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 19. Carrying the Torch

NO ACCOUNT of Bolahun would be complete without some mention of the outstations. Previously we have told of the opening of Porluma by Father Allen and Boawohun by Father Corham. And so in this year, 1957, it might be an idea to "go on patrol" and see a bit for ourselves some of the more distant centers in which we are privileged to work.

Those living in Europe or America have no conception of what patrol means for us in Africa. One must remember that while a few shops are now being opened and motor transport just beginning, for years we struggled along making the best of primitive conditions. In preparation, the missionary had to assemble everything necessary for the trip, for after leaving Bolahun nothing could be obtained. This means cot, mosquito net, bed roll and bedding; food, dishes, pots, pans and "eating irons"; church and altar fittings, not forgetting matches and kerosene. If one did forget anything he would have to do without till home again, for he would meet neither stores nor hotels. [205/206] Most of us learned to whittle our loads down to three--chop box, bed roll and steel foot locker for dry clothing. Armed with these treasures we would set out for our stated visits. Now we can make part of the journey to some of the centers by Landrover, but even so, a visit by time-honored walking is not by any means a dream of bygone days.

Supposing, then, that we ate going to Foya Dundu in the Kisi country, directly to north of us; let us start. It is a three-hour tramp ordinarily, though now if a car is available we can ride to Hondoning in about an hour, and then walk the half hour to our destination. St. Martin's Mission lies on a bit of high ground about a quarter mile from the native town. The school compound, under the care of Teacher Thomas Fodi, is delightful. Good substantial buildings meet the eye. The town chief and his wife are Christians, which makes all the difference in the world to the local atmosphere. The resident catechist, Willie Twenty-five, holds services and instructions in between the times when some of the Fathers or Sisters can come. Teacher Thomas may have 40 boarding pupils, plus a number of those who live with their patents in town and come out only for classes. Due to the diligence of Catechist William, the Gospel is preached in several of the surrounding towns to people at once friendly and eager to hear.

Then, to pass to the Loma country to the east, it is necessary to come back part way towards Bolahun and make for Kolahun, the Government center. Ever since the mission started we have been going there for services at more or less regular intervals. Some years ago a chapel was built in which we have an altar for the Sunday Mass. For the last couple of years this building has been used as a community church also. Be that as it may, we have a goodly congregation of earnest people, some civilized, some not. During the past few months Father Worster has been going up twice a week, one night for "God palaver" for the Hearers and Catechumens coming into the Church from [206/207] heathenism, and on Sundays for Mass and sermon for the baptized Christians. Kolahun is a growing settlement, with shops and some very nice buildings, such a contrast to its very "native" appearance years ago. The Government maintains a grade school here, with some of our Bolahun graduates on the faculty.

Moving still farther to eastward, it is a four-hour walk to our next station at Vezala. This point can also be reached by car, though the road, especially the bridges, leave much to be desired. The country becomes noticeably rougher and more hilly. The Mission Church of the African Martyrs stands about a half mile from the village, where the chiefs and people have always been most friendly ever since the visits of Father Baldwin and others of the earlier mission workers. This is the town in which in '25 Digei Korva was the Paramount Chief, and one time when he heard that our schoolboys were hungry sent 25 hampers of rice. In spite of his many admirable qualities he had also many enemies, who managed to poison him that same year. We keep three resident teachers on the station, and a Catechist, Jacob Koveli. Moses Janga and his wife look after the 60-odd pupils in school most efficiently. Here we have a sort of three-decker arrangement, with church on the same level as the town. The trim school compound lies partway up a hill, and then perched way up on top stands the one-room clergy house which Father Bessom named "Loma Vista." This station we opened in '40, but with very few conversions to our faith. No matter how fine the Loma people are, no matter how charmingly friendly, they do not accept the Christian message readily. The ancient superstitions of "devil bush" and "country medicine" have a strong hold upon them. But we know that these people are well worth waiting for, so our hope lies with the school children.

