Chapter 8. Gaining Speed
AN ANNUAL event at Christmastime is the chilly, dust-laden wind from the Sahara Desert known as the Harmattan. This particular 1924 holiday season saw the thermometer down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit several mornings. In Greenland that is probably summer weather, but to us with our open houses and light clothing it feels like zero. Just before the Feast two more of our Holy Cross men came to reinforce the staff, Father James Gorham and Brother William Hugo. They were fresh from northern climes, so the dry, gritty wind seemed to them as nothing but an amusing novelty, even if they did have to wipe dust from their office books in chapel or blow it off their plates and cups at breakfast. Brother William was Junior Professed, having assumed temporary vows at West Park a few weeks before arrival. He fitted in immediately as a most useful help in the house-keeping department. Father Gorham stayed on the mission for eight years, the last six of which he was the Prior. Although it is now 25 years since he was here, all the [77/78] older people remember him with the utmost affection. Somewhat absent-minded, to the delight of the people, he was always considerate and just. These sterling qualities they could not but respect.
One of Brother William's assigned jobs was "chop," which means the planning and preparation of meals. Our cook was Son, a man of the Temne tribe in Sierra Leone. Brother noticed one day that gizzard, heart and other small tidbits of a chicken were not being sent along with the rest of the bird for dinner. A few days later, when the next chicken was to be served, Brother told Son that he must be sure to send the whole bird for us to eat, specifying the parts which had been missing. Son followed instructions literally, for that night what should greet us but a chicken, boiled, with head, feet and feathers intact and in their normal places. We had to sack Son, of course, but it did teach Brother that his culinary directions must be ever so explicit. Because he was far and away the best cook available, Son was soon reinstated as chef, and because of age was finally retired on pension in January 1937.
Our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Walter H. Overs, was a very sick man, and for that reason was never able to visit Bolahun, though he wrote several times expressing the hope that some day he might do so. Because of this indefinite delay, in February '23 he appointed Father Campbell as Priest-in-charge of all our Church work in this Western Province of Liberia. This move added greatly to our rapidly expanding efforts, for it meant active oversight of Father Dwalu's station at Pandemai and the outstations from that center in the Wubomai and Bunde Sections of the Loma County. During the early months of this same year we staged several "first" happenings, exciting locally, if not of national importance. There were the bicycles which we uncrated, assembled and rode, to the utter consternation of all who saw them. Those African trails had been in use for centuries untold before bicycles were so much as thought of. Hence, if one [78/79] wished to make a trip to any of the surrounding towns he found it pretty rough riding. Projecting rocks and roots of trees required one to alight not infrequently. Even so, with the aid of these machines we could get about to the nearby villages much more easily. Right at first the sight of a "devil on wheels" made people scream and lump into the bush, but fortunately when they saw us alight they realized that we were but human after all.
Then, there was the little hand-powered movie projector with which we could use Pathé "shorts." If astonishment ever came to Bandiland before, this proved to be the greatest ever. The word for a picture is "nu," meaning a person. They think that in a photograph, for example, the soul has been captured and frozen on paper in some mysterious fashion. But this toy movie machine brought nothing short of consternation, and sometimes actual fear. One of the reels showed a leopard hunt in a forest. The very last scene is that of the leopard jumping over a log just as the hunter fires his gun and the game seems to be leaping right into the audience. This usually produced a frightened yell and an instant stampede for cover. That was nothing less than the ghost of the leopard coming to catch them--and who does not fear a leopard? No amount of explaining from us could convince the people otherwise. When we showed the picture in Masambalahun one night, Fofi had to use a rhinocerous whip to keep the audience in order. Why conjure up ghosts?
Then came Easter Eve, April ii, when 34 men and boys received the washing of Holy Baptism. One woman, Mary Elizabeth Ngafua, received the saving water at the same time. She was a Bandi woman who had agreed to take William Morlu as her husband. The bride walked up the aisle in her best country clothes and ornaments, the chief feature of which consisted of a gaily colored "lapa," or wide, long bit of cloth extending from armpits to knees, and wrapped several times around the body, and a strip of our precious mosquito netting for a veil. Fr. [79/80] Stretch improvised a wedding march on the wheezy little portable "kist of whistles." Thus we celebrated our first Christian marriage.
Immediately after Easter, Father Campbell left to attend the General Convocation of the Missionary District in Cape Palmas as Bishop Overs' personal representative, and to report on the progress of the new Mission in Bandiland. The Bishop was at home in America and very ill indeed. Not a single member of Convocation had ever been to the Bandi country, so the report came as big news from a foreign land. Because of infrequent steamer connections in and out of Cape Palmas, which lies in the far eastern part of the Republic, and a serious attack of fever on the return trip, Father Campbell was absent from the mission for nearly two months. During this time Father Allen was in charge of affairs, assisted by Father Gorham, Father Stretch and Brother William.
