monastery was abuilding.

Monastery? Yes, for before he sailed for Africa Father Campbell had received but one bit of definite instruction from Father Huntington, his Superior. That was: "Remember, you are to [45/46] establish Holy Cross in Liberia." With this direction in mind, the Fathers from the very first day of residence maintained Mass, Offices and other requirements of their rule as best they could under primitive conditions, and with no enclosure whatever. No wonder it is then that from the very start we determined that the first of the projected mission buildings must be our monastery. A suitable place of abode we simply must have if we were to live as Religious.

We must have been a perfect circus for the natives those early days. Most of them had never seen a white man before, and wasn't white the color of the devils most feared? That first Sunday night in the dim light of a hurricane lantern we unpacked the gramophone and a few records. A dense crowd gathered at once outside the little porch with its low mud parapet. A great wondering silence reigned until we wound the machine and started the first record. At that moment a loud sort of wail pierced the night air, and what to our untrained ears, sounded like expressions of fear. An interpreter told us that the people thought we kept a little devil locked in the box, and that when we turned the crank to wind it we were flogging him. The idea seemed to be that when we had abused him sufficiently he would begin to talk and sing and whistle. So, we changed at once to a lighter selection with some laughter in it, and our audience changed its mind apparently and forgot its fright, for this time they let out whoops and loud guffaws of delight. That phonograph rendered noble service for months till it finally expired one day with a broken spring.

Oh yes, there was that magic typewriter, the emaciated looking little Corona we had brought all the way from New York. "Strong Medicine" they called it when one could receive a brief note and know exactly what the writer wanted to say. It took the admiring spectators a long time to realize that words were being printed and that the clicking of the type was not a means of conjuring a charm on the paper. Thus we learned our first [46/47] lessons in Bandi psychology. Many of the Mohammedans could sing the Koran, and although they had not the slightest idea what the Arabic words might mean they considered the pages as possessing a supernatural power in themselves. Consequently, bits of paper covered with appropriate verses from their holy book were sewn in small leather cases and worn as fetishes. The writing itself was the charm. How many, many times in the weeks that followed throngs of men and women watched in awe and with eyes wide open as we "made big medicine" for our friends at home.

When time came every day for our Mass and Offices the people were always most respectful, for they understood the idea of prayer to the Almighty. The crowd never failed to disperse at once when we announced that we "must pray God." As a rule the same would be true of our meals, and when we wished to retire for the night. That is quite in keeping with the general native custom, and for us strangers it came as a welcome relief to enjoy a bit of privacy after hours of living and trying to work in public. We were the seven-day wonders all day and every day, those same bright goldfish swimming about in a bowl. Reading, shaving, attending to household chores never failed to attract a vociferous band of admirers. Through an interpreter, usually one of our stewards, some might venture a few timid questions. We must have been considered fabulously wealthy, too, and therefore the possessors of some secret power. One such inquirer wanted to know how we "made our money." To such a man, firmly convinced that we kept a small box in which to imprison a friendly spirit and that when we turned the crank the silver coins rolled out, it sounded unreal and untrue when we tried to give some rudimentary outline of mints and currency. What he wanted was to see that magic box.

By the middle of October Mr. Manley had pushed the building of the monastery into the semblance of a house. Upright poles driven into the earth formed the outline of the walls, and [47/48] the greater part of a corrugated iron roof had been laid. Let it be remembered that when we wanted some nails, or tools or supplies of any sort, we could not send down to the corner store for them. It was a 60-mile trip over rough country to the nearest shops in Pendembu, and from there nothing but head porterage was available. It came as a festive day for us when things had progressed sufficiently for us to arrange with Fofi for 100 men to come and mix clay with water for the needed mud walls. A large bevy of women was to be on hand also to carry the water from our nearby boundary stream, the Wawo. Early on the morning of October 17th he led this small army in person, each man carrying a short-handled hoe or a flat rattan basket, each woman a suitable large gourd or pan. What might be called "operation mud" on this community project began at once. Men in the nearby clay pit dug in unison as they sang outlandish native melodies. Women poured untold gallons of water while other men mixed it with clay, treading the ensuing mixture with their feet. Still another stream of laborers carried lumps of this ooze about the size of one's head in the flat baskets up to the house. These heavy mud balls were then thrown skillfully at the stick and rattan outline of the wall--and to our amazement they stuck. The job was finished perfectly in one day, and to our entire satisfaction. Each man and woman received as reward one silver shilling. While we were handing Fofi a gererous "dash" for his admirable cooperation, one of us remarked that we had never seen a house built in that fashion before. He smiled and said that was the first pan house (i.e. metal roof) he had ever seen. What a perfect gentleman he was!