Vezala to Pandemai is a six-hour walk to the southeast, and a most exhausting six hours it is because of the many steep hills. Now we are really in primitive African country, for thus far we have been in the vicinity of some roads and motor cars. Father [207/208] James Dwalu, a native of the Vai tribe, was sent to open the work in '22 by Bishop Overs. He held on for nearly twenty years in spite of meager results. He started the Hake Ramsaur Memorial School, so naming it because in 1920 Fr. Ramsaur had trekked up from Cape Mount and visited the town. Pandemai is perhaps the most spectacular of all our stations due to its mountainous setting. Father Campbell recalls with emotion the eager multitude listening to his address on "Who Made the Mountains?" or that service in the mud-and-thatch chapel when he spoke on "Is God Alive?" Men crowded on one side, women on the other; he opened his discourse by asking, "Is it true that the Lomas think that a long time ago God made the world but now has gone away and cares nothing more about it?" The response was a long "Um-m-m," giving assent. That was his text for the sermon.

During the mid-thirties the Sisters made several trips to Pandemai, where they found large congregations, but no particular interest in our message. On St. Michael's Day, Sept. 29, '32, Bishop Campbell laid the foundation stone for a permanent church building, but because of lack of funds this project never got much further. In '39, when Father Dwalu found it necessary to retire because of impaired health, it did seem as though the entire Pandemai venture had come to a halt. But Bishop Kroll in ' asked the Holy Cross Mission again to assume oversight of it, as we had done twenty years before. As at that time we had no properly trained Loma teachers or evangelists to spare, we found it difficult to assemble an effective staff. Several Bandi workers were sent, but each in turn gave up in despair. Even Father Gill, by no means a pessimist, pronounced Pandemai as hopeless. Chiefs and people did not want our religion. That was certain, and they told us so frankly.

But that was not counting on the power of God. At Bolahun the Fathers and some of the schoolboys held a novena of prayer, as a result of which fresh workers volunteered. That was in '47. [208/209] Financial help came from the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of which Father Bessom was an alumnus. Under his guidance a good elementary school was organized and the pupils built themselves a dormitory. Early in '5i Father Parsell with a crew of workmen from Bolahun finished the crumbling foundations of the church and on them erected a combination church and schoolhouse, covering the structure with a corrugated metal roof. Since then, through the interest of other friends a substational metal-covered dormitory has been erected, as well as a suitable home for the catechist, John Juma.

By no stretch of the imagination can our work there be called encouraging, for pupils in school are few, and the people of the town either hostile or indifferent. However, we know that with the three "R's" in school plus the fourth "R" for religion the Gospel message will someday sink in.

Now let us turn our steps towards Bolahun again by another route, passing through Ndambu and Kpangehimba, both Bandi towns, in which we have been working for many years, though maintaining no school in either. Once in Ndambu, where we are to sleep, the chief first must be seen according to country custom and courtesy immemorial. Be it said to the lasting credit of these worthies, hospitality has never been refused no matter how crowded with other strangers the village may happen to be. The chief or his "small brother" will show us to the hut we are to use; and even while we are busy getting settled for the night he will return to offer us "chop"--a large pan of rice for ourselves and our men, and a rooster, preferably white, to show that his heart is "cold" (well satisfied with us). Back in the early days when we were still a novelty we might be dashed a goat or a sheep for "soup," i.e. gravy for the rice. That is the fitting time to ask permission to hold "God palaver" later in the evening. All this formal reception holds true of Moslem as well as of heathen villages, and we have wondered whether centuries ago it can possibly have come from Arabia and the far east.

[210] Then comes that necessary item, the bath. Out on the edge of the town there usually stands the bath house, a small enclosure shielded by stakes driven in the ground and with palm fronds affixed to ensure a bit of privacy. The bucket of steaming water is placed on the ground, and the bather stands on a flat stone or perhaps on a raised platform of poles. Water is scooped up with the hands, and the last thing is to dip one's feet in what is left of the water. The natives bathe thus daily and keep themselves very clean.

