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 16. Schools

DOUBTLESS NO normal American parent would want his children to be taught how to become an Eskimo or a Russian. The young ones should be fitted for life in their own environment; should be taught to use and appreciate their own native culture. On this solid principle all our Holy Cross Mission schools in and about Bolahun have always been operated. We have to lead the boys and girls into new worlds of mental and spiritual content, yet they must be graduated as Liberians, prepared for life and work in their own country. This is no doctrinaire theory evolved by some armchair specialist. It is com mo sense. It enjoyed the support of the late Dr. Thomas Jesse Jones, of the Phelps Stokes Foundation in New York. Through his influence it was and is the basic principle guiding the Advisory Committee on Education in Liberia, in which both the Government and all the missionary societies have cooperated.

On the other hand let it not be thought that when we try to impart to our boys and girls an appreciation of their [171/172] environment and teach them the proper use of it we want to keep them on a cultural level less than civilized. We have mentioned the fact that the African aborigine has inherited a culture much older than ours in Europe or America. He lacks mechanical skill and literary advantages largely because of the centuries of isolation from the rest of mankind. Hence, when we establish standard grades in grammar and high school we have to exercise every care that the children do not gather the mistaken idea that here is a means of escape from tribal life and obligations. In a word, they are not being graduated from Liberia to the United States, for their allegiance lies right here where they were born. No one can fault the young people if their ideals soar heavenward. Always we encourage them when they envision themselves serving and helping their fellow Liberians as teacher, doctor or in any other useful capacity. That our attitude in this connection had been correct is shown by the really considerable number which after leaving us have finished in other schools both at home and abroad and have returned up into the hinterland to help their own kinsmen and former playmates. We are firmly convinced that if we supply a basically sound Christian education our young men and women will be competent to work out a standard of living better than the old, yet thoroughly African in expression. Let them feel justly proud of their heritage and of their nation.

So eager were we to exemplify our conclusions on these lines that we could scarcely wait for school to open on the 1st day of September '23. Janga arrived in a downpour of rain that afternoon bringing Fodi, a little Mohammedan prince and relative of Fofi, and a Kisi lad named Langama. Everything was ready for them--round country houses for dormitories, an open barre or palaver house for schoolroom, rough country beds and cooking utensils. We had announced that chiefs sending their sons must supply rice and cloth. From the very first, none but native country clothes could be worn; and country tribal customs must [172/173] be rigidly observed. Our teacher was Thomas Hunter, a Sherbro man from Sierra Leone, and he did a really excellent job. We had obtained some primary charts to hang on the wall. Before one or other of these Tom used to line up his class and following the approved local custom have the little fellows sing out the alphabet at the top of their lungs, or identify letters to which he pointed with a stick. Of course the three R's were introduced in time. More and more boys were sent to us so that before another year had passed we found it necessary to engage a second and then a third teacher. Be it noted too that regular religious instruction formed an integral part of the daily curriculum.

As we look back on events from this distance of time, many problems can be viewed in perspective. We did not then know, but learned by little and little, that the chiefs were very suspicious of this "school palaver." The reason? Not too long before we arrived some man from Freetown had set up a "cane juice" plant in the Guma section among the Mendes near Vahun. The Liberian officials told him that his operations were illegal and that he must move. He then published his altruistic plan of a school for boys, and asked for 100 with which to start. The chiefs gave these; and the lads were promptly transported to Freetown and sold as slaves. No wonder it is that Fofi and others of the Bandi chiefs held back somewhat in the matter of sending boys to Bolahun. It was only when they realized that we hunted for neither women, money, power nor slaves that they began sending their sons to us.

With us, the children hailed (and most of them still do) from heathen or Moslem background. They spoke no English, knew nothing about us or our ways. "Book" was a magic word and held the secret of power to those who could master it. Thus we found ourselves introducing a lot of what in our army is called "raw recruits" into the Christian way of life. The curriculum and schedule were simple but effective. Rising at 6 the boys [173/147] ran down the hill to the Wawo for a quick bath, as they would do in their own village. All attended Mass and, after a campus cleanup and inspection, reported for classes at 8. As the country folk eat but two meals a day there would be a break at ii for their morning bowl of rice. Then, depending on the weather, there would be either more classes on rainy days or some outside work when the skies were clear. In any event, school was in session again from 4 to 6 when the sun set, and then followed that mellow time of day which all the natives love, squatting about the fire and the pot of rice in the center of a hut, spinning yarns and consuming their evening "chop." On moonlight nights--and what is so magnificent ever as a tropical moon--the lads would dance, pounding rhythmically on an empty kerosene tin for music. Then, on Saturdays, when the whole countryside appeared at market nearby, even when purchasing nothing, thither the lads would troop. Many kinsfolk and acquaintances would be there, and there would be news from home. What to make of Sunday the lads with their non-Christian background did not know. In order to prevent possible mischief we had to introduce planned recreation, a great and thrilling novelty to them; story telling, African games and sports and even that much maligned game of checkers. That was an education for the missionaries too!

