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 21. Of Men and Places

PERHAPS WE can offer no better ending to our Bolahun Annals than to tell of some of the men whom we have seen and known. It is not easy to lift them from their context and present them in cold print, but as always personalities make news, and it is thus that we offer a brief Bandi "Who's Who." If we can record nothing of the women in this land, it is not because they count for nothing, but because they take very small part in public affairs.

The first who comes to mind naturally is Fofi, the Paramount Chief in Masambalahun when we arrived. Let us give the substance of an account of him related by Koili Ngalu, Chief of Kpangehimba, who has since also died. He said that Fofi was born about the year 1870 in Konjama Country (i.e. old Masambalahun about a mile west of the present town) of a Mandingo man and a Bandi woman. In their early years both Fofi and Koili Ngalu were "war boys" under the chief Mambulu. After Mambulu was murdered in 1913 Fofi became a chief. In his [225/226] childhood Fofi lived for a while with his mother in Bolahun, and when the mother died she was buried in Kpangehimba. From Foil himself we found it always difficult to extract any very definite information. Without his active help and support we would have met many more obstacles than we did in those first months. He it was who gave us the trees from which we obtained the lumber needed for our buildings. He it was who sent the first boys to school. His supply of men enabled us to erect the original compound; and the laborers he gave brought all our necessary supplies from Pendembu. Always courteous and cooperative even though not always prompt, we consider him as our chief Bandi patron. He died June 4, '38, and while we cannot pray for the repose of his soul publicly because he never accepted Baptism, we can and do commend him to the uncovenanted mercies of Cod for his generosity and friendliness.

Fomba and Janga were both near kinsmen of Foil, both strong Mohammedans also. Fomba held the office of "Head Man" for the village, and as such occupied a post which might correspond to Executive Vice President. Always jolly, ready to promise anything just to be agreeable, he was rather a professional oiler for the town machinery. His chief job was to make things move smoothly; and rarely did he fail. He also acted as cushion between us and others in the town when we showed signs of exasperation at delays in producing on time the workmen we felt we must have. Then Janga. He was the only man in town speaking a bit of English, for he had been a corporal in the Liberian Frontier Force and had seen considerable service. But his knowledge of our language was limited to military terms--"Order arms," "Right flank, march," and such like. Fortunately Father Campbell and Mr. Manley knew the army terms, and so when Janga came along as Foil's interpreter we could unscramble what he was trying to say. He rendered great service to us explaining native customs and beliefs, of which of course he enjoyed intimate knowledge. We found him quite reliable [226/227] at all times and glad to give his services. His son, Peter Koneh, after being graduated from our high school and Cuttington College, is back with us teaching. Janga died in '50, highly respected and widely mourned. We feel happy that he was among our good friends.

Then we come to that stout old warrior and ardent supporter of the mission, Koili Ngalu, the ever-friendly chief of Kpangehimba. He was one of the few who seemed at all willing to talk when we tried to learn the history and background of the Bandi nation. As there never have been any written records, he always took pains to explain that all he knew was what the older men had told him of the sequence of events before he was born. His father was Bobo Debe, uncle to the great chieftain Mambulu. With Foil he had been one of Mambulu's "war boys," and as such took part in several expeditions to capture slaves destined eventually for lands across the seas. About the year 1905 Bobo Debe was slain by Mambulu's enemies. Koili Ngalu went to Monrovia with Mambulu to ask for a punitive expedition, which was granted, and at the same time Mambulu advised the Liberian authorities to put the rebel chiefs to death. After the execution Koili Ngalu escaped to Sierra Leone by night, for he feared for his own life; and there he stayed for many years. He it was who gave us the information that in olden times the Kono people held all the Tahamba Section north of Kpaka Fasa, and the Colas the country to the south of that spectacular mountain. But he said that about 200 years ago the Lomas rushed in from the east, driving the Konos down to Cape Mount and to what we now know as Sierra Leone. He said that the Colas were pushed down into the trackless "high bush," the present Cola Forest. Thus to this day the Bandis represent a buffer tribe between the Lomas to east, Kisis to west, and Colas to south. He claims that the Bandis go back really to a Kono base with slight Mandingo infiltration. These Mandingoes descended from the north-country and were a [227/228] mighty factor in establishing the Bandis as a recognized and accepted tribe. Their oldest towns seem to be Kolahun and Halipo, the story of which we shall relate later. Koili Ngalu, though never himself a Christian, was father and grandfather of many of our Christian converts and died in His friendship with the mission was very real.

