Project Canterbury

The Pongas Mission

By Joseph Turpin

From Mission Life, Vol. V (1874), pages 308-316.


A Letter from the REV. JOSEPH TURPIN, Senior Missionary.

Dec. 13th, 1873.

AFTER visiting many places, I have been permitted to arrive at the scene of my labours, and to re-commence work in earnest. I shall not carry you to the different places I visited, but propose to give you some notes of Sierra Leone, where we remained three weeks awaiting the arrival of the Mission boat, of our Journey to the Mission field, and the reception we met with.

Sierra Leone has always been spoken of as a place of much natural beauty and picturesque scenery, and whether viewed from the harbour, or when rambling up its hill-sides, the visitor finds much to interest.

Freetown, the capital, is situated in a hollow, which is increased by the mouth of the river on one side and terminates in a point on the other side, on which a lighthouse is built. On the other side of the river the Bullom shore stretches into a long cape, which completes the hollow. On entering the harbour the lighthouse is first seen, then the part of the town on the right gradually opens, showing a number of houses thatched with bamboo (a species of palm, not the West Indian bamboo) and almost hidden by cocoa-nut, orange, and pear-trees. A few minutes more and the town proper opens, consisting of houses built of red sandstone, with shingled, slated, or iron roofs. The cathedral stands prominent among them. From the wharf a steep ascent, terminating in a flight of a dozen steps, leads to the town level, almost to the door of the cathedral. Thence a gentle slope leads to the foot of the hill on which stands the Government House, then another steep ascent on the top of which are the barracks. Around the foot of this hill is the circular road leading to a poorer part of the town behind, then coming round to the cemetery, and Wesleyan and Baptist chapels; and part then branches off and leads up the mountain road to Regent and the other mountain villages, the other returns [308/309] to the business part of the town. There thousands of strangers from the interior, consisting of Foulahs, Timanees, Susus, and other tribes, may be seen bringing in cattle and produce to be exchanged for salt and other goods, or returning with their goods in long wicker baskets strapped to their backs, or engaged in bartering with traders for goods temptingly displayed in small bamboo sheds. A real Babel of languages is heard from strangers and natives, each of whom speaks the language of his tribe, the English itself when spoken requiring to be interpreted to the stranger from Europe. Fourah Bay College is about a mile to the east of the town, nearer the mouth of the river, and about midway between the College and the town is Bishop's Court, both commanding a fine view of the harbour and sea.

While in Sierra Leone we paid a visit to the village of Regent, in the mountain district, where Mr. Williams, who was for a short time connected with our Mission, is pastor. The scenery was delightful, and the view of the garrison and harbour obtained from the hill was very good. The mode of travelling in Sierra Leone is either in Bath chairs or by means of the hammock. My sister was to be carried up in a hammock. This is simply a hammock suspended from a long pole, carried on the heads of two men. Having walked a little way, she entered this peculiar carriage. It was held almost to the ground, while she entered, and then, lying at full length with a pillow under the head, with a jerk it was raised to the shoulder, and with another to the heads of the men. At first starting there is a swinging motion, and it is really amusing to see the expression in the countenance of one unaccustomed to this mode of travelling, as the hands tightly grasp the sides, or vainly endeavour to reach the pole. In a short time, however, the swinging ceases, and the motion settles into a pleasant jolt, and the traveller chats, looks about , holds her umbrella, or reads, and has quite a comfortable appearance. On arriving at their destination, careless bearers will sometimes drop their burden rather unceremoniously on the ground, leaving the unfortunate occupant to scramble up as best she may. Men travel a little differently. Sitting astride, with feet resting in a pair of stirrups, book in hand and umbrella overhead, it does not at all seem an uncomfortable mode of getting on, though for my part I always prefer to be on my own feet.