When Father Harry J. Stretch joined the staff in January '24 he was appointed Headmaster of the School almost at once. He so continued for the three years he was in residence. He had his troubles, for boys are the same all over the world, and 25 "raw recruits" arrived in May of that year, who had to be inducted and orientated. Father Stretch did his work well, for many of those lads have most distinctly made good in after life. When it was learned that his illness would prevent his continuance at Bolahun there was sincere, widespread regret. That crop of students (class of '33) remembered him with the utmost affection, and ask for his whereabouts and welfare to this day.

[175] Shortly after Father Stretch left in '27, Mr. Stephen E. Manley arrived from Sierra Leone and became the second Headmaster of the school. He had gained wide experience working with the United Brethren in Christ Mission and deserved the trust put in him. Under his care our school grew and prospered till finally all eight grades were in operation. Dormitories became overstuffed and details such as time and place for meals and classroom space grew ever more acute. The matter of finding qualified teachers gave much trouble too. Men on the Liberian coast as well as those in Sierra Leone were entirely unwilling to consider employment in a place so isolated as Bolahun then was, so "deep in the bush," except for salaries we were in no position to pay. Yet in some fashion we managed to keep school going even though we found it necessary to grant several short unscheduled vacations each year for the students to return to their home towns to bring belated rice and clothing. Just because hard cash was so scarce we never asked for money, and perhaps the rumor stemmed from this that like so many of the older schools on the coast Bolahun was really a "free-for-all." We supplied the teachers, books and all other necessary equipment. It was in order to preserve their self-respect that chiefs and parents were asked to contribute what they could, namely rice and clothing. In a land where there exist no such taskmasters as clocks, watches or calendars, very few of the people had the slightest idea what it means to be on time.

We never can forget how thoughtful, how patient and efficient Mr. Manley was during those years of "growing pains." Always unruffled in the face of any emergency, most capable as a teacher, diplomatic yet always truthful, he administered praise to the deserving and discipline with even hand to delinquents. Dull students as well as the recalcitrant had to be weeded out while the bright and deserving were to be encouraged. The main part of the group, neither too dull nor yet too bright, had to be kept interested and at work. For these boys especially we [175/176] had to devise adequate recreation. Soccer played with bare feet, as well as some of the distinctive native games and sports helped greatly. The results brought their rewards when we learned that some of the first alumni wanted to stay on as teachers for the younger lads. This under proper supervision they were allowed to do. In this way along with evangelism there began coming that small army of young men determined to do all in their power to help their own people. From this attitude we realized that our efforts had not been in vain, for some at any rate had discovered the truth of the old maxim, "The Lord helps those who help themselves." Quite rightly we look on this as one of our greatest early triumphs.

When the old monastery began disintegrating in '28 it became increasingly obvious that something had to be done about the school, for both these establishments stood on the exact site of ancient Bolahun, surrounded by impressive cotton trees (bombax) and with the gentle Wawo flowing just under the hill. Living conditions were becoming ever more unpleasantly crowded. After several exploratory expeditions in the neighborhood we selected a fairly level site north of the location chosen for the new monastery. The boys themselves did most of the work for the necessary buildings which we have described previously. One trouble we had faced for years was that of night study hall. We had no adequate lights, but with the advent of some brightly burning pressure kerosene lanterns this problem was solved once and for all. One great advantage of the fresh site was the really large football field. This could be used also for races, jumping and other out-of-doors sports. For many years, going back to the early beginnings on the old campus, we have made a ceremony of raising the Liberian flag the first thing in the morning with appropriate songs and the pledge of allegiance. When this is concluded the boys march to church for Mass, to offer God the study, work and play of the day.