Early June marked the time of our first Christian burial. Amos Flumo was one of our faithful laborers who had recently been baptized. Returning from Pendembu with a caravan of porters bringing in supplies, he had dropped dead on the road. The men wrapped his body in mats and brought him to Bolahun. We held the funeral at once, for in this tropical climate a corpse must be interred within 24 hours of demise. Thus in consecrated ground beside the old St. Mary's Church we laid to rest this apparently strong young man, always so cheerful and devout. Thus began our little Christian cemetery for those who sleep in Jesus.
During this summer it was that our Superior, Father Huntington, decided to transfer Father Campbell back to St. Andrew's School in Tennessee. This came as an unexpected surprise to the entire mission staff. But due to the fact that the Fall Term at St. Andrew's began the first week in September, no time could be lost. Father Campbell set out at once, meeting in London Father Harrison, his successor as Prior. Father Harrison had to [80/81] be briefed on problems and the latest developments at Bolahun pretty intensively during the few days he and Father Campbell had together. He and Father Hawkins, who had been home on sick leave, arrived at the mission on September 28th, and though of course neither of them suspected any such misfortune, both were invalided home within a few months. Father Harrison was a person of most energetic disposition, counting every minute as precious in God's work. He literally exhausted himself, even though in a short time fulfilling a long time. He made several extended trips through the bush in the interests of the mission and, to the vast amusement of his carriers, always outwalked them. When in residence he used to go to the marketplace every Saturday morning to preach. Naturally it was not a long sermon, for people were intent on their barter and trading. But he did by his message touch the heart of Ma Tenne, an old woman dwelling in nearby Koihimba. She received catechumens' instruction and in due time was admitted to Holy Baptism; and for her witness was driven from her home village by the irate heathen.
Father Harrison's great and lasting contribution was erecting and equipping our first real hospital building, so that when Dr. Edward Maass and his family arrived on February 26, 1926, there were living quarters ready for them, as well as our modest little health center, later named St. Joseph's Hospital. By April the medical ministrations were on full-time schedule, and the surgery too, and in no small way. By this means God was opening a wide field of service to us.
In January, 1926, when Father Hawkins was carried to Free- town and put on the home-bound steamer by George Lahai, we lost our real pioneer missionary. He it was who first had chosen the site of our new adventure for God. He it was who had faced incredible difficulties in the way of stupid opposition from misinformed persons, and distant markets for needed supplies. When he reached America the Father Superior had to [81/82] tell him that his African days were finished, for the doctors considered him too great a risk, due to his extreme malarial condition. He did a grand job while here, and made many loyal friends who to this very day remember him with the utmost affection. His departure created a big gap in the mission staff which has really never been filled.
Within a fortnight of the arrival of Dr. Maass, the Rev. Henry J. Saunders came as a secular priest to assist in the evangelistic operations. And then in July no less a person than Father Whittemore of our Order came, whose long, fruitful ministry is a veritable proverb in the Bandi country far and Wide. Father Gorham, to his utter surprise, was appointed Prior to succeed Father Harrison as of July first. Fathers Gorham and Whittemore made a harmonious, effective team, for what one did not know or could not do the other did, to the amazement of the populace and the efficiency of the general mission programme. Such a series of major changes in personnel for most projects would have spelled disaster. With the departure of Brother William in August, the sole survivor of the original staff was Father Allen. So frequent were the comings and goings during 1926 that some wag at home is reported to have remarked, "It would be cheaper for Holy Cross to buy a commutation ticket New York to Liberia." Be that as it may, the continuing policies with which we had started stabilized things, no matter who might happen to be in residence.
