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How to navigate to "Straying Home," my e-book about adolescent self-discovery through global travel. Just click on a Chapter tab, 1 to 5, immediately below.
In the late afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 23, the ship cast
off with me on board but without my travel partner, Bill. My transportation was
a coastal steamer of Compagnie Maritime and I learned a new French vocabulary
word: paquebot. I was traveling on a paquebot—a type of vessel that carried
both freight and passengers. The itinerary for the ship began in Bordeaux and
ended in the Congo.
If anything about ship travel is romantic, it’s in the boarding.
Passengers, excited to be aboard and set off on their journey, arrive in a
continual stream. Cranes load tons of mail, then food for the journey, and
finally, automobiles. Holds are covered with boards and canvas. The huge cranes
are quieted. A blast of the whistle, the gangplank is pulled away, hawsers and
cables are released, and the ship slowly pulls out into the current of the Garonne
River. Thirty miles downstream it slips out to open sea. France disappears over
I was switching back and forth between watching the hubbub
of departure and ruminating on the abrupt break with Bill. But soon I realized
that I must let go of my sense of guilt over not being able to lend him money.
I had to find my room. That gave me something concrete and
practical to do.
I shifted my focus to finding the third class quarters and settling
into my room. To get there, I asked for help from a crew member. “Easy,” he said. “Go down.”
I clambered down the metal stair treads to the third class level and found my assigned
cabin, #207. Third class was ‘way down in the hull. The cabin contained two
bunk beds, or four sleeping spaces and a porthole. The departure’s most
important discovery: I’d have three roommates. Exhausted from the constant pressure and fast action of the
past few days, I was anxious to drop into my bunk bed.
But first, I met my
The first to appear was a young man traveling to the former
French Congo. He spoke no English and we struggled to communicate, but I
learned that he’d landed a teaching job in Brazzaville. Another cabin mate was
a missionary priest headed to the Congo. Since he also spoke no English we only
shook hands and exchanged greetings.
The third cabin-mate was a middle-aged, a mustachioed businessman I'll call Pierre.
He spoke English fluently, communicated with ease, and struck me immediately as
very polite. He seemed eager to practice my language. He said that he was bound
for a job in Conakry. Finding a roommate with a good command of English was
serendipitous event number one. Getting the sense that he’d be a friendly
roommate was serendipitous event number two.
After greetings among the four us of in French, Franglais
and English, I climbed up into my bed and fell asleep as the ship slipped into
the River Garonne and headed downstream toward the Atlantic Ocean. I napped briefly but
soundly and then awakened. I just wanted to think on how just a couple of
months in Europe had deepened my understanding of Western history and simultaneously
clarified my self-understanding. I’d always realized that the world of the West
was vastly deeper than the postmaster’s log cabin in Tacoma’s Point Defiance
Park. That little pioneer wood cabin enshrined the virtues of the American West
distant places, including wandering to distant places, but now I’d set it into
a much deeper context.
For the next few minutes I imagined that I was, in 1960, the embodiment
of the quest to discover the world around me that had motivated Columbus, Drake,
Magellan, and the Portuguese who first rounded Cape Verde, the westernmost
point of Africa. More realistically and down to earth, I was seeking to know
the broader world while better knowing myself. The ship was gliding downriver
smoothly and these good thoughts came easily.
I soon realized that if I wanted to converse with anyone in
third class it would be my roommate, "Ami". He seemed to be the only English
speaker. We ate supper together that evening.
"Ami" questioned me about what I was did in Europe and hoped
to accomplish in Africa. “I hope to become a really good traveler,” I replied.
“I’d like some adventure.” Of course, I had more important goals, such as
meeting Christian leaders and experiencing cultures other than my own, but
wanted to hold those back until I knew my conversation partner better.
“Well, then, have you
made some progress developing travel skills?” he asked?
“Of course I’ve made progress,” I said. “In Bordeaux during
the past four days, I jumped over huge travel barriers.” I briefed him on the
visa problem, the rushed trip to Paris and back, and finding the friendly
inn-keeper. I told him about Bill, the Kombi, our use of it as a traveling
hotel room, and Bill’s choice to fly rather than travel by boat. I explained
that I looked forward to relaxing onboard. The staff will provide all the
essentials, right? And I’ll get some rest.
“Well then, why are you going to Africa?” Ami asked.
Ami liked to begin questions with the phrase, “well then.”
“In fact, I’m surprised to be heading toward Africa! Traveling
there would have been unthinkable to me even one year ago. I have Bill, my
travel partner, and a friend in Basel to thank for pointing me southward.”
“Don’t you have some fear? Before today I’ve never heard of
an American heading to Guinea on a French paquebot. You are out of your realm.”
“Actually, I’m hoping that my new travel skills will work
for me in territories I know almost nothing about,” I said. “But in Sierra
Leone I have contacts who will help me.”
“Perhaps you will be okay. We’ll talk more as we travel,”
For the first few
hours of the voyage, I rested and made a new friend. Those were serendipitous
events numbers three and four. I enjoyed the smooth sailing down the river.
Strict regimentation by class was a feature of this paquebot. As a third-class passenger, I
was allowed free roam of the second-class deck, but could not show face in the
salon. I was a slow learner about class distinctions and restrictions.
Ignorance is a feeble excuse, but I did like the second-class salon, above the
deck with a view of the surroundings from upholstered chairs. When I entered,
though, stewards rudely expelled me, not once but twice, before I got the
message into my head: “Stay out.” I worked at accepting my lot as a third class
passenger, but it was difficult to be shut out of that comfortable lounge.
Le General Leclerc,
ready to sail
Only people who could or would pay the high fare were
allowed in first class territory. When word got about that I was interested in
missionary life I was told that Alfred Schweitzer, famed theologian and medical
missionary, had traveled in the same ship, but in first class! I was overjoyed
for Schweitzer and wished for a travel budget equal to his.
But still, third was not the lowest class. I could hardly
believe this but Ami told me that a fifth class (on the open deck) was provided
to African coastal traders starting in Dakar and continuing south. They slept
right on the open deck to guard their trade goods. I tried to identify with the
traders who would board the ship. Perhaps I’d have a chance to speak with them
and find out about their lives.
Aside from Ami, I found no other traveler who spoke
English. My thoughts went to a family friend—the immigrant from Paris back in
Tacoma. She’d provided me with a few lessons in her native language, off and
on, during high school and college. Madame McLean’s greatest gift to me was
confidence. “Speak to the French in their language,” she’d advised. “They’ll be patient and help you.” I was
surprised by her encouraging confidence, and, frankly, I doubted it. Every
other person who advised me said the French would look down their Gallic noses
at me unless I knew their language. I was prepared for the worst.
Nowhere was Madame
McLean’s advice more important than on the paquebot.
Of the 80 or so third-class passengers, all greeted and conversed with each
other in French. No matter whether I was at a meal with them or in the lounge,
they were chatting in their own language. I think it was the only language they
knew. I did exchange greetings in French with my fellow passengers. Beyond
that, I was shut out of their conversation circles.
Every time I arrived at the dining room for breakfast I’d
sit at a standard table for six. Generally, four or five French were present
already, waiting to be served their strong coffee and a roll. All would look at
me and one or two would smile. One would say, “Ça va?” I translated that to
myself as “everything okay?”
I smiled back and said, “Oui. Ça
va.” (Yes, it’s going okay.) “Et vous?” (And how about with you?) That’s about
the extent of my ability to converse. The French went back to talking among
themselves. But just like Madame McLean said, the French speakers were happy
that I tried to greet in French.
If there’s a seat left, Ami arrives in time to sit there. He and I chat in English and he translates our give
and take to our table mates. Soon they ask him to ask me questions, such as,
“Where in America are you from?” “What do you think of Bordeaux?” “Where in
Africa are you going?” They seem to need information and opinions. I supply both
as requested, but only if Pierre is there to translate.
Fortunately, with Ami I can exchange real ideas and trade
important information. He and I quickly form a friendship and I depend on him
for advice while he depends on me for a brush-up in conversational English.
Seasick Too Soon
Back on the evening of departure, the ship sailed smoothly down
the waters of the River Garonne into the Bay of Biscay. Immediately it was
clear that the sea was in a foul mood. It was hurling 20- to 30-foot swells
directly at the bow of the paquebot
as soon as it entered salt water. The oncoming swell would raise the bow out of
the water. Once the ship crested the peak of the wave, the bow quivered and levitated
for a moment, then plunged into the next trough. During that descent, the ship
and my bunk bed fell faster than I. Airborne, I would follow, only to hit the
mattress with a thud as the bow smacked into the trough with a huge splash. The
propeller drive shaft would revolve rapidly and vibrations shook the entire
ship until the propeller descended back into the tough of the wave.
I was shockingly seasick, far more than when fishing with
Dad on the open Pacific Ocean, off of Westport, Washington. There, I’d
invariably spent the day leaning over the rail, which was bad. But my present
situation was much worse. I couldn’t walk! I discovered that if I forced my
head onto the pillow by holding on to the side rails of the bed, I could survive.
When I allowed my head to go airborne, I became dizzy and doubted my ability to
American Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, brought an entire day of vomiting.
The ship was heaving in the sea and I heaved in the sink. The air conditioning
system was pumping hot air, and all the while my cabin mates spent time on
their bunk beds smoking foul-smelling cigarettes.
God, bring me through
this, I prayed—all the way from the mouth of the River Garonne to Vigo, Spain—our
first port of call. I quit my praying, which was pinpointed on asking God for calmer
seas, only when the Foucauld entered into the beautiful Vigo bay.
My Friend, le Criminal
My friendly roommate, Ami, knew Vigo, and other ports, too,
as time would show. Clearly he’d traveled this same route before, perhaps
several times. At Vigo the Foucauld paused to take on more freight and
passengers. When the ship docked, Ami urged me to get back on my legs and
guided me to a restaurant onshore that served his favorite lunch: large Atlantic
shrimp marinated in wine and oil. I surprised myself at how quickly I recovered
my balance and my appetite as well. I was able to eat a few of these delicacies
and keep them down.
Over lunch Ami put me over the coals on the question of
racial discrimination in the States. I admitted the seriousness of
discrimination but roasted him over the Algeria question. French control of
territory extended almost worldwide at the time, and the Algerian liberation
movement had fought for years for independence. The French, and particularly
Charles DeGaulle, would not cede control. “Yes, Ami, liberty is good, but
for whom? For American black people, certainly. But how about Algerians? What a
crazy thing for you to bring up discrimination in the U.S. when your own
country won’t give independence to Algeria!” Our tempers rose, and we became quite
angry with each other.
We butted heads on other topics, also. He said, “I was forced
out of the Catholic Church because I was so bad. But, I don’t worry: as long as
I’m good to everyone, that would be sufficient religion for me.”
Naively perhaps, I pointed out the scriptural solution of salvation
for him. He ignored it, preferring to rest his hope on his moral treatment of
others. Remorsefully, I thought that maybe I sounded dogmatic to him. Schaeffer
would have sided with me, I knew. But I was evangelical, not dogmatically
Ami gustily expressed his disgust at men who bore
children by women other than their wives, but he said he saw nothing wrong with
his sleeping with any woman who would permit it. All of these variant notions
were bound up in one thin little chain-smoker who resembled Groucho Marx—moustache
We agreed to disagree and walked back to the ship. When we
shoved off from Vigo, my health problem shifted from throwing up to diarrhea. A
cabin mate (what a benevolent friend!) gave me a shot of paregoric, an
anti-diarrhea narcotic drug my mom had given me during childhood. An even better
thing: the sea smoothed out, and the ship quit bouncing. I felt much better
As third-class passengers, we were regimented each day by rigid
meal times. At 7 a.m., we’d gather in a centrally-located dining area on the
same below-decks level as our sleeping rooms. Breakfast consisted of great French
bread, jam, and a horrible brew wrongly-described, so I thought, as coffee.
Lunch at 11 a.m. was a meal I truly anticipated. Served in
four courses, the pattern was routine and the servings were big. First came the
hors-d’ouerves, then a meat course, a meat-and-vegetable course, and, finally, fruit.
At 4 p.m., we had our third meal, almost like breakfast: tea
with French bread and jam. The bread was fresh-baked with a characteristically
crisp crust and I regarded it as a very special treat.
At 6 p.m., we were served a dinner in the same general format
as lunch. The fourth course every single evening consisted of a cheese with a
rancid smell. The French relished their smelly cheese; I thought it
In total, we had plenty of food every day. Since I’d paid
for passage, including food in advance, I was able to avoid spending any part of
my small wad of $80, just as I’d hoped.
Wine was part of the evening meal. I was a teetotaler in
principle, excepting only that one stein of ale back in Heidelberg. But, given
this opportunity and the encouragement of my table mates, I thought, what can it hurt? Okay, I’ll honor the
French by having a glass of their wine. Even though I drank only a couple
of glasses on the entire voyage, I brought to an end my lifetime record of
complete abstinence. Yes, I forsook my steadfast teetotaler culture, but only
slightly. The red Bordeaux table wine, aged in French oak barrels and served nightly
as part of the meal, proved to be memorable—yes, unforgettable. I wondered how
a truly special Bordeaux wine might taste.
Between Vigo and our next stop in the Canary Islands, I finally
explained to Pierre about my plan to debark in Conakry, then travel on to Sierra
Leone and Liberia.
Also, I probed Ami about why he was headed to Africa. “For
a business opportunity?”
He answered matter-of-factly, “No. Because a judge gave me a
choice of leaving France or going to prison. I chose to leave.”
Ominous, I thought. A danger signal went off in my head. I
wondered, “He’s a split personality? Is this the same guy who told me he’s
trusting in his good treatment of others for his salvation?”
“But I do have
friends in Conakry. I can help you get settled in the town,” he continued.
“I’ve hoped for a friend in Conakry! Now I have one, but maybe
of a dangerous sort! Do I need this?” I thought.
Despite the apparent risk, I had no viable alternative.
you can do, Ami! Merci, mon ami.” Two
risks were presented to me, and I accepted both by associating with Ami: the
risk of tipsiness, which hadn't materialized at all, and that of guilt by
association, which still might.
But I hoped for reward.
Meat and Flies
We passengers were allowed only a few hours in the town of
Las Palmas, Canary Islands.
“Ah, it’s just as well,” I told myself. I could adjust. For though
I was excited to set my feet on Spanish soil for the very first time, our next
port of call—Dakar—tugged at me.
Dakar is a major city, the capital of Senegal. It occupies
an important site, the dramatic westernmost point of Africa, Cape Verde, where the
continent projects furthest out into the Atlantic Ocean. Once again we’d be
docked for just a few hours, no longer than it took to load some freight, a few
passengers, and provisions.
I longed to see colorful African dress in Dakar and I wasn’t
disappointed. Although the great majority awaiting on the dock were African
workers dressed prosaically in T-shirts and shorts and police officers were
uniformed, some Africans displayed flowing white robes and others wore
multi-colored gowns. The varied costumes I saw fulfilled my wish and went
In Dakar, laborers
loading goods for shipment by deck-class traders
As quickly as the gangplank was secure, I headed for town from
the port area on foot. My confidence was naïve. From the moment I reached the
end of the gangplank, vendors fell upon me like flies drawn to rotten meat. The
first man to approach me offered to take me to “the girls.” After I got rid of
him, others sought my attention to carvings, cigarettes, jewelry, and shoe
shines. The hopeful shoe shiners brazenly grabbed at my shoes. Vendors of other
items stood in my path and grabbed at my clothes to get my attention.
Once I passed the gauntlet of vendors and into some main
streets, the human kaleidoscope I saw contrasted to the surprising modern, stately
buildings and public gardens. Though Senegal had been achieved independence from
France a few months earlier, its architecture, of course, still reflected
French influence. I was sad to have so little time to explore the city.
But back onboard and headed further south, the ocean took on
a friendlier character. By then, I’d recovered from shipboard diarrhea, but I
picked up another health problem in Dakar—a high fever. Given my recent run of health
problems, I began to wonder if I’d have been wiser to spend $100 more to fly. Bill’s
plight in missing the boat began to seem like good fortune to me. I guessed
that he’d have found his money and was probably lounging in a hammock in
Freetown already. How simple and stress-free compared to the illnesses I was
enduring in ship travel. Perhaps to reach my lofty goal of “experienced
traveler” I needed a crash course in avoiding food and other health problems.
On the calm Atlantic, I soon recovered from fever and was
feeling optimistic again. When permitted, I was on deck to enjoy watching flying
fish, tuna, and porpoises flirting with the ship. I recovered a calm
On this leg of the voyage, I finally grew sick of that
rancid cheese served at every dinner. I thought that the chef should supply a
true dessert. One evening I impetuously gave my cheese to a table-mate. That generous
act drew shocked looks, laughter, and judgment calls. My fellow diners were
polite, but I’d just ventured beyond the pale. They saw their fromage as a delicacy. They must have
thought: “That American has no taste!”
Privately, I was very discretely thinking, “This taste is
just too rotten! Yuck!” My course in cultural compatibility would soon be
tested again at an even more elevated level in Conakry.
Into Communist Territory
As we approached Conakry, the capital of Guinea, I grew a
bit apprehensive about debarking there—not that I had a choice in the matter at
this point in the journey. I knew that Guinea had yanked its independence from
France in 1958 after a bitter, violent struggle. The French, it was reported, had
angrily stripped Guinea of any portable assets, right down to the copper wiring
from the telephone system, upon departure. Relationships between Guineans and French
persons must be terrible. A thought flashed across my mind. Perhaps speaking
only English might save me some trouble. I wouldn't be seen as French.
To make matters worse, the Soviet Union was vying with the United
States worldwide for international power. Reputedly, Guinea had found shelter
under the Soviet umbrella. Once they’d liberated themselves from France, the first
president of Guinea, Ahmed
Sékou Touré, had steered his country eastward
politically. An American magazine had proclaimed Guinea to be the Soviet
Union’s first colony in Africa.
How would I, as a U.S. citizen, be treated in
this hotbed of communism? I fretted that the Guinean officials and people would
be suspicious of me or hostile to me as an American. I might be in worse
trouble than in East Berlin, where secret police followed us around. Speaking
American English, I suddenly realized, would probably prove to be as big a
liability as speaking French in Guinea.
My first sight of Conakry’s harbor confirmed all that I’d
read about communism in Guinea, and brought it home through physical proximity.
As the paquebot slipped into the
harbor, I stood on deck and counted seven or eight sea-going freighters at
anchor, each flying a red flag from the stern.
In taking my first steps into this den of communists, I’d be
dependent on a Frenchmen. He’d be hosting me, an American. Guineans would see
us as twin enemies, Ami from the former colonial power and me from the
current enemy, the capitalistic United States. “I am jittery,” I told Ami.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Ami replied calmly. “I’ll be
met by a friend who knows how to maneuver here. No problem!”
Although very cautious, I tried not to let my anxiety show.
Just as he’d predicted, Ami was met at the gangplank by a
French friend dressed for the tropics in sandals, shorts, and an open-necked
shirt. Ami introduced me as his “new American friend.” The two Frenchmen offered
me a ride into town. With our bags, we bounced into town in the friend’s dilapidated
Citroen 2cv. I loved the Citroen 2cv as a line of cars from seeing them in
Europe, but this was my first chance to ride in one. With luggage and three
adults, it was cramped but thoroughly fun. C’est
joli, I said and smiled. My heart was in the ride and I passed beyond fear.
It helped that Ami remained calm and confident.
Once downtown, Ami's friend helped me stretch my $80 by
exchanging a few for Guinean francs on the black market. Next, he found me an
affordable hotel near the center of town. He hosted Ami and me for orange
drinks at then open-air bar, set up on a porch of the hotel overlooking the
street. After a few festive moments they hopped back into the 2cv and disappeared
from my life abruptly and totally. Before they left I had a chance to thank
Ami for his help and friendship. Ami disappeared as abruptly as he’d
appeared just a few days earlier. After he and his friend departed I never
encountered him again. I was very grateful to them for their generosity. They’d
given me a jump-start in Africa and asked nothing in return.
I was surprised that I’d encountered no hostility in my
first couple of hours from Africans through my association with two Frenchmen,
and I found it even more amazing that I noticed no antipathy from Africans toward
the Frenchmen themselves. Perhaps the other shoe would drop soon, I thought.
Restored Citroen 2cv,
sourced on 9/27/2012 from Wikipedia, photo in public domain.
The bar they’d chosen for drinks, as I said, was attached to
a small single-story hotel. It was Ami who suggested that I checked into this
particular hotel. “It’s cheap,” he’d said. I followed his advice, left my bags at
the desk without reviewing the room I reserved, and then went out to walk
around the block.
By good luck while
getting my bearings, I happened to pass the Air France office. I walked in and
easily made a reservation for Freetown. “Regrettably,” the agent said, “the first
flight will leave on Monday.” I had expected a Sunday departure. I suffered
money worries again. How can I afford the
exorbitant prices in this city where I’m a stranger for four entire days?
Even the tiny, supposedly cheap hotel seemed expensive.
While puzzling about my strained financial situation, I
walked a bit further up the main street and happened onto the American Cultural
Section of the U.S. Embassy. I decided to look around inside, where I found an
air-conditioned public reading room. I had nothing pressing to do, so I decided
to spend some time in the cooled library. I found some current American news
magazines after having had access to none during the preceding week. I read
some coverage of the John F. Kennedy campaign for president.
Comfortable chairs, the air conditioning, and the neatness
of the place drew me in and made me feel welcome. But the bonus came through meeting
a couple of English-speaking Africans who were using the library. I fell to
chatting with them and asked whether there was a way to get to Freetown other
than by air. The larger of the two men took me under his care and gave his name:
George Foster-Jones. That name has a distinguished sound, I thought.
George said, “I think I can arrange a trip by lorry for you on
tomorrow’s lorry. The trip takes only seven hours and is far cheaper than air
travel. It will be more interesting also.”
“Lorry?” I asked.
“Yes. It is the passenger truck.”
I liked the idea of a cheaper fare for lorry. That I’d
arrive a day or two earlier than by waiting for the scheduled airplane
departure was another cost-saving benefit. I thought to myself, it’s a go.
Excited at the prospect of travel by road, I arranged to
meet Mr. Foster-Jones later in the day and then walked right back to the Air
France office and cancelled my reservation. I also went to the U.S. State
Department office to inquire whether my visa was valid for such travel. The
office had closed for the afternoon.
I met up with George Foster-Jones later in the afternoon to
confirm that I’d go to Freetown by lorry. In this conversation, he offered some
information: that he was a member of the Christian Missionary Alliance Church in
Conakry and that he was a tribal nephew of Dr. Renner, a prominent pastor of
the EUB church in Sierra Leone. His verbal references gave me a comfortable sense
of security. “I’ve found a friend in time of need, just when I need one,” I
assured myself. I forgot my earlier fears of Conakry.