So, when the men and women return from their farms about sunset and finish their evening meal, the town crier goes about calling them to assemble at the palaver house to hear God's Word from the white Father. In the meantime our steward prepares and serves dinner for us, which we devour with avidity after the hot, hilly tiamp. Occasionally it happens at this juncture that the "bush devil" and his rout make appearance, with the ringing of a bell, and the rhythm of drums and singing. Sometimes it is the "man's devil," sometimes it is the "woman's devil," but in either case we and all others who have not been initiated must run and hide in the house and close the door. Usually the chief tips off this latest visitor about the impending "God palaver," and in just a little while the clown and his satellites will withdraw. But again, when no such information has been given, the frolic may last so long that any religious exercises are impossible. Fortunately, such interruptions are quite unusual, and so the people assemble for the service--Bible reading, catechism, prayers, preaching and answering the questions brought by inquirers. All this takes about an hour, and all in the light of one smoky hurricane lantern. Through an interpreter we learn of all the woes and troubles of our congregation; and then we may have some extra instruction to impart to a late comer. To drive home the message of forgiveness and acceptance by Cod when a person really turns to Him we do our best, always using native stories and proverbs, as the people themselves do, [210/211] to clinch our appeal. For many it is a hard message, clean contrary to anything ever thought or believed. Yet nearly always there comes the eventual favorable response, with people clamoring for more of the good news.

Early the next morning, as near to sunrise as we can get the few Christians together, we have the Mass. Then, while our men are rolling up our bed and packing the boxes, we have breakfast, sometimes nothing more than a cup of tea and a banana or two. We must be sure to bid the chief farewell with a suitable present for hospitality before we leave town for the next station. We wish we had the ability to describe the scenes which meet the eye--women pounding rice in large wooden mortars; old men weaving mats; others weaving cloth; still other women carding cotton and spinning it into thread; children playing as they wish. But they never fail to bring the sick and crippled to beg for medicine. The obvious cases of yaws or leprosy or sleeping sickness we have to reer back to St. Joseph's Hospital in Bolahun. The common complaints such as diarrhea, indigestion or some of the milder ulcers we can and do usually attend to, for experience has taught us never to leave the mission without a fair supply of household remedies.

Thus we begin our next day's walk from Ndambu, with Bolahun in mind as our objective by tea time if possible. Up hill, down dale, along a rough, narrow trail; over flimsy stick bridges, or balancing our way across a small river in a basket bridge, woven and maintained by the local "bush devil" and his assistants at night, for no mortal must ever see this reputed spirit flitting about in the trees. Perhaps as we pass through some small town there will be a law suit in progress, with the chief as judge, and a noisy crowd of witnesses and onlookers crowded into the palaver house. One of the witnesses may be sworn in while we rest for a moment. On a mat a couple of cola nuts are placed. The one about to testify squats before them, places his hand on them, and takes a dreadful oath which we must ask to be excused [211/212] from recording. In any event, he promises that he will tell the truth. If he fails, the "medicine" will catch him, and death will ensue as surely as night follows day. Perhaps too, as we emerge from dense forest to an open rice field, men may be clearing some of the brush, or women planting the rice--a back-breaking job. As we near Bolahun more and more of our Christians meet us, and as always, there must be a pause to exchange greetings and to give the news. The proper question for this last is, "What news on your side?" The correct answer is, "No bad news," and then proceed to retail all the local gossip, that unfailing salve for itching ears.

Thus with our return to the central station we finish the first leg of our patrol, for we have not yet completed it. After a test of a few days we pack up again to start for Vahun, and possibly Condolahun. In this last named center for several years we maintained a resident teacher and catechist, but in just the last few months we had to recall him to Bolahun because of a shortage in the staff. Now we can make a great part of the trip to Vahun by car, driving over into Sierra Leone, to Yandehun, from which place it is about a four-hour's walk back into Liberia. But the older way was on foot, through Masambalahun, Popolahun (a Moslem town also where they make wonderful clay pots and jars), and so on for a day and a half over the rugged hills and rushing streams. The last few hours of this journey take us through virgin forest, ever so damp and in a sort of twilight be cause of the dense foliage overhead. One of our former schoolboys is Clan Chief in Vahun, and has seen to it that a really attractive school compound has been built. That was opened in '48, and the mission is still going strong. Our veteran evangelist, George Lahai, a Mende man himself and so speaking their language, was in charge for quite a number of years. The rich harvest of bright, dependable boys and of genuine converts are tokens of Cod's blessing on the venture. There are now over o pupils in the school, and the chief is urging us to increase the [212/213] staff and let him enlarge the buildings. The temptation to expand indefinitely makes a strong appeal, but we have been burned pretty badly by so many ill-advised ventures in time past that we think it better to wait a while.

