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 14. That New Look

THE FOURTH ordination at Bolahun and the second in the new church took place on November 8th, '53, when Bishop Percy Jones of Sierra Leone, acting for the Bishop of Liberia, advanced to the priesthood Father Sydney James Atkinson, O.H.C. Father Atkinson had come to Holy Cross as a layman, and after being stationed at Bolahun for a while was admitted as deacon by Bishop Harris in Monrovia. The first ordination at our mission was that of Father Wiggins in '31 by Bishop Campbell; and the second came in December '38 when Bishop Kroll advanced Father Wingate Snell. Then, in April '44, Bishop Kroll priested the Rev Charles Matlock. All of these ordinations were to priests' orders, but Father Atkinson is the first of the Order of the Holy Cross to be ordained in Liberia. The native people were greatly impressed when they saw an African Bishop ordain a white man. The sacrament of Holy Orders was conferred in the new church, and presumably for one who was to be attached to Bolahun indefinitely, for in [148/149] the mission field we never seem to have enough priests to serve the needs. Because of what looked like a shortage of available men for the pressing work at West Park, Father Atkinson was transferred back home as the Master of Novices in April '55.

We are asked not infrequently whether among our converts and school children we have discovered any vocations to the priesthood or the religious life. It is really a bit early to offer any statement, for missionary experience all over the world seems to make it undesirable to rush souls lust out of heathenism into what, after all, is a special calling in the Church. There have been outstanding exceptions to the general rule of course, but in a matter so important we quite agree that the wiser plan is to wait till the third generation at least before pushing this matter. Christian faith and morals have to get into the blood, so to speak. We are not negligent however, for in schools and elsewhere we draw attention to these special expressions of service and commend them as topics suitable for thought and prayer. But it would be both unkind and dangerous to push boys and girls into a vocation for which they lack adequate background. That a Mexican peon, let us say, should become an outstanding physicist is quite possible even though unlikely because of deficient training and heritage. Thus we continue in hope, waiting for the time God may choose.

This brings us to mention Mr. Stephen E. Manley. Ever since his arrival in '27 from Sierra Leone he had been most faithful, most effective in our grade school for boys. Born in Sherbro, he had been trained by the United Brethren in Christ missionaries, and for years had taught in their schools. We just chanced to hear of him, and our inquiries established his academic competence as well as his dependability. After he had worked at Bolahun lust a little while, Father Gorham appointed him Headmaster. Hundreds of men, once school boys under him, testify even yet to his fatherly care for them. But as with all mortals he grew old, and at the end of the term in '53 had to be [149/150] retired. He and his family were just ready to move back to Sierra Leone when quite suddenly on New Year's Day he died. We pay heartfelt tribute to this faithful African and thank God for his devoted help for the uplift of his own people.

For some little time there had been rumors of air service between Monrovia and various centers in the interior. From their station at Zorzor, four days of walking to the east of us, the Lutherans had been flying their private plane. In our immediate area, the Liberian Government constructed a short landing strip at Kolahun suitable for smaller craft. At Foya Kamara, some 15 miles from us as the crow flies, to the north, a full-grown field for standard large planes was made. It was in '53 that fortnightly service was established from this last to Monrovia. But the discovery of diamonds in Kisi country and in Sierra Leone brought a swarm of traders and the usual adventurers, all eager to turn a quick penny. As business seemed to boom, extra flights were scheduled, till now we have two regular trips a week and chartered planes daily. Such a contrast it is to reach Monrovia in one hour by air as against the ten days on foot for even rapid walkers. The alternative to an overland trek originally was to go to Freetown by rail and sail thence by steamer. Freetown lies about 300 miles west of us, and Monrovia 250 nautical miles southeast of Freetown. So, there was not such a great choice after all, unless one might be allergic to walking of course.

All this forms a rather long introduction to our first airborne visitor, the Rt. Rev. John B. Bentley, foreign Secretary at the Church Mission House in New York. He was making an official tour early in '54 to inspect the Church's work in Liberia, and thus was able to reach Bolahun also, thanks to the airlift. It afforded us the very greatest pleasure to welcome him, one of the Church's highest dignitaries, and to show him around the mission. While here he preached in church and also walked to Mbalatahun to see the leper colony. He was good enough to say that he did not mind our rather primitive living conditions and [150/151] to bestow encouraging remarks upon the outstanding results of the work. We are still hoping that some day we may have the pleasure of welcoming him here again.