Given the savings I was about to realize, I switched from
feeling financially pressured and invited George to dinner at the hotel bar to
thank him for his favors. He exchanged some more of my dollars into English pounds
(the currency used in Sierra Leone) and promised to collect me at the hotel
next morning to take me to a place he called the lorry park. All of this was great
news and I was excited.
My hotel room cost 800 Guinean francs a night—over the $3
U.S. I’d budgeted. It was late in the afternoon when I finally asked the innkeeper
to take me to my room. He escorted me across an unpaved bare-earth open-air
courtyard. When he opened the door, a toad hopped out through a big crack
between the bottom of the door and the courtyard. Inside, I was greeted by some
roommates: mosquitoes, two cats, and an uncounted number of giant bugs up to 2 inches
long. I examined the room and realized that it had no toilet. Not good if the
diarrhea happened to return. The once-floor covering consisted only of patches of
remaining linoleum that had not quite worn off. Two of the four concrete walls
had a coat of yellow paint. The other two were unpainted. The bed consisted of a
thin pad on a taut wire mesh. The shower ran cold water only and the washbasin drained
onto the cement floor. The sub-standard features were all disappointments. The
yet-bigger problem was fact that there was no mosquito net and thus no way to
protect myself from malaria.
I thought, “I’ve never paid so much for so little in my
life!” I was also complaining to myself that meals in Conakry cost around $2
each. I thought, “Everything is twice as expensive as in France. Thank heaven I’m
leaving tomorrow morning!”
I’d hung my folding suitcase in the make-shift closet. As I
was removing my folding suitcase from the closet, I noticed a spider with a leg
span of about 3 inches crouching in the closet corner. The spider was shifting
rapidly this way and that and, I feared, about ready to jump on my arm and
knock me out with venom. I gave it plenty of respect and space.
Once I’d prepared a bit for the next day, I fell onto my
bed, tired from the stress of the day and drained by the highly humid tropical
air. I pulled the blanket completely over my head as a shield against mosquito
bites, a move I’d learned while using a sleeping bag near alpine lakes in the
Cascade Mountains. Mosquitoes were something my home territory had in common
with Conakry. But at home they weren’t malarial.
The First African Dance, Many to Come
Nightfall brought a change to the city. I’d watched daytime Conakry
street life and it moved quietly enough. There were plenty of people on the
street, but they just walked along easily. The light automobile traffic created
the only noise and it was low level. But after nightfall the warm, humid evening
air sizzled to the sounds of chants, dances, drums, and boy gangs running
through the streets. The steady murmur of voices, and of feet shuffling on the
bare pavement, formed a backdrop.
Disoriented by all of this, I slipped into fitful sleep, awakening
repeatedly to the sounds of loud outbursts of one sort or another.
Later that night I slept deeply, as if drugged—sleep of the
sort that overtakes one in hot and humid weather. Even in that state, the sound
of high velocity drumming aroused me. I picked out high drums and bass drums,
and wondered what the source of the infectious beat might be. I was caught
between curiosity and caution like a passerby noticing a bar brawl.
won. I pulled on clothes and left the hotel compound to find the source of the
Darkness dominated Conakry, though silvery moonlight
filtered through trees and shone between buildings. The moon was very
noticeable because there were no street lights. Here and there a street vendor
burned a candle or lamp, but I was seeking sounds, not sights. Walking slowly down
a side street, I knew I was closing in on the target. The drumming grew still
louder. Suddenly, looking through a truck-sized opening into a cement-walled empty
lot, I saw a score of Africans dancing in a circle under the light of the full
I watched and listened from the sidewalk through the break
in the wall. It was easy to notice an obvious pattern to the dance. A leader waited
in the center of the circle for a few minutes while three drummers increased
the tempo from slow to fast. The dancers picked up their pace to synchronize
with the drum. Bong, whomp, whomp. Bong,
whomp, whomp. Faster and faster. Finally, when the dancers were moving about
as rapidly as humanly possible, throwing their arms in the air with joyous laughter,
the leader blew his whistle, like a policeman directing traffic during the rush
hour. That brought the drumming and dancing to an immediate halt while the
dancers laughed, relaxed, and caught their breath. Then the cycle began anew.
The leader saw me peeking in, and he walked right over in my
direction. In a friendly manner, he welcomed me in French—and he seemed delighted
when I told him, “Je suis Américain.”
“Des États-Unis?” From the United States?"
monsieur.” (“You idiot,” I thought of myself. “You just advertised your capitalism
in Conakry, this hotbed of communism. You should keep some things private.” I prepared
mentally to go to jail.)
Greatly surprising me, the leader warmly invited me to stand
beside him in the center of the circle. He announced to the dancers that an
American was present. Everyone in the circle waved a welcome at me. As we
didn’t share a language in common no one could speak with me. Music was the
common language. They made the music and I moved to the rhythm. I hung out with
the friendly group them until about 11 p.m., when I returned to my room. I went
through an entire attitude shift. I felt exuberant and full of enthusiasm for the
Africa on whose shores I had landed. Africans had warmly welcomed me into their
Furthermore, I’d really enjoyed the music. My parents
deprecated modern American pop music as “jungle music,” rude and undeveloped in
contrast to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Now, having heard the jungle music
itself, I loved it! I couldn’t wait for more.
I would learn in the next weeks that I’d stumbled onto a
West African tradition that night in Conakry—dancing in the light of the full
Good Fortune and Bad
My first day and night in Africa passed. I’d already had
many experiences and noted them in my journal. When I woke up on the morning of
Day 2, I took some early morning time to explore more of the town. Later I would
meet with George Foster-Jones as previously arranged and he’d take me to the
lorry park, whatever that might turn out to be. Then I would be on my way to my
travel goal, Freetown, Sierra Leone.
The sun woke up a little later than I did, and when the rays
moved down from the treetops and hit the street level, heat built up immediately.
I thought, “Darrell, you’re not as bothered by the humidity and heat as when you
first experienced it in Dakar.” I took that as a good omen. Perhaps I was becoming
acclimated. I hoped so.
As I walked down the main street, I was jarred into the
realization that almost everyone else was walking, too. There were some
bicycles and a very few cars, but the streets were as crowded with people as
the sidewalks. Some men and women were dressed in long robes while other women
wore dresses and men shorts and shirts. I noticed plenty of police uniforms too.
Even at this early hour, cloth merchants, wood-carving
vendors, and food sellers lined the sidewalks. Offices of Air France, Guinean
governmental departments and businesses filled the street-side buildings and
would open for business later. Older stores’ cement walls were crumbling and their
tin roofs were rusting. Newer buildings were ultra-modern in design. In spaces
between the developed properties were public squares sporting palm trees and
other tropical plants. There was a beauty to the town, reminding me of photos,
perhaps in The National Geographic, I’d seen of Vietnamese towns. Apparently
the French left an architectural imprint in colonies, now independent
countries, far apart.
At the end of the street I found the Place de la Republique and the Presidential Palace. The palace was
a huge villa facing the ocean and surrounded by a high fence. I observed several
garages on the palace grounds, in which I saw six or seven European and
American cars ranging from a 1960 black Cadillac to slightly older models. I
began to wonder: “A communist’s Cadillac? This makes no sense.” There were
contradictions everywhere. Nothing was adding up except that it seemed less
onerous to be an American.
On the grounds of the presidential palace I saw many residential
buildings, servant quarters apparently, looking awkwardly out of place, as if
they all belonged in a rural village instead of next to the palace. Women were walking
about the palace grounds carrying babies on their backs. Children were tending
Back on the street toward my hotel, I was made to feel
unwanted again by what I took to be hate looks and jeers from young men in their
late teens. This reignited my earlier attitude. “Are Americans and Europeans
not wanted here, after all?” I wondered. Though nothing harmful came of the boys
and their looks and jeers, I couldn’t understand their intent. I grew cautious
Though I’d been all over the downtown streets by now, I’d seen
only one propaganda center—the American Library. There was no obvious evidence
of communist propaganda. But other signs of Russian presence, however, such as
Russian-made automobiles and trucks, were obvious.
I formulated a further question. I’d noticed a lot of hand-holding
between many male couples strolling the streets. “Is this a public display of homosexuality?”
I asked myself, “or just a sign of friendship?”
I discussed this when I met up with my new African friend,
George Foster-Jones, who confirmed the hand-holding as a sign of homosexuality. He
even said, “It is part of their religion.”
I questioned the linkage of sexuality and “their religion” but
pressed him with no further questions. His answer seemed tainted with
prejudice. I’d have to raise the question with other informed people if I got
On this, my first full day on African soil in a supposedly communist
city laced with many pedestrians and a few expensive cars, I remained curious about
discrepancies between what I saw and what I had expected to see. “I’ll have to
find a way to poke below the surface to figure things out,” I realized. West
Africa was going to be interesting, and possibly fun, if Conakry was typical.
George met me at the hotel and I checked out. George, a
stand-out from the crowds in his Western-style dress, set out to lead me to the
lorry park. I followed, dressed in a white shirt, jeans, street shoes, and a
hat for a sun shield. Behind me came the nearly-naked, barefoot boy I’d hired
to carry my bag, which he balanced expertly on his head. This procession of an African
in the lead followed by a white man and an African child was new to me but
probably not to onlookers. I felt conspicuous, but no one seemed to notice or
It was 8 a.m. now, and crowds of pedestrians grew thicker as
we trekked along. We passed a teeming Saturday market. Finally, we came to a
“It is the lorry park.” George waved his hand over the
scene: a score of trucks, resembling Renault bread vans with the sides cut out
and benches installed. The drivers had parked their vehicles about the field in
no apparent order. Each truck was surrounded by a crowd of Africans waiting to
get on board, throwing their head-loads to a driver’s assistant on the rooftop
luggage rack while bargaining for a cheaper fare with the driver. I felt
extremely fortunate to have the big guide, George, to help me cut through the
George found a driver who would take me to the Guinea/Sierra
Leone border for $2.75. As a special privilege, the driver allowed me to sit in
the front seat instead back in the passenger area. My bag went up on top with
the other bags and baskets. I climbed up into the front seat, which I shared
with another passenger. We waited while all 20 or so passengers filled the
benches that lined each side of the truck. The other passenger in the cab was a
young Ghanaian, a member, so he told me, of his country’s diplomatic corps. George
arranged for him to look after me, and I felt comfortable in his care. George
went off to get his day underway. There was no formality to our parting, but
just a quick goodbye. It seemed abrupt considering the times we’d shared in the
past couple of days. Much later I realized that he probably wanted a parting
gift of money.
Finally, at 9:30 a.m., we were ready to go. But as the truck
pulled out of the lorry park, an old African dressed in sun-tans rushed
forward, signaled to the driver to stop, and demanded to see my travel papers.
He required me to get my suitcase down from the rooftop and show him the visa
section of my passport. He seemed unable to read, but when he saw the paperwork
he demanded that I come with him to the gendarmerie,
the police station!
I had no choice. The old boy seemed angry with me, and no
one, neither the diplomat nor the driver, stepped up to my defense. So off we
went, him on his bicycle, his friend accompanying him on a second bicycle, and
me, with my bag over my shoulder, following them back down the main street. The
last word from the Ghanaian passenger was that the lorry would follow me to the
police station. Thus began the second procession of my second day in Conakry.
This procession was stressful. I flipped from relaxed to
worried! What could I do with a guy like the curious old man who had me in tow?
I realized I could do nothing but obey. But he, seemingly, could do anything
with me! I tried to appear confident and masked my inward cringing. What was this
man’s role and authority, exactly?
Plainclothesman? I had no idea.
After seven or eight blocks we arrived at police
headquarters. Here a uniformed officer stepped out from behind the counter and checked
through all of my gear. He was pleasant but didn’t communicate anything about
his purpose. I was free to race from one possible suspicion to another.
“Perhaps they suspect me of smuggling?”
The officer couldn’t speak English, but after his search I
understood from his explanation in French that all was well.
I stored my papers and got another boy to carry my suitcase
on his head. My detainer led out of the station once again and then down the
street on his bicycle. I marched right behind him, my new carrier behind me, retracing
the same route we’d just traversed. No one had told me where he was taking me,
so I had hopes of getting back on the lorry. But just before we reached the
lorry park, the old man turned left and motioned to me to follow. In five more
blocks, we arrived at the Office of National Security!
“This is getting serious,” I thought. “I need to act quickly
or I’ll miss the lorry!”
I struck a deal with the bicyclist, who apparently had me
under arrest. If he’d get me out of this situation and back on the lorry, I’d
give him a can of American instant coffee. I’d brought the small tin along for just
such emergencies. That was a difficult position to negotiate in French, but “coffee”
sounds much like “café,” and he signaled that he understood.
At National Security, an official handed me a yellow paper
headed, “Demand for Temporary Visa.” This done, the bicyclist led me back to
the lorry park. But, of course, the lorry had left without me.
In a huff, I left the plainclothesman without giving him the
coffee. The boy carried my bag over to the American library where I hoped to find
and consult with George. I beat him there. When he arrived and found me reading
National Geographic, he registered a little surprise. I related the
events and he chuckled. I still had no idea why I’d been yanked off the van and
George didn’t offer an explanation. But he was relaxed about it. We decided
that I should re-book the airline reservation. But also, George would see a
friend of his about taking me with him the following day when he was to drive
to Sierra Leone. This way, I’d have two irons in the fire.
When I returned to the library from the airline office,
George already had a man ready take me to a hotel. Once there, I learned that the
room would cost me $4 a night, but it was a big improvement over the first
hotel in regard to comfort. I rated it as roughly equivalent to a $3 room in Paris.
It was no great surprise to me to learn that my second-floor room adjoined a
suite occupied by East German men in the country on some kind of governmental
mission. We met in the hallway as they were leaving for a meal and greeted each
other in German. They explained who they were and seemed friendly enough.
Conakry was certainly cosmopolitan.
That afternoon, I returned to the lorry park and arranged for
a seat on the following day with the original lorry, now back from the border
and scouting for tomorrow’s load of passengers. Thus, I had three irons in the
fire for transportation and was playing all possible angles that I could imagine.
Meanwhile, I wondered what would prevent a reenactment of the day’s problems. The
National Security personnel had added nothing new to my passport. Yet, it was
the lack of something in the passport that had tripped me up in the first
I got out my tourist information, scoured it and found that,
to leave the country, one needed a Visa
de Sortie, an exit visa. What? This translation seemed correct, and yet I
was incredulous. I’d never heard of an “exit visa.” I lit out at a rapid pace
for the National Security office to get the visa. It took about an hour for me
to talk my way in French past three officials and get approval for the exit
visa. However, the officials had to hold my passport, naturally, to wait for
another official who would stamp it.
Why,” I kept wondering, “hadn’t I understood this
That evening, I waited for George to stop by my hotel. He’d
agreed to meet me there and tell me if his friend would drive me to Sierra
Leone. George never showed up, and I never saw him again. I was back to two
irons in a fire that seemed to be cooling rapidly. Generalizing about Guinea, my
idea was that no one gives a damn what happens or when, so why try to fight it?
At this point someone else had my passport. I had no evidence of an exit visa
and, apparently, no friend to lean on.
“Am I realistic, or depressed?” I knew I wasn’t hopeful, but
was confused and couldn’t assess my feelings.
On Saturday, by surprise, a uniformed policeman delivered my
passport to me at the hotel, along with paperwork showing a reservation for me on
Air France to Sierra Leone. Amazingly, things
were beginning to work again. “Yes, people do
care after all!”
“Merci beaucoup, monsieur.” I repeated my thanks several
times. “Merci. Merci beaucoup.”
The visa merely stated, “Vu au Départ de Conakry pour
Freetown par Avion le 4-12-1960.” Fine, but there was no way I could depart on
the fourth. I hoped for leeway because I couldn’t depart until the sixth
according to the flight reservation. But, per the stamp, the issuer was
“Defense Nationale et Securité,” which seemed sufficiently authoritative to me,
at least, to get me around any obstacle.
On Sunday I ate only one meal—midday lunch--at the hotel restaurant.
I was back to penny-pinching, of necessity.
The next day—Monday, Dec. 6—I got myself by taxi to the airport,
easily identified the Air France waiting room by 8 a.m., and prepared to board—destination
Freetown! I was filled with anticipation of finally getting there. At 9:35 a.m.
the plane, originally scheduled to depart at 8:30, was still nowhere in sight
and, meantime, I’d been absolutely confined by order of a security man to a certain
chair. Every time I got up to move around or get a drink, a policeman walked
over to insist that I sit down again. Why was I confined? It felt like house
arrest, but it was chair arrest. I just hoped to get to Freetown soon so that I
could have something to eat and could talk with someone who might be sympathetic.
While waiting there, I befriended a fellow traveler. He,
too, was confined to a chair—the one next to mine. We had nothing to do but to
compare notes. An Israeli, he gave his name as Sam. He said that he was travelling
on business and I asked about his experiences.
“Business is difficult here,” he reported, “because meetings
are difficult to schedule—and travel is tough. And it’s costly, too. Those two factors
alone impose big costs up front.”
“Yes,” I thought to myself, “and a perfect illustration
might be our sitting here hour after hour awaiting the arrival of a tardy
airplane. It’s probably gone down somewhere. Who knows?”
I told him, “Maybe my case was easier than yours.” I related
the story of Ami's help in getting me an initial toe-hold in town and George
Foster-Jones’s friendship and good intention in seeking transportation by lorry
“Actually,” I had to admit, “the officials in the police and
immigration bureaus worked fairly efficiently--and without hostility, actually—to
get me out of the country legally. But I sure see what you mean about additional
costs and waste of time.”
But when I related the fun I’d had at the moonlight dance
four nights earlier, he seemed envious.
In those four days, I’d just touched the surface of the
remarkable, tropical Conakry. I met up with the power of tropical heat, experienced
travel difficulties, and overcome language problems. Optimistically, perhaps, I
thought I’d made a good start on the ground in Africa. I graded myself as more
seasoned as a traveler, probably, coping at a "B level" at least.
I didn’t report my main observation to Sam—didn’t feel safe
discussing it right there under the nose of the guard—which was, “Don’t be overly
swayed by journalism headlines about African political matters.” I felt that
the magazine headlines reported far more hostility toward America than I’d
observed. The typical person I’d met in Conakry was more concerned with daily
rhythms of life than with international power politics. I’d felt no hostility
from anyone other than the teenagers on the street, and perhaps not even from
At noon, with no airplane in sight yet and no explanation of
the delay, Air France offered us waivers for lunch. As a fringe benefit, perhaps,
the policeman allowed me to leave my chair and eat in the dining room.
Finally, at 2:30 p.m., the airplane glided in through the rippling
heat waves. “At last,” Sam and I agreed. As I boarded the plane, I felt I couldn’t
wait any longer to set foot on the soil of Sierra Leone. And, indeed, the short
70-mile flight whooshed us to Lungi International Airport in just minutes. I didn’t kiss
the ground of Sierra Leone but I did feel an impulse to do just that. Instead,
I planted my feet on the ground. Having a foot on the ground is more practical
than kissing it.
Hassles Past; Freetown at Last
The air terminal at Lungi field was a small building with a
single-room passenger area. On a page in my passport, I collected a “Seen on
arrival” stamp from the immigration office, this one misdated a day earlier
than I stepped off the plane. Next, a vehicle took the arriving passengers a few miles to the northern shore of the Sierra Leone River estuary where we transferred to a small ferry to cross the waters to Freetown. “There’s so little conversation or eye contact among the passengers during the ground ride and water crossing. It’s almost as if we don’t trust each other,” I thought.
The launch ride provided a wonderfully scenic panorama. From
the water, Freetown appeared as a horizontal line of whitish buildings, strung
east to west, along a shoreline backed by forest-clad hills and small mountains,
a setting more attractive than either Conakry’s or Dakar’s. Those cities lacked
any visible inland mountains or hills behind the town. As a Northwesterner,
used to seeing mountains behind a town, I was instantly attracted to Freetown. I
also had questions. How would I find Bill in Freetown? I hadn’t heard from him
since our abrupt separation back in Bordeaux. And, would he and I have a host
family here in Freetown or were we on our own?
As the ferry approached the dock I saw Bill waiting there. Along
with Bill was a second, distinguished-looking older white man, probably an
American judging by clothing style. “What a relief,” I thought as I waved to
Bill. Once the ferry docked, I grabbed my bag, walked up the ramp, shook Bill’s
outstretched right hand and said, “Great to see you, friend!” He
introduced Rev. Les Shirley, an American missionary of the EUB Church and
Principal of the Albert Academy. This was the secondary school formerly
administrated by Ambassador Kelfa-Caulker, who’d befriended Bill and me in
London. Both Bill and Rev. Shirley displayed very warm, welcoming smiles.
A Freetown beach,
1960: Fisher folk bringing in the catch
After greetings, Bill and I began to
reestablish our tattered relationship. He reported that he’d arrived a few days
earlier by air from Europe. He also related his experiences after our separation
in Bordeaux. He made it through his night of penniless homelessness and
collected the refund for the unused boat fare the next morning. Then he filled
the Kombi gas tank and drove on to Madrid. In Madrid he received his wired funds
just as he hoped. With financing in hand he stored the Kombi in Madrid and flew
on to Freetown.
“How effortless,” I thought to myself. “How fortunate for
you,” I said to Bill. Bill was more fortunate than me to have had such easy
travel. He skipped the illnesses, rip-offs, risks and delays that I
experienced. But I, though my journey was more difficult, had met some amazing
people and explored two key African cities: Dakar, so very briefly, and Conakry
at more length. I’d entered Africa step by step rather than in one big leap. I
thought that I’d had the better experience, overall.
What a West Africa welcomed us both! It was our great good fortune
to visit West Africa during the period of national independence movements. I’d already
seen two cities in different phases of transition from colony to independent
nation. Senegal had attained independence from France only a few weeks before I
took my first walkabout in Dakar while my ship was in port. I saw the
Senegalese flag—green, yellow and red horizontal strips with one yellow star—flying
proudly over public buildings. The three-story presidential palace, with its two
storied portico framing the entryway, was regal, like one might see in London
or Paris. It would be approached by dignitaries on state occasions through a
gate of wrought iron pickets. Though the gate was closed and closely guarded, I
glimpsed presidential “royalty” at a level befitting the great poet-statesman
and first president of the Republic of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor.
I saw plenty of poverty in Dakar, of course, but that isn’t
what dominated my memory. At the top, I recalled images of national pride, straight
streets and palm-shaded courtyards, and of nascent wealth in a coastal desert
republic. Further down in my remembrances I certainly could not forget the vendors
pushing their goods nor beggars pleading for money.
Conakry was different. Guinea had won its independence from
France—the same colonial power that had ruled Senegal—two years and a month
before I walked down the gangplank and disappeared into the streets of the
capital. Right off, this town seemed smaller than Dakar. “Rustic” came to my
mind when I tried to describe Conakry, especially the seemingly rural village laid
out helter-skelter on the grounds of the presidential palace. Conakry’s
downtown buildings were smaller, the security personnel (police and army) more
obvious, and the foreign flags more Eastern. To me, at first glance, Guinea
seemed to be struggling like a child to find its identity, something that
Senegal, perhaps, had somehow already attained.