We spent a Sunday and a few days with Mr. and Mrs. Williams. A Sunday at Regent always reminds me of one of those Sabbaths pictures met with in books. The simple villagers assemble at daybreak in church to sing and pray, then later assemble in numbers in class and Sunday-school, while, at the sound of the bell, crowds flock to the service, in which all sing heartily, join earnestly in the prayers, and listen attentively; then the afternoon school and full church. The day seems one continual stream of prayer and praise, and rest [309/310] and joy and gladness reign throughout the village. The visitor is unconsciously refreshed and encouraged, and wonders why it is not so everywhere. There are many associations of deep interest attached to this village, once consisting of a much larger population than at present. Here was it that men such as Johnson and Weeks lived and preached, with a success almost resembling the apostolic days; and in the church there is a small tablet erected to the memory of Anna, wife of the Rev. J. W. Weeks (afterwards second Bishop of Sierra Leone), who entered on her rest after fifteen years' labour in Africa. These men have passed away, but the results of their labours are still seen, for their place is now supplied by native pastors, children of those whom they converted, earnest-minded, faithful men, supported in great measure by their congregations. It is almost unnecessary to add that the few days spent here were thoroughly enjoyed, and that we returned to Freetown invigorated by the mountain air and encouraged by what we had seen to go to our work and do our best.

Leaving Sierra Leone, we in due time arrived at the Isle de Los, my former station. The people were rejoiced to see us. It was evening when we landed, and our road to the Mission premises lay through the outskirts of the town. I thought we should get on quietly; but some one caught sight of us, and gave a shout: "Mastiri fa, Mastiri batta fa" (Master has come), and immediately we were surrounded by a crowd shouting "Innesene, innesene" (Welcome, welcome), while others, running to give their welcome, could also be heard. Then the hand-shaking and the introduction to my sister--"Un unja naara" (This is my younger sister)--and words of welcome to her were given, and we had to hurry on, only to be stopped by others, till we got clear of the town. It was quite dark before we got to the station, where we were met by the Rev. Mr. McEwen. During my absence he had been left in charge, and had been carrying on a successful work among the people. The house looked very snug, with its vines trailing up the sides of the door and forming an arch overhead, and the pretty little garden in front, beyond which beds of sweet potatoes told of something more substantial than flowers. Some tea, biscuits, and butter soon refreshed us, and, my sister having turned in, we two disposed ourselves for a long chat, carried on more in the form of a catechism. Till far in the night I answered questions about Barbados and the other West Indian Islands and their people, then I declared I would answer no more, and after a few more ineffectual attempts the questions ceased, and in a few minutes I was once more in a comfortable bed on dry land.

Early next morning the distant sound of the bell gave notice that it was time for matins, and, first getting a cup of coffee and some bread, I started alone for church. Mr. McEwen had been sick during [310/311] the past week, and had not yet begun to venture out to matins. About two dozen persons, besides school children, were present; and after the Third Collect I gave a short address, mentioning my reception in the West Indies, my return here and its object, and gave them the greeting from the West Indian Church, the last somewhat after this manner: "The Bishop greets you. My father and mother greet you. My brothers and sisters greet you. All the Christians in the West Indies greet you. It pleases them well to hear of your affairs, and always they pray to God on your behalf."

I was glad to find among them some whom I had left preparing for baptism now admitted to membership with Christ, though the greater part of those present were communicants. After service there were many greetings, and throughout the day numbers were coming to give their welcome. They were all disappointed to hear that I intended going to the Pongas instead of remaining among them. At this station I lived from October, 1868, to June, 1872. The greater part of that time I lived in a small mud house, hired from one of the people, and only finished the Mission-house late in 1871, and removed to it soon after, to undergo one of the heaviest trials with which man is visited. Still I look back upon the time spent among these simple-minded, affectionate people, though mixed with many trials, as among the happiest in my life; and it is with great reluctance, though of my own choice, that I now leave them for a station by no means as healthy, and without that hope of immediate success which one feels when among them.

