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 20. Capsules

WE DO hope that we may be pardoned when we say again that Bolahun seems to be ever in a transition stage. This is just because every passing year brings surprising opportunities. Pt times it happens that almost overnight the whole expression, though not the policy of the mission, will be altered. This has occurred frequently, though not so much in recent years. The setting up of the hospital formed one such and the opening of the outstations another. That does not mention the coming of the Sisters, or the moving of the location of the boys' school, or the building of the new St. Mary's Church. Our policy was, and still is, to introduce Christianity, but otherwise make as few changes as possible in the cultural, social and economic patterns of the people. In principle we still adhere to this standard. The Christian community, with sympathetic help and guidance from the foreign staff, should be able to develop its own new culture and civilization, as was done in Europe centuries ago.

But other forces are at work, forces not religions and [216/217] unexpected by the early workers. One of these manifested itself in our school very soon after we started. To our surprise we discovered that in many instances lads were sent, not to be educated, but to learn the secret magic of our supposed power and wealth. It is interesting that the Suffragan Bishop Gardiner, himself a native Vai man and with Mohammedan background, told the author once that when he was sent by his father to Cape Mount for school, that was what that worthy charged his child to be sure to learn. Power is and always has been the ambition of every native chieftain. In their experience this can be obtained only by means of "strong medicine," This, the youngsters were expected to learn, and get some of it if possible. That explained partly why those first boys watched us so carefully and imitated us so comically.

Still another factor is that the missionaries, poor and ill- equipped as they were, and still are, according to our American standards, seemed like perfect millionaires to the people. Did not these strangers live in a large "pan house"? Did they ever lack for money, or tools of a superior sort; did they not wear fine big clothes and have many books and much paper? When contrasted with the meager equipment of even the wealthiest natives, in view too of our gadgets like typewriters, safety razors and oil lamps, we seemed like visitors from another world. Human nature being fundamentally the same all over the world, people of course wanted some of these things for themselves also. We introduced thus some aspects of western material culture, even though quite unwittingly.

From the very start grownups and children alike showed a marked ability to imitate the breezy personalities and peculiarities of some of the missionaries. It is a striking contrast to the dignity and formal social customs of the country folk. Several of those early schoolboys, after learning a bit of English, made a dash for Monrovia to air themselves and their attainments, pathetically deficient though they were. For them Monrovia [217/218] stood as the acme of wealth and power. There lay the seat of Government. There the rich people lived. So thither they flocked and many stayed.

Over the years the Liberian Government has been steadily but surely acquiring a more enlightened and stronger hold on the Hinterland. When we first began our work at Bolahun we knew nothing of the uproar among Bandis, Kisis and Golas not so many years before. But now, with improved administrative efforts and a sympathetic, intelligent approach to tribal problems, the natives feel proud of their Liberian allegiance. Courts of justice for both civilized and native lawsuits exist, as well as schools operated in various Government centers. Certainly, with the spread of the use of the English language and the patent indications of the fostering care of the central Government, the people generally show themselves anxious to move as a body into the new political and economic order. The ancient feuds and tribal wars can find no place in the modern world. No matter of which tribe they are members, they count themselves as Liberians before all else. They always express themselves as glad that the old days are gone, and that they live to see this new day.

To meet these altered social and political conditions we have had to develop a fresh approach several times. We begin with the school children, teaching them to respect their tribe and clan, but also impressing them with their membership one with another in and under the "Lone Star Flag." We lift our adult converts out of their narrow tribal circle by showing them their membership as Liberians in the world-wide Christian family. All this comes as big news to men and women whose thoughts rarely venture far beyond the confines of their village.

Western materialism with its this-world philosophy of life and dependence upon earthly comforts is moving in slowly but surely. Airplanes, motor cars and electricity can no longer be classed as novelties. When we remember that only 35 years ago [218/219] typewriters and gramophones were sheer magic, and safety razors simply out of this world, we can begin to appreciate the change, at least in familiarity with American and European gadgets. As one white trader remarked to Father Hawkins years ago, "When a simple people are yanked over thousands of years in a few months, some are sure to get hurt." Some of us older persons feel uneasy about ancient tribal and family moorings being cast off before spiritual and moral as well as intellectual equipment is adequate for the impact of the new order of things.