Curiously, people had greeted me more graciously in Guinea
than in Senegal. Yes, I was yanked from the lorry in Guinea. Still, no one in
Conakry had pulled at the laces of my shoes or grabbed at my clothing, like
villagers plundering the household of a deceased neighbor, and no one had
begged for money. George, the friendly English-speaker, stepped forward and
tried to help without overtly asking anything in return. And the Guinean police
treated me well—slowly but with respect—even when they discovered my papers to
be out of order.
I’d snatched glimpses of two nations newly independent from
France. How would I ever know whether the friendlier feel of Conakry was merely
a one-time combination of circumstances or was a valid sampling of the town? I’d
need more time in Dakar, for sure, and perhaps in each of them. Though I’d
merely scratched the surface, each seemed intriguing to me.
And now, Sierra Leone. I’d have an opportunity to see a
third situation--that of a small nation emerging from over 150 years of British
rule. Though Independence Day, scheduled for April 27, 1961, wouldn't arrive for
weeks, preparations had long been underway, from the patient building of a
state apparatus to the construction of independence monuments.
Hospitable and skilled hosts—both expatriate and African—would
guide Bill and me, Les Shirley informed us. He said that later in our stay hosts
would guide us north to a town named Kabala and east as far as another town, Koidu,
in diamond mining country. In Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city located in the
interior, we’d see many sights including the monumental clock tower under
construction in preparation for the celebration of independence.
much to my liking, Les said our hosts would attempt to provide entrée to traditional
Les Shirley’s carefully stated plans for us helped me to
realize that the EUB missionaries had learned their stuff. Their church history
in Sierra Leone ran back to the 1850s. I felt fortunate to be in very qualified
hands. The time in Sierra Leone would last several weeks and be far more
thorough than what I’d experienced in Dakar and Conakry.
“We’ve got a busy few
weeks ahead,” I said to Bill, “and it should be great.”
He strengthened the statement: “Will be great,” he
Meantime, Les started our exposure to Freetown by detouring a
bit on the drive from the dock to his home. He drove us by a downtown icon—a
famous, old cotton tree. He wanted us to make sure we heard why the huge tree
was a great symbol. “Under these very branches the city of Freetown had its
start centuries earlier,” he said. “Today,” he continued, “people still pray
and offer sacrifices here.” Exactly what it meant to offer sacrifices eluded
me. I hoped I’d be able to understand that better, and soon.
Freetown: (L) Freed slaves met
under the branches of the Cotton Tree in 1792 (R) Street scene: youth vendors take a break near the Cotton Tree.
That afternoon and evening, Bill and I got better acquainted
with our hosts. Les and his spouse, Grace, were missionaries from the American Midwest.
His assignment for the year 1960-61 was to the position of interim headmaster
of Albert Academy in Freetown. He filled the big shoes of Ambassador Kelfa-Caulker,
Bill’s and my good angel in London. Kelfa-Caulker had left the post of
headmaster Albert Academy when he took his diplomatic assignment in London.
The Shirleys entertained us both in their home in the city and
in a mission-owned mountain retreat bungalow, Leicester by name, located about
1,000 feet above Freetown on a small forest-covered mountain. The higher
elevation implied a cooler climate zone.
(L) Cooling off at Leicester, the Rest
House. (R) Freetown from Leicester’s Porch.
Even in our short time in Freetown it became clear that mood
of the capital city was euphoric with independence fever. We learned that
England had stoked the optimism by delivering gifts to the nation, including
new passenger cars for the Sierra Leone railway. Freetown bubbled with
friendliness. Sierra Leoneans, meeting us on the street or in offices, invariably
greeted Bill and me with their pleasant Krio phrase, “How de body, Pa?” I knew that
Sierra Leoneans would regard April 27, 1961, their forthcoming independence
day, with the same pride as Americans celebrate theirs every year. After all,
Sierra Leone and the U.S. achieved independence from the same master, England.
on a Freetown Street
I looked forward to spending more time in kaleidoscopic
Freetown, but Les and others had prescheduled Bill and me to travel up-country in
just a couple of days to visit places in the interior. When I said my thanks to
the Shirleys I promised myself, “I will return to Freetown. Soon!” I’d fallen
in love with the place.
On Thursday, Dec. 8, we left Freetown by train for a town
named Rotifunk and the Hatfield-Archer Memorial Hospital. Although our
destination was only 55 miles away, the trip took four hours and 35
minutes—about average for that trip we were informed.
I’d never experienced a narrow gauge passenger train. (Later
in life, I rode the train at Disneyland. It reminded me in its scale of the
Sierra Leone passenger train.) The train ran on a track measuring two feet and six
inches rail to rail. Standard gauge in the U.S. and U.K. is four feet and eight
inches rail to rail. The diesel locomotive boasted an engine of about 250
horsepower, about the same as a large automobile. Also, the entire train
consisted of five passenger cars—four of cars devoted to third-class passengers
plus a fifth for second- and first-class travelers.
First class occupied half
of the fifth car and offered only four chairs (each with ample foot room!) Bill
and I traveled second class, which consisted of eight second class chairs
spread through the other half of the same car. (I could celebrate moving up in
the world; in the train I was a class above my third class position in the
passenger boat from Bordeaux.)
“Air conditioning” was no more than the breeze through open train
windows. At stops, out of every single window in the final four crowded third
class cars, passengers held their heads, seeking fresh air or food.
The unique little train stopped at many villages along the
way. We witnessed a lot of vibrant life at the stops. Vendors congregated
outside the train at every stop to sell oranges, bananas, and even hot food
items from simple wooden or woven trays they carried on their heads. A typical
fruit or bread vendor beside the track might be either a woman or a child. Typically,
women dressed in cotton print dresses, often a blue background with a printed
white flower design. Girls wore cotton dresses and boys typically wore brown knee-length
shorts and shirts.
Some villages seemed to have been built to accommodate
vendors. There were many villages at which the train did not stop. All villages
along the tracks seemed to follow a pattern of twenty or thirty houses set a along wide bare dirt path. The houses were walled with dried mud and roofed with
corrugated metal. Most houses sported a porch. The typical house size varied. I
estimated that the average house would measure 25 feet wide and about the same
distance front to back, or 625 square feet.
Life in these rail-line villages became very energetic when
the train stopped. But what was it like at other times, when no train was
present? My first impression was only that life here was definitely different
from the tempo of Dakar, Conakry or Freetown. I imagined that an enterprising
country child might want education and try to move to a larger city to get a
job. I realized that I was getting my very first exposure and had much more to
learn about up-country Sierra Leone before I’d be qualified to make such
Meeting Medical Missionaries
We finally arrived at the larger town of Rotifunk during the
intense heat of the late afternoon. I felt exhausted, dizzy from travel and
tension, like a candidate for an emergency room visit. A delightful woman—Norma
Harris, spouse of one of the medical doctors—met us at the station. She took us
straightaway to the home of a medical doctor, Mabel Silver, for a meal.
Mealtime was later than usual to give Dr. Silver time to finish her patient
load for the day. After Dr. Silver completed her clinical work we were called
to the table. The meal featured pork, with sweet side dishes and fruit. I was
surprised to be eating an American-style meal in upcountry Sierra Leone. The
food restored my energy almost immediately and gave me strength to keep up with
the energetic conversation of Dr. Silver, who had just finished clinical work
with over 100 patients.
It took no time to recognize
that Dr. Silver was witty and wonderfully sarcastic—good medicine for me as a
devotee of sardonic wit. She gave us a bit of her own history—hailing from
Baltimore, Maryland and just now completing her 28th year of service in
Rotifunk. She planned to retire and leave Sierra Leone for good during the next
year. As To be in her home was a privilege that I couldn’t fathom to the full because
I was so tired from the long, slow train journey. But her dining room was
certainly superior to the emergency room visit I’d imagined as I stepped down
from the train.
A residence on the
mission compound, Rotifunk, 1960
The hospital staff provided bed and bath for Bill and me in
the hospital residential building. As I dropped off to sleep I thanked God that
I was allowed the privilege of being in the home of a life-long professional
missionary, and one with such a graceful wit.
In the morning, Esther Megill, another American and the key
professional medical technician in the hospital, entertained us in her home for
breakfast. Esther, like Dr. Silver, was energetic and knowledgeable about West
Africa. In the short time available before her daily work she provided an
absolute gold mine of information about the outreach of the hospital, Africans’
views on Western and traditional medicine, children’s lives, educational
practices in the schools of the country, and perspectives on village life.
I was quite innocent of the significance of the hospital
itself and of the staff, like Esther and Mabel. Esther filled me in on this
information too. To begin, she provided more detail of Dr. Silver’s ground-breaking
accomplishments in medical school in the States and in her career in Rotifunk.
We learned that Dr. Silver entered her M.D. training in University of
Maryland’s School of Medicine in 1925, the only woman in her class. She’d begun
her work life as a file clerk, but felt, through study and prayer, that God was
calling her to earn a medical degree and to work in Africa as a missionary
physician. There was that phrase again: “I feel God calling me,” a powerful statement
of vocation for those who were secure in their calling.
The pioneering female medical student, Mabel, won her M.D.
and capped it with a diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene from the
University of London. Then she arrived in Sierra Leone in 1932 to work at Rotifunk.
(There was no full hospital service available, as such, in Rotifunk at that
time, but just a clinic.)
Mom and child reach
help at the clinic
The challenges and difficulties with which Dr. Silver dealt included
finding ways to communicate with patients in 17 or 18 African languages about
their symptoms and illnesses. At first, she worked out of the two-room clinic
and housed patients in the sole ward, which contained only three beds. Despite
limitations, she and a nurse, Nora Vesper, quickly grew their practice.
The simple cement hospital that I had seen upon arrival was
completed in 1950. The building included a lab, a pharmacy, a room for dressing
ulcers and wounds, a delivery room, male and female wards, a maternity unit,
and a surgical room. What an expansion! December, 1960, the month in which I
visited, the staff anticipated treating 66,000 patients by year’s end. The
illnesses treated included a wide range of diseases. [My information about Dr.
Silver and Rotifunk depends in part on Megill, 2004.]
Mabel Silver, M.D.,
with patients, December 1960
Mabel Silver became famous throughout Sierra Leone and well
beyond. A story illustrates the point with humorous fact. Someone in the United
States mailed a letter addressed inadequately to “Dr. Mabel Silver, West
Africa.” The letter had made the rounds from Nigeria, West Africa, through
Ghana, West Africa, and finally landed in the Freetown, West Africa Post
Office. The clerks there knew exactly where to find “Dr. Silver, West Africa”
and sent the letter upcountry to Rotifunk by train.
Awed, I suddenly realized I was the guest of giants—not just
Mabel Silver, but also Dr. George Harris, Esther Megill, and the African
hospital staff, particularly Ernest Kroma, assistant to Dr. Silver. Ernest,
with his medical and language skills, made it possible for the entire team to
treat so many Sierra Leoneans.
Rotifunk was more than a mission station, venerable and
significant as it was in that regard. It was also an interesting African town. Megill
described it as a “cosmopolitan village.” [Megill, 2004, p. 9.] By this, she
meant that several African languages were spoken by the residents of the town: Sherbro,
Temne, Mende, Loko, and Limba, along with Krio and English.
Additionally, Rotifunk was the furthest inland port on the
Bumpe River, a tidal stream. This location made the growth of a large town market
very natural because the river provided a route for waterborne transportation
by canoe and motor-driven boats for 40 miles down to Shenge, a paramount
chief’s town on the shores of Yawry Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Traders brought
fish and fruit by boat to the Rotifunk market for local use and to connect with
rail and road transportation to more distant markets upcountry.
Actually, many patients arrived by launch, and the staff
tried to treat them in time for them to return with the tide.
Nonetheless, Rotifunk had a reputation of great upheavals,
including a lot of violence during the famed 1898 Hut Tax War. The British
colonial administration proposed a tax on each “hut” or house throughout the
colony. The rebellion, based on the “No More Taxes” sentiment, affected the
entire upcountry of Sierra Leone, but no place more than Rotifunk. Megill
directed us to stone memorials situated at various places within the mission
compound itself and in the town.
We were shocked to find a monument to seven American missionaries who had been killed in May, 1898 during
the Hut Tax War. Others throughout the Protectorate—African or
expatriate— who had anything to do with the British occupation of that time were harmed as well. Five
of the missionaries were killed at Rotifunk and two at a nearby town, Taiama. [Based
on Drury, p. 134.] After learning this story, my night hours were troubled by
empathetic horror at the plight of those who had been crudely and cruelly slaughtered
62 years prior to my visit, through guilt by association with the skin color of
the colonial authority. I spent solemn moments at their grave marker.
A memorial to seven 1898
martyrs, Rotifunk campus, December 1960
Later in the day, Bill and I were invited to speak with the Hon.
William I. Caulker, Paramount Chief of Bumpeh Chiefdom since 1954. He received
us in his compound. In our conversation, he spent a lot of time insisting on
the need for rapid expansion of the hospital as well as of church-operated educational
facilities in Rotifunk. Specifically, he wanted a boarding house at the school
for children from outlying villages.
Chief Caulker stated that if he did not see an in-print report
on this conversation stating the needs of Rotifunk in a wide church publication,
he’d know that we had failed him and the people of the town. I went away
feeling pushed and compelled against my will.
Later, in speaking with Dr. Silver about this conversation—or
confrontation—she relieved my irritation a bit by stating that Chief Caulker
had a “subsidy mentality.” She defined that as the feeling that “everyone owes
me something but I have no responsibility for self-improvement.” She also gave
the opinion that boarding schools are passé and that more children wanted to attend
from Rotifunk alone than could be accommodated. Grateful for her comments, I hoped
that I’d not be subjected to such rants at every future stop. I also felt sorry
for Chief Caulker for lacking the kind of education he felt was needed in
Rotifunk. Understandably, I thought, he probably wanted Rotifunk and his
chiefdom to rise in reputation and not fall behind in educational matters.
On the second day of our visit, we were given an invitation to
meet with the headmaster of the elementary and senior schools in Rotifunk. The elementary
school was enrolling about 400 children each term. Those who wished could continue
into the senior level, in which there were six teachers for 240 children—a
ratio of one teacher to 40 students. Among those graduating from the senior level,
about 20 percent elected to continue into secondary schools such as the one
we’d visited in Freetown—Albert Academy.
Faculty at Rotifunk School
Q.: “Am I ready for
school yet?” A.: “Yes, if you can reach over your head and touch your ear.”
This test helped for the many who did not know their age.
The headmaster, in showing us around several classrooms, introduced
us to some teachers and children. Actually, he more or less echoed Chief Caulker
about the need for more boarding schools, more teachers, and classrooms. He
also clarified an important point: the buildings had been constructed with
government funds, and teachers’ salaries were paid by the government, but the
school was administered by the EUB national school system. I, being used to the
separation of church and state in educational matters in the U.S., was quite
amazed at the arrangement. I would learn that it was common practice in Sierra
Leone for the government to support a church-run school system. The
headmaster’s statement implied that the responsibility for new plant and
equipment was that of the state, not of the EUB Church.
School buildings, like hospital clinics, were constructed of
cement blocks, white-washed, with metal pan roofing. Sides were open air. Enclosed
space was unnecessary in the local climate.
At the end of just two days in Rotifunk, having spent time
with both Africans and expatriate missionaries, I also gained some first-hand
experience of the traditional African systems of farming and trade. I was
grateful to have been provided access to African and expatriate medical
personnel and townspeople for open conversation. The entire two day package was
full of fascinating people, grappling in their own ways with social and
economic development with limited resources.
I left with a dominant impression of the extraordinary
influence of medical missionary personnel. They pulled people back from the
edge of death and brought them to health. They saved families’ children. As
Mabel Silver said, “Western medicine doesn’t mean that our patients no longer
rely on traditional medicine. It does mean that they’ve added one more arrow in
their quiver for dealing with medical problems.”
Back on the train, we bought tickets for the trip to
Moyamba, a town about 12 miles further upcountry. This short trip passed
From the Least to the Elite
At Moyamba, Bill and I were met at the train station by
Elaine Gasser, acting principal of Harford Academy. Like the other missionaries
we’d met in Sierra Leone, Elaine was American. Tall and thin, like my mom I
thought, she briefed us on Harford. It was an up-country secondary school, the academic
equivalent of Albert Academy in Freetown except that Harford was for girls
whereas Albert Academy was for boys.
Elaine continued to explain the importance of Harford’s
focus on the education of girls. Secondary education opportunities for young
women hardly existed in up-country Sierra Leone. “Up-country” meant the entire
nation outside of the capital city and was synonymous with another term, the
“Protectorate.” About one-third of all up-country girls who were obtaining a
secondary education, she explained, were doing so at Harford. Starting with that
information, I calculated that about 45 girls from a total Protectorate
population of 2 million men, women and children would graduate with secondary
education diplomas per year. That certainly confirmed for me the enormous need
for more women’s education in Sierra Leone. Forward-thinking educators—African,
American, and British—had been chipping away at that great need to the best of
their abilities at Harford for over 60 years.
Elaine provided still more information. Harford, she said,
has trained women for leadership in Sierra Leone, and a representative person, Madame
Gulama, Paramount Chief of Moyamba Chiefdom, was the first woman elected to
serve in Sierra Leone House of Representatives. When Elaine said, “Madame
Gulama is at home now, here in Moyamba. Perhaps you’ll be able to meet her,” my
anticipation kicked into high gear.
Continuing with her orientation tour, Ms. Gasser walked us
through the main gate onto the school grounds and gave us an overview of the
campus. Set off from the surrounding community by a wall, it boasted a well-tended
green lawn and was centered architecturally about a main hall. The buildings
weren’t really trendy to say the least. The main hall was of stone and appeared
to be quaint, like one might see when looking at an original courthouse in a
rural county seat in Oregon or Ohio.
For our own lodging, Elaine took us to the very comfortable missionary
residence of the Appleman family, a distance down the street from Harford
School. The Applemans were travelling so we bounced around the large house by
ourselves but ate our meals with various Harford teachers.
Meal Prep at Harford
The educational challenge that Harford faculty faced was to
educate its graduates for a wide range of future possible life circumstances. Some
graduates would return to village life. Others would become government
employees and high officials, or spouses of such persons. To fulfill this dual
mandate, the home economics department taught cooking methods using the open
fire as well as modern appliances. Other departments maintained different
tracks as well. The school provided two levels of graduation. One level
concentrated on domestic sciences. The other provided a classical education for
college entrance. The young women themselves chose which level to follow.
During school hours the girls wore uniforms: blue dresses,
accented with white piping. Since their blue was the same as one of my two school
colors, I was ordained to like the uniforms at Harford. Too bad that the second
color at Harford was white, not gold. At Stadium High School in Tacoma, WA, the
colors were gold and blue. But still, the uniforms at Harford looked much like
the band uniforms at Stadium. It was just a comforting coincidence.
In their off hours and outside of classes, the girls dressed
as they wished. Clearly, they wished to present themselves attractively and in
the best of youthful fashion. A love of color was obvious in their dresses,
their head ties, and personal ornamentation, like earrings.
But hair was the high point.
The elaborately coiffed hair arrangements of these young
women deserved entry in a record book such as Ripley’s. I’d seen nothing comparable
ever before. Some Harford girls braided their hair into tight cornrows. Others
created outstanding upright spikes. It was unclear to me how they freed up enough
time to create and maintain such hair styles and also keep up with class work. Their
hair seemed to take precedence above other commitments in their lives.
On Saturday, I fell asleep early in the evening at the
Applemans’ house. I was awakened several times by a group of dancers—about 30 of
all ages and both sexes, drumming and singing right outside the bedroom window.
Someone among the group blew a low-pitched, mellow-toned horn to indicate the
beginning and ending of their chants. Wooden and skin drums provided a booming rhythmic
frame. Later I learned that they were simply out for a good time, like the
dancers under the full moon had been just a few days earlier in Conakry. I was
beginning to detect a pattern. Whether it was for sheer entertainment or
insomnia depended on how one balanced the love of street dances with the need
hair of a Harford School student
Late in the evening the street dancers moved on. I was just back
into sleep when I was awakened to a different late-night musical genre. In
Moyamba, a row of Syrian/Lebanese trading shops were sited on a side street.
They were constructed so that the living quarters of the owners were built on
the second floor, invariably including balconies that overlooked the street
below. About midnight, one of the traders on such a balcony broke the quiet by playing
an Arabic dancing record over an amplifier at a very high volume. The wobbly
melodies filled the air, its vibratos and (to me) its unusual rhythms driving me
to distraction. Back home, Saturday nights could get pretty lively in Seattle,
too, so I wasn’t afraid at all but I was kept from sleep until well after midnight.
I wanted to walk onto the street and tell him to turn it down or, better, switch
Saturday night in Moyamba forcefully underscored the
presence of Middle Eastern traders in Sierra Leone. On Sunday when I saw Elaine,
my first question was, “Why so many Syrian and Lebanese traders? I’ve seen them
in Freetown, Rotifunk, and here. Why?”
She said, “I think they provide a bridge between the
economic level of the village and of the Western world. Few Americans or
Europeans could exist on the income they receive as shop-owners in rural areas.
The Syrians and Lebanese sell Western goods to African for profits that seem to
meet their needs. And some of them grow wealthy, such as the owner of the
Mercedes Benz auto dealership in Freetown. You’ll see them wherever you go in
Sierra Leone.” And we did, in fact, find them in every town we visited.
On Monday, Bill and I decided to get acquainted personally
with a Syrian trader. We walked into one of the Syrian shops we picked at
random. We stepped from the unpaved street up onto a well-worn, smallish cement
porch and into a dimly lit room with a counter running across it, left to right,
near the back wall. The mercantile goods were arrayed behind the counter, visible
but out of reach. The counter was served—and the goods guarded—by a smiling, thin,
brown-skinned man, clothed in a flowing white shirt, rolled-up cuffs, and dark
pants. We introduced ourselves and he responded in a friendly manner to our
This trader’s display of merchandise consisted mainly of
bolts of brightly patterned cloth. “Where do you get this cloth?” we asked.
“It is manufactured,” he told us, “in Europe and India. I
buy mine from a trader in Freetown.” He also sold radios, batteries, light
bulbs, and an assortment of household goods. This seemed like a variety store from
the American Wild West, plucked out of a movie set and plunked down here in
Remembering that we’d considered a choice between Africa and
the Middle East for the winter season, I said to Bill: “Looks like we've killed
two birds with one stone here in Sierra Leone.”
It was Sunday and we attended the Trinity EUB church In Moyamba.