Towards the end of this year, in November to be exact, we opened our first outstation; and by no less a person than Father Allen at that. He had spent August in Pandemai as relief for Father Dwalu, who after four years on the pioneer task of opening that mission, felt the need of a change and a holiday. When Father Allen returned to Bolahun we felt a bit staggered by his appeal to be allowed to go to Porluma in Kisiland. He said that by a special interior moving of the Holy Spirit he felt the call to begin Christian work there. No one of us could contradict such [82/83] a holy soul, for he was obviously both sane and sincere. So, it was a gay little band that set out from Bolahun that bright morning--Father Allen, now in his 77th year, reclining uneasily in a hammock, with Tufa (our laundryman and such an expert in playing his foolish little flute) and a string of porters carrying the few necessary personal and household articles. At the minute Kandekai, the Paramount Chief, was already erecting a small compound, in the assured expectation that some one of us would be coming soon. When Father Allen arrived the houses were not quite completed, but for the remaining two years of his life he gave heroically his best and last offering to our Blessed Lord, for early in '29 he was forced to give up by reason of his final illness and be brought back to Bolahun to die. He opened a small school for the Porluma children, having a Christian soldier, Blackie Howard, as their teacher. Blackie acted also as dispensary assistant. The work at Porluma rests now in other hands, but the memory of Father Allen is a blessing there
This year ('26) saw the first of our popular Christian celebrations, most African in expression because adapted to the tastes and tempo of the people. It was all out-of-doors and in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve. The orderly, wondering throng of people marvelled at the biblical tableaux. The scene in the Garden of Eden was nearly wrecked when the small schoolboy representing the serpent in a tree at the banana (we had no apples) which he was supposed to offer to Eve. Fortunately a replacement was found quickly for the wife of Adam to see and taste. After the play came dancing to the rhythm of drums and rattles, with the clapping of hands in unison and the litany-like chanting, while grotesque up-devils on stilts and humbler landaus in their comical though impressive wooden masks and raffia skirts cavorted about town. But all this din came to a sudden halt when the church bell rang for the midnight Mass. None but Christians attended this, though from the [83/84] altar one could see the silent, watching throng without. Christmas Day itself was graced by one incredible "chop." Bushels of rice were prepared, gallons of palm oil mixed with some greens and peppers for "soup" (the local term for gravy), while cows, sheep, goats, and chickens in quantity supplied the necessary meat. When in the late afternoon the feasting and merriment had subsided, everybody came to say thank you to the Fathers with the customary exchange of small presents amid flashing smiles and noisy snapping of fingers.
We still maintain this Yuletide celebration, though now almost exclusively for our own Christian people. In the District Commissioner ordered all the chiefs and important people to report to Kolahun for the holidays, to take part in the official government celebration. These important men had for several years been coming to Bolahun. Then, in the Department of Public Instruction in Monrovia made obligatory for all schools the term lasting from February through November. This meant that as a corporate body several hundred of our school children were absent. As a matter of course, many of them individually still come, but the corporate attendance has vanished. In spite of these alterations from the early beginnings the throng of merrymakers is still almost unbelievable, and the big St. Mary's Church packed uncomfortably with worshippers. It was estimated that for Christmas 1956 no fewer than 2,000 persons came to keep the feast with us. In every way it is most gratifying to have thus a real Church Fiesta, bizarre though some of it may be.
As always, we encourage the people to retain their local customs, so long as in all the noisy jubilation there exists nothing contrary to faith or morals. Country clothes, country chop, country cooking, with the long list of age-old courtesies and habits express their inborn culture. It would seem most unwise to bid them discard all this in favor of a bogus Santa Claus and a tinsel-trimmed tree. Many of the people in these parts [84/85] consider many of our western customs quite rude and barbarous. We certainly have no wish to encourage them in any attempts at imitating slavishly those of us who have "modern" backgrounds. Some few individuals among them at about third grade level have tried this, but with ludicrous results.
One item which, while a bit outside the main stream of the story, is a happy memory to many of us was Father Whittemore's insistence on sufficient recreation for the missionaries resident. He and Father Gorham, in off-hours of course, played a chess tournament of astronomical proportions. At the end of six years they stood almost even in score. The Prior had a tennis court built on the site of the present high school buildings where many a match was played in the late afternoon just before sunset. Someone started croquet too, but that did not have the appeal, and so did not last to long. One of our laborers chopped out some very lopsided wooden balls about six inches in diameter, and where croquet had failed a sort of rough-and-ready game of bowls developed. That furnished really a lot of fun because between the irregular contour of the "green" and the lopsided balls one never knew just how to pitch or where his shot would land. As stated, this is a bit on the light side, but certainly those opportunities for exercise had a most beneficial effect. Up to that time our sole exertion had been walking, ever more walking.
Interested friends at home had made many suggestions how to avoid these long treks and the unfailing sense of utter exhaustion that followed. Some suggested the Mexican burros, others had thought of horses or mules. Some again had recommended a motorcycle. When we investigated the matter of the burros, we found that the cost of getting them here would be quite prohibitive; mules the same. Once in a while one sees a horse from the French country to the north, but they are never satisfactory. Besides being poorly broken, they are a feast for the tsetse flies, and soon become victims of the dreaded sleeping [85/86] sickness. Thus it was that we had to walk wherever we went. Taking a hammock was helpful when very tired, though after a quarter of an hour one felt as though being tossed about in a butterchurn. Tacitus mentions the British of his day as pedite robur, which some one mistranslated as strong in their feet, but which of course refers to their infantry, for their cavalry was negligible.