In the afternoon the three of us attended evensong, after which we took the road through the village to the Mission-house, stopping to look at our old house. While preparing to go, our captain sent to say that the wind was contrary, and that we could not go till early next morning. Of course none of us felt sorry. Mr. McEwen expressed aloud his joy that he would have company for another night, and my sister was nothing loath to have a comfortable bed on dry land instead of being rocked in a boat. It was late before I escaped from the innumerable questions which poured forth faster than I could answer them.

At such a time old associations flood the memory, one thinks of everybody; he hears for the first time, perhaps, of changes which have taken place, hears how everything looks, and receives answers to questions overlooked in letters, and for the time he believes himself at home again. The Missionary is no exception to this rule, for though he has in a measure sundered home ties, and feels that he can willingly spend and be spent for the Lord Jesus, yet his home is dearer than ever to him now, and many times will the struggle against the depressing effect of this feeling arise.

Early next morning we were up, and while dressing a boatman came to say that the wind was fair. As everything had been sent down the evening before, we hurried on, meeting another messenger sent to hurry us. A splendid breeze was blowing, so without delay we were lifted in the boat, the sails were set, and by seven o'clock we had left the Isles de Los some distance behind us. The wind continued favourable, and very soon the Bramia Hills, a dark blue range, with clouds playing about the tops, forty miles to our right, could be plainly seen, and behind them, further south, other hills of higher elevation. In front was the long coast, fringed with dark green mangroves. About one o'clock we saw the Mawundi Hills, situated in the Pongas country, but about that time the wind had died away; however, it soon came on again, and we scudded along bravely, opening first the Tarboria River, one of the mouths of the Pongas; then some hours after a break in the mangroves told us that we were opening another river. It was the sand-bar entrance to the Pongas. The day was beautifully clear, and the dark green coast, with the tops of palm-trees showing above the mangroves like a number of umbrellas, could be distinctly seen a long distance ahead, ending in the Sabane Hills, about forty miles to the north of us. By five o'clock we had crossed the bar, which is sometimes fearfully rough, but was to-day quite calm. It was the best and shortest trip I have ever had from the Isles de Los to the Pongas, having frequently taken three or four days. On entering the river the wind died away, but as the tide was in our favour the men took the oars and began pulling. Even the river, fringed on both sides with its thick foliage of mangroves and beds of mud, seemed to present a more inviting appearance than usual. Many things, we know, take a tinge from our own feelings at the time; but from whatever cause, whether from having the tide in our favour and therefore, keeping in the river, we escaped the close contact with the mud, the rotting trees which had fallen down, and the horrible odour which one is too often obliged to endure; or whether it was the sunset glow lighting up the green trees and glistening on the mud, or whether it was joy and gratitude at once again getting near home, after having been so long among strange faces, or from all these causes combined, the sickly miasmatic appearance which the river seemed to have when I first came to it seemed now to have disappeared. My sister, too, appeared pleased and interested when I pointed out the branch of the river leading to Domingia, called the Big Pongas, and in our own branch the distant village of Yadina just becoming visible. I had hoped to show her Tintima, the village at which our Missionaries first landed, but it was dark when we passed it.

Some of you will remember the treatment our first Missionaries, [312/313] Leacock and Duport, received from the people of this town. They were slave-dealers; and though the chief had declared that they felt glad at seeing the Missionaries come among them, his great anxiety was how to get rid of them without offending the British Government, whose money he was receiving to put down the slave trade. He conceived the idea of starving them to death, and by his orders the people refused to sell them anything, or even to go near them. For days they lived on a few biscuits they found in one of their boxes, and as their provisions had been forgotten on board the ship which had carried them, their situation was becoming very critical, when God opened a way of escape by causing the chief of Fallangia to send an invitation to them to come to his town, as he was really very desirous of having Missionaries among his people He was an educated man, and for twenty years had he been praying daily that God would send Missionaries to this dark country. God had now answered his prayers. What a lesson to us all, that though the answer may be long in coming, it will surely come if we persevere! In this way Fallangia, though about twelve miles higher up the river, received the light of the blessed Gospel, while Tintima rejected it, and continues still in darkness. At that time it was a town of considerable importance, and a large trade was carried on there. A blight seems now to have fallen upon it, and though one or two attempts have been made to establish a factory in it, they have never succeeded, and the place seems fast becoming deserted. Some of the people in the country believe it to be a consequence of her rejection of the Gospel. So true it is that even in the world Christianity brings with it not merely spiritual but also temporal blessings.