I received my first invitation in Africa to make a public speech—and my first
invitation in my life to deliver a sermon. As Bill and I left the morning
worship Rev. Ferguson, the pastor of the congregation, asked me to speak at the
evening church service to be held that evening at 7 p.m. I’d declared my
intention to seek ordination to the Christian ministry, and I’d pre-enrolled in
a seminary in Oregon. My draft board had given me pre-ministerial
classification. Why not give it a shot? I accepted the invitation and was grateful
to Pastor Ferguson for the opportunity.
On Sunday morning, Rev. Ferguson presided and preached. I
was surprised by the design of the church building—not by its size, since it
accommodated only 150 people or so, but by its architectural formality. The
building’s footprint and the shape of the nave followed a cruciform design,
like a cathedral. The altar seemed unusually prominent for an EUB church, and was
located against the back wall in an apse. Pastor Ferguson had vested in a
formal gown for the morning service. If the medium is the message, as Canadian
philosopher Marshall McLuhan suggests, the Moyamba church edifice itself brought
a catholic and urbane tone to this small town.
The Sunday evening service
was attended by more than 100 people, some from the village and others from
Harford School. I spoke simply, advising the believers to follow the leading of
the Spirit of God. That simple message did have some significance. I focused on
spiritual life and not on holding a mental set of mandatory beliefs, pointing
to a style of religiosity that I’d come to value. The dog sleeping on the front
bench and the pair of bats flying in and out of the sanctuary through the open
windows didn’t faze me at all. Rather, the animals present seemed to signify
that the Spirit called animals of different sorts to the church, and why not? The
animals seemed to feel at home, just as comfortably as the people. After he
pronounced a benediction the pastor led me to the door, where everyone greeted
me as they left. Some were shy, others bold. I shook hands with every person
and accepted the thanks of many.
The significance of the evening for me was that I’d
delivered my first formal sermon in rural Africa. One’s first sermon is
critical in the life of a preacher. How fortunate for me that it occurred in
rural Africa. Writing this years later, I believe that my life-long commitment
to Africa has something to do with the honor of preaching in Moyamba in 1960.
It turned out that Rev. Ferguson was a member of Sierra
Leone’s small but important Creole population group. Creoles were not one of
the traditional tribal groups of Sierra Leone. Instead, they descend from the very
early settlers of Freetown, most of whom were liberated slaves from America or elsewhere
in Africa, such as Yoruba from Nigeria. These early inhabitants of the old Colony
sought formal education and professed Christianity—often Anglican or British Methodist.
As educated persons located right in the colonial capital, they filled
administrative positions as opportunities opened.
By this time in the journey I’d learned that the United
Brethren Church and its successor, the EUB, had focused upcountry, in the
Protectorate, whereas Anglicans had focused more on the Colony. So I wondered
how it happened that Ferguson, a Creole, became an EUB elder. I would have
expected that he would have become a Church of England priest. I learned that
many EUB pastors were from the Creole community. Creoles had found a welcome in
the EUB Conference because they were educated. In this and other ways, the EUB
and other denominations were associated with education and the educated.
Pastor Ferguson was a friendly man and the first Creole I’d
had a chance to know.
Female Chief, National Leader
I had vowed to learn more from Africans themselves. So I was
particularly pleased when Madam Ella Koblo Gulama, Paramount Chief of Kaiyamba
Chiefdom, invited Bill and me to her compound in Moyamba. How had she heard
about our presence? The word gets around a small town quickly. Why had she
wanted to see two youthful travelers? Perhaps Elaine Gasser had requested the
Madam to give us some time.
In any event, Elaine gave us some background. “Madam Gulama
graduated from Harford in 1938. So, as an alum, she’s referred to as an ‘Old
Girl’ of Harford.” She said that Gulama had been Paramount Chief for six years.
She must have been in her mid-forties when Bill and I met her and about forty
years of age when elected to her office.
We walked from Harford to her residence, the centerpiece of her
large compound, and were welcomed by a greeter at the front door. The greeter
took us into a receiving room, large and well furnished. The walls were painted
yellow and on them she’d affixed ornamental carvings and the skins of various sorts
of animals. The outside doors remained open to chickens and dogs; several of
both species ran through the room during our conversation.
Other buildings, serving primarily as living quarters for
members of her extended family, dotted the compound. Her highly polished Mercedes
Benz occupied its own covered structure. My mind went back to the palace of Sékou
Touré in Conakry, which displayed many of the same characteristics, though on a
Paramount Chief and Member of Parliament
Madam Gulama was an attractive, middle-aged woman, gracious
with her time and her comments. Mainly, she wanted us visitors to know that
she’d been invited in 1954 by the U.S. Department of State to take a leadership
tour of the United States, funded by a federal grant. She’d enjoyed New York
and Washington, D.C., especially. As a result, she greatly admired our country.
“I hope,” she said, “that you’ll admire mine as well.”
We assured her: “We already do!”
Gulama didn’t try to obligate Bill and me to report her
chiefdom’s needs to a broader constituency and didn’t place herself in a
position of depending upon us in any way for anything. As a friendly hostess, she
just treated us as guests and made good conversation. I felt I was beginning to
be able to appraise Africans as individuals and not only as members of a tribe,
group or race. I quickly felt comfortable conversing with Madam Gulama.
She was frank about feminism and how it worked upcountry. She
said, “Harford School was used by Africans, sometimes in ways that surprised
them, to upgrade the status of women.” She continued that, in the early years,
up-country families didn’t trust the “white man” with their girls. “Therefore,
they sent girl slaves to the school.”
As a result, the old slave class was better prepared to
adjust to new opportunities introduced by Western influence and became wealthy
and empowered, whereas the traditional families hung back and remained
illiterate. That was but one of Madam Gulama’s insightful historical tips. I
reformulated the idea this way: “Does education make a difference? Yes, and
sometimes in surprising ways.”
Grateful to Elaine Gasser, Pastor Ferguson and Paramount Chief
Gulama for helping us gain access to so many Africans, their educations and
their lives, Bill and I packed up once more and traveled by train to Sierra
Leone’s second city—Bo. As we journeyed further upcountry, from Moyamba to Bo,
it seemed that the countryside was more and more heavily forested. Rev. Clyde
Galow met us as the train arrived. From the rail station he drove us by the
Independence memorial clock tower, completed already for Sierra Leone’s independence
celebration on April 27, 1961. We’d heard about the monument since we’d arrived
in Freetown. Now here we were, passing by at its very base. It conveyed a sense
of grandeur, presiding over a centrally located square. The sight of paved
streets, larger buildings and the monument on the ride from the railroad
station to the Galow home on the mission campus allowed us to see that we were
in a larger city, not a small village.
Clock Tower, Bo
I didn’t meet a missionary in Sierra Leone who was less than
awesome to me. A prime example was Clyde Galow, from Illinois. Clyde began his
service in Sierra Leone in the mid-1950s, focusing on evangelistic mission
activities. Soon his managerial talents surfaced. The Board of Missions
appointed him to the post of its field representative, which loaded him with
multiple responsibilities: the maintenance of all properties and liabilities,
direction of personnel, representation of the mission to the conference, and
interdenominational groups. Of greatest importance to Bill and me personally, Clyde
organized our travel and hospitality schedules, beginning in Freetown and
continuing throughout the month.
When Clyde arrived in Sierra Leone, Gladys Fahner was the
nurse-midwife at the Taiama clinic. She and Clyde met and then, on Jan. 1,
1957, married in the Calvary EUB Church in Taiama. The wedding party included
Americans and Africans. [Megill, p. 45.] By the time Bill and I arrived in Bo,
the Galows had an infant son, Phil. Clyde and Gladys were humorists themselves
and fond of any other person’s humorous comments. Dinner at their home,
followed by an evening of table games, was a treat.
Clyde knew that I wanted to relate to Africans, not just missionaries,
and scheduled opportunities to be with Sierra Leoneans right away.
An African Bride? For Me?
The primary EUB center in Bo was the Bo Bible Training
Institute (BTI), occupying a 6-acre compound at the edge of town. Here we met a
couple of dozen young men who were studying the Bible and theology in order to
become EUB village evangelists. They attended classes Monday through Thursday. On
Fridays, the Muslim day of rest, these evangelists-in-training walked the
neighborhoods of Bo and would go out to villages in the forest round about,
bringing Gospel lessons to those who were available. The special word used for
walking the villages on a mission was itineration. I attended a couple of
classes and then walked with student itinerant evangelists on Friday.
Bill and I went with out with two young African men, Joseph
Lawrence Spencer Thornton and Joseph T. Sowah, to five villages tucked into the
forest around Bo. The students followed a definite agenda in each village. When
we emerged from field and forest and entered a village, the team leaders called
the people to meet. They’d begin the meeting with a hymn and a prayer. Then one
of the young men spoke. Since Christmas was just around the corner, the birth
of Jesus was the topic of their messages. The message was followed by the
taking of an offering, another prayer, and a hymn. Then they walked on through
the forest with Bill and me in tow to another village. In all, we covered five
villages that day. Though we communicated with our guides in English, they
conducted each service entirely in Mende.
A village congregation near Bo,
Evangelists Thornton (green shirt) and Sowah (white shirt)
As we walked, sun beat down through layers of humid air. Bill
and I dressed for the weather in sun helmets, shorts, and sport shirts. We also
carried a thermos of safe drinking water. I wore hiking boots that I’d carried
from day one of our trip, just for such occasions. The BTI men carried no
water, wore no hats, and were shod only with simple plastic sandals. Yet
wearing just “flip flops,” they set a fast pace on the jungle trails. What
strength and endurance they exhibited!
We walked past farms where rice, cassava, palm kernels, and
other crops were grown. We traversed broad fields of grass as well as tracts of
jungle where the forest floor was a carpet of thick, green vegetation sheltered
from the sun by a canopy of tall trees. In such groves, vines climbed right to
the tops of the tallest trees.
At a waterside
At one stream, we paused to watch the people bathing and
laundering their clothes. Noticing that one girl was particularly attractive, I
mentioned this in English to the guides. They promptly translated my remark
into Mende. Before I realized what was happening, the girl’s mother, who was at
the waterside, had walked over and offered to sell her to me so that I could
take her back across the ocean as my bride. Her asking price was 10,000 units
of some sort, but I failed to hear the name of the currency. Regardless, 10,000
units of any currency was too high, and, more importantly, my intention was to
repair my tattered relationship with Lucy Wonderly, who was ‘way back home in
Seattle. At my signal, we four walked on, quickly, and with no explanation to
the African mom.
Villages along the route consisted of a group of huts or
houses facing a dirt lane. The houses were constructed of packed mud walls and
thatch roofs. Chicks and chickens, pigs and piglets, goats, sheep, and ducks
wandered about the villages. When we arrived in any village, the BTI men would
greet the people and invite them to the service. Villagers would place chairs
or stools under the veranda of a house for Bill and me. People gathered very gradually,
dressed in anything from loincloths to shorts and sport shirts, or wrap-around garments
or dresses for women. Children would arrive completely undressed or wearing a
string of colorful beads around their hips.
I enjoyed this, my first experience in small villages, guided
by two men roughly my own age. I had a great day “shaking hands” with dozens of
people and of gaining one memory that would last a lifetime—the possible
engagement with an African bride. And, I had proven to be smarter about cross-cultural
experience than Lieutenant Pinkerton in Madam
Butterfly. Maybe I was becoming an experienced traveler.
I did continue to wonder about what happened back at the
waterside. Someone—a mom, or a senior family member—had offered a beautiful
girl to me for a bride-price. That was the fact. But why? I raised this question with a few people and learned that
the traditional custom of Mende marriage was that the bride’s family received
wealth when a suitor received their daughter as a bride. But why offer the girl to me, an unknown?
“Probably because the Mom thought she could get a higher
gift from you than from an African,” someone said. “Perhaps to honor you, a
visitor from America,” someone else said.
This line of questioning brought the knowledge that, for
some wealthy men, marriage involved many wives—as many as they could afford. But
that meant that less wealthy young men, bursting with hormones that shouted out
“Go, mate” would be denied a bride by older, wealthier men.
Did Africa have a traditional way of dealing with this
battle of heart, hormones and the poverty of the young? In fact, it did. I
learned that older men with 20 or 30 wives tolerated “friendships” between
their younger wives and covert lovers. I wondered whether another outlet for
younger men might be homosexuality. That would explain the hand-holding and
pairing off that I’d observed in Conakry as well as in Freetown. But other than
George Foster-Jones, no African ever confirmed that to me. When I inquired
locally, it was like a veil came down between Africa and me on the matter of
sexuality. But I could leave the veil undisturbed, for that time at least.
Almost a decade later, while working in Sierra Leone on a research project
toward a graduate degree, I learned that some matters at the heart of their
culture were categorized by the people as “deep Mende.” Perhaps answers to some
of the questions I was pursuing were deep Mende.
Pigs and Diamonds
The Americans Lester and Winifred Bradford resided with
their three children in Manjama, a village near Bo. There they’d constructed a family
home using rural African building techniques incorporating walls of interwoven
sticks covered with mud-and-wattle, protected from the weather by metal pan
roofing. Their hot water—actually nominally warm—was sun-heated in an elevated
50 gallon metal drum. Their compound contained outbuildings for Winnie’s clinic
and Lester’s agricultural[A3]
projects. Thus, they were living intentionally and adventurously in housing
resembling a chief’s compound or a trader’s residence. They came down on one side
of a debate about whether missionaries should live at expatriate standards or
those of the people they served.
Winnie, an M.D., ran a rural mother-child clinic, and
Lester, a Ph.D. in forestry, practiced community development. On Saturday, Dec.
17, after almost a week of living and learning in Bo, Lester allowed Bill and
me to ride with him in his Volkswagen van to meet Mr. Jack Thomas in the town
of Kenema, the center of Sierra Leone's diamond mining. Clyde Galow scheduled Bill
and me to spend Christmas-tide with Jack and Dolores in their village, Yekior, far
in the Eastern Province. Meantime, Lester’s primary errand in Kenema was to
deliver a pair of his pigs to Jack, who’d take them on to their final owners in
the town of Jaiama, en route to Yekior. Lester had assigned his assistant,
Moses Kamara, the responsibility of accompanying the shipment of pigs from
Kenema to Jaiama.
It was uncomfortable for me to be in the position of talking
down to an African. That had been my experience, though, with person after
person. I always seemed to be inadvertently positioned on some higher level by my
African conversation partners. I was generally addressed as “Pa” Reeck, though
I didn’t feel I needed the honorific title.
Moses did not shove me into this pattern, and I was
gratified. Perhaps it was due to his education at Albert Academy. For whatever
reason, he seemed perfectly comfortable positioning himself and me as equals,
with no “Pa” title required. We were scheduled for lodging with the Bradfords
after the first of the year, and I hoped for more conversation with Moses than
this Kombi/Land Rover journey, burdened with baggage, two crated pigs, and
people, permitted. I had more I wanted to ask the Bradfords, too—questions
about their perspective on traditional Africa.
Jack Thomas, on his part, had driven west and south from his
village to bring a visitor to the airport. At the airport we transferred the
pigs, their fee, and our luggage to Jack Thomas’ Land Rover, which was the kind
of Rover you might see in old movies.
Minaret Towers above a
On the road to Kenema, we got our first taste of “i-i-i”
diamond mining (independent, informal, and sometimes illegal) as distinct from the
highly organized Sierra Leone Selection Trust (SLST) industrial form of mining.
For several years, SLST as the officially recognized mining corporation was the
only legal holder of uncut diamonds in the entire country. The arrangement proved
unsatisfactory. There’d been a great rush of independent miners to the fields,
and they had to dispose of their uncut stones somehow. To accommodate the
supply, a black market prospered. [The story is told in detail in Campbell,
For this reason, John Karefa-Smart, the recent Minister of Lands
and Mines, proposed the Diamond Corporation of Sierra Leone. Campbell credits
Siaka Stevens, Minister of Mines[A4],
for creating this agency but my information differs slightly gives credit to
Dr. Karefa-Smart. By creating a legal means for informal mining and increasing
penalties for illegal mining, Dr. Karefa-Smart was able to make some progress
in controlling illegal mining.
The Alaskan gold rush must have been much like the informal diamond
mining I witnessed in Sierra Leone. Rough and tough diamond miners dug their
pits and emptied water from them by hand dipping. They washed the gravel in
sieve-like pans and searched for diamonds, which sank to the bottom of the
pans. On a very good day, a crew of men might find six or several small stones
worth perhaps $200. On an ordinary day they’d find no stones at all.
Sierra Leone Selection Trust method of mining diamonds above.
Mining. Were they legal? We didn’t ask.
As Jack gassed up at a petrol pump, a stranger walked up and
offered seven diamonds to Bill and me. They were offered by a legal holder of
the stones, but our purchase would have been done on the black market. Bill and
I declined, of course. (We needed food more than diamonds at that time in our
A mosque funded exclusively
by a single rich, pious diamond miner
Into a Distant Place
Jack Thomas drove Moses, Bill, the pigs and me further north
and east, close to the national boundary separating Sierra Leone from Guinea. At
Jaiama, Moses unloaded the pigs and stayed behind to tend them. Then, at a tiny
village called Woama Junction, Jack exited onto the Yekior Road, newly completed
and routed along an old footpath straight over the hills and down into the
gullies. Thomas shifted to four-wheel drive.
Finally, after a very rough four miles on the new road, we pulled
into the Thomas yard, consisting of a single story house and a tall water tank
in a clearing of red and dusty laterite earth. The hue of the bare soil
indicated the presence of iron oxides. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laterite,
It was great to be greeted by Dolores Thomas, who had food
ready followed by warm water for baths. First, though, we met their two young
children, Tonda and Stanton. Having just
traveled an entire day on various roads smooth and rough, dry and dusty, and always
in high temperatures, we found Dolores’ hospitality to be pleasant beyond
Here Jack switches to
compound low gear
The Thomas family‒Jack,
Dolores and children‒ just
days before had moved into the incomplete shell of a house. There was still
much work to be done. Specifically, the windows, screens, and doors were yet to
be installed. We immediately became used to neighbors from the village, and their
animals, walking in and through the house as they desired. At night, we were buzzed
by large bats flying in and out of the rooms. Jack and Dolores were relatively
young—probably in their late 20s. Who else but the young and committed could
thrive in these circumstances? Jack was lanky and tall, Dolores of medium
height, and both very fair-complexioned, and Indiana natives.
Late on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 24,
Jack, Bill, and I walked a quarter of a mile into the village of Yekior for a
worship service. “Yekior,” Jack related, “is one of the largest bush villages
in the area, numbering around 200 inhabitants.”
“Out here,” Jack continued, ”200 souls constitute a large
However, no matter how large it was in its context, it seemed
small—hardly bigger than the population of Madam Gulama’s compound back in Moyamba.
The smallness of the village I took to be evidence that we were in the far
hinterland now. Another indication was the round-walled standard house design,
with an inverted cone of thatched grass for a roof. In a larger town closer to
the coast, sheets of metal would be used for roofing (the so-called “pan roof”)
and the walls, viewed on an architectural drawing, would form a rectangle. As
in every town we’d visited, the ever-present palms in Yekior served as a scenic
backdrop. [Megill, p. 52.)[A7]
Along with the road had come formal rural education. The EUB
opened a school, enrolling nearly 70 children. Besides running the school, the
sole instructor—Teacher Seba—had taken on the responsibility of holding Christian
religious services for the town. Little was said or sung in the afternoon
worship service that would have suggested a candlelight Christmas Eve service
back home. Nevertheless, considering that around 150 people attended the
worship service, Jack and Dolores and Teacher Seba clearly had captured the
attention of the village.
Further into the Bush
Only three days earlier, the people of the area had staged the
official welcome celebration for the Thomases, with dancing and speeches. Four
hundred people from far and wide had attended that event. The community produced
generous gifts for their new neighbors: one large basket of upland rice, a
sheep, and a white chicken. The chicken symbolized peace and friendship and was
a typical symbol of welcome for a big man, a “Pa.” The Thomases were very gratified
to have been so well received.
I raised a question about “upland rice.” Jack said, “Here,
the rainfall is so great that most rice is raised on the hillside rather than
in a swamp. It’s native rice, tasty and full of vitamins.”
Joseph Conrad boated upriver to the heart of Africa. Bill
and I were about to hike to the heart, courtesy of Jack, who wanted us to
experience very traditional villages.
On Monday, Dec. 25, we packed the supplies necessary to hike
out to villages off road and even more remote than Yekior. Tuesday was to be the
day of departure. Since David Caulker, a teacher in the EUB School at Jaiama, had
offered to join us on the multi-day itineration, Jack drove back to Jaiama to
collect him. “Caulker” is a serious surname in Sierra Leone, as in Ambassador
Kelfa-Caulker for example. The core of Caulker country is at and around the
mouth of the Bumpe River on the Atlantic Ocean. That’s where an English
business agent, Thomas Corker,
worked in the 1600’s. His descendants now live in the Sherbro area and spell
their name Caulker. David Caulker was, himself, a sort of missionary in his own
country but far from home.
I went along on the ride to Jaiama as it offered another
chance to view one of the hilliest, most beautiful areas in Sierra Leone. The
jungle was dense, consisting of the ever-present palms plus larger hardwood
trees. At the level of the forest floor, plants, typically covered with large,
dark-green leaves, predominated. It was like a symphonic presentation, with
bass and treble clef complementing each other.
An onlooking child possibly thinks, “So that’s how they do it!” Dolores trims Jack’s hair
Monday afternoon, like every other day in Yekior, presented a
series of incidents with chickens, dogs, and residents of the town wandering at
free-will through the house and tracking in a thick carpet of red laterite
dust. Evening hours were free of people and their animals, but[A8]
the night shift—bats—more than compensated. The conditions were tough,
especially for Mrs. Thomas. Tuesday morning, with her face red and her hair
blown, she said, “I just don’t know how long I can put up with this!” But in
the tradition of front-line missionaries who feel called to serve, she carried
on, all the while hoping that help in the form of windows, screens and doors would
Dolores had already opened a clinic in the unfinished garage
of their home. One of her medical skills was birthing and mother-baby care. She
treated many illnesses, mostly minor, and referred serious cases to a
government hospital at Koidu. Already she was registering an ever-increasing
load of patients.
One of the dramatic cures I witnessed occurred a week later,
after we had unpacked from the multi-day itineration. After lunch, a newborn
was rushed in, suffering convulsions. Within 15 minutes, the baby had stopped
artificial respiration, Dolores was able to keep the baby alive and, somehow,
simultaneously treat it for dysentery and cerebral malaria. Soon, the
convulsions ceased, and in 30 minutes the baby was breathing regularly and
resting quietly. In an hour, Dolores treated the baby again. By evening, the
baby was back at home, sitting up, and nursing.
The Thomas family were go-getters. Although she was a nurse
and he an evangelistic missionary, the couple planned to raise various types of
animals and improved food crops on the two-acre hillside that the community had
given to them as part of their welcome. If successful, their agriculture would
supply some of their food as well as serve as a demonstration farm. In a way,
their farming plans reminded me of my dad’s large organic garden in University
Place, back in Washington State. I was sure that he would have pitched in to help
the Thomases till the rocky soil had he been there.