Then there comes to mind the matter of roads and bridges. For untold centuries foot paths under the arch of overhanging trees formed the sole means of communication between towns. Small streams and swamps could be waded, but when real rivers had to be crossed people used either a dugout canoe or a swinging bridge of woven vines fastened to high trees on either bank. These "hammock bridges" must always be repaired at night by the bush devil, who is reputed able to fly aloft to make the necessary knots and attachments. We have mentioned the promise of the chiefs to construct motor roads if we could get the car. Their good intentions cannot be challenged, but the lack of necessary tools and experience set up an effective "road block" quite literally. From that historic day, October 30, '52, when Dr. Beasley brought the little Landrover for its triumphal entry into Bolahun, it became obvious that if it were to be useful we must do something about the highways. Hence, for months and months, with the enthusiastic help of the natives of course, our main project was roads. About twenty years previously the Liberian Government had cleared a wide road in pretty straight line between Kolahun and Foya Customs, 25 miles to the west. Our object was to join with this at or near Babahun about five miles north of us. Only those who have lived in the tropics can appreciate the meaning of hacking a right of way through the jungle, setting bridges over streams and causeways across ugly swamps, and grading down hills. The Government road itself had a good surface but no bridges whatever. Hence, in order to drive to Customs from Bolahun we had to construct no less than 3 bridges of various sizes. Every one of the Fathers in residence tried his skill at this. We have not produced any serious competitor to the Taconic Parkway or to the Los Angeles Freeways, but at least we can get to [151/152] Vonjama 40 miles east, to the air strip at Foya Kamara 15 miles north and to Foya Customs 21 miles west. In '56 we were active stretching the road on behind the air field to Koinju on the Sierra Leone border, and thence cut a 'bush trail" another six or seven miles to the important market town Koindu, where we join up with the really fine road system of the Sierra Leone protectorate. This enables us at last to fetch supplies from Pendembu and other trading centers. Some of our more progressive staff members are already dreaming of helicopters and air service to our outstations, by-passing the "road palaver" completely. Who knows? By then the rugged back-breaking toil of bridge building, having to battle stinging flies and ants, and the weary hours of just shovelling dirt will have become an interesting legend. But meanwhile we think of these roads, crude as they seem, as highways for the King of Kings and a means of hastening His Kingdom on earth.

The matter of Labourers and porters has become a serious problem. When in our earlier years here we asked a chief to supply 100 carriers to transport supplies from Pendembu there was usually very little difficulty in getting them. Men were all too eager for the three or four shillings we paid each person making the trip. But now, between the attractions of the Firestone Plantations and the mines at Bomi Hills, and the greatly increased demand for strong, reliable workmen in other places, the number of able-bodied men in this immediate area has shrunk to a mere trickle. We are not whining, for such alterations in the social structure are bound to happen anywhere. This makes the matter of transport vital to our very existence. We do not refer to such luxuries as tea, flour, sugar or butter, but to the essentials of mission life and work--mails, books, kerosene and medicines for example. If we are too reticent to enlist in a commando unit in the army, at least we have gained wide experience as civilians in scaling formidable obstacles and difficulties.

The reader must not think that material progress was all. Through the kind offices of the American Bible Society we were able to put into circulation a translation of St. Matthew's Gospel in Bandi. Father Parsell himself did most of this work, though of course consulting many others as to the exact connotation of words and phrases. Our converts appreciate this addition to their stock of Bandi books, especially those men and women able to read. For years we had been using a translation of the Prayer Book Sunday Gospels both in church services and in the less formal evangelistic meetings. But at last to have a continuous narrative of our Lord's earthly ministry answered at once many questions and supplied a connected story. Just the sight of one of the catechists reading to a group seated on the ground about him is something not easily forgotten. It makes us think of one stupid old story of a heathen man asking his neighbor why he was Christian and receiving the reply, "I do not know, but I am a Christian." If that ever was true it need be so no longer, for with even a part of the Bible in their own tongue and with constructive exposition of the text men find satisfying reasons for their faith. In like manner we have now ('fl) prepared the Gospel according to St. John, and through the kindly interest of the same American Bible Society it is about to be published and sent out for distribution. We and our Christian people feel deeply grateful for this assistance, for by ourselves we never could complete such a major task.