One of the knotty problems we have to face is that of people moving about the country. Naturally the chieftains and "big men" stay where they belong. Yet not infrequently in some town we may have gathered a sizable body of converts only to have them melt almost overnight when they leave for the rubber plantations or the iron mines down near the coast. One can not blame them for being attracted by higher wages. But they are too far away for us to follow them, and even if they persevere as Christians, they fall easy prey to certain others whose main activity seems to be "sheep-stealing." When a group evaporates like this in any one of our preaching stations we have to begin all over again. The pretty solidly Mohammedan centers have never been particularly responsive to our preaching, but others have welcomed us cordially. In some instances they have of their own accord erected small church buildings, as in Tagulahun in '41, and more recently in Ndambu, where Cyprian Ambulay was evangelist for several years before his untimely death. This last venture is not yet completed, though chief and people are working at it.

Thus we return to Bolahun again, and with the knowledge that all our work has a real purpose. Holy Cross Mission holds the distinction of being the very first effort to evangelize the Bancli and Kisi tribes of northwestern Liberia. About Pendembu and Kailahun in Sierra Leone there have been Anglican and Wesleyan missionaries for many years, and rather recently the Roman Catholics have moved in too. At about the same time as our arrival at Bolahun the United Lutherans opened work at Zorzor in the Loma country four or five days walk to the east of us. In '40 the Swedish Pentecostals opened in Foya Kamara, 15 miles to the north of us, where the air field now is. They have [213/214] since occupied Porluma, in Kisiland also, and Vonjama in Lomaland, 40 miles east of us and on the French border. The Lutherans were the first to inaugurate air taxi service, while the Pentecostals pioneered in motor transport. From various sources we hear of other denominations turning their eyes in this direction. With improved roads and other transportation facilities the time may not be too far distant when they will begin to move in. Bolahun is no longer an isolated mission unit.

Here it may be well to clarify what to some readers must present a problem. How can these Holy Cross missionaries act and talk like Catholics and Evangelicals at the same time? Are not Catholics noted for their devotion to sacraments and the externals of religion, while Evangelicals stress the more intimate, personal relationship with God? Yes, both statements are true enough. We prize our Catholic heritage in the Episcopal Church, while at the same time in our missionary methods using the utmost freedom of approach to the people with whom we must deal. We feel, and the experience of 35 years in upper Liberia has shown that we are not wrong, that so far from being hostile to one another, Catholic faith and practice and Evangelical zeal and methods go hand in hand. One may call this "Broad Church" or any other name he wishes, but we know that in a missionary venture like this it certainly works. We prize the less formal approach leading to the conversion of the individual. But one thus led on to Holy Baptism and membership in the Body of Christ, which is His Church, meets then the strong, steady sacramental life awaiting him, and the fellowship of the faithful to support him in his journey along the path leading to perfection. For thousands it becomes a modern "Pilgrim's Progress" toward the City of God.

We have noticed several times the temptation to undertake too much in the matter of expansion. We all know that a business which is not growing is already sliding downhill. When a delegation of chiefs and people from some distant region makes [214/215] the trip to Bolahun and with courteous formality begs us to open a new station, it is hard to refuse. Perhaps they promise to build church, schoolhouse and living quarters for the missionaries. It may be that some of the Fathers or one or more of the Sisters have stopped in their town for the night and have, as always, held "God palaver." They want more of this good news. With their own eyes they have seen Bolahun and perhaps one of the outstations. Naturally they wonder, "Why not in our village too?" Or, perhaps some important officials of the Liberian Government request us to set up a branch hospital and dispensary at a distance from Bolahun. New schools are always in demand, just as though we could step out to the kitchen garden and pick trained teachers from the pepper bushes. Obviously, there is no appreciation of our headaches in finding doctors, nurses, evangelists and teachers for the work already begun. We employ a large African staff as it is, and a mighty help they are. Our sympathy with each of the applicants is very real, and it requires both tact and courage to tell them that we shall have to wait a while to "hang head," as their picturesque phrase is for taking counsel in the matter. It stands to reason that a strong central station must be maintained at Bolahun, even though the more distant fields must be sowed with the Word and tended, to bring forth fruit unto salvation.

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