As background to our multiday hike, or “itineration” in church
language, Rev. Thomas told us that we’d be working in an area regarded as virgin
to the Gospel. No Christian missionary had ministered in the area previously. In
addition to his literacy campaign and Christian services in Yekior town itself,
Jack wanted to evangelize the surrounding area as well. Part of his work would,
therefore, consist of training village evangelists. Our itineration was
designed, in part, to support the work of the first of these village evangelists.
Where no Vehicle could Go
At about midday Tuesday, we’d finished loading the Land
Rover with our suitcases packed full of towels, food, clothing, blankets and
mosquito nets. We would carry folding cots as well. When the Land Rover was
packed, we drove to the town of Saiama, a few miles north of Yekior. When we
arrived, we found that the District Commissioner had arrived before us and was “hanging
heads” (holding a meeting) with the Paramount Chief and several scores of
representatives from different sections of the chiefdom. Since we couldn’t
interrupt this meeting, we delayed until the chief was free to see Jack and accept
the Land Rover under his protection. After waiting a long time, Jack received
permission to park in the chief’s compound. Only then we picked up our loads and
walked out of town.
From the time I was young, I’d read about and seen pictures
of African treks. Invariably, the whites would be accompanied by Africans. And
the latter would be loaded with the burdens of the whites while the whites
walked Scot-free. Rashly, perhaps, but with a good motive, I’d previously decided
that I’d never place myself in that position. I’d always carried my own packs
when hiking back home. Why should another person carry my load here? I’d carry
my own, I decided.
Jack Thomas watches as
Teacher Caulker loads our carriers for the trek
However, as it turned out on this particular trek, Jack had
recruited a family’s five boys to carry all of our equipment. When he saw me
lifting my bag he said, “You carry only your camera.”
It seemed ridiculous—boys 10 years of age and under walking
barefoot over rough ground while carrying 30-pound head-loads as I almost
skipped along, unburdened, my feet protected by hiking books.
When I protested that I felt I should be carrying a load, too,
I was quickly shut up by both the boys and Jack.
Jack’s reasons were powerful. “Important visitors (here we
go again, I thought) just never carry their own things. An educated African
would not carry even his own briefcase! You will certainly offend the people if
you insist on carrying a suitcase or even a bag.” I capitulated and gave up my
bag while retaining my camera.
I’d never have admitted it, but very soon I was glad to be classified
as an important visitor with someone else carrying my load. Why? The trail led
up over a mountain, described by the Africans as a mere “half-hill.” The hill
could have been climbed easily if the trail had been switch-backed up the steep
hillside, like trails all over the Northwest United States. However, the rule here
seemed to be, “the shortest way is the best way between two points.” Never
deviating from this rule, the trail went straight up the hillside, over the
top, and straight down the other side.
I was hot, walking at about 3 miles an hour in fierce late
afternoon sun up and then down the bare rock hillsides. How good it felt to
drop down into a cooler forest on the other side!
Before we reached our first village, we passed over a wide
stream on a swinging vine bridge. The part to be walked on consisted of twigs
and small branches bundled together and tied by vines in such a way that one
was walking on a flexible organic cable measuring about a foot in diameter. A
web of vines formed the sides of the bridge, reaching from the cable to a vine
handrail. The handrails were suspended at both ends from branches above. The
bridge sprung slightly with each step but seemed safe. Teacher Caulker assured
us, “They maintain these bridges annually.”
Nearing Mansacundo, men
on a swinging vine bridge over headwaters of the Niger
The village we entered, Mansacundo, was set amidst sizable hills.
Nearby to the east lay Guinea, its green-patched brown hills beckoning, so before
dinner we walked over a second hanging vine bridge to touch ground in that
country. No entry visa required here!
The stream we crossed, the River Meli, formed the border
between Guinea and Sierra Leone. Teacher David told us that it flowed into the
Niger. Being at the headwaters of the Niger reignited my river exploring
instinct. The Niger would make a fantastic substitute for the Amazon.
“How great it would be,” I thought, “to float down the Niger,
north, then east through Timbuktu and then south and east through Nigeria. However,
that was just a pipe dream. I stayed with the group and we soon scooted over the
bridge and back to Sierra Leone. (No exit visa required at this particular
border crossing, either!)
Mansacundo was Teacher Douda’s village, and he welcomed us
generously to his home and school. He’d constructed a simple dormitory in which
students from out of town could sleep. (“Here,” I thought, “is a homespun
solution to the need expressed by Paramount Chief Caulker back in Rotifunk for
dormitories for boarding students. I wish he could see this.” I wondered, “Why
can’t administrators in central points like Rotifunk use their imaginations
like this teacher in his peripheral village?”)
In this school dormitory space, we travelers set up our
three portable cots, each in a separate room. David Caulker occupied the fourth
room, sleeping on a bed of hand-woven country cloth blankets spread out on a
pounded earth platform.
It wasn’t difficult to find our way to dinner because we ate
our meals in the dormitory itself, with planks laid on a bench for a table. Our
first evening meal was a plate of rice—cooked native rice covered with a
chicken sauce with fresh oranges and fresh-roasted groundnuts (or “peanuts” in
American English) on the side, all provided from kitchens in Mansacundo. The
planks had been hand-sawn from a felled tree.
We bathed in an outdoor stall. The floor was the surface of
a large sloping rock outcropping, enclosed by a woven screen. The villagers
were so gracious: they prepared a bucket of hot water for each of us. I enjoyed
Commodious, convenient: a shower stall open to sun and stars
Lots of people assembled around a fire-pit in near the
center of the village for the evening prayers. About 200 people attended. The
sun set during the songs and prayers that preceded Rev. Jack’s simplified
Christmas message. After he resumed his seat near the fire, several men stood
and approached us. One volunteered some comments on behalf of the entire group:
“Several years ago, if I had seen you, I would have run to the bush to hide. Now
I am glad to see you because I know you are teaching about God.”
I could well imagine children or even adults reacting with
fear on the news that white people had popped into their rural village deep in
the hinterland. Who knows what the image, “white person,” might mean—a
dangerous spirit, perhaps?—in their traditional body of thought? Or possibly
there might be fears from slave trading from a couple of centuries before, in
which whites represented the demand side and villages, the supply side. Running
off to safety would definitely be the part of wisdom.
The villager’s speech confirmed that we visitors were
curiosities. I recalled seeing frightened children when we approached. They’d
run crying for their mothers, or run lickety-split off into the bush.
Others also stood to express their thoughts. One man said
poignantly that they’d lived in a great darkness and were very anxious to learn
I wondered, “Where did he get this ‘darkness’ imagery? Had
it been suggested by someone—maybe a Muslim teacher—and he was simply repeating
it? Or did he mean something like Paul the Apostle, who thought of Jesus’
revelation of God’s nature as breaking into the darkness? Was there a
traditional African teaching associated with the word?” At a bare minimum,
there was a thought process underway, and it was an honor to witness it.
Finally, after a group of women had sung enthusiastically for
us, accompanied by shake-shake rhythm instruments, we were free to leave for
our beds at about 10:30 p.m.
The fire dwindled, and the harmattan wind blew in low
temperatures from the Sahara. I shivered with cold all night long. After a very
uncomfortable night, we rose on Wednesday to a breakfast of fresh bread, tea,
bananas, and oranges. This great country breakfast soon had my attention, and I
forgot about the difficulties of the night.
A large group of men—40 or so—assembled before our dorm rooms
after breakfast to express their final thanks for the visit. They gave many gifts
including 25 pounds of upland rice, a goat, and five eggs. This was a remarkable
expression of generosity, especially considering their meager means. In the
manner of a ceremonial courtesy, Jack thanked the men on behalf of us, the
visitors. Though we now had even more baggage to carry and a goat to lead throughout
the rest of the journey, the gifts would no doubt enhance our arrival back in
gift goat: note that the goat handler was a Superman fan!
We reassembled our caravan and continued to other villages, hiking
through typical Sahel countryside: broad plains blanketed with tall elephant
grass, broken here and there by a hill or a depression. The hillsides hosted
groves of forests. Depressions collected water sufficient to create wetlands
and lush vegetation.
Teacher Douda, with
family at the door of their home
The villages we visited were remote, sited four miles or
more from the nearest road. Factor in this fact: Just two years prior, the
nearest road was 25 miles away. These little towns each consisted of a cluster
of small, round, mud-walled huts, thatched in an old style with roof lines
falling to shoulder height or lower. Doors consisted of sticks tied together. None
of the villages had the luxury of a barri (covered town meeting place.)
Barris had been taken for granted in larger towns we’d visited, such as Rotifunk.
In Penkdu village, our next call a few miles further on, a traditional
weaver demonstrated his craft. He informed us that weaving was men’s work.
Combing and carding was women’s work. The loom was suspended from the junction
of an upright tripod of sticks 8 to 10 feet tall.
The weaver could produce a band of cloth 5 to 6 inches in
width and unlimited yards in length. The woof threads that the weaver wove into
the cloth lengthwise were alternated—one-two, one-two. The “ones” were all
connected by string to a foot pedal. Every time the weaver pressed the pedal,
all of the “ones” would pull down. The “twos” were connected to their separate
foot pedal. When the weaver pressed this pedal, all of the two’s would pull
The weaver would press the pedals alternately while simultaneously
passing a shuttle, containing a spool of woof thread, through the opening
between the lengthwise-running threads.
Back and forth, back and forth, the weaver repeated the process all day
In Penkdu, weaver
works with native cotton thread to create country cloth. His shirt is of country cloth.
Some of the threads had been dyed black. The weaving formed
a patterned cloth of black and white stripes. The final product was called
“country cloth,” a valued fabric.
To make a garment like the shirt shown in the photo, a
tailor or seamstress must sew the 5-inch strips of cloth together to create a
piece wide enough for the finished product, whether a garment or a blanket. Using
native dyes, the weaver could produce a piece with a light brown stripe
alternating with a golden brown and dark indigo stripes. The feel of the fabric
thus produced is one of strength and durability.
A great amount of labor must be devoted to the making of
country cloth. First, the cotton is grown and carded by hand. The yield is determined
by the small size of the native cotton boll. Steps two and three, combing and
carding, are complicated by a multitude of seeds that must be picked out by
hand. Scores of hours would be required to comb and spin enough thread for a
robe for an adult. Because of the intensive labor required, imported
manufactured cloth was less expensive than country cloth. Economics had created
a cloth market for the Syrian and Lebanese traders like the man behind the
counter in Rotifunk.
Spinning the cotton. The
spinner and the boy to the rear are wearing country cloth.
I wondered, but had no sure answers: Would cheaper cloth
manufactured in India or elsewhere improve life for most Sierra Leoneans? Would
the weaving of country cloth become a lost trade, robbing the country cloth
weavers of their income? Would it become a hobby for some, or a lost art? Just
by keeping my eyes open I could see that the majority of women and men, even in
remote villages, dressed in manufactured cloth. My guess was that the process
of creating wonderful hand-woven, hand-dyed threads would die eventually. I
deemed myself fortunate to be in rural Sierra Leone to see the craft with my
own eyes while it was still a gainful practice for some.
Jack gave me the privilege of speaking in Penkdu. As usual,
a monetary gift was offered by the listeners, totaling seven pence, about nine
cents in America currency. In addition to a few pence, people in Penkdu and
other villages offered kola nuts to show their generosity. The nuts contain a
drug that kills the hunger sensation—quite valuable to these rural Africans
since their one meal of the day was eaten in the evening. They chew kolas
during the day to keep hunger under control. A gift of them was an honorable
act of hospitality, but no one I knew among the teachers or missionaries ate
Koikuma village greets Jack Thomas
In Koikuma village further along the trail, we four hikers pulled
into town and sat on the veranda of a house while waiting for people to be
called and to assemble. While waiting, Jack noticed an older woman holding an
infant that seemed very, very sick. Its legs were like little sticks. Veins
showed on the skin of its bare scalp. The old woman holding the baby, on
inquiry, was merely babysitting for the mother, who was in a field working.
Soon the mother returned from her work and joined the group.
Jack asked her for some information about the child. She replied that she
herself was sick and had no milk in her body for her infant. She also stated
that the child had been born two rainy seasons ago, which made the child at
least 1 year and 6 months old. The child was so undernourished and stunted that
he seemed, to my eyes at least, to be only 3 or 4 months old. The woman said
she’d birthed five children, and all but this one had died from malnutrition.
This situation presented a major lactation problem that
would challenge an expert practitioner. However, Jack had a workaround idea
that might help the mother and the baby. He asked her if she loved her baby and
wanted it to live.
“Yes, Pa,” she said.
He replied, “I will show you how to feed him.” He called for
bananas and, after thoroughly washing his hands, mashed one into a paste. Then
he put some banana on his finger and let the baby suck it. The baby took the
banana and, apparently, it was just what he needed. He immediately stopped his
choking cry and eagerly ate banana with smiles and pleasant gurgles. This was
possibly the first time the woman had seen one of her own children smile, for
she began to laugh and smile with happiness, as did the onlookers.
I relate this story to indicate how my interesting host, a
conscientious and alert evangelization specialist, quickly became a generalist.
If Jack saw a problem or need, he tried to provide a practical solution. He was
a church developer first and foremost, but also a community developer.
Even further, he deftly related his messages to authentic
African needs and values. To the now-assembled and transfixed villagers, Jack
began by noting that, as everyone knows, babies must have good food, and that
he always fed his own children plenty of bananas and orange juice. Four times
he asked the people to encourage the mother to continue feeding mashed bananas
to her baby. They replied “Mmmm” in unison, to indicate their commitment.
He continued to speak of his love for his own children, just
as those hearing him loved theirs. Finally, he portrayed God as loving, and said
that we as children are fed and loved by God.
Jack feeds, baby gurgles
In their traditional response by villagers, several rose to thank
Jack. Others praised Teacher Douda. They said that they used to call him a good
friend, but now they wished to call him a brother.
As we bid goodbye and parted, this group presented us with 10
or 15 pounds of rice, several pounds of onions, five eggs, and a duck as an
offering. They politely followed us to the first bridged stream to call out
We walked a walk of sadness because Jack and David Caulker knew
the mother would, in all probability, not continue feeding bananas, and that the
infant would die. Jack’s substitute banana menu was contrary to the custom of breast-feeding
for two years, when the child would be shifted immediately to a solid rice
diet. (To wean, the mother rubs the juice of red pepper on her nipples and
encourages the baby to suck as often as it wants. Weaning does not require a
long time.) Tradition would no doubt prevail in Koikuma.
When we finally returned round trip to the first village in
the trek, Mansacundo, we were very, very hot once again. We stopped at the
orange tree. Villagers helped us to whittle off the outer layer of acidic skin
and lop the top off the fruits. Then we sucked the juice until we’d consumed
about 20 oranges per person. The valued time in the shade we filled with great
conversation about our experiences on the trek.
Jack had decided that we’d spend our last night on the trail
in Mansacundo. Since I’d been shivering from the cold air every night on the
cot, I decided to sleep on an African bed as a test. Would the African bed be
warmer than the canvas cot? Our village host offered me a narrow bamboo
platform padded with grass and covered with reed mats. I tried it and stayed
warm, though I was not necessarily well cushioned.
Next morning as we packed to leave, some of the carriers
refused to cooperate. Thus, we lacked enough willing carriers for our luggage
and gifts. The haggling went on for 30 minutes with Mr. Douda yelling at the
boys, and the boys returning his yells. Finally, Jack, Bill, David Caulker, and
I simply started walking, leaving our luggage and gifts behind. We needed to
get moving before the day grew even hotter.
As soon as they understood we were leaving, the carriers quieted,
picked up their loads and walked. We formed up into quite a safari, considering
that we were carrying out all of our original equipment plus our gifts. Also,
several people of the village decided to walk out with us as a courtesy.
Finally, we reached the Saiama chief's home and our Land Rover. We reloaded
the vehicle and headed for home. Along the road to Yekior, we passed through a
town offering a pleasant surprise. The whole town was gathered to celebrate a
rite of transition as four boys were completing their initiation into the male
Poro society. They crowd was engaged in a village dance. The boys themselves were
dressed in long coats, white scarves, and hats; their faces were daubed with a
white substance, perhaps ashes. They and the accompanying group of fathers,
mothers, men, and women danced or shuffled a simple, slow step to the rhythm
chanted by a group.
Forerunners of the initiation
party and Poro devil
The “devil” of the secret society
We stopped to observe and greet the boys and their families.
Soon the villagers stopped the celebration. They knew Jack as the
missionary-pastor and wanted him to lead a worship and prayer service in their new
church barri. They’d constructed this enclosure entirely of their own accord
and with no outside financial help. Jack led an impromptu worship event, with
the initiates seated in the front row. As we prepared to leave after the
meeting, the dancing for the boys began again anew. The new thing (Christianity in this case) is added on to the old ways like placing a new arrow in a quiver.
We arrived back at the Thomas home to find Dolores in deep distress.
She ran to meet Jack in the Land Rover. Jack and we listened in horror as
Dolores poured out her story.
“Jack,” she cried, “Tonda was attacked in her sleep by an
army of driver ants!” Tonda was their baby daughter.
She continued, “Two nights ago I woke up out of a deep sleep
disturbed by her piercing scream. I rushed into her bedroom with the watchman
right behind. I found the floor, Tonda’s crib, and Tonda covered by army ants. I
grabbed Tonda, who was screaming. I pulled her out of the crib and laid her on
the dining table. The watchman and I removed ants, beginning with Tonda’s face and
head and then down her body.
“Once I’d rescued Tonda, I had to get the ants out of the
house. I squirted them with a bug bomb. The watchman swept dead ants out the
of driver ants searching the wall of a house for prey. Imagine them in the thousands.
Wild photo in public domain.)
Jack, of course, was shocked. He picked up Tonda and gave
her a big hug and kiss. Then he and Dolores sat and spent lots of time talking
about the frightening episode.
Once Jack cleared with the family, he gave Bill and me some
information about the ants.
“They work very quickly,” he said. “When they attack an
animal or a person, they approach in a living stream and fan out over the whole
body like water pouring over a surface.”
Further, he said, they bite all at once, when the victim
feels them and begins to squirm. Their attacks can easily kill sheep, goats,
and even pigs and cattle. In the case of smaller animals like chickens, ants
eat bones and all.
People can outrun a column of driver ants, so they’re
normally not a significant danger to anyone who can walk. The danger rises when
the ants invade a house, and peaks when one is immobile. Bill and I were
alerted to a danger and a risk that we’d never contemplated before. It was
In Tonda’s case, she was confined to her crib. The crib, of
course, was fitted with a screen designed to keep out insects and snakes. Somehow
these hungry “soldiers” had found a way in and had drawn blood in several
places with their scissors-like pincers before Dolores and the watchman rescued
For me, this tale of a horrible incident was a catalyst to
go off by myself for an hour or so. By this time, I’d been in Africa for about
a month. During that short period, I’d had an overload of experiences,
culminating in what I’d just now seen and heard. I wanted to collect my
thoughts. I walked out of the house onto a nearby rice farm where I watched
kids, using slingshots to drive birds away from the ripening rice.
Gathering My Thoughts
Once I reached the farm, I sat on a stump and reflected on
the significant challenges faced by the missionaries I’d met at the hospital,
the schools, and by Jack and Dolores here in Yekior. These two young
professionals with educations and an attractive family would be in demand in
the States by congregations wanting fresh leadership. Yet the couple had chosen
to leave friends, family, and opportunity behind to serve in an unfamiliar
setting—one which carried a high degree of personal risk. When I’d asked them
and others like them what motivated them to leave home and serve abroad, they’d
all said, “We felt called to it.”
Finding a life calling has been a hallmark of Christian
devotion since the voice from heaven simultaneously called Jesus and announced
his calling: “This is my beloved Son: hear him.” Mark
9:7 (KJV.) Multitudes of mothers, laborers, scholars, businesspeople, and
professionals all other sorts of individuals through the centuries have gained
meaning by living out of a sense of calling.
By observing Jack at
work with traditional Africans I was beginning to understand that the calling
of mission—his version at least—was not interpreted as destroying traditional
culture. Jack’s approach might be better
understood as enriching traditional African beliefs and practices. Jack started
his ministrations where the Africans were placed—geographically,
psychologically, and spiritually. As I had seen in several villages, Africans
themselves manifested receptivity, gratitude, and selective use of the spiritual
and material resources Jack offered. Africans were able to choose. In the give
and take, much could be strengthened. This implied that Jack felt called to
converse, find needs, and share.
Sitting on a stump in a rice farm in Eastern Sierra Leone, I
felt I’d be remiss not to reflect upon the poverty of the material life of most
inhabitants. They lived in mud houses, the walls of which erode in the rainy
season. Their wardrobe was generally a single outfit that they wore over and
over again every day. They used only simple tools, like country cloth looms, to
build shelter and to feed and clothe themselves. They cooked in pots over open
fires. They were miles from hospitals. Their way of life reminded me of campouts
back home, except that we could pack up our gear and go back to warm shelter
and decent food. Yet, stunningly, the Africans gave gifts to us as visitors to
their villages. The gifts symbolized their appreciation and spoke of their generous
I had carried my journal with me to the farm and wrote to
myself, “But they don’t help themselves through economically rational planning.
When the rice is harvested, they sell immediately, when the market is flooded,
to the Syrian/Lebanese traders at a low price. They spend much of the cash they
earn on clothes. The rest is spent to buy the rice back, later, at two to three
times the price for which they sold it.”
The result of this economically irrational lifestyle is that
a hungry season sets in about two months before the annual rice harvest. Among
rural folk, few have stores of rice or money to buy it. Annually, people are
forced to fall back on the less desirable root crop, cassava. The situation
makes any gift to the stranger a mark of great hospitality. What an admirable
Without doubt, the villagers and townspeople realized how
wealthy, relatively, their guests were. I wrote, “They sometimes ask me for my
watch or some other item as a gift. They are not insulted when I refuse, but
they simply think that I am so wealthy that I won’t miss my watch.”
That sort of incident threw a spotlight on my personal wealth
that I couldn’t ignore. Realistically, my primary tangible wealth was limited
to a travel ticket back to the States. Less tangible but still real, I “owned” status
as a young member of the middle class in a rich country. I had a family that
would help me while traveling and upon return. I must have seemed incredibly
wealthy in the minds of my African hosts. But I considered how much more
wealthy than me a missionary, or a Sierra Leone Selection Trust employee, or an
African army officer, or a highly placed government official might seem. All of
these owned significant homes, drove motorized vehicles, and enjoyed an
unbelievable variety of good food compared to the villager’s rice and cassava
If you were stuck in the hinterland and thought you weren’t getting
your share, what would you do? I’d learned that many ordinary rural people responded
by uprooting themselves, moving to Freetown or Bo to pursue a better life, only
to then find themselves forced into thievery to stay alive. “T’iefing”
(thievery) had become one of the country’s major problems. Every household with
items of value needed a night watchman to keep away thieves. Ironically,
Christians were telling me that it was better to hire Muslims as night watchmen
because they were more honest.