We could continue with these "elder statesmen" indefinitely but space forbids. So many of them worked with us and believed in us, so many were our happy experiences, we simply cannot tell of them in detail. There was Fa Vanda Molli of Susomolahun, the pious Mohammedan that he was, living up to his name as the "Moslem with the fine gift." There was Ngumbu Teji, friend in the face of costly opposition; Langama who opened the way for us in the Kisi country; and Digei Korva among the Lomas. All these we remember most gratefully. Then we call to mind Mbaya, the cyclops of Tagulahun; Yekke and his brother Ndole in Kolahun, and last but not least Momo flina of Nyokoletahun who played Mohammedanism for years, but towards the end of his life attended regularly our class for Bandi Hearers every Sunday. Before his death he was elected Clan Chief, and by his obvious leaning to Christianity set a wonderful example to his people. To recite the many tokens of esteem from these and other leaders, and their genuine help and interest, would require a book in itself. Not one of them was ever baptized, yet their good will did much to encourage their people to declare themselves as accepting the Cross of Christ. Nearly always the deciding obstacle for the chiefs was the prospect of losing their wives and concubines, thus reducing themselves to the status of "small boy" again before their people. Momo Hina, for example, told us frankly that he wanted to follow the Christian way, but he did not know what to do with all but one of his women.

In another connection we have mentioned the four men who have been with us from the very beginning--George Lahai, William Morlu, Alan Son and James Salifu. Their profession of [228/229] our faith and Holy Baptism have made them particularly dear to us; their long years of faithful service have proved their utter sincerity. So here is the place to speak of that true Christian, Cyprian Ambulay. He was one of the many sons of the famous Chief Mambulu. Cyprian came to school in '24 when he was about 14 years old. He knew no English and had never heard of the Christian Religion, though a fine specimen of an obedient, unspoiled country boy. In school he displayed no special prowess in his books, yet from the very start showed considerable force of character and power of leadership among his fellows. Along with others of his schoolmates he received Holy Baptism after he had been with us about a year, and after he had finished grade VI he began working as a carpenter's apprentice. He was one of the 48 in the first confirmation class held by Bishop Campbell in 1927, and for him especially that sacrament became a real strengthening of soul. It became clear that in school and later in the work shop his one object in life was to serve the Lord Christ with all his might.

It was about this time that Father Whittemore sent him to Pasolahun one day in response to a message from a dying chief that he wished Holy Baptism before passing away. Without a murmur Cyprian set out on the two-day walk, baptized Ngala Koilo and held his funeral. Over his grave Cyprian planted a large wooden cross, the first such in that village. If all this reads like just a routine evangelistic trip, let us pause to inquire what makes it worth mention. It is that Ngala Koilo was the ring leader of the gang which had murdered Cyprian's father so brutally, and Cyprian knew the fact. Ngala Koilo was supposed to be the head of the dreaded Leopard Society too. V/hen a young man possesses such a fund of Christian charity as to baptize and bury the person who slew his own father, it surely indicates "grace abounding."

For the sake of readers who are not acquainted with West Africa, we had better take a moment to explain the Leopard [229/230] Society. Membership in it appeals especially to Chieftains because of the almost unlimited power promised to those who possess its secrets. The person initiated into the mysteries is given a bundle of charms sewed in a bit of leopard skin. So long as this is "kept alive" it is supposed that no one can refuse the owner anything. That of course is a most desirable boon to some ambitious ruler. But the horrible part of the story is that the "medicine" can be kept alive by nothing but human blood. The ruffians selected to perform the ritual murder are well disguised in leopard skins, fastening to their hands iron claws with which to tear out the vitals and still beating heart of their victim. This last is always some helpless man or boy, for we never have heard of an attack on a woman or a girl. The attack is from ambush, and commonly near a running stream of water. By secret incantations the "big devil" of the society then manufactures more charms from the heart and genitals; and the chief's bag of medicine has its revivifying bath of blood. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone have the death penalty for anyone who can be proved to belong to this ghastly fraternity. But even so, from time to time there are recurrences of the crime. Not more than a year ago (in '56) a lad was set upon and slain within a very few miles of Bolahun, and his mangled remains tossed into a nearby creek. The government always meets with great difficulty in getting witnesses to testify in these cases, for no man is certain whether the leopards will retaliate by catching him next. Convictions in consequence are difficult to obtain.