About ten o'clock we arrived at Fallangia. Followed by a man and a couple of boys, with a lantern and some necessaries, we started for the Mission station, not quite half-a-mile distant. After repeated shouting and knocking on arriving, we succeeded in arousing the inmates, consisting of Mr. Douglin and some lads. Mrs. Douglin was on a visit to the Nunez, having gone to assist in comforting her sister, Mrs. Duport, in the heavy trial which she had just been called upon to undergo. Some tea and biscuits were soon prepared, and shortly afterward we separated for the night to sleep in our new home. Yes, home--home at last! The name is dear, even though it be in the midst of an African bush, and thousands of miles from those we love dearly, for it brings with it the feeling of rest, relief, satisfaction. Home! no farther to go. A loving Father had brought us through cyclone, and hurricane, and other dangers of the sea to our journey's end; and in looking back from the time we left the West Indies, we cannot but be grateful for the many special mercies and blessing received from His hands, teaching us doubtless to look to Him and [313/314] trust Him in this new life which we are about to commence in this spiritually desert country.

Some of you will no doubt like to hear how the place looks at which we are going to live. I shall try and satisfy your curiosity before I go farther. The Fallangia Mission Station takes its name from the town of Fallangia, as it is built on land belonging to this town, from which it is about half-a-mile distant. It consists of about five acres of land fenced in, in the middle of which is the Mission-house. This is an up-stairs building, the upper part being built of wood, the lower of brick, with brick pillars supporting the piazzas. It is almost a square, and now that the piazzas are closed up it is capable of accommodating two Mission families. From the windows a fine view of the surrounding country can be obtained. A long road with oleanders planted on both sides leads to two large mud-walled buildings covered with grass roofs. These are the church and lower Mission-house. The church is not floored but matted. The inside looks neat and is well arranged. It will seat more than 200. The lower Mission-house is almost as large as the church. It is floored and, though grassed, is comfortable and more healthy than the upper house. You must not understand something dirty and uncomfortable by the term mud-house. A wall of solid mud, when whitewashed or rubbed over with the white clay which the natives use to whitewash with, can hardly be distinguished from a stone building. All the houses are not of solid mud; some are wattled and thickly daubed with mud, and even these when whitewashed, or half white and half bluewashed, look very fresh and tidy outside. The inside is soon blackened by the smoke from the fire burning in the centre of the mud floor. At some future time I hope to be able to give you some account of the houses of the people. The appearance of the country around us is wild, and a stranger would certainly say we were in the bush, for, looking from either side, nothing but grass nine or ten feet high, and half-grown trees, with here and there large trees among them, can be seen. At this season the people set fire to the grass, and day and nigh the fires roar and crack around us as the flames devour the grass and green leaves, and leap up at the larger trees. We take good pains to clear around our fence so as to cut off the communication between our yard and the surrounding country. Having done this we look without fear, though with awe, upon the roaring element around us. No houses are visible from our station (except for one in the direction of Fallangia); even the towns in our vicinity are hidden by a thick grove of mango and silk-cotton trees. From our east windows there is a fine view of some hills about forty-five miles distant, named the Sumburri, from which a long range of hills runs southward, almost forming a semi-circle around us. From our northern windows the Mawundi Hills to [314/315] the west of us appear quite close, though about twelve miles. You will perceive that we are away by ourselves, and thereby escape the closer contact of the river, and the dancing and shouting, drumming and gunning which sometimes go on in the town. Our situation also affords more freedom to the people of other towns who are members of our congregation, or are desirous of visiting the station.