Jack and Dolores Thomas had told me of their own experience of
having been “t’iefed.” One of their houseboys had stolen hundreds of monetary pounds
plus personal items before Jack caught him. When Jack confronted him, the
youngster was angry at Jack who, nevertheless, fired the fellow, which created
even more anger. Then, when the fellow couldn’t find work, he returned to Jack
to ask for a recommendation for another job.
On the other hand, I was learning also that rural villagers
enjoyed intangible wealth that perhaps eluded urbanites. Villagers have a community
life that offers inclusion, whatever the stage of life. They learn and enjoy
rhythms, drumming, and simple musical instruments. They effect extraordinary
body movements in dance and entertaining stories to the young. They have ample
free time at certain seasons of the year. In the minds of some, perhaps these
intangible values of village life are worth more than the tangible values that
town life and its developed economy offered.
With all of these random thoughts floating through my mind,
I was unable to come to any clear conclusions. I just wanted to inscribe the
thoughts in my mind to my travel journal. I could make sense out of it all
later. I just knew that I had already received more from my—my what: Fieldwork?
My wandering? My adventures?—here in Africa than from the three months in
Europe, including Berlin, or from my “two quarters abroad” as a junior
psychology major at the University of Washington. Maybe Providence had played a
role in sending me to the Bumpe River than down the Amazon as I had originally
On Saturday, Dec. 31, after a week enjoying the hospitality
of the Thomas family and that of our new African friends in villages at the
edge of the Niger River, we loaded up our goods and bounced back to the city of
Bo in Jack’s Land Rover. Jack dropped us with the Bradford family in Manjama, very
near the larger city of Bo, by whom we’d be hosted for several days.
Diving Deeper in Mende Ways in a village near
We were welcomed into the home of Dr. Winifred Smith
Bradford, an M.D., and her husband, the community developer Lester Bradford. We
quickly learned that these two preferred to be called “Winnie” and “Les.”
Winnie joined the staff of Rotifunk Hospital in August 1951 and married Les on Dec.
23, 1952. As described by Esther Megill, the wedding was a great celebrative
event. The Rotifunk community danced and drummed for two days and nights. The
wedding ceremony itself was a good mix of African and American customs. When
Rotifunk calmed down, everyone went down the Bumpe River by launch (or drove by
road) to the small coastal town of Shenge for the Bradfords’ honeymoon. [Megill,
Winnie was an old friend of Esther Megill, the medical
tech. They’d been classmates in York College, Nebraska. After undergraduate
education, Winnie continued medical study and obtained her M.D. She was one of only
three women in her medical school class at the University of Nebraska, 1944-48.
Lester, the agricultural developer, received his master’s
degree in forestry at Yale University and later studied agriculture at Cornell
University. I felt a professional affinity with Lester when I found out that he’d
worked summers in Montana as a smoke jumper. This corresponded with my own
summer work on the State fire crew based at Fern Gap, Washington. Firefighters
tend to stick together. Both Winnie and Les had generous smiles and were giving
people by nature.
Lester Bradford at work in a Tilapia pond
After marriage, Winnie and Les had settled for a term among
the Kono people in Kayima, eastern Sierra Leone. In their next term they established
a rural development center in Manjama, a Mende village about two miles north of
Bo. As an M.D., Winnie’s passion was her clinic, which provided dispensary and
midwife services. Lester’s commitment was to community development, including
animal raising and fish ponds.
He devoted his skills to a
demonstration farm, including outreach that stretched many miles to the Eastern
Province and Kono country, from whence I’d just come after spending time in the
Thomas home. As a farm developer, one of Lester’s favored pursuits was to
instruct villages on raising tilapia, a freshwater fish, in ponds.
Their home was designed to resemble the buildings in the
surrounding community as much as possible. The house, for example, featured
open spaces between the walls and roof, and a simple, open attic. The toilet
was an outhouse. They used no electrical lighting. Incidentally, Bill and I slept
in the guest room. Before Winnie developed a detached clinic, that room had
been the birthing room. Their goal, seemingly, was to demonstrate to rural
Africans how to move up a notch, not a light year.
With Moses as teacher, I try my hand at harvesting Tilapia
Their blending with the Mende community
extended to cuisine. We had a rice dish at every noon meal, just as did other
residents of Manjama and all of Mendeland.
Wonderful hospitality and imaginative activities marked the
days we passed as visitors in the Bradford house. One day we swam in the river and
other days in the fish pond in which Lester raised tilapia. On yet another day
we viewed an ancestral sacred rock in a nearby village. We also regularly accompanied
Winnie or Les to the local market to buy food supplies—a good lesson for me in
bargaining with sales people.
Lester had learned African languages, particularly Mende.
Through his development outreach projects, he maintained active contacts in
many villages. He generously gave entrée to many Africans he wanted Bill and me
to meet. Lester wanted to help us obtain a broader perspective on, and appreciation
of, traditional local cultures.
In one village, Les introduced a man who ate Coca-Cola
bottles as a form of village entertainment—a feat like fire walking by yogis in
In another nearby village, we met an elderly village priest who
reportedly had been struck dumb by a scolding ancestor. We learned that Mende and
people of cultures sought to please the family and village ancestors to avert the
ancestors from causing harm by communicating their respect and regard through
simple sacrifices of rice or beverages. According to tradition, the Mende who
forgot to please the ancestors might unintentionally displease them. The
ancestors, in turn, could cause harm to the family or the village. Thus, a
family elder would be designated to present offerings and communicate with the
ancestors. The ancestors, in turn, would plead for the family with Ŋgewo—the
“ultimate authority from whom everything derives. . . .” Ŋgewo was regarded as
the universal ancestor. [Harris and Sawyerr, 1968, pp. 2-4, 30.]
Lester encouraged us to
“go shake hands” (vernacular for “meet and greet”) with the old priest whose
psyche reportedly had been rattled. Les accompanied us to the village and
inquired for the whereabouts of the old man. We were directed by one of his
sons to find the man in a small hut. We bent over and peeked through the door.
There was the elder, chained to a log. He sat and observed us but, in his
state, couldn’t speak.
The middle-aged son gave some details. For months, the
priest had failed in his duty of offering sacrifices to the village ancestors
at their shrine.
Rice sheaves on a
stand: a typical sacrifice to an ancestor
On the day when he finally got his sacrifice together and
set out on the forest path to the shrine, he encountered an ancestor sitting up
in the crown of a palm tree, looking down upon him. The ancestor harshly
scolded the priest for his long neglect. This encounter disabled the priest
mentally. Thus, he spent his days in the rounded hut, waiting for healing to
As mentioned earlier, Les had a remarkable assistant, Moses
Kamara. He and I were approximate age mates. Though Moses was a graduate of Freetown’s prestigious
Albert Academy, he never considered himself above manual work. It was Moses’
interest in agriculture that brought him apply to work in Lester’s community
development project in Manjama. Moses hoped to study agriculture in the United
States. Moses was intellectually alert and capable, and I spent many hours
learning of African things from him. He patiently gave me a West African
When I wasn’t busy with work or visiting a village I had
time to think. I asked, are these missionaries actually on mission? Are they
bringing Christ to people? They thought so and I thought so too. They were
approaching their mission in the same manner as the Meinhardt family in
Berlin—by identifying real human needs and meeting those needs as Jesus had: by
healing the sick, feeding the multitude, and teaching. I appreciated that.
After a couple of weeks at Manjama with this unique family,
I realized the gift I’d been given in Sierra Leone. Like Clyde Galow, the
Thomas family, the Rotifunk medical team and the teachers at Harford, the
Bradfords had their own credibility, trust and confidence with Sierra Leoneans.
They willingly used these intangible assets to provide Bill and me with invaluable
exposure to African traditional ways of life. I could not have gained access to
Africans in a short amount of time without the entrée so generously provided by
the EUB mission staff in Sierra Leone.
Thanks to the Bradfords specifically, we danced and ate with
Africans and listened as they told the stories of their founding chiefs. Included
were stories of the first human beings, who descended from God (Ŋgewo) to earth via a vine.
Lester helped me to appreciate some vastly broader human
mental, spiritual, and cultural possibilities than I’d ever contemplated. As a
result, I became more and more impressed with traditional African culture. It
seemed like the flip side of my native culture. If America was capitalist, rational,
and scientific, Africa was communal, feeling- and story-oriented.
I’d literally stumbled, almost accidentally, into West
Africa based on some decision made in Basel with the Schneider-Jaggi family.
But now that I was in Sierra Leone, Africa was really getting under my skin. I
was drawn to West Africa’s people as I’d come to know them, and couldn’t stop
thinking about them.
A Conversation that Changed my Life
Lester and others advised us to visit the Wesleyan Methodist
mission in Binkolo, about 10 miles north of Makeni in the Northern Province. Les
helped us to find poda-poda transportation from the Bo lorry park to Makeni, a large
northern commercial center. “Poda-poda,” we’d learned, was the Krio term for a
variety of vehicles among the fleets of private transit vehicles in Sierra
Leone. At Makeni, we transferred to a second poda-poda for travel a few miles
further to Binkolo.
Arriving at the transfer point in Makeni, by the sheer coincidence
of arriving just at the right time we were able to view a procession of girls
who’d just been initiated into the Bundu secret society and were now making
their public debuts. Their bodies shined with a coating of decorative oil. They
wore red head ties and sashes. Their skirts were dark. [Compare Olsen, color
plate 5.] They were accompanied by their
mothers, who were walking in a separate group and playing drums and
Bundu is considered to be the female version of Poro, the
initiation society for men. Girls are secluded for a period, during which
they’re taught certain values of the society and the tribe. After training and
initiation, they’re reintroduced to the village or town as adults. We were
witnessing the debut. Personally, I admired the initiation process. It gave
young people a definite place in society.
I thought about the American
equivalent. The American recognition process seemed to be split into many parts
(first driver’s license, high school graduation, religious confirmation, and so
forth) whereas the West Africans bundled the transition into one
During our time in Binkolo, Bill and I were in the care of
Rev. Warren Woolsey. As I recall, Lester Bradford and others felt we’d benefit
by meeting this individual. He was superintendent in charge of the Wesleyan Church
mission in Sierra Leone, including the boarding school for girls, the fine
Kamakwie hospital, a Bible school and radio station at Gbendembu, and schools
and churches around Binkolo. As we were to learn, this denomination’s mission
was not yet Africanized to a great extent. Key staff people were American, and
missionaries appeared to be active in directing church policies.
Rev. Woolsey impressed me as wonderfully competent. He was
respected as a fine Bible teacher. I asked him about his preparation for his
work as head of the mission. He told me that he’d attended Princeton Theological
Seminary but transferred to New York Biblical Seminary, from which he’d
graduated. The information about Biblical Seminary caught my full attention
since a trusted advisor at Seattle Pacific had suggested to me that Biblical
was an institution that I, myself, should consider for graduate school.
I asked Warren Woolsey for his opinion about New York
Biblical Seminary. He cautioned that a student is apt to graduate from Biblical
Seminary without firm theological convictions and warned that a graduate may
think that doctrinal differences are unimportant. However, the school would
offer, he thought, a deep devotional life, a Bible-centered curriculum, and the
New York City location.
His recap of the assets and deficiencies of New York
Biblical Seminary had an
effect on me, perhaps different than he intended. Woolsey’s point about the lack
of theology at Biblical seemed an asset to me. Frankly, “I’ve seen enough conflict
over doctrinal differences. I’m ready for faith in action without the sharp
theological edges I’ve encountered in my life, including those at Chalet
Huemoz, Switzerland.” That’s what I told myself in Makeni, there in the
interior of Sierra Leone.
I decided that very day to seek enrollment in Biblical
Seminary, and wrote a memo of my decision in my trip journal. It took courage
to make that decision since it went against the recommendation of my regional
EUB conference, which had licensed me as a ministerial student. This decision,
made not long after I preached my first sermon in Moyamba, signaled that my
year of travel was taking on importance for my life. I found myself to be
settling into a spiritual style of my own. Isolation increases quandaries in
spiritual matters. Contacts help one to simplify life’s choices in
spirituality. I found myself benefitting from contacts and enjoying some
simplification. Thinking back to the Bundu and Poro initiations I’d seen,
perhaps my trip was my own initiation into a new phase in my life.
Bill and I were back on the lorry network from Binkolo to
Bo. At Bo we transferred to train for a trip toward Freetown. At Mano we
transferred to another lorry for the final leg of the day’s travel to Taiama,
head town of Kori Chiefdom. We’d heard the importance of Taiama recited by
several of our contacts and looked forward very much to arrival. We were told
that the EUBs for many years had maintained a school, a stellar congregation
with the moniker, “Cathedral of the Bush,” and a clinic in the town. The
institutions were entirely staffed by Sierra Leoneans with the exception of the
clinic, which was supervised by an American nurse, Lois Olsen.
Arriving in Taiama over a dusty, corrugated road in a lorry overloaded
with people and goods, we were met by a very sleepy Miss Lois Olsen. She’d been
delivering newborns all night except for one hour of sleep. The most difficult
case had been that of a mother who, in addition to labor, also had a horrible
case of amoebic dysentery. This case, according to Lois, made her sick to her
stomach despite her many experiences as a veteran missionary nurse.
Townspeople loved Olsen’s dispensary. It was easy to
understand the reason. According to Lois’s statistics, the success rate was
amazing. For example, she reported that the mortality rate for infants up to
two years measured 60 percent in Sierra Leone in general, but in Taiama and
Kori chiefdom the infant death rate was only 10 percent.
I totally agreed that this record of remarkable success totally
justified the medical mission. Obviously, basic newborn medical help saves
lives. But, when lives are saved, the population grows. Would food, water, medical
care, employment, and other resources increase in kind sufficient to support the
growing population? But I also had an answer. Community development aid like
that offered by Les Bradford seemed to offer hope. Still, so far I’d met only
one community developer compared to several medical missionaries. I was left
wondering about how many persons can a traditional rural economy support? It
was similar to a bigger question: how many people can the planet support?
Good fortune had placed me in Sierra Leone during the
Christmas period. People were relaxed, happy, and participating in traditional initiation
rituals during the school vacation period. I’ve already mentioned witnessing public
portions of a Bundu initiation (for girls) in Makeni and a Poro initiation (for
boys) in Eastern Province. Now Lois informed us that here in Taiama and Kori
Chiefdom a very special organization was engaged in ceremony. A different
society known as the Wunde society was about to initiate its current class of young
Already, Lois had arranged an invitation for herself and us to
the public part of the several-day-long Wunde initiation. Lois demonstrated a
lot of spunk to get up the courage to ask. But she had leverage; she was the
only practitioner of Western medicine in the chiefdom. So, we’d be privileged
to be among the few whites ever permitted to see a Wunde initiation. Even more
amazing, we were cleared by a Wunde leader to take photographs. This was yet another
example of a trusted missionary using her contacts to give us access to the
To prepare us for what would follow, Lois explained that the
Kpaa or “lower” Mende region around Taiama had a culture that was distinct from
the “Upper” Mende located further up-country. The Wunde society was specific to
the lower Mende. Wunde was a warrior organization designed, she said, to defend
the Kpaa Mende from incursions of hostile immigrants from the north and east. Historically,
Wunde initiations were fierce, sometimes causing riots, the sacking of Taiama
town, and even the burning of villages. For instance, an early American
missionary who’d stayed in town during the initiation of 1904 was so frightened
by the carryings-on that she vowed she’d never again stay alone in Taiama when
the Wunde initiated its members. [Cf. Olsen, p. 193. Also see Harris and
Sawyerr, pp. 136-7.]
When we arrived at the site of the initiation, which occurred
partly on the main street of a smaller village next to Taiama, at least 300
people had already lined up along the street, half on one side and half on the
other. The people were clapping in unison and Bill, Lois and I joined in. The rhythmic
clapping continued during the entire performance.
The initiation was led off by a group which paraded down the
street, led by five men wearing large feather head-dresses. The rest of the men
in the group wore breech cloths. Their bodies were spotted with white paint and
each man carried a forked stick. They marched slowly, weaving around huts,
houses, and through the crowd.
Let the initiation begin! Historic Wunde
celebration begins with a parade.
After the first group exited, a second group filed past, dressed
in brightly decorated skirts. They marched silently, in the same manner as the
first group. After their circuitous parade through the town, they disappeared
from view into the surrounding brush for a long interval.
After an impressive interval, the much-anticipated third
part of the performance, the hazing of the initiates, began with a dramatic
burst of sound. The 100 initiates, mainly teenagers, dressed in breech cloths
but no other decoration, were huddled in a barri that was allocated temporarily
to them, located midway along the street. At a certain signal, about 50 warriors
dressed in grass kilts rushed out of the bush toward the barri. They surrounded
the initiates, howled and yelled, waved their long sticks and spears, and then,
after 10 or 15 minutes, they exited into the bush once again.
people carried buckets-full from the creek
The fourth phase consisted of putting the initiates “over the bar.” Each of the
young men, having shown bravery by enduring the frightening warrior attack
without flinching, had qualified for membership in the society. The bar itself
was a wooden table about 3 feet long and 4 feet wide, over which each candidate
slid three times. A tree about 10 feet tall had been placed at each side of the
table. Painted white, the trees looked like flocked Christmas trees. On his
third passage, the breechcloth of each initiate was ripped from his body and
thrown into the air. In time, they all were completely naked.
The ritual attack on
initiates tests their courage
Another episode followed immediately: the fight between the
fire people and the water people. Fire people were a large group of men wearing
breechcloths. These fire people charged the water people, men and women fully
dressed in western clothes and lining the street, who doused the fire people
with bucket after bucket of water. When some of the fire people realized that
Americans were present with cameras they charged us, too, posing, grimacing and
growling their worst. They captured all of my attention for sure, but I never
felt endangered. Meantime, children dashed off to the creek to return with
buckets full of water. The bone dry street quickly turned to mud.
In an elemental ritual battle, “fire
people” versus “water people”
Finally, a representative initiate was carried on the
shoulders of current members down the muddy street to the Teye River for a good
The participants had other motives of their own. Ritually,
they were made warriors. Socially, they had come of age.
The day we witnessed had been preceded by a whole week of
all-night drumming and singing, and would be followed by a second week of
drumming and singing. The event was the first Wunde initiation held since 1955.
I was grateful to be in the crowd and impressed with the event, but I still
wondered how the young men would obtain their driver’s licenses.
Kabbah Sillah, grand
old man and mosque leader in Taiama
Like many towns in Sierra Leone, Taiama boasted a mosque. The
great thing in Taiama was that Muslims and Christians maintained a neighborly
attitude toward each other. The mosque leader, Kabbah Sillah, spoke with me at
his home. He was a member of one of the immigrant families from the Savannah up
north. Sillah was a happy man, and if he’d been Danish, he’d have reminded me
exactly of my jolly substitute grandfather, Harry Rasmussen, back in Tacoma.
After just a few days in Taiama, Bill and I were on our way
again, prepared to end our marvelous weeks in Sierra Leone in order to move on
Bill and I had planned to fly to Monrovia. To get our tickets we had to return to Freetown. But once back in Freetown after a month
up country, we checked on airfares. We found the airfare to be exorbitant for such
a short trip so we changed plans. We opted to travel overland.
Being in Freetown for a couple of days, however, was surprisingly
great for several reasons. For one, we saw Louis Armstrong in person, in town on
a U.S. State Department cultural tour. Armstrong toured Africa for four entire months.
Sierra Leone was just one stop among many. In Freetown, Armstrong was an
exciting and positive ambassador for the U.S. Crowds regaled him and his
entourage. Strange as it might seem, the only Armstrong event I ever attended
was this one, abroad in Sierra Leone. It was amazing to watch the crowds
respond to him with rapt attention and excitement.
Also, during this final stay in the capital city, I was very
fortunate to be introduced in person with Dr. John Karefa-Smart, then Minister
of Foreign Affairs and Mines in the Sierra Leone Government. Africans and missionaries alike had regaled
me with stories, some merely impressive and others impressively humorous, about
this leader of Sierra Leonean society during its independence push. Karefa-Smart
was a political leader and an EUB, haling originally from Rotifunk. He earned
his M.D. in the U.S. He moved with equal ease among his own Sherbro people and educators
and political elites in Africa, the U.K. and the U.N.
As a churchman, Karefa-Smart told us this story.
I’d been invited to speak to the
church women’s national meeting in America. I had showered and was completely
naked when my hotel room door abruptly opened and one of the church women
entered by mistake. She looked at me, raised her hand to her mouth and said,
‘Oh my God!’
But I merely said, ‘You may simply
refer to me as Dr. Karefa-Smart, ma’am.’”
Karefa-Smart’s achievements and wit exemplified to me the
skill and leadership of so many who sought to guide their beloved Sierra Leone
to an illustrious future.
In addition to meeting Dr. Karefa-Smart and seeing Louis
Armstrong, Lester took us for a swim on the Atlantic beach. In general, we ran around Freetown with Clyde Galow and Lester on their business errands. We had a
In Freetown, the Government House
relaxing in the capital city before making our way up-country once again.
Having decided to reach Liberia by road, in order to do so
we had to go back to the northeast corner of Sierra Leone, where Sierra Leone,
Guinea, and Liberia join in a three-cornered triangular configuration. Lester
volunteered to take us as passengers to Bo. From there, we’d find other
transportation by road to the border town.
It was bittersweet to say goodbye to our many great new
friends, who had been so open, so instructive and so hospitable to us, in Sierra
The up-country city of Koindu was our travel target since it
was a border town with a crossing point into Liberia. Fortunately we were able to share a ride to
Koindu from Bo with another paying passenger in a fast and comfortable Peugeot
sedan. Lester Bradford found this ride for us in Bo. Our good fortune to ride
in this automobile saved us from traveling 180 miles in a lorry.
We arrived in the border town at 9 p.m. on Friday evening, Jan.
21 and sought hospitality with Pastor Moses’ church group, to which we’d been
alerted by our missionary friends. We simply asked passersby for directions to Pastor
Moses and showed up unannounced at his door without previous warning. We
introduced ourselves and explained our need for lodging. Amazingly, he took us
in and told us that his last name was Baker.
Pastor Moses provided us with sponge baths, food, and cots in
the mud-walled guest house of his church. Under only one blanket, I was cold
all night, as usual. The seasonal harmattan wind was still bringing in cold air
laden with gritty dust from the interior of Africa, some of it probably all the
way from the Sahara itself.
The next day Pastor Moses provided some breakfast and a
suggestion. He thought we should see the Koindu regional market. This
tri-national meeting place, he said, drew traders from Guinea, upper Liberia,
and Sierra Leone. Those from Sierra Leone were fortunate because they were in
their own country and could reach the market by land. Liberians crossed a
border and Guineans crossed a river, which served as the national border. Following
Moses’ instructions we walked to the marketplace.