To return to Cyprian, he was one of the seven evangelists first commissioned in August '35, and after working in and out of Bolahun for several years, was sent to Kpangehimba in '40 to shepherd the neophytes there. Eight years later he was moved on to Ndambu to prosecute his successful pastoral work. He had been one of the promising men who was chosen to study for the priesthood, so that he could carry sacraments to scattered congregations, but he always refused ordination humbly but firmly.

Whenever he returned to Bolahun for his own confession and communion it was his delight to act as the subdeacon at high Mass on a Sunday. He had taken that part on Christmas Day, less than a fortnight before his accidental death while out in the bush hunting early in January of '56. His body was brought to Bolahun for burial amid the profound grief of the entire countryside. People respected him not merely as a son of Mambulu but as one who really practiced what he preached.

Mambulu has appeared so frequently in our story we should really say a little about him. We never saw him, but his name and influence carry weight to this very day. Perhaps the most consecutive and certain account of this able, unscrupulous tribal leader is that given to one of the mission staff by his cousin Koili Ngalu of Kpangehimba, and substantiated by William Morlu, who as a little boy saw Mambulu's death. Mambulu was the son of Kaifa, a Mandingo, and a Bandi woman named Kulo. He and his brother lived in Yamatahun, quite some distance from Bolahun to the southeast. Mambulu was a great slaver and cordially hated by many of his people. At times when strangers would come to town he would entertain them lavishly overnight. When in the early morning light they wished to depart he would accompany them courteously as far as the first stream, bid them a formal farewell. Back in town again he would call his "war boys," asking them whether they had seen the travellers. Then he would order them to run quickly and capture them for slaves. At another time Mambulu was hearing a great "palaver" with 30 litigants on either side. After listening to them for several days, he finally said that both sides were troubling him, so he commanded them all to be tied and sold into slavery. These are just samples of what they tell of him.

Koili Ngalu's father, Bobo Debe, was another old war chief and uncle of Mambulu. He called a meeting of all the chiefs at Kolahun and proposed the name of his nephew as Paramount Chief of all the Bandis. To this gathering he distributed white [231/232] cloth, gunpowder and "person--which means 40 bunches of iron money, the price of a common slave. He then announced, "Well, the people must now eat," and started walking to Kpangehimba, his town, to fetch a cow. But in the second ravine south of Kolahun he was set upon by the malcontents and slain. Then it was that the cousins Mambulu and Koili Ngalu rushed to Monrovia to report the matter to the authorities and ask for a punitive expedition. All that occurred about the year according to Koili Ngalu's reckoning.

Thus for the first time the Liberians entered Bandiland in force. With their backing he ruled with an iron hand all Bandi and Kisi territory as well as the Mendes in Guma and Lomas in Wubomai. He aided the Liberians in imposing the house tax of a dollar a year. To make his administration simpler he advised them to kill off all the older war chiefs. Consequently eleven of them were then arrested and "put in stick" in Kolahun. At their trial they were found guilty of murder and other crimes, and met their end by being lined up before an open trench and pushed in as a soldier shot them in the head one by one.