The new monastery took shape ever so slowly, due to immense and unforeseen difficulties. Boards and planks had to be sawed by hand where great trees had been felled in the forest. This rough lumber had then to be toted on the heads of strong men to Bolahun for carpenters to dress it, also by hand. As mentioned above, if we needed materials called civilized, we had to [48/49] send men to Pendembu, the nearest trading center; and incidentally wait a week for them to return. Mr. Manley looked after all these details, and in addition had the vexing task of showing the carpenters the proper use of American tools. Of one habit he was never able to break them--sawing a plank with the teeth away from them, pushing the saw before them. To this day that is considered the proper technique for sawing. So long as the work was well done, as it was, he allowed them to retain their local way of doing things. But their habit of literally mashing a nail into place had to be rectified, for it was too heroic a treatment, even for nails.

Father Hawkins and Father Campbell used to walk the mile or so to the mission site nearly every day to inspect what progress had been made, and to settle numberless details. But in their quarters in Masambalahun they were far from idle. As related previously, just as far as possible amid such unconventional surroundings they maintained the monastic routine. The outstanding humbug, to use an African expression, was the steady stream of beggars. They wanted paper, empty tin cans, bottles, cloth, and what have you. Only once in a while would they ask for money. We could not but smile when later we learned that this should be taken as a token of affection and esteem, for one never begs from an enemy. All our civilized supplies were hard to obtain and therefore precious. Kerosene, clothing, paper, salt, soap were the articles most commonly sought, but we had to draw the line at parting with food. Tea, flour, sugar, lard and tinned milk we felt justified in keeping for our personal use, for without them we could not maintain the necessary health.

Due to knowledge of first aid, Father Hawkins was in great demand for the exercise of his skill. Whenever an ailing person presented himself for some attention it was always a regular game of hide-and-go-seek to diagnose the case. "Headhurt," "Belly-hurt," or "Foot-hurt" formed the three standard [49/50] complaints. As most of his patients needed nothing more than an aspirin tablet or a dose of epsom salts they were easily disposed of. But there were other pitiful cases of leprosy, yaws, tropical ulcers we could not help, not to mention those men and women obviously in need of surgery. Perhaps our most appealing case was that of an infant which had accidentally rolled into the fire which always burns on the floor of each hut. The child had been horribly burned. Father Hawkins bathed and bandaged it tenderly for days, yet the child died. The parents so far from showing resentment, thanked Father for all his care and attention, for they realized that he had done his best to save their baby. All these native people consider "medicine" as a magic charm endued with supernatural powers. They know only too well that their local remedies do not always produce the desired results, though they do expect a sure cure from ours. We have the power, so they say, and the know-how. That of course is most flattering to the missionaries, even though an exaggerated estimate of their ability.

If our little round house with its leaky roof was such a show place in town, for the people generally life flowed on as usual. Women and girls with pans or calabashes on their heads would go for water morning and evening. Men with cutlasses and hoes went out to the communal farms soon after sunrise, returning at dusk with staggering loads of firewood for their respective households. Women pounded rice in a large wooden mortars and then winnowed the grain from the chaff in flat oval shaped rattan baskets. Children too young to work roamed the town and played as they would. The nearest approach to a toy we have ever seen was a corncob doll fondled by one wee mite of a girl. Women spun balls of cotton dexterously into thread, first having extracted the seeds. Men always did the weaving of the long strips of cloth--strips about five inches wide. We never ceased to marvel at their skill, producing such really attractive work with such primitive, home-made [50/51] equipment. Men did all the sewing too, and elderly men showed a real genius for weaving rattan baskets and mats, putting us in mind of the ancient hermits in the Egyptian deserts.

Nor must we forget to mention the village blacksmith, who in this case was the local "bush.devil." For centuries, the people have known and used iron, though the smithy in which it is worked could scarcely be compared with a modern steel mill. Under a low bafai (a V-shaped thatch roof with no walls beneath) there glows brightly a charcoal fire between two large stones. One man works a pair of monkey skin bellows to keep the coals aglow while the blacksmith hammers the red hot metal with another heavy stone, the anvil being one of the hearthstones of the forge. Thus the little axes and hoes are shaped, machetes sharpened and money made. Yes, we do mean money, Kisi pennies as they are called. One of these is a slender strip of twisted iron about i inches long, with a Tshaped head and something not unlike a flat fishtail finish. Before the advent of foreign coins these clumsy little rods were currency, worth in our money about two cents each. Thus a fairly plump rooster could be bought at Saturday market for 6 irons, while one could obtain a large basket full of sweet oranges for 3. When we asked where the iron comes from originally we got only the vague answer, "North country," in reply. We surmise that the rough bars of metal must be imported from French Guinea, where we hear that there are still some primitive mines. So, we must salute the village blacksmith for his work, excellent in spite of neolithic equipment.