The marketplace itself consisted of long rows of tables
covered by patches of pan roofing supported on a stick-built scaffold. Each
trader rented a table for the weekend, spread out his or her trade goods, and
started bringing in cash for whatever they could sell. The format used by
individual traders we’d seen before in several villages and towns. The amazing
feature at Koindu was the size of the market. It spread out over several acres
and, of course, was international.
It was fun for Bill and me to visit with the traders from
Guinea because they’d brought some interesting goods to market--rice,
calabashes, and fruit. With their proceeds they, in turn, purchased knives,
thermos bottles, and salt to sell in Guinea. The Guinean traders were interesting
for a second reason: they were Mandingo men—tall, gowned, and imposing, clearly
distinctive in comparison with local Sierra Leonean folks. The Mandingos proudly
wore their robes of blue, yellow, or white. Most of the men wore skull caps,
some of them elaborately embroidered in silver.
I wasn’t surprised to see many traders. Pastor Moses had
prepared us for that. I was surprised, though, to encounter a dozen or more African
religionists and expatriate missionaries throughout the market area offering religious
We talked with “Pa” Hemminger, an American connected with the Assemblies of God. He maintained a market table stocked with bibles, testaments, religious papers in comic form, and tracts, all in three languages—Kissy, French, and English. The Catholic Church was represented by salespersons offering reading material. But it was Jehovah’s Witnesses, both black and white people, selling “Watchtower” magazines and debating with other believers, who were most energetic and dominant. They spoke out to whomever would listen, saying, “God doesn’t want people who cannot read. Therefore, come to our school.” They promised scholarships to America for everyone who finished secondary school. I noted that traditional markets are subject to the forces of change, probably from unexpected sources such as marketers of religion.
Bill and I related well to Pa Hemminger, especially, partly because he had a
friendly relationship with Pastor Moses and his church. Later that Saturday afternoon
Pa took Bill and me two miles out to the Guinea border just to observe the
border traffic. The national boundary between Sierra Leone and Guinea ran down
the middle of a large river. A road stopped at the river bank on each side. Between
these two roads, canoes made from large logs shuttled back and forth. The
canoes were as wide as 5 feet and as long as 30 feet. They transported loads of
goods from one riverbank to the other—from Guinea to Sierra Leone or vice versa.
Trade flowed both ways. Traders or their helpers would transfer the goods to
truck, which then carried the goods on to other town markets at a distance.
Looking across to the Guinean side, I noted a police check
point there. I was grateful that, with Jack, I’d previously crossed a river
boundary between the two nations on a vine bridge at a location so remote that no
police post had been established on either nation’s riverbank. After we’d
observed the trade traffic, Pa Hemminger took us back to town and the home of
our host, Pastor Moses Baker.
At the Christian compound once again, some church leaders
gathered to relate the story of the Koindu Christian community to us. These
leaders stressed the very interesting point that this was not a missionary
compound, but a Christian compound. Missionaries had never been in permanent
residence. The church building, the pastor’s house, the houses of several
Christians who had moved there, the grounds, and even the paths on which we
walked, were completely an African product, designed and paid for by Africans.
The congregation ran its own affairs and met on Saturday evenings to elect its
elders. “Pa” Hemminger, the American missionary in town, was not invited. There
was no overt hostility toward missionaries, but rather an understandable pride
in their independent church and its progress.
Once we were certain that we understood the point about
their independence, they switched to the history of their community. It was Pastor
Moses Baker, the leader, who brought Christianity to Koindu. He’d been
converted and trained in a Swedish Pentecostal mission across the border in
upper Liberia. Once back in Koindu he preached and gathered a few converts, insisting
that they break with all traditional religious practices and societies. For instance,
his converts were to avoid the streets whenever a “devil” of a secret society
came into Koindu.
After some Christian young men, in their zeal, destroyed a
stone image that had been the object of ancestor veneration, a running battle
developed between Christians and others.
Retaliation for the crime of
destroying the stone image came quickly. Traditionalists captured a few Christian
men and took them to a clearing. Here they dug holes 2 feet deep and forced the
captives to stand in the holes. Then the vigilantes poured in dirt and tamped it
firmly in place so as to prevent the Christians from freeing themselves. Then
the captors stripped the Christian prisoners of all clothing, bathed them in a
sticky, sweet liquid, tied their hands behind their backs, and left them at the
mercy of the sun and insects. I gained no information on what happened to these
men. I presume that they were rescued by fellow Christians.
The Christians remained peaceful but continued their worshipping
and evangelizing activities. Traditionalists continued to defend their turf. One
night, as a Bundu devil walked toward the Christian compound with a group of
followers “intent on mischief,” she was struck and killed by a bolt of
lightning. Christian and Bundu members alike attributed the lightning strike to
the God of the Christians intervening to save them.
Soon, police intervened. They negotiated a settlement: no traditional
devil was allowed into Koindu. But if a devil were active in any surrounding village,
no Christian could enter that town to hold a meeting until the devil was gone.
The practical result was that church meetings and many
Christian activities were not tolerated in Koindu itself. For that reason, the
Christians had established their own compound, in which we were now guests,
outside of the town.
I found myself, along with Bill, to be a guest in a home in a
Christian compound, which, apparently, could be attacked at any time by the
forces of any secret society, only to be defended by divine lightning. The
situation was unnerving. On the other hand, it was a wonderful privilege to
have open access to African Christians who had absolutely no subsidy mentality
at all and who guarded the congregational independence so fiercely. This was a
different strand of Christianity than we had encountered so far, quintessentially
African in its autonomy and belief structure. On the other hand, could we count
on divine lightning in any case of need?
We stayed on into Sunday and attended the church service. About
150 were present: men to the right, women to the left and a large group of children
at the front, sitting on a woven mat. Adults sat on roughly hewn benches. Pa
Hemminger, Pastor Moses, three elders, two song leaders, and Bill and I all sat
on the platform or chancel, an elevated dried mud mound on the dried mud floor.
This would be my very first experience with Christian worship in Africa outside
of the confines of an EUB setting. I wondered what pattern the worship would
I received an answer to my question quickly. Over and over,
a leader began a song and the congregation would respond with enthusiasm. Musicians
played along on traditional instruments. One used a metal percussion instrument
shaped like an ear of corn; it sounded like a cowbell. Others shook gourds
filled with bird shot or something similar. Several people played tambourines
and drums. Everyone who held no instrument clapped. Lyrics were sung in Kissi,
the language of the dominant tribe in Koindu. They truly made a joyful noise
unto the Lord. It was loud. The people were joyful.
At the invitation of an
elder, Bill gave an introduction to ourselves—who we were and what we were doing
in Africa. Then I preached a short but well-received sermon on Christian
fellowship. Bill and I spoke in English, which was immediately translated,
sentence by sentence, into Kissi. At the end of worship, everyone formed a
circle, and touched hands with his or her neighbor. I felt no higher and no
lower than any others present. I simply felt at home with them on the basis of
their open-hearted acceptance of me, and me of them. I was amazed that they’d
allowed me to offer a message without doing a credentials check.
Musicians of the
Koindu Christian community.
Bill and I compared notes. We agreed: the Christians of
Koindu genuinely seemed to be what they’d claimed to be, a community of truly
independent African Christians. This facet of Christianity seemed deep and
indigenous, just as much as the traditional initiation ceremonies I’d witnessed
along the road.
Bush Road to Liberation Land
On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 22, after nearly two months in
Sierra Leone, Bill and I entered Liberia from Koindu, Sierra Leone. I was
excited to be able to leave Sierra Leone and enter Liberia by road without
facing the restrictions on travel I’d encountered when trying to leave Guinea
by lorry. The downside was of greater gravity than the excitement: we knew no
one, we had no firm contacts in Liberia. We were plunging into a nation known
to us, really, only by name.
Liberia, the modern nation, was founded mainly by freed
slaves from the U.S. The American tinge of Liberia, and its need to protect
itself against the white man/white slavery owner, based on the founders’
experience of enslavement, both showed up immediately. The national name itself
clearly relates to “liberation” and “freedom.” Would I feel at home here, or
should I expect rancor against me as a white American?
The first material evidence of American influence turned out
to be our bush taxi leaving Koindu, a severely dented Dodge pickup truck,
running woefully. But it was running! For a little extra fare payment, Bill and
I sat in the front seat. The driver headed out of Koindu through a swampy creek,
en route to Kolahun, Liberia. The road, really a mere track through the bush,
probably an enlarged footpath, conformed to every pre-existing grade, whether a
mere bump or a significant hill.
Though the odometer registered only 85,000 miles[A13], the motor needed some serious attention.
It seemed to me that it was running on two cylinders. Bluish oil smoke and smelly
gas fumes blew out from the exhaust pipe and from under the hood. The slightest
grade required the driver to shift into low gear. Whenever we came to a steeper
grade—a small hill, say—the driver required his 20 passengers crammed into the
bed of the truck to jump out and push. They probably appreciated a break and a
At first, the road, rutted with tracks reaching depths of two
feet in places, navigated a plain of tall elephant grass. The driver was always
riding the ridges to avoid the ruts. To avoid one particularly difficult
stretch, he left the road completely and drove out through the bush, bumping
back onto the well-worn track after the detour.
After driving through about two miles of plains, we dropped
down a hillside to a creek. The road rose steeply uphill on the other side of
the creek. After unloading the passengers and with only Bill and me in the
truck, the driver roared through the creek at full blast, then crawled up the
hill in compound low. About halfway up the hill and completely enveloped in
exhaust and the odor of burnt rubber, the driver gave it up. He backed down to
the creek side and asked Bill and me to get out. He tried running up the again without
us and did get further along. But when the vehicle stalled he backed down once
more and then the motor quit. I thought, “Whoa, we’re out in no-man’s land and
stuck. Will I be able to find my way back to Koindu and arrive there by
Poda Poda: pay, hop
in, and hope for a successful repair en route
The driver, with a magnificent show of confidence, said that
he knew exactly what was wrong. He grabbed his tool kit and first did a little
work on the transmission. Then he took the carburetor apart and cleaned it with
a dirty rag, put it back together and filled the throat with gas. With this
work successfully completed, he was able to start the engine, ford the creek,
and top the hill. At the hilltop, we passengers reloaded. He had fixed the
My tension and worry disappeared.
Shortly, the international border came into view. It was a muddy
swamp with a vague current flowing through it. The swamp was bridged at its
narrowest part by palm logs lying end to end in the mud. With skill and good
luck, the driver bounced us over the logs to our goal: Liberia. We were there,
in a country new to us, one with a national constitution modeled after our own!
Our international ride with a load of traders helped me to
understand this: using incredible ingenuity, African traders moved goods and
people, accepting great risks for paltry gain. I saw easily why many men succumbed
to the lure of diamond mining, where a big payoff could happen.
In Liberia, just over the border, I was amazed to find ourselves
on a two-lane engineered highway. Although the highway was unpaved, the
contrast with the swamp road was great. The swamp road was the roughest
imaginable but the highway was astonishingly level, with gentle grades and
curves, and very drivable. This improved road took us to a tiny border inspection
post where I paid a $1 fee.
After the customs post, we proceeded to the first Liberian
frontier town, Foya, a mere dot on the map in reality. Back in Koindu, Rev.
Hemminger had told us that we’d be received with open arms at the Swedish
Pentecostal mission in Foya. Of course, I wanted to check in at the customs
office immediately, and at the immigration office if there was one. We found
the customs office easily but no officer was on duty, so we went on to the
We asked a passerby for directions to the mission. “Up on the
hill!” Sure enough, we could see the mission buildings on a hilltop off to the
side of the town and not far away. We walked there, bags in hand, and looked
for people, but not a person was evident at the mission, either. Where was
everyone in Foya? Feeling stranded, we lingered around the mission grounds and
marveled at its neatness there on its low ridge above town. At one end were a
chapel, a clinic, and the houses of evangelists and workers. At the other end
were the missionary residences. All buildings were whitewashed and radiated a
Scandinavian plain-and-orderly style. There was the church, there the steeple,
but where were the people?
Finally, we did the obvious. We knocked at the door of a
trim little bungalow. We were surprised! A shy and quiet white woman opened the
door a crack. A second woman stood back further from the door. Somebody was at
home at the mission after all! I introduced ourselves and gave her the letter
of introduction that Mrs. Hemminger had written for us. The letter explained
our situation adequately. Still, the woman was apprehensive. What triggered her
fear? Lack of advance warning of our arrival? Our scruffy appearance? Bad
experiences with vagabond travelers in the past?
She closed the door and left us standing on the front step.
She and her female colleague probably retreated to debate our fate. I suppose they
had plenty of reason for suspicion. Two bearded white strangers arriving unannounced
from who knows where could make anyone suspicious. So, fortunately for us, after
accepting and reading the Hemminger letter and conferring with each other, they
opened the door and invited us into their cottage. Bill and I expressed our
thanks effusively. I felt a great sense of relief at finding temporary
accommodations in Liberia on our first try. We needed that because the first
try might be our only chance for overnight shelter in Foya.
Once we passed the bar of acceptance, the Swedes were wonderfully
generous. They gave us a separate cottage in which to sleep and they provided
our meals. It was Sunday, still, and they invited us to preach for an evening
church service and for a meeting in the village, no doctrinal questions asked
or ministerial status papers requested. We participated in the meetings as
requested. A sermon in the morning and another sermon at night, but in a
different nation. Our move to Liberia
had gone smoothly and we spent a good night sound asleep in warm, comfortable
But the most puzzling matter related to our immigration
problems. On Monday morning, Bill and I went to the immigration office in town
again. The sole government official at that border crossing still was not at
work. We were advised by people hanging around outside the office door to
return at noon. While in the town, we also searched for lorry transportation on
to the next town, and were advised to return later. No lorry transportation was
available at that time. Discouraged, but not necessarily surprised, we walked back
up the hill to the mission.
About noon things began to move. A “mission man,” meaning a
member of the congregation, came by and told us that he’d found a ride for us.
Great news! We decided to go to town with him to check on what he’d found. As
we passed the women missionaries’ residence, one of them called to us to wait
to enjoy the big lunch she’d prepared. We said we’d return in a few minutes. Once
in town, we found out that we could leave immediately with a driver of a Land Rover.
We agreed to go with him. The driver took us up to the mission, we threw our
bags in the Land Rover and said our grateful goodbyes (without eating the
sit-down lunch) to the exasperated missionaries. They thrust some cheese
sandwiches into our hands.
One of the men in the Land Rover was the customs inspector
we’d met earlier. He advised us on our immigration problem. Liberia had a law
that no one could enter the country other than through Monrovia on their first entry.
“Aha,” I said, suddenly understanding that we might have to
backtrack to Freetown. That would be even worse than my failed attempt to leave
Guinea by lorry. I certainly did not want to return to Freetown and knew that
Bill felt just like I did.
“But, the immigration official might not enforce the law,”
he said. This possibility sounded hopeful but the subtext was clear; some money
would need to change hands.
I comforted myself with the thought that Liberia was a
sister-country to the United States, a thought which had been reinforced by the
presence of American-made automobiles and the use of American currency. I began
developing the outlines of a plea to use with the immigration official—the same
poor-American-student plea that had worked with the customs man a day ago. I
knew Bill was working privately on his own plea as we scooted along in the car.
Once in Kolahun, our destination, we first met an important
official, the District Commissioner, a jolly older man with whom the customs
official had some business. The D.C. welcomed us and wished us well in our
travels in his country. Then the customs man took us to the home of the
immigration officer, and lo, he was there, at home.
The immigration officer heard our story and then repeated
the line about the law, saying that we had to report to Monrovia by way of
either sea or air from Freetown. He examined our passports, found our visas to
be current and valid, and then re-stated that we couldn’t enter the country by
road. He insisted that we return to Freetown.
Surprised, I thought, “Conakry déjà vu! I’m such a slow
learner! Here I’ve come up against an unyielding, hard-headed old man who won’t
let us go on. What next?”
Bill and I teamed up on him and gave him every argument we
could think of. In short, we insisted that continuing right to Monrovia truly
meant a lot to us, both in time and money, and also in terms of seeing some new
territory. We also told him that the official who issued the visas told us
nothing about entering the country by airplane through Monrovia.
Then we added
something like this: “Sir, we are students. We don’t have enough money to go back;
no money to buy airplane tickets. Isn’t there some way you can help us?” He
gave no sign of yielding.
Our new worries mounted. We told him of all our difficult
experiences on lorries in Sierra Leone and informed him that our single-entry
visas would not allow us to re-enter Sierra Leone.
from dealing with us? Mercy for two young men still maturing into seasoned
travelers?—turned the tide because he offered a compromise. He turned to our
passports on his desk and made a notation in each of them in bold blue ink,
“Seen on arrival. . . .Place Foya. . .23/1/61: S/J. S.
Johnson. Required to report to Immigration, Monrovia, within 48 hours.”
He told us he’d allow us to go to Monrovia, by air and only
by air, from Foya, and not by lorry. The best part: no special fee required or
requested! Officer Johnson never hinted at our need to give him a gift for what
he’d done for us. I was very grateful to him and, suddenly, less convinced that
officials were corrupt. Come to think of it, none in Guinea or Sierra Leone had
asked for a gift, either.
I was vexed at all of the restrictions. I thought how easy
it was to enter British Columbia, Canada from the U.S., or to reenter the U.S.
upon return. Producing a driver’s license was sufficient. But upon more
reflection, the compromise seemed reasonable. At a minimum it would work for
Our next immediate problem was to locate the Land Rover for
the return trip to the mission. It had disappeared with our baggage while we
were dealing with immigration issues in the official’s house. No one around the
immigration officer’s home knew where the driver and his vehicle had gone. After
about one-half hour, the driver returned. Our baggage was intact. But, a
problem surfaced: the driver had no plans to return to Foya and Foya was a
dozen miles away. So Bill, the immigration inspector, and I had to find
alternative wheels. After inquiries, we found a driver with a tired old Peugeot
taxi to take us back. En route, Bill and I shared the back seat with an army
sergeant headed to the same destination.
Soon we were back at the mission. The immigration official had
instructed us to wait there until we heard an airplane land on the nearby field
or until we received further word from him. Meantime, some missionaries of the
station whom we’d not yet met had returned from their visit to Monrovia. Bill
and I chatted with them while the two older single women prepared dinner. We
talked, obtained their comments on our latest experiences with official resistance,
and planned for the airplane ride.
But before the evening meal was ready, a 1958 Chevrolet Bel
Air drove up to the mission. A Liberian flag was flying from the front fender. A
soldier armed with a rifle jumped out and ran toward the mission house.
Once again I wondered, “What now?” None of the missionaries
seemed alarmed, so I calmed down.
The soldier knocked at the door in proper fashion and explained
his mission. The immigration official we’d just seen had located a through-car
to Monrovia for us and was requesting us to travel in it and not in an airplane.
This arrangement seemed great to us, and apparently the
immigration officer had become our friend. After a big argument with the driver
about our fare, we agreed to travel for $10 each. Including the two of us, there
were six passengers, making seven (including the driver) in a car built for
five. We had to leave immediately, before the meal was served. For the final
time, the flustered Swedes wrapped up some food and thrust it in our hands as
we exited the mission house.
As we traveled along the highway toward Monrovia, our driver
explained to me that he’d been sent on official Liberian business by the House
of Representative to Foya. Now, on the return trip, he wanted to make some
money. He told me that, because he was on official business, we had no reason
to fear. “This is a strong car. If it kill anybody, no palaver!”
“Really good to travel with such an assurance,” I mused.
He also explained about the road. It had been engineered
with funds from America but was neither paved nor properly maintained. The
night ride was terribly dusty and the well-developed washboard produced road
shocks at the rate of four or five a second. The windows fell down every time we
rolled them up. The worn shock absorbers magnified the bumps. We quit trying to
keep the chilly night air out and just lived with it.
Bill, a Chrysler fan, said, “This is the first time I’ve
ever felt sorry for a Chevrolet.”
All along the road the messenger-driver maintained a cheerful
dialogue. About 10 p.m., he pulled into a dirt driveway leading to a roadside
restaurant he knew we’d like to see. The restaurant advertised itself as a
“Really? It seems too good to be true,” I thought as the Chevy
nosed into a parking area facing the veranda of a well-lit old-style diner with
a corrugated roof.
The owners themselves, Mr. and Mrs. Davis, were on duty that
night and served us. They were fellow Americans from Dayton, Ohio, who, like many
black people before them, had moved to Liberia, their ethnic homeland, where
they’d be treated equally. They had located their business at milepost 50, east
of Monrovia, definitely out in the bush. Mr. Davis brought out hamburgers, pie,
and coffee. We swapped American money for the most American-style food we’d
eaten since leaving Seattle, six months earlier. We traded stories of our
travels with these friendly people for a few of their tales of Americo-Liberian
life. Then it was time to get back into the car and push off again into the
dark night, bound for Monrovia.
The stunningly well-developed washboards continued without
letup until pavement appeared just outside of Monrovia.
As we pulled into the outskirts and then into the city
center, Bill and I realized we’d be quite helpless on our own in Monrovia at 1:30
a.m. The streets were poorly lit and we had no idea where we were. At that
moment our driver announced, “I’m charging you $15,” a 50-percent increase over
the price we thought we’d finalized back in Foya. Nothing stays the same.
I told him to pull over to the curb. We got out, gave him
$10 each, as we’d originally agreed, grabbed our bags and walked off into the
darkness. Soon we found a hotel. The clerk quoted $15 for the night, which we
refused to pay and walked back out into the night. We found a second hotel and
they, too, quoted us $15. I decided that, apparently, this was the standard
price for an average hotel. To our relief, and entirely on our own, we’d found a
place to stay.
We showered well to wash away the layer of red laterite dust
of travel. Our suitcases were, of course, loaded with red dust. We cleaned
them, shook out our clothes, and went to our beds. I had a good sleep except that
I was disturbed off and on all night long by the rumbling of the air
Frantic Search for Friends
In the morning, we agreed that could not continue to pay
such high hotel rates. Our first problem, then, was to find a friendly contact
with whom to stay. We had one specific personal name in all of Monrovia, a Rev.
Clabaugh, an Assembly of God mission business agent. We set out to look for
Modern Monrovia; luxury
hotel in the distance
First, though, we went to the American Embassy for advice on
our Liberian visas. For clearance to enter the country, the Embassy told us to
go the Liberian immigration office. Regarding Rev. Clabaugh, the Embassy told
us to check at the Assembly of God Church in town. By the time we got back to
the hotel after these errands, it was nearly noon. We decided to look for
cheaper lodging as our highest priority and to delay the visit to Immigration
until the next day.
We notified the hotel that we were leaving. Since we had no
alternative available, we were taking a big chance. I was packed up before Bill,
so I went to a police station to ask for a lead on Rev. Clabaugh. We’d already
checked at the church, as instructed, but no one was there. On the route to the
police station, I noticed a window sign in a shop. It read, Christian
Literature Crusade. Ah ha! Good luck!