All this internal strife of course took several years, during which many of the Bandis had sworn vengeance. Mambulu showed himself always an unfailing partisan of the Liberian Government, and from all accounts put them up to doing things which brought into his hands ever more money and power. One cannot wonder that by 1910 all Bandiland was ripe for rebellion. Towns were burned and razed, including Bolahun, and the lawlessness got so out of hand that in 1911 a British armed force came over from Sierra Leone to help the Liberians quiet things down. Mambulu kept his lordship by force of arms successfully in spite of the indignation seething hotly beneath him. Early in 1913 he started for Monrovia again to pay a visit to his benefactors, for he owed much to the Liberians and wanted to "say thank you" to them. Then it was that his arch enemies Bumbu Kuli and Ngalu Koilo seized their chance, for at the stream

Bowulo between Glima and Pasolahun they fell on him and hacked his body to pieces, scattering it in the surrounding bush. It is a dreadful ending for even such a monstrous tyrant, but perhaps this tale will give some idea of the sort of country we stepped into all unsuspectingly in 1922.

It may not be inappropriate at this point to relate the story of Halipo, the oldest town in Bandiland. It lies just to the south of Kpaka Fasa, the looming granite mountain clearly visible to the northeast of our monastery. Many of our older converts know this tale, and allowing for verbal differences in a tribal tradition, it is as follows. The unusual name Halikambaipo comes down from a misty past: Hali means medicine or charm; Kambai, a grave; and Po is apparently the older form of "bu," signifying the place where. Some have told us that "Po" means "inheritance." The tiny Bandi tribe pressed by foes decided to "make medicine" to ensure victory. The oracles, when consulted, demanded that they bury one man alive, and one man forthwith volunteered to sacrifice his life for the people. Amid proper ceremonial dances and the thunder of drums, and after being mortally wounded by seven arrows, the living sacrifice was made. Apparently the "medicine" worked. The story goes on to say that one "belonging to the medicine" must never look at the sky and that the sons of the victim could never be put to death. Each year for a long time thereafter someone had to allow an eye to be gouged out and sacrificed at the grave. Of the truth of all this we have no means of learning, but certainly it sounds like one of the solidly authentic stories the people tell of themselves. The Bandi tribe has earned a name for itself as warlike and contentious. The word "bandi" itself means "hot," and our experience has been that they live tip to it. The personal name of the hero seems to have been Seama. Those relating the death of this brave man are content to call him by such euphe. misms as Fegbi (all.giver), or Hali Vandi (fine charm), or Halimaj (the medicine man).

[234] We have told of Foya Kamara and its magic spring in Kisiland, so it may be quite in order to mention a few interesting anecdotes about Pandemai among the Lomas. The town itself bears every mark of being very, very old. It has always been inhabited by warriors skilled in their trade as human butchers, proud of their trade. The prisoners they might capture in war were always put to death, for the people would have nothing to do with the slave trade. The writer has himself talked with the executioner, who showed him his meat axe, and remarked with obvious satisfaction that with it he had decapitated over 2,000 prisoners on the "death-stone" just outside of town. Amid such entrancing natural beauty, these and like indescribable horrors seem incredible. The town itself is of considerable size and hugs an attractive little stream, while to south loom those ever- changing, silent mountains, the guardians of secrets forgotten long ago. In former times we are told that at a shrine about halfway up one of these peaks there used to be an annual human sacrifice, though a bullock has been substituted in more recent years. But the method of determining the propitious day still survives. One of the medicine doctors climbs a tall cotton tree (bombax) and facing the mountain calls "O-o-o-o" at intervals until the spirits answer. That answer is a light shower of rain which passes over the land. We happened to be in Pandemai one year when this very thing happened, and thus saw it with our own eyes.

Once also we chanced to be at Pandemai to witness what might be called the graduating exercises of the bush school. Amid the roar of drums and singing and dancing the three chief "bush doctors" arm in arm led the procession of some 600 children who had spent five years or more being initiated as members of the Loma tribe. The "graduates" walked two by two, each with his body rubbed with white clay, each carrying a rattan whip adorned with cowrie shells, and wearing a large fur hat down over his eyes in appearance not unlike a bishop's mitre. If [234/235] any one of the inmates had died during the session of the school his clothes and a broken pot would be laid without comment at the door of his home. No questions need be asked, for all knew well what it meant.