Then there were those open-air barbers ever ready to shave scalps into picturesque patterns; and the counterparts of our beauty shops where women had their heads deloused with the aid of a wooden comb, and then plaited neatly according to taste. Laundry the women did at the waterside, hurling the soapy dripping garments on flat rocks to loosen the dirt. Native soap, by the way, looks for all the world like an oblong bit of [51/52] tar, and is made from the ashes of banana leaves mixed with palm oil. Some enterprising manufacturer might call it the Palm-Banana brand, warranted rich in lye and a never failing dirt chaser.

Christmas came, our first in Africa, and with it the death of one of Foil's sisters. Wrapped in a simple white cloth, as is the Mohammedan custom, she was buried quietly in their cemetery beside the path to Bolahun. As may be imagined, it was for us the strangest Christmas ever. From home we had received quite a pile of letters and packages, and even while we were eagerly opening them the wailing began. Women sitting on the ground tossed handfuls of earth aloft to fall on their heads. Others all over the town rent the air with their doleful cries. Yet, hardly had the interment taken place when the dancing began. The sharp, rhythmical snap of beads woven about a gourd and always played by women; the hollow "talking" of fanga drums carried under the arms of the men; the clapping of hands in unison while in a loud voice the leader would recite the virtues of the deceased, broken by a mighty chorus at intervals, "Our sister has gone away. We cannot see her." This continued almost without interruption for a week, so that on New Year's Day they were ready for the funeral feast. Sacrifices of chickens, rice and palm oil were offered to make certain that the departed was "satisfied,"--i.e. no longer angry. A cow was killed and untold bushels of rice cooked. The pagans washed all this down with copious draughts of palm wine, while the Moslems fared better with unadorned water. We were sent a cut of the cow, a present most acceptable, for real meat like this was scarce. But it did show that, white strangers though we had come into their midst, now we were accepted as an integral part of their tribal society.

It must be remembered that we were the very first white men who had made any sort of a stay. A few of the older folk remembered the Commissioner T. J. Alldridge from [52/53] Sherbro who had covered upper Sierra Leone and upper Liberia as far as Pandemai in 1890. His object was to bring chiefs and people under British rule. Until he reached Pandemai, a stubborn old war town, he met with a very favorable reception. But Pandemai he found surrounded by ten stockade fences and a hostile people, and the "war-boys" (soldiers) acting so menacingly, he beat a hasty retreat never to return. Then, 30 years later came Bp. Overs' scouting party just passing through. But Father Campbell, Father Hawkins and Mr. Manley had come to "sit down," as the native expression put it. Father Campbell spent hours daily at the magic typewriter, composing those enigmatic letters to friends across the seas. Father Hawkins was ever busy with the obtaining of supplies and the necessary matters of business and finance. But he who antedated Winston Churchill's "blood and sweat and tears" was Harold Manley trying to construct an extraordinary house 100 by 40 feet under almost impossible conditions.

Of all our early employees, four still remain (1957) with us. William Morlu is a native Bandi who as a child had been sold into slavery in Sierra Leone and later managed to escape. He had learned English in Freetown, and thus for us became a valuable asset as interpreter as well as a reliable adviser in native customs and etiquette. He was, incidentally, the first Bandi man to be baptized. George Lahai is a Mende man. He began with us as a house steward, but later went to school and learned tailoring. In 1935 he was commissioned as an Evangelist by the Bishop, which position he still holds as a senior worker. Pa Son and Pa Salifu are both Temnes of Sierra Leone. Both have been faithful cooks, having won the honorific title "Pa," the sign of an elderly person highly respected. Not one of our foreign missionaries has won that title yet. Secular helpers have come and gone, but these good men abide here still. We feel only too glad to mention them.

Close to our temporary monastery in Masambalahun there [53/54] was a school for Moslem boys. They had no books, but the instructor would write characters from the Koran on their "slates," which were flat boards about 24 by 18 inches with a projecting wooden handle at the bottom. The pupils sang their Arabic A-B-C's till they had them committed to memory. The teacher would then wash off the ink (incidentally saving the water to have "medicine to drink" later), dry the board and write out the next lesson to be memorized. One of Fofi's small sons, Poka, owned an especially penetrating voice though not noted for his abilities otherwise. For days, while we were in the house struggling to concentrate on Mass or Offices, Poka's shrill "Bisimilla He, Allamani, Ahamadu" would persist till he reached "Allah Jehu" in the alphabet. Then would follow a welcome silence, but not for long, for evidently the teacher's watchful eye and nearby switch would reactivate the stupid lad to shouting his lesson again. Later we were told that his limit of literacy, "Allah Jehu," means "Lord have mercy." To which we added a fervent "Amen."