To some of our readers there must have occurred questions about the social and moral welfare of our Christian people. How has the pattern of their life changed? What of their recreation, their food and clothing, housing, health and general stability? Let it be stated at once that it never will be our aim to Americanize the Christian converts. Africans generally are expert mimics. All by themselves they pick up easily all the best as well as our less desirable characteristics. Our definite objective is to impart the Christian Religion and with that firmly planted to [153/154] let them work out their own culture. We have no professional social worker on our staff, so we can supply no statistics on paper. We are fully aware of the great necessity for literacy, public sanitation, nutritious diet, games and similar items making for a well-balanced group. To hark back to what has already been stressed, we must train Liberians for life and work in their own country. The very thought of our trying to mould these untutored aborigines into comic imitations of Alabama or anywhere else is abhorrent to both nature and common sense. We are here primarily to impart health, religion and education to a large group of people hitherto underprivileged. With these fundamentals they are even now working out their own culture on new and enlightened lines. It would be hopeless to try to revolutionize social concepts to such an extent that the age-long foundations are shattered before the newer Christian basic principles have become secure.

In February '55 an unusual and most welcome visitor arrived in the person of the Rev. Joseph C. Moore, of Seabury-Western Seminary, Evanston, Ill. Father Moore was in charge of the Unit Research for the National Council of our Church and had come to Liberia to frame an official evaluation of the entire missionary programme, and to make suitable recommendations. While Bolahun has never received any financial support from the National Council, and thus is not subject to its jurisdiction, we were nevertheless grateful for Father Moore's thorough study of our plant and of the work we try to accomplish for God. It would be incorrect to call him an efficiency expert, though his findings did clarify and set in proper perspective many of our activities. Of course for monks and nuns the chief business every day is the service and worship of Almighty God. That principle is well understood and no one complains. But in the service of our brethren, both African and foreign, much of the routine Work has to be delegated to others just because conventual duties conflict with it. Then too, as with any organization, [154/155] certain activities once useful and filling a genuine need become redundant or obsolete. All these matters Father Moore looked into during his stay. We feel most grateful for his diligence in spotting weaknesses and for suggesting effective remedies for a bigger and better Bolahun.

Towards the end of June Bishop Percy Jones, Assistant to Archbishop Horstead in Freetown, arrived as the deputy for the Bishop of Liberia. While here he confirmed the usual large class in church. It is always a great pleasure to welcome thus a visiting prelate. And then, on the feast of All Saints, November 1st, it was a great joy to the entire mission to welcome our new Superior, Father Kroll, for his visit as such. With him came two of the Holy Name Sisters from England. The general jubilation can be better imagined than described. Just a few weeks before this, in September, Bishop Campbell and Father Taylor had returned to resume residence. Father Taylor had been gone for one year, and the Bishop for almost twenty. Hence by Christmas--and they said there never had been a happier one--Bolahun was nearly bursting at the seams.

When we come as we now do to 1956, it is a bit difficult to select the events of lasting value. But certainly there are a few items worthy of notice. Shortly after the New Year Father Kroll started on his return to West Park and Bishop Campbell accompanied him as far as Freetown in response to an invitation of the Archbishop of West Africa to have part in the consecration of Fr. Roseveare SSM as the new Bishop of Accra, Gold Coast, in St. George's Cathedral, Sierra Leone. In addition to this, a number of matters which deserve notice should also be mentioned.