In '32, after the Sisters had been here for a little over a year, [176/177] they were able to start St. Agnes School for Girls under the direction of Sister Clare. Their first campus had the general appearance of the school for boys--native style buildings, but with one large dormitory instead of several smaller ones. We have mentioned in another connection the tiny trickle of pupils at first, and that when parents began to realize that their daughters would not be lost to them more and more children were sent for training. This school operates for small girls and day pupil boys, grades 1 to and for girls only, grades through 8. The elders shook their heads when it was announced that boys and girls would have their high school classes together. Because they marry early, very few girls ever reach high school, but those few we have had do very well indeed.

One problem which arose in both schools was the matter of allowing children to join the secret "bush societies," Porro for boys and Bundu for girls. Membership is obligatory, unless one wishes to cut himself off from his tribe. That part we saw and sympathized with. We simply did not know what sinister, heathenish practices accompanied the initiation ceremonies, and there was no way to find out. Just a few white men have been put through a degree or two, but we were told that the real secrets were never revealed to them. We learned the fact that part of this initiation was circumcision for boys and clitorectomy for girls. Hence it proved a slow business to make certain that the children were taught nothing contrary to faith and morals for a Christian. That there was a great lot of buffoonery, with dancing and much chanting, there could be no doubt, for that was a matter of common knowledge. Along with this however the youngsters were taught tribal customs, history and the social and individual code; lessons in obedience and respect for elders among others. It required months for us to gather what has been related in a few sentences above, for we had to make it plain to even our Christian informants that we were not prying into affairs which were none of our business. We respected [177/178] their oath of secrecy, and when informed that certain details could not be revealed we asked no more. It was on the definite statement of each with whom we conversed that nothing contrary to our religion entered the secret ceremonies we finally agreed to allow first the bays and later the girls to receive full initiation into their tribal membership. Had we not enjoyed the full confidence of our people we never could have learned what little we did, for normally to strangers no information whatever is imparted.

To illustrate the above, in class not too long ago the American teacher asked one of the boys in an English class, "How do you know our English language so well? Are you a Bandi boy?" "No, sir," he replied, "I am Kisi." "How come then you understand English so well?" pursued the teacher. To which the lad answered, "You see, sir, first I went to bush school to become Kisi, but now I have come to Bolahun to become a Christian. I am a Kisi Christian." In his mind obviously there was no conflict. Many another bit of evidence could be produced, each with the identical implication. Certainly our last wish would be to break up the foundations of society.

It was none other than Father Gill who organized the high school in 1946. We had been sending some of our graduates to other institutions for further education, but chiefly to St. John's School, Cape Mount. This scheme presented distinct advantages, but also distinct disadvantages, for in addition to the considerable expense there lurked the danger of alienating the young men from their own people. We do not mean to imply that no profit would be gained by attending some first-class school away from Bolahun, though in this particular situation it did narrow the chances of any substantial help to the folks back in the country. Consequently, after much discussion and planning we decided to try training our more promising products right here. The number of high school students has never been large, chiefly because we stress quality rather than quantity. Father Bessom was made the first Principal of our high school, while Father Harris arranged grammar school studies as solid preparation.

In 1944 the Department of Public Instruction in Monrovia issued a standard curriculum for all schools operating in the Republic. The advantages of this directive are obvious, applying as they do to both grammar and high school grades. For one thing, a student can transfer from one school to another and carry right on from where he left off in his studies. Except in one particular we did not have to make any major changes, and that one applied to the school term. This now begins in February and extends to the last of November. This allows all pupils to be at home during the dry season to help their families with farm work and the like. Another excellent requirement is that high school teachers must hold a degree from some recognized college or university. Every year too there is arranged a Teachers' Institute in convenient centers. To this all instructors must report in order to receive their certificates of competence for the ensuing year. These Institutes are normally held in January and afford all teachers in Government and mission schools not merely a chance to become better acquainted with one another but to have refresher courses in the science of pedagogy. These requirements deserve our loyal support, for they form a unifying move in the right direction.

At the time when our new high school was dedicated to St. Augustine, the grammar school, to distinguish it, was named St. Philip's. No very clear account remains as to just why these particular names were chosen, but so they were and so they are. It is encouraging to note that because our graduates come so well prepared they are welcomed at both Liberia University in Monrovia, and at Cuttington, our church college at Suococo. For some years now we have worked with the understanding that every high school graduate of ours who teaches in St. Philips for four years receives a full scholarship to go through [179/180] Cuttington and thus earn his degree. Several outstanding young men have availed themselves of this opportunity.