One afternoon Fofi and his court paid us a formal call. 'We served tea in one of our enamelware cups, adding extra sugar because of his "sweet tooth." From the cup Fofi first sipped a bit and passed it around for the others to taste. 'We told them that there was no wine used, which at first they seemed to suspect. Then after many compliments and exclamations "Isse-ho" (Thank you), one of the Fathers produced an old copy of the National Geographic. Inside there happened to be pictures of American railway trains and passenger equipment. To explain all this to the audience through an interpreter proved rather taxing. A few of the men had been to Pendembu and so had seen the "land canoe" (the little Freetown train) there. We described eating and sleeping, sitting and talking indoors on wheels while being rushed over bridges and through tunnels by the roaring locomotive. Thus far great interest was shown, but Fr. Campbell unwittingly brought an end to the [54/55] proceedings when he remarked enthusiastically, "Why, one of these trains could reach Pendembu in one hour." As that was a 6o-rnile walk and a three-day hike from Masambalahun, a heavy silence fell on the crowd. Foil let out the polite but incredulous "Quo-o-o-oh." Our story and the pictures were wonderful; but Pendembu in one hour? Never! Thus ended our first tea party.

Heavy rains continued for weeks after we took up residence in Fofi's guest quarters. Our thatch roof leaked so copiously that we experienced many unwelcome shower baths at odd hours day and night. The natives keep their roofs tight by maintaining a slowly burning, smoky lire on the hearth in the middle of the floor. This smoke drives lizzards and hungry insects from the thatch. But we had no fire, and thus Brother Water entered joyfully to greet us. When it rained, cattle and sheep which wandered about the town would never fail to seek shelter beneath the overhanging eaves of the house. Unless we put up bars they would crowd into our front porch too, to save themselves a drenching. One night during a particular]y heavy downpour some disagreement must have arisen between a couple of the cows, for after much pushing and shoving one of the creatures rammed her horn right through the mud wall within a few inches of Father Campbell's head. Can it be wondered that we preferred dehorned cattle after that?

As later events proved however, we could not have made a better start for the mission than our six months residence in Masambalahun. People saw us, studied us and accepted us. From our side, we were eager to learn their language as far as we could. Religion, social customs, economic and political details all demanded our attention. From the very outset, we found the language barrier our greatest difficulty. Our chief interpreters were Morlu, our head man, and Janga Fofi's kinsman, who in his earlier years had been a soldier in the Liberian Frontier Force. Neither of these men had any great command of [55/56] English, with the result that our questions containing unfamiliar words reached the hearers with ideas we had not intended. As in all countries there are some inquiries polite strangers will not ask. And it took us a long time to figure out just what was meant by "salei," "medicine" and "sacrifice." Be that as it may, we acquired an enormous amount of what we needed to know, establishing all the while the good will of the natives and maintaining friendly relations with them individually. We evidentaly passed the test they impose for qualities always expected of strangers--dignity, courtesy and character.

One thing we learned quickly, as mentioned above; that without some knowledge of their language we could never begin our work. Some point of contact must be established for communication, something in common before we could begin to proclaim the Gospel of Salvation. To appreciate their background and mental equipment we would have to acquire their thoughts. Hence, as Bandi as closely akin to Mende, and in those years Mende was the lingua franca in all this country, we made a start with that. Another advantage of Mende was that its grammar had been published in Sierra Leone while no such help existed in Bandi. As the years have passed we have produced grammars and words lists for Loma and Kisi, as well as for Bandi. But in those early days we enjoyed no such assistance. We could not but be amused by some of the Mende expressions. When a man is weary he says, "My bones are finished." The unit of counting is five. In Mende, twenty comes along as "One man finished," i.e., ten fingers and ten toes. God is the "Big one in the Sky." As may be imagined, it all came as a revelation to us. For the first time we could feel certain where and how an appeal must be made.

During these six months in town our health was excellent. We were prepared for attacks of fever, yet the five-grain quinine pills we took every day acted as an excellent prophylactic. Each of us did have light attacks, but nothing serious in any case. [56/57] God was gracious to us, despite inadequate food and most trying surroundings. 'When Palm Sunday came, we were able to offer a Sung Mass with hymns played by the phonograph. On that occasion our choir numbered two, with two of our Christian servants for the congregation. That was our last Sunday in town before our great hejira to Bolahun and the new monastery. We called it "The Ark" because of its general similarity to the pictures of that extraordinary ship we read that Noah built. That was our new monastery, finished sufficiently for us to move in.

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