When all had marched into town the graduating class was seated on mats on one side of the public square. Facing them were the chiefs sitting and the people standing. The head bush doctor then launched into an oration giving the lads back to the town, and the chief accepted the class on behalf of the people. Muskets then began to speak and tom-toms to vibrate and the people to dance and sing--all except the class of initiates which remained seated, silent and impassive. The chief, with a leopard skin over his shoulder, climbed up on his horse (which had no saddle), drew his sword and waved it menacingly. A deafening prolonged roar showed popular approval, and then the real dance began which lasted until the next morning. That was the ecstatic welcome to the new members of the Loma tribe, brought to their rebirth reputedly by the fertility and prowess of the big bush devil.

We have noticed that the natives ascribe every sort of event to the activities of unseen spirits, and that people generally seem to have no conception of what we call natural causes.

Thus, when the mother of Chief Woiwa Njala died in Kpangbalamai a large Loma town on the way to Pandemai, she was buried promptly and the usual charms consulted to find out just who had "put witch on her." When the culprit had been discovered and punished, it was time to hold the funeral feast and allow life to continue as before with the restored balance. In the afternoon the dutiful son sacrificed a sheep over the grave, which was right in town, speaking soothing words all the time.

The next morning at dawn several guns were fired, thus making official announcement of her death. From the huts of the women loud wailing arose at once. Groups of people approached the grave to offer bowls of cooked rice and to pour red palm oil over [235/236] them. After much beating of drums and the shooting of guns for the dancers, and the wonders performed by skilled conjurers, there came the big feast of which all partook. About sunset the last scene took place, a pathetic affair, yet bringing a shout of joy when it had been completed. Three men each with a rooster approached the grave. With a sharp knife they slit the throat of each bird and threw it right on the grave. Quite helpless, the roosters flopped about and then expired auspiciously on their backs. The soul of the departed woman was now in peace and "satisfied" with the honor thus paid her. She would trouble them no more.

Perhaps with these illustrations we can get a glimpse of why the Loma people, outstanding as they are in so many ways, are the hardest to convert to Christianity. The few who have accepted the Gospel message encourage us mightily, for whenever they do humble themselves and kneel in penitence and faith before the Cross of Christ, they are men and women of worth. Intensely loyal to both the Liberian Government and their ancient tribal customs, they ate in great demand for responsible positions in civilized centers along the coast. We know that the Word of God is mighty, sharper than any two-edged sword. We must not allow ourselves to grow impatient, for our Lord has been waiting for them for a long time also.

When we shower such praise on the Loma people it must not be inferred that we are belittling Bandis, Kisis or Mendes. We mention them because most of the Bolahun story has to do with these last three groups. Northwestern Liberia is still a heathen land though with a considerable infiltration of Mohammedans. Before we came, the very Name of our Saviour was unknown. Holy Cross Mission has accomplished some spectacular results, though still an oasis in the desert. If, as we are informed, the population of Liberia totals about a million and a half and with approximately 50,000 Christians of which some 10% are Episcopalians, we see how far we have yet to go. Because no official [236/237] census of this immediate area has ever been taken, we have to rely on the tax returns for the houses. Allowing five persons to a house, and with some 30,000 of these last, we obtain the figure 150,000 souls. Setting the number of Christians at a generous 1,200 we can appreciate the staggering work yet to be done. A true estimate of the quality of our work is not to be measured by schools, or hospitals, or even by church attendance or material improvements. These all help, but the ultimate test is whether the people call upon the Name of the Lord.

May God speed the day when men like Fofi, Janga and the host of other worthies we have known, and the women and children too, enlist themselves as soldiers of Christ and active members of His Kingdom. Perhaps in closing we can do no better than relate an African parable. The elephant was king of all the beasts in the forest. One day he called them together to determine which was bravest and best. The leopard protested that he feared nothing and told of his prowess. The monkey, the turtle and the fierce wild buffalo did the same. The crocodile, the python and the bush hog all sang their own praises. Just then the driver ants arrived a bit late for the meeting. The elephant and his entire council scattered at once in a perfect stampede. They knew only too well that the ants not only feared nothing but never hesitated to attack anyone in their line of march. Those ants were invincible, small though they seemed. They were by tacit consent the bravest and the best. They never reckoned on anything like defeat.

Deo Soli Gloria.


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