Perhaps without realizing it, our dislike of the idea of the people losing their indigenous culture may be sentimental, yet we must face the facts squarely. To label these aborigines as half or even a quarter civilized is in effect setting up an impossible standard. The basic question is, "How can we lead our people who are Christian into paths of righteousness?" Father Parsell, now Prior of the mission, and with nearly a quarter century of experience in the work, offers these points:

1. Christian and Catholic religion first and always. In view of our beliefs and the indigenous attitudes towards things believed, even though unseen, we must emphasize spiritual values.

2. Try to adapt the native philosophy of life to altered surroundings.

3. Promote programmes for better health, improved agricultural methods and literacy year in and year out.

4. Set up more schools for moral and intellectual training.

5. Teach the proper use and care of machines and gadgets.

6. Inculcate loyalty to Church and State as well as to tribe and clan.

7. Retain as far as possible the many fine traits of the older culture, such as courtesy, generosity, helpfulness to neighbors and a truly religious outlook on life. The people have already a strong sense of the reality of the unseen world, and this above all else they must not be allowed to lose.

[220] Father Parsell knows Bolahun inch by inch and person by person, and so we may do well to continue his observations. He says that an overall view may be gained if we divide the life of the mission into three periods.

First there were the early years, 1922-32, when the main objectives were to gain the confidence of the people, chiefly by medical and educational effort. It was in this decade too that in spite of incredible difficulties we built the fabric and thus showed that we had come to stay. Monastery, church, convent, schools and hospital stand today as pledges of our good will.

Next come the years 1932.45 when administrative details were worked out and the different aspects of the work better systematized and organized. For the furthering of evangelistic effort the serious study of Bandi, Loma and Kisi were undertaken. The arrival of the Sisters in '31 had brought new vigor to our plans, but their initial success lay in their effective work among the women and girls, and with the classes in which preparation was being made for Baptism, Confirmation and Floly Communion. Christian families and homes were being firmly established. So as to place it in proper setting, we mention again that the construction of St. Mary's Church is the sole major building project during these years. We produced catechetical and other instructions in the native languages, and with them and the portions of Holy Scripture, Evangelists were trained, commissioned and sent forth to preach. The making of not infrequent trips to outstations became a routine assignment for clergy and Sisters alike. Can one wonder that as a result of all this concentrated effort Bolahun has become almost solidly a Christian village, and in outlying districts many souls have been brought to a decision for Christ?

With the close of the "big war" in '45 a tangled economy and social upheaval were awaiting the entire nation, and of course the mission could not escape. Many were the problems crying for solution, many the adjustments to be made. Old native [220/221] customs were, and are, on their way out. This may be attributed partly to a shifting population and the fact that one finds real hard cash in circulation. In the hospital, for example, a man needing surgery might bring a bit of rice or a few eggs as payment twenty years ago, but now he has money in his hand, perhaps as much as $30. We had not expected so soon this rising tide of prosperity, one result of which is that European and American manufactures have rolled in like a mighty torrent. Be it noted to their lasting credit, our own Christians have withstood the shock fairly well. Yet in this part of the Hinterland generally there has been a marked decline in social and moral standards among the heathen. Of course we are making a definite effort to stabilize along Christian lines what might easily become a national catastrophe. Yet, how can we impress just the ordinary "man-in-thebusl1" that his material possessions are a loan from God, and to be used for His Glory and the welfare of the people?

Right after the close of the war also there occurred a concerted rush for schools. By '52 a peak enrollment of some 6oo children came under our care. Along with this, hospital and medical ministrations reached an all-time high, especially after the opening of the leper colony at Mbalatahun. These give just a few of the factors in the composite mission picture. They will supply some idea of the knotty problem of integrating the varied departments of the work. In more recent years preaching tours at intervals into hitherto unevangelized areas have been organized, but especially to Tahamba, as the northern part of Bandiland is called, and to the Mende folk in and about Vahun. Far and wide we teach, warn, exhort the people of the current economic changes and social dangers, and of the utter necessity of holding fast to Him Who changes not, the Lord God Almighty. Who is on the Lord's side; who?