By 1940, something like ten years after Cuttington College and Divinity School, then at Gape Palmas, had succumbed to the rigors of the depression, Bishop Kroll found himself without any means for training his candidates for Holy Orders. It seemed impossible to collect money for the reopening of the college, so the Bishop turned to Bolahun for the help he needed. Two young men were sent up from the Coast, and there were three of our evangelists who showed signs of vocation to the priesthood. Father Kroll, Father Parsell, Father Packard and Father Bessom all conducted classes for these aspirants. Good progress was made during the four years the infant seminary operated. But when Bishop Harris was able to reopen Cuttington in the new location it was but reasonable that he should require his candidates to transfer thither for full college and theological studies. Although the mission no longer makes any effort to operate a seminary of any sort, we still maintain the classes and instructions for catechists and evangelists.

As might be expected, our central schools at Bolahun are our largest and strongest. Yet we must not forget the real work of the outstations, each with its teacher and pupils through grade 4. These schools act as "feeders" for Bolahun, which accepts into the 5th grade boys and girls who can pass an elementary Comprehensive examination and have shown mental capacity to benefit by going further along the path of learning. We have such schools at Vezala and Pandemai among the Loma people, at Foya Dundu among the Kisis, Vahun among the Mendes and until recently Gondolahun among the Bandis. These last two stations we opened in '48. The school in Pandemai, succeeding after a lapse of years the Ramsaur Memorial School under Father Dwalu, was reopened by us in '47. Foya Dundu began operations in '45, and Vezala in '40. It is interesting to note that, while our total school enrollment in '45 stood at about 200 [180/181] pupils, right after the close of the war there came a great boom, so that by '52 we had reached nearly 600. That peak has subsided a bit, though we still average about 500--about all we can accommodate conveniently. The central schools at Bolahun account for some three-fourths of the total enrollment.

Bolahun itself rejoices in fairly substantial dormitories and classrooms. As we have seen, long ago we realized that the ideal of country mud-and-thatch houses, picturesque though they be, and so African, is utterly impractical. Fresh thatch has to be laid at least once every two years. Mud walls and floors have to be rubbed and cleaned every so often just for appearance sake if nothing else. One can imagine our deep gratitude to the National Youth Offering and to generous friends otherwise who have made more permanent buildings possible. Living conditions in all our schools are still pretty primitive, with no stoves for cooking and except when it rains no running water for washing or bathing. For illumination we have had to depend on candles and pressure lamps, though just this year ('57) all the main buildings at Bolahun have been wired for electricity, schools included. At Vezala and Foya Dundu we have been able to erect permanent buildings, but at the other outstations we have thus far had to content ourselves with whatever houses the people could construct for us. Our aim is to put up solid brick and metal-roofed houses just as rapidly as time and funds allow.

Before leaving this short account of our educational programme, it may be well to notice the matter of recreation and adult classes. We must not lose sight of the fact that for all our people, children and grownups alike, English is a foreign language. As by Liberian law all classes must be conducted in English, as also most of the church services and instructions are in English too, it stands to reason that we should take steps to make them intelligible. In school the children learn to read and speak our tongue quickly. But with the adults it is quite another [181/182] matter. Except for a little handful of Moslems, almost 100% of the population can neither read nor write. Men and women have conversed in Bandi, Loma or Kisi from infancy. Except for the Porro Bush or the Bundu, they have had no schooling whatever. Long years before the present literacy campaign started the Sisters and Fathers were holding classes in town for the grownups. The first few sessions gave much encouragement, for people came enthusiastically and in large numbers. But when it dawned on them that English could not be mastered in two or three easy lessons the crowd began to melt. Much more popular were the classes taught by the Sisters in what might be called simple home economics. While the English classes have languished, we have met with better response when we offer to teach them to read and write their own language. Be that as it may, the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants in Bolahun now know and use our language, although in this the women seem much more backward than the men. Now, not infrequently we receive a letter from one of our distant catechists or other helpers written in Bandi or Loma, written of course in the international phonetic script. This surely is a move in the right direction.