I was up early next morning assisting Mr. Douglin in the early matins. The service here is as hearty as at the island, as very few adults attend, and sometimes only the school children. Then the bringing up of our luggage occupied some time, and here at once began my sister's experience of African life. A boy comes running up with a broad smile on his face, giving the idea that he has some good news to communicate. The news turn out to be that a man has thrown down the box of ware and all are broken. Presently the man puts in an appearance with the box, a side of which is broken out. The contents are taken out: tureen, plates, and dishes, all smashed. No, not all, thanks to the careful packing in Sierra Leone. There is no use fretting. One does not live in Africa five or six years without getting accustomed to this sort of thing. For instance, three cracked tea-cups, a sugar basin with a hole in the side, and a tea-pot without a cover, always keep in remembrance the throwing down in a similar way of a box of china tea-service some years ago. Last month Mrs. Douglin lost her box of ware in the very same manner. It is a pity some one does not invent a set of ironware for such slippery hands and heads. The other things were brought up in safety.

During the following days visitors were continually dropping in to bid us welcome. Mr. Douglin and myself paid visits to the different out-stations connected with this, viz., Tamia, Backia, Sangoia, and Kinaia, distant from half-a-mile to four miles from us. Other towns more distant contain one or two Christians, but only occasional visits can be paid to them. These other places we visit weekly. My visits, however, were soon cut short by the acclimating fever which one has to undergo on first coming to this country. Three days after me my sister was also down. Of course mine would only be for a few days, and within two weeks after I was seized I was up and busy as ever, though feeling rather weak. My sister's attack will probably last some weeks. At the time I began this letter to you she had been down about ten days. And now after some weeks there is a change for the better, thanks to the mercy of a loving Father. I believe that in these fevers a great deal depends upon the care and attention which the patient receives.

I have carried this letter beyond the length of prudence, and must now bring it to a close. Another time I hope to tell you of some of the customs of the people. Even while I write this I hear the beating [315/316] of drums and a great deal of singing and hand-clapping, and this is said to be the preliminary of a great simo festival which a chief near us wishes to hold. In the town (Fallangia) there are whispers of a great witch palaver being on foot, in which some of the Christians are said to be involved. These I must leave for the present with a promise of writing you soon again.

I cannot, however, conclude without asking you to bear in mind the work which my sister and I, together with those already working here, have come to perform. To write this notice of our journey was not the object which brought us, nor was it a desire to see what Africa is like and then return home. No. We came to live here in order to preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to men and women who had never heard of Jesus, and who either trust in greegrees and other charms, and believe in witchcraft and other superstitions, or are worshippers of snakes, idols, or evil spirits. These poor Susus have none of the privileges which you enjoy. There are no Sunday-schools, no teachers, no ministers, no Bibles, no knowledge of a Saviour; alas! from childhood to old age they remain in the same ignorance and spiritual darkness. We in the West Indies, feeling the ties of relationship which bind us to West Africa, have undertaken to send the Gospel to these poor Susus. It is a great responsibility we have undertaken, but "the love of God constraineth us." In sending the Gospel then to these people we are giving the cup of cold water. Let me ask you all, my dear friends, not to omit putting your drop in this cup, by praying for those poor Susus who are not yet in the fold, and by praying, too, for the Missionaries who have brought the cup you have sent. We need the prayers of all. For we continually see sin--gross sin--abounding all around us, and are in great danger of being touched by it, or of lowering the standard of holiness, and there are besides trials, and sickness, and longings after home tempting us to turn back. And while you pray, remember that prayers and alms go together. Our great need at present is men--men willing to labour and spend themselves for Christ.

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