After this summary in which we have tried not to repeat ourselves too much, the urgent temptation is to launch a sort of [221/222] literacy space-ship into the future. But so many factors are involved, factors religious, economic and social, we shall do well to leave that in God's hand, with the prayer that we may be ready for whatever may come. We have no thought but to continue our work with all the intelligent zeal and devotion He has given us, even as in the years gone by. We and our staff are but human after all. It is our privilege, for which we render thanks daily, to labor untiringly under existing conditions; to lay hold upon fresh opportunities as our Lord may send them to us insofar as men and resources permit; to establish a worth while group of African Christians in the beauty of holiness. These ideals, together with the training of dependable native leaders, we hold before ourselves constantly. At this point we feel that any further animadversions would rival the tropical jungle for luxuriousness if not for beauty.

Perhaps one of our chief regrets is that in spite of all our years at Bolahun not one of the "European" missionaries, except Fr. de Coteau and Sister Andrina, has ever mustered the courage to try preaching in a native language. We can think of many good reasons to excuse ourselves, in spite of all the work each has done in the various dialects. But perhaps we shall do well to recall the old ditty, "Never complain, never explain, and so you'll keep singing when out in the rain." Dr. Richard Heydorn, a German scholar and an expert in linguistics, spent some months with us in the mid-thirties. His help in analyzing sound tones and in constructing some semblance of a grammar was perfectly invaluable. His work covered several other languages in Liberia in addition to the three we must use at the mission every day. He was recalled to Germany to serve in the army, and a report came to us that he was killed in one of the battles fought by Hitler's generals in Russia. Of course several of us can carry on a conversation in one or other of the native tongues, and in this the Sisters seem particularly adept. But to stand up and preach--that is a triumph still to be won. We are not [222/223] conscious that this has hurt our missionary work any, for the people know that we know their language, and when one has to use two or three interpreters anyway because of the multilingual congregation, it does seem more sensible to use Our familiar English.

Early in August of '56 it was our pleasure to welcome to the Bolahun staff two newly ordained deacons from California, the Rev. Connor Lynn and the Rev. Robert Worster. Father Lynn was assigned to school work at once, and also to have chance to oversee the work in the Kisi country. Acting for his Bishop (San Joaquin), Bp. Campbell advanced him to the priesthood on Ember Saturday, December 22, and in our St. Mary's Church of course. With the consent of the Bishop of California Fr. Worster received priests' orders on the Ember Saturday in Lent, March i6, Fr. Worster has oversight of the Loma work centered at Vezala and Pandemai. He is also the diligent pastor of the little flock of churchmen at Kolahun, to their great joy and comfort. Shortly after arrival both these young clergymen became Companions of the Order of the Holy Cross. As Father Smyth, the physician in charge of the hospital, has been a Companion also for several years, we have a devoted band of helpers bound to Holy Cross by the strongest ties and working and praying most harmoniously with us.

Nor must we forget to mention the most welcome addition to our motor transport in the form of an 88" hardtop Landrover. This is the gift of the many friends of Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson in Oregon. Mr. Sorenson is laboratory technician at St. Joseph's Hospital and does much work at Mbalatahun, the leper colony. After months of waiting, word finally came from the agents in Monrovia that the car had come. Fr. Gill flew down and drove the latest hospital aid back. That was in June of this year ('57). He encountered much trouble with muddy roads and broken bridges, on one of which he was stalled for nearly half a day till men from the surrounding villages could come and literally lift [223/224] the car over to the far side. With the aid of this car Mr. Sorenson and the doctor can now make the needed trips to check on the progress of their patients, as well as make the necessary inspection of sanitary and other needs of the leper settlement. As a word of explanation about the local bridges, they are nearly all just palm tree logs laid side by side, with two of them just wide enough for the wheels of the car to use in crossing. If the logs are wet, or the ties of the car muddy, unless the driver happens to be "plumb on top," the car slips and rests on its under parts with a thump. Every once in a while too, one of these logs is so decayed that it will break, and with the usual upset into the water.

But even as these lines are being written the Liberian Government is constructing a really good road from Monrovia on up into this part 0f the country. We receive not infrequent reports of the progress made. Engineers and workmen are busy with the highway from Vonjama to Foya Customs. If and when the Native Administration in Sierra Leone levels off that missing strip between Buyedu and Foya Customs, we shall have a worth while approach to our source of supplies in Pendembu.

Project Canterbury