The day had come when something definite had to be done about getting to Pendembu by car. To armchair readers at home that may sound like a tame effort, but with us it was nothing less than a major project. For years there has been "talk" of a motor road from Buyedu to Foya Customs, a distance of five or [155/156] six miles, but with one sizable river to cross, the Keya, not far from Buyedu. This was nothing less than baffling. Then one of our number spotted a short way through between Sielu in the Kisi country and Koindu, an important market town in Sierra Leone some 17 miles north of Buyedu on the really fine British road system. The terrain was free from our Bandi hills, but had a number of swamps over which causeways had to be thrown up. Here we went to work, and by March the road was passable for jeeps. One of the staff shortly thereafter made the trip to Pendembu and back in one day--quite a saving on the week previously required for men travelling on foot. This makes a big loop to the north, but at least we can get through by car to the rail head. It makes 82 miles of driving, as against the 6o by trail on foot; but already it has shown its value. Supplies can not be fetched as we need them, to the great relief of all concerned. Incidentally we learn that the Sierra Leone authorities are now really in earnest about the construction of a road between Buyedu and Foya Customs, which when completed will knock off at least 20 miles from our present route.

Item number two is the construction of a fish pond near the hospital, to give us and the people a supply of fresh fish. Thanks to the encouragement and advice of Mr. Charles Jones of the Government Agricultural and Fishery Station near Suococo, we have been able to construct this. First we had to choose a suitable location where there would be a steady stream of water, and then find the proper place in which to erect a dam. With the aid of the D-2 tractor driven by Father Taylor this dream became a reality. Fish were flown up from the hatchery, and we hope that they feel as happy to be at Bolahun as we are to have them.

Then there are the electric lights. In May and June '56 the hospital, convent, monastery and some other buildings were wired, and we expected quick results. But in some fashion the diesel power plant shipped out from England was lost in transit, a truly extraordinary happening. We had to wait till January '57 [156/157] for the new replacement to arrive, but arrive it did. After years of struggling with kerosene lamps of one sort or other, this addition to our setup came as a real cause of rejoicing. Right at the first we had trouble with the diesel engine, chiefly because of never having had that type of power before, but once the "bugs" were ironed out and we became more acquainted with the mechanism everything has been as it should be. With adequate lights for school, hospital and night services in church, this new improvement gives not only better light but freedom from all the inevitable muss and worry of keeping an adequate supply of accessories, and of kerosene too. What we say is meant as no belittling of the former lighting system, for it was all we had for many years. As we look back, we count ourselves fortunate to have had even that. One of the humbugs for us was that it was generally known that we kept a supply of kerosene on hand, and scarcely a day passed without some man more or less important arriving with an empty lantern to be filled. One dislikes being considered hard and ungracious, and our explanations of the difficulty in obtaining what little we had seemed to make no impression. Could we not "help" just this once, please? It was very hard to say that none of our stock could be spared, even though our refusal was garnished with many smiles.

For a long time we had been considering the idea of a D-2 tractor. Through the special kindness of friends this became a reality in August '56. Ours is one of the smaller models, but as our people had never seen any such, it raised great excitement. For months after we had begun using it admiring crowds would stand about in amazement and not infrequently let out a mighty cheer when Father Taylor or Mr. Sorenson would push over a small tree or move a carload of earth at one scoop. In the building and repair of roads this machine has already shown its worth, especially as upkeep and fuel consumption fall far below what we had anticipated. For some time Father Taylor was working on the Sielu-to-Koindu road in the Kisi country, [157/158] and even yet men are clamoring for him to come back and do more road construction for them. If we live in a mechanized age, and if western gadgets are bound to invade even these remote parts of the world anyway, it is not unfitting that the Mission should have the privilege of introducing them, and of demonstrating how they should be used and cared for.

Thus far we have had to act as mechanics and garage men for all our equipment, two Landrovers, tractor, diesel power plant and what have you. But there is a plan on foot to train a number of our young men for this type of work, and some of them have made a very satisfactory start. For boys who never saw so much as a metal nail or screw till nearly grown, it presents a real problem to make them have the "feel" of a machine of any sort, with its often intricate parts and multitude of screws and bolts. But it is not hopeless, for some of the lads have caught the idea quickly. Smaller items such as keeping clocks and watches running and mending the inevitable breakdowns of typewriters and the like must be considered as a regular part of a day's work. What goes by the dignified name of a garage is really a tool and machine shop with equipment for anything from sharpening the kitchen knife to major operations on cars. Someone had the bright idea that we might call it St. Christopher's Hospital for Ailing Machinery.

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