As for recreation, we encourage it mightily. Soccer is the most popular sport among the school boys, and school spirit runs high when there is received a challenge to a match with the government school at Kolahun or at Vonjama. While that is just as one might expect, we are anxious to preserve among both youth and older folk their own native games. Very few of these can be classed as athletic sports, yet they can be quite interesting and exciting. We just happen to think of what they call "French checkers," filling every square of the board with men except one, and with rules for moves somewhat differing from ours. Then too there are the tricks like intricate "cat baskets" with string or the rapid, complicated "warn board." It is almost impossible to describe this last. A player squats on either side of [182/183] a pointed board measuring some 18 inches by 6, with 10 large holes scooped out, 5 on either side. The far ends to left and right have larger cavities representing towns. A certain number of beans or pebbles is then divided between the contestants and dropped into the no cavities. The war is then on, and the object is to capture by a system of complicated moves at top speed all the other fellow's men and with them fill your own town. Only two or three of our American workers have so much as tried to learn this test of speed and skill. These more quiet games, exciting though they can be, shade off into the noisy country dances. Men and women in native society never dance together, although in our "civilized dances" for the young people in the old church we permit them to do so. As may be inferred, we have been using that stout old church building, now secularized, as the town recreation center for some years. The most popular music is supplied by phonograph dance records, though we have also a decrepit piano brought in by Brother Sydney about five years ago--decrepit in the sense of being dreadfully out of tune. For formal school dances the young people decorate the hall with paper streamers together with a really artistic arrangement of palm fronds and native flowers. All school activities of this sort are guided and supervised by members of the mission staff, to encourage the participants for one thing, as well as to ensure decorum and order. At the same time we have to make sure that the youngsters do not learn to look on this as the "real thing" at the expense of their far older and more expressive country way of doing things.

Thus while in certain items the expression of our educational ideal may now appear somewhat different from that of the first years of the school, it is a difference of degree, not of kind. Experience and force of circumstances have led us to introduce many alterations, all for the better we believe. The foundation of our philosophy for our mission schools has not changed one bit; namely, that of preparing Liberians for life and work in [183/184] Liberia. In our initial enthusiasm for native customs we may have been too insistent on certain crudities. But our prime objective has never faltered. We can see now that while it is desirable to retain for the people as much of their aboriginal culture as possible, western cloth and machines and ideas are simply bound to enter into their lives. To prepare our flock for the moral, social and spiritual upheaval we must take determined steps. This change has already begun, not through the Holy Cross Mission so much as from world forces too powerful to resist. Then too, the Government is ever looking for trained men. Our prayer daily is that Christian converts and school children alike may retain moral and spiritual balance, loyalty to our Lord and His Holy Church, in the face of onrushing, Godless and most material this-world civilization. Roads, airplanes and some European luxuries have come to stay. The ever pressing problem is to show how they are the gifts of God, to be used for His greater glory.

One very important point of which we should be ever mindful is that of training for leadership. When it will be we have no way of knowing, but certainly the entire staff at Bolahun should be Aftican some day. In China and Japan the nationals have taken over the administration of their own ecclesiastical affairs. In India and some parts of Africa there is a clear movement in that direction. Are we dreaming when we see an African Prior, African doctors, priests, sisters and nurses, as well as teachers carrying on effectively? None of this can happen by wishful thinking, nor yet by any ill-advised haste. In response to our prayers and diligent efforts God will surely raise up the needed men and women, for if our efforts are to count at all, they must maintain the very highest Christian standards. They must be competent to shoulder the full responsibility. Holy Cross is glad, genuinely glad that it has been able to make so promising a start. It stands to reason however that either we or our people here are worthless unless native leadership emerges [184/185] in due season. No race can remain in its childhood forever, even though it may need long years in which to mature. Quietly, persistently we must cherish this as our ultimate objective in education. This long-range programme must be always a determining factor in both material policy and religious aspiration. That happy day can arrive none too soon when the Fathers can hand over all keys, money, medical and evangelistic work to reliable African successors.

We never have had a very large staff of workers in addition to the Fathers and Sisters. We have mentioned some of them; it must not be considered a slight to their memory if we have not named all in context. The various doctors have been noticed and a few others as well. We hope that it will not be taken as invidious praise for some and a scornful silence for others. Each who has given of his time and skill at Bolahun merits our grateful appreciation, which he or she most certainly has. As this chapter has dealt with our schools, it may not be out of place to note that two American teachers found their vocation to the religious life while here. Father Gill, after his first tour, entered the novitiate at Holy Cross and is again with us at Bolahun, but now as a member of our Order. Miss Mintie Simpson, of Texas, arrived as a teacher early in 1950, and after two years or so of service in the high school entered the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Helena, of which, as Sister Mary Michael, she is now a life-professed member. For these calls sent by God we give Him most high praise and hearty thanks, for they are marks of His favor to both the young people and us who have responsibility for the tone and quality of the work in this distant land.

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