Inside, two American Bible school young women, working in Liberia
for mission experience and academic credit, gave me instructions on how to taxi
out to Rev. Clabaugh’s home in the country for a $2.50 fare. Bill and I decided
to go there.
We arrived at Clabaugh residence just as he and his family drove
into the driveway, returning from town. We introduced ourselves, and the Clabaughs
invited us, ever so cheerfully, to join them for lunch. Over the table, they
unloaded all of their feelings of discouragement on us. They were leaving that
day to go up-country for vacation, so they’d take us into town where we could get
a hotel. This is exactly what we had hoped to avoid.
A back street poverty
scene in Monrovia
We had hope of another contact in Liberia: the Letourneau Co.
The founder, R. G. LeTourneau, designed earthmoving equipment. The federal
highway construction program was a primary customer. Every American who owned a
car saw the giant LeTourneau machines at work on the freeway system. R. G.
Letourneau was well-known for his Christian commitments. Before we left the
U.S., Bill and I knew that LeTourneau sponsored a unique program in Liberia.
The program combined economic development and church development. We wanted to
see that operation.
I had the name of the manager of the Liberian program, a
Walter Knowles. Since Letourneau’s Monrovia office was located right on Clabaughs’
route into town, we stopped there with the intention of radioing Tournata and asking
Mr. Knowles for the privilege of visiting and staying at the village. Good
fortune seemed to be shining on us. When we arrived at the office we learned
that Mr. Knowles happened to be in Monrovia on business and was expected at the
office almost immediately. We bade goodbye to Clabaughs and waited for Knowles.
The date was Jan. 25, which happened to be my 22nd birthday.
My birthday gift was Walter Knowles. Congenial and understanding of our
situation, he quickly adopted us and became a real friend. He gave us all kinds
of necessary advice, took us to a less expensive hotel ($12,) and gave us a “letter
of responsibility” for our actions so that we could avoid buying a $100 good conduct
bond at Immigration, where we still needed to appear.
However, he could not
offer to us a visit to Tournata at present because R. G. LeTourneau himself,
the founder, was arriving there with a retinue for a three-week visit starting
the next day. Knowles dropped us back at our hotel, along with an invitation to
visit Tournata later.
We were stranded. Our only two contacts, Clabaugh and
Knowles, left us with no immediate alternative to heaven-high hotel rates.
That night we decided to avoid an expensive hotel dinner,
but rather to buy some oranges, lunch meat, bread, and a few staples. We went
out into the highly humid evening air to shop. When we returned an hour later, sweating
profusely, we carried in my birthday dinner: a tin of peaches, two loaves of
French bread, some cookies, a tin of sardines, a tin of mackerel, a can of
sandwich meat, and two cans of tomato juice. We’d found what we needed in the
African market, and the vendors wrapped it in plain newspaper. We sneaked
surreptitiously into our hotel room, opened our tins with Bill’s pocket knife,
and ate until finally we were close to gorged. The digestive feeling wasn’t
desirable since a third of our food was oily sardines and mackerel.
Next morning, we went to Immigration early because our officially
imposed 48 hours were nearly up. Everyone had been telling us that immigration
was extremely strict on Liberian entrance matters, so we were prepared for the
absolute worst. We were the first in line when the office opened. A clerk took
our passports and said we should return in one and a half hours. During that
time he would get our visas signed by the immigration inspector.
We began our mandatory waiting period by buying Kleenex and
anti-malarial medicine. Then we went back to immigration and waited outside in
the shade until the appointed time when we should be able to get our passports.
After a few minutes, Bill noticed the letters “ELWA" printed on the side
of an automobile parked in front of immigration. He recognized ELWA as the call
letters of an American-supported Christian radio station in Monrovia. He
hurried over to the occupant and introduced himself. The driver was Dick Reid, ELWA
station manager. One of his first questions for Bill was, “Where are you
When Bill told him about our current hotel, Dick said,
“Well, let’s get you out of that high-priced place right away.” We thought:
While Dick took care of his own business in the immigration
office, the inspector in charge of our case arrived with our passports and our entry
visas. He asked for no documentation or identification whatsoever, not even for
our vaccination certificates. To all appearances, nothing had changed; no new
marks in the passport, no fee charged. Perhaps someone made an entry in a record
book in a back office.
Outside, I looked at Bill and, with astonishment, said,
“This entry required less paperwork than crossing a border in Europe.” He
Soon we were back with Dick. He drove us back to our hotel
via some notable Monrovia landmarks: the Senate and Monrovia City Hall. The
government appeared to have money to spend on many projects—money derived, I surmised,
from the enormous rubber plantations we transited on our drive into town from
the border and from iron mining. The Ducor Palace Hotel, a waterfront palace
(single room, $20), was especially notable. The hotel occupied the highest
point of land in Monrovia—Mamba Point. West of the hotel is the Atlantic; to
the east of the hotel sprawls Monrovia.
At this point in the trip, I was running out of traveler
checks and had to request my parents to send funds. I asked for two checks of
no more than $50 each (for security in the mail system) sent a week apart to
Liberia. That was enough, I thought, to get me back to Paris. Then, in March,
I’d need more to get by ship to Montreal.
I was really impressed with Monrovia. Dick said that under
President Tubman, Monrovia had boomed economically. One indication was the high
hotel prices, which victimized us student travelers. Another was the number of
automobiles and the increase in paved streets and roads. Six years prior,
Monrovia had only two blocks of paved street in front of the executive mansion.
Now, all main streets in Monrovia were paved. It was in this town that I got my
first glimpses of new 1961 model Chryslers, Lincolns, Fords, and Chevrolets.
Monrovia overview—Atlantic in the distance
Dick left us to check out of the St. George Hotel while he continued
on his errands. I slipped over to the Embassy of Guinea to apply for the entry
visa that I’d need to meet my ship there for the return to Europe. Once we’d
regrouped again, Dick drove us to the ELWA studios, 11 miles to the south of
In the lobby, I read in the African Challenge magazine
that radio station ELWA is known as the radio voice of the Sudan Interior
Mission—founded in 1893 and working in Africa ever since. Clearly a big
project, its buildings occupied a strip of land on the Atlantic Coast south of
The ELWA beach was a tropical traveler’s dream—fine sands
backed by graceful coconut palms. Wave action was tempered by a reef offshore. Spaced
at intervals facing the beach were the station headquarters and the comfortable
homes of missionary families. Bill and I were put up in one of these homes with
a company family.
A row of homes for Liberian staff occupied space just inland from expatriate houses studios. Further back from the beach was the transmitter
building. A magazine article stated that the largest of seven transmitters rated
A fellow named Samuel Kamara, a Sierra Leonean, stood out among
the interesting people I met at ELWA. We felt some sense of affiliation by
virtue of our mutual contacts in Sierra Leone. Samuel was a native of Rotifunk and
an EUB by training and preference. He had followed the process toward
ordination, but the annual conference leadership was indecisive and unhelpful, according
to Samuel. As a result, he had come to feel a loss of direction and bearings in
To seek some new direction, he joined the Seventh Day
Adventists. That church immediately gave him the direction he needed. They sent
him to Monrovia for more schooling. In Monrovia, he met an American professor
at the University of Liberia who offered him some guidance. One thing led to
another, and soon Samuel found himself employed at ELWA. Like so many aspiring
Africans, he made it clear to me that he wanted to get to the United States as
soon as possible for college training. He had even targeted Westmont College in
Santa Barbara, California as his choice. When he’d get there (“when” and not “if”)
he’d contact the EUB Church. That’s how he projected his future. Samuel was a
great conversation partner and I wished him the best for his future.
Dick Reid, our heaven-sent rescuer, turned out to be the
manager of the radio station’s entire operation. We were incredibly fortunate
that he rescued us from our overpriced hotel and squeezed us into his fireball
schedule. He maintained contacts all over Liberia. At his suggestion I made
arrangements to fly south to board with the Kockers, missionaries of the Independent
Assemblies of God. The Kockers, Dick knew, would have plenty of interesting
station maintenance projects for my attention.
Bill felt he must stay on in Monrovia to make arrangements
for further travels in Africa. After making his reservations and ongoing
contacts he’d fly down to Greenville and we’d be a travel team again. In the
meantime, though, Bill was impressed by ELWA and its business-like approach. He
wanted to experience the work of its parent organization, the Sudan Interior
Mission. Through Dick Reid, Bill now had an entrée, an open door, to visit the
Sudan Interior Mission in Nigeria. Getting to see and review the S.I.M. in
Nigeria had become a big goal of his.
Thus, on Jan. 27, a Friday, Bill and I chose to go our own
separate ways temporarily. I went alone to Robertsfield, the international
airport of Liberia, to catch a flight south to Greenville, Sinoe County, in a
Liberian Airways DC-3.
airline, Greenville airport
Into the Deep Forest
The vintage DC-3, a holdover from WW II days, held about 20 passengers
ranging from business to bush travelers. Between Monrovia and Greenville, the
aircraft made two intermediate stops using small grass airfields surrounded by
villages and Syrian stores. At Greenville, in contrast, we landed on a wide, level
graveled field constructed by LeTourneau Co.
I had some apprehension about whether I’d actually be met by
the Kockers. I’d contacted them from ELWA by radio with my travel intentions. However,
since the Kockers had a receiver but no transmitter, I had no way to know for
sure whether or not they had received the message and agreed to my request for
hospitality. Though Dick Reid thought there would be no problem, I had some
As the DC-3 touched down on the airfield at Greenville, I
saw a few folks who might be the Kockers awaiting the arrival of the flight. Sure
enough, two among the crowd proved to be the people I wanted to meet. Since they
preferred to be addressed as Brother and Sister, I’ll refer to them that way. [A16]
I quickly felt at home with the Kockers. That was fortunate
since I planned to be at their place longer than in any other on the entire trip.
Right off, Brother Kocker won my heart with his “beat-up Jeep,” as he called
it. A 1949 model, it had the reputation of being the oldest running vehicle in
Liberia. Immediately, I was grateful to Dick Reid of ELWA. He had made a great
match by placing me with the Kockers. This was my chance for a stay in the deep
Brother and Sister Kocker came to Greenville town to with a
list of to-dos. Before they met me at the landing field they’d already shopped
for some supplies. The back seat of the Jeep was full with various items. One
of the Kockers’ “mission boys,” David, sat there amongst the goods. Up front, Mr.
Kocker, large of frame, required half of the seat; Sister Kocker and I squeezed
into the other half.
Brother Kocker drove back into the center of Greenville to
shop for still more supplies. At the first stop, we picked up some additional building
materials and a 50 gallon drum of gasoline. I helped Brother Kocker load the
gasoline and additional items into the trailer. His ability to keep his old
Jeep and trailer working said a lot to me about his mechanical skills, just as
the squeezing every item into the Jeep and trailer testified to their abilities
to use every conceivable space. Evidently they needed to reduce trips to town
even though it meant sacrificing travel comfort.
Brother Kocker took some time to show me how goods were transferred
from ships to shore. Greenville had no road connection with Monrovia. Coastal
freighters delivered all the manufactured goods. But the town had no freighter
docking facility. Freight boats anchored in the Atlantic beyond the surf and
offloaded mail and goods to small boats, called lighters. This system seemed
antiquated but it provided some work for the crews of the lighters.
commercial street. Kockers’ Jeep in shade of a Lebanese trading establishment
We also went to the local Liberian Immigration Office. The
staff person, representing the Liberian government in Greenville, sat behind a worn,
wooden desk in a wood-framed office building on a sandy road leading to the
palm-fringed beach. He checked my travel documents and approved my visit. A
friendly man, he wore a distinctive black wool business suit. Brother Kocker,
dressed very informally, told me that Americo-Liberians in rural places like
Greenville dressed in very formal attire for business[A18]. There was no holdup for special paperwork
here. It was just a good will call to let the official know that I’d be in the
county for a few days.
Eventually all of the business was finished. We drove out of
Greenville toward the Kockers’ mission near Juarzon. About 10 miles along the
road, we halted to eat a box lunch. This was a fine treat—and a very good
introduction to the high quality and quantity of food that Sister Kocker
prepared every day. I was very comfortable with this generous couple. They
reminded me of friends back home.
Since we were travelling in a very rural county, I was
surprised at the quality of the roadway. It was a veritable superhighway
compared to rural Liberian roads on which I’d traveled previously. A full two
lanes wide, graded and well-graveled, and in very good condition, it was a
treat to travel on such a fine road. Soon, I found out why. We reached the
place where a road-building crew was at work. They had sturdy equipment: a D-7
Caterpillar tractor, a scraper, and a road grader. With such capable equipment,
the crew was able to create and maintain a very fit road, starting at
Greenville and working inland.
This highway, the Kockers said, would connect
with the national roadway system further inland. At last Greenville would have
motor road connection with Monrovia.
Right at the milepost at which we encountered the road
builders we turned onto Kocker’s own private 3.5-mile access road. It was a
fright. We wallowed in ruts so deep that the axles of the Jeep scraped the humps.
We plunged through mud-holes that sent water to the running boards, and crossed
streams on bridges consisting of only six logs: one log on each bank as a
buttress, two logs with flattened tops across the stream at wheel width, and
two additional logs outside of the main wheel logs for safety. No vehicle
except a four-wheel-drive rig could have navigated such a road. Amazingly, we
managed the road towing a loaded trailer. Probably no driver would have
attempted it except the one who’d built the road. Brother Kocker was that man.
Navigating the Kockers’
3.5 mile access road
After 3.5 miles of very slow travel, we reached the mission
station. Even at first sight, I judged it to be a real haven of rest. The
grounds were covered by mown green grass, straight walkways led to various
white-washed buildings, and the compound was adjacent to a small,
well-maintained airfield. Altogether, the mission formed the biggest clearing I’d
seen since we entered the jungle just east of Greenville. This spot, deep in
the tropical forest, would be my temporary home for a few weeks of work
experience helping to maintain the grounds, and of learning from the Kockers
and their Liberian neighbors.
On Sunday, Jan. 29, Brother Kocker asked me to accompany him
to Toba Town to be present at a church service. We drove in the Jeep, from the
mission station back to the main road and on for a few miles to the very small destination
village. When we arrived, with no advance warning the pastor offered me the
role of preacher of the day. (He could not be faulted for lack of advance
notice. There was no way to communicate from Toba Town to the mission.)
By now I was familiar with on-the-spot requests and had a
message up my sleeve. People straggled in until about 50 were seated on benches.
The little country church consisted merely of pan roofing rising to a ridge
pole. There were no sides to the structure. An exceptional aspect of the group was
the choir, each person garbed in a black cassock and white surplice. I’d never seen
choristers garbed this way except in Catholic or Anglican churches and was
surprised to see it in a Pentecostal setting.
One attendee held a white-skinned doll, dressed to the hilt,
which she burped and patted all through the service. She carried it home on her
back after the service. I had no idea what the doll meant to her and couldn’t
find out from anyone else. Later, I found that Ashanti women, from a culture to
the east of Liberia, carried carved dolls bundled to their back to promote
pregnancy. Was there some cultural carryover from Ashanti-land? That was a
question, merely, and not a conclusion.
From the beginning to the end of my delivery of the sermon
at Toba Town, my concentration was disturbed by three or four men in the back row
openly laughing and chatting. Despite this behavior, I was impressed that, once
again, that the Pentecostals in Toba Town, like those in Koindu, Sierra Leone
and elsewhere, were so kind as to ask me to preach. They knew little about me except
that I was with Brother Kocker, displayed some interested in them and was Christian.
Maybe they were honoring me as a guest, or perhaps the pastor was tired of
preaching every Sunday. I appreciated greatly their openness.
people of Toba Town
At the end of worship, the pastor and people gave Pa Kocker
and me a live chicken and a container filled with palm butter. Like others in
Sierra Leone, the people in Toba Town gave generously.
Living for a couple of weeks on the Kocker compound presented
the opportunity of forming several new relationships, first and foremost with
them, of course. During my stay in their mission station, they were the only
Americans I could speak with on an intimate basis. We were locked into an isolated
location, far into the forest, with no town of significance within walking
distance. In such a setting these plain-style, upper Midwest Americans were hospitable
True, my presence offered them someone new to get to know. Their
isolation must have made for loneliness. Simultaneously, I did provide
volunteer labor to help whittle away at their backlog of maintenance tasks.
Those factors made for ease in building a relationship with them. Table talk at
every breakfast and supper was easy, ranging across topics from practical
maintenance chores to their long-term hopes and goals. We shared about our
families in the States, their mission compared to others I’d visited, and their
questions I raised about the people they sought to serve.
I became a fixture around Juarzon and my relatively long
stay there allowed me to reach out to many Liberians living in and near the
mission. I asked them about their lives, and some were very forthcoming. For
example, I asked two men, one an evangelist and the other a farmer, what the
missionaries could do for them that they could not do for themselves. They
replied, “The missionary can teach the Bible.”
Then I put the same question to the Kockers: “What can you
do for your neighbors that they cannot do for themselves?”
Interestingly, they gave a similar answer: “We can teach
them the Bible.” In addition, they mentioned that they were able to help some
people raise their standard of living.
Encounters like these gave me opportunity to consider the Kockers’
style of missionary activity which, I thought, could be described as a very hands-on,
generalist endeavor. The seeming simplicity of this style was deceptive. Role conflicts
were built into it by its very nature. Several persons in Juarzon looked to the
missionary as an employer as well as spiritual teacher. Tensions were
inevitable because the two roles were not exactly synchronized at all times.
Examples of role conflicts were evident right in the
household. Sister Kocker employed two young girls to work in the house, helping
her with many tasks. These kids were novices, completely unacquainted with
American housekeeping ways, and Mrs. Kocker had to teach, then prod, and finally
correct them continuously. Yet, she was also their counselor and spiritual
teacher. In that role she was more the coach, which established a different
sort of relationship than her other status as employer-supervisor.
Similarly, Brother Kocker had a number of youthful boys of 9
to 12 or 13 years of age staying at the mission and working with him. They, too,
were learning from him as a religious teacher. Were they tolerating religious
teaching in order to get and keep employment? Were they genuinely seeking
religious guidance? It was difficult for me as an outsider to ask such
questions and get straightforward answers. I felt people answered with whatever
they guessed I’d like to hear and voicing it.
But tensions and conflicts surfaced openly and communicated
greatly without words. One day, Pa Kocker needed to repair the road. He asked a
family to contribute a certain boy-worker to help with the work. They provided
a boy for one-half day only, and he turned out to be a poor substitute for the worker
Pa Kocker preferred.
Two days later, the hard-working young man whom Brother
Kocker had requested to work on the road in the first place, came running to the
mission house. He’d cut his finger badly with a machete and asked to have the
wound dressed. Now, Pa Kocker possessed an unexpected chance to settle scores
and teach a lesson.
Kocker replied: “No, I won’t dress your wound. Besides that,
when you want supplies from Greenville you can carry them yourselves. I won’t
carry them in the Jeep if you can’t help me on the road.” That very night, in a
church gathering, Brother Kocker had to preach to the same young man and others
on following Jesus on one’s life pathway. When the deed and the spoken message
conflict, people are certain to notice.
It seemed to me that it must be difficult for both parties when
the missionary determines whether to keep or to dismiss mission boys or girls
on the basis of their work output. “I can get twice as much work out of those
little boys as I can out of the big ones,” said Pa Kocker. “The little ones
stay, the big ones leave.” The power relationship set the stage for dependence.
I felt that there must be a way to avoid such an obviously
judgmental, disciplinarian stance and to help all who were in need, regardless
of their output on work projects. But I realized that I was making a judgment
from the privileged position of visitor, without the challenge of maintaining
many buildings station in a land where, it was said, stainless steel rusts.
Of course, the relationships I formed embodied their own tensions.
I was the guest of missionaries. But, by this stage of the trip, I wanted to
learn more about traditional African ways of life. Obviously, any Liberians I’d
contact with requests for information would be reluctant to disclose aspects of
their lives that might be condemned in church next Sunday. Also, I wanted to
know how Africans felt about the mission in their neighborhood. But it would
require torture to obtain their opinions if they thought that I might use that information
in a way that would boomerang on them.
Liberians in the neighborhood needed evidence that they could
trust me. But I realized that forming a trust relationship would require duration
of time I couldn’t spend, skills I didn’t have, knowledge of the local language,
and clearance from the nearby town chief. Considering my disadvantages, I felt
I was doing well as an amateur field worker.
Creators and Enhancers
All things considered, my experiences prompted me to raise
many questions, and I was able to restate a conclusion as well. This was the situation.
My travel year was sharpening my knowledge of religious work and my own
approach to it. By now, I was four months into a journey through parts of
Europe and Africa and observing pastors, missionaries, lay people and their
In particular, I was aware of critics stating that
missionaries destroy traditional cultures. Was that true? As a budding and future
religious practitioner I needed some answers. I was not the only one in Juarzon
raising such questions. I found that the Kockers themselves were examining the
value of their work and were realistic about their intended and unintended
After I’d been with them for a time, they disclosed without my
asking that their present term would be their last unless in the months remaining
they could establish a pastor-evangelist Bible school. They said they’d learned
that they needed to gather and train older young people and that would be the
purpose of the Bible school. I can’t recall questioning the Kockers about this.
But it made sense to me that they were correct in hoping for Liberians to
replace Americans as leaders of the Christian community.
I’d already seen the result of more an older, more mature
mission program in Sierra Leone with the EUBs.
I tried to compare the Kocker style
of mission work to what I’d learned of the EUB mission in Sierra Leone. First, I
thought of an easy contrast: the Kockers were the first generation of
missionaries in the forest of Juarzon. The EUB first generation landed on the
shores of Sierra Leone almost a century earlier. The EUB mission had been
continuous over a period of 100 years or more and had developed a large and
capable African constituency. EUBs in the States and Europe were still sending
missionaries but they filled roles as specialists in medicine, community
development and education. African constituents had assumed full responsibility
for church leadership.
The Kockers, by wishing to train Liberian leaders, were hoping
to speed up the process perhaps. If they succeeded in establishing a Bible
school, the first generation of foreign-based missionaries would train its
successor. And that seemed appropriate.
The long EUB history of church development in Sierra Leone didn’t
resolve all missionary role conflicts. But it did seem to ease them. For
example, the Kockers seemed to have no close friendships with African equals,
but I’d observed very definite friendship relationships among EUB expatriate
missionaries and Sierra Leonean nationals. The Kockers were in control; the EUB
missionaries were in service and servant roles.
I thought it was obvious that, just by living in a rural
area and employing their local neighbors in various positions, the Kockers would
become instruments of change. Critics saw this aspect of missions as destructive;
proponents saw it as enhancing. I tried to be neither a proponent nor a critic
but a neutral observer.
In that neutral position, I saw no destructive consequences
of mission work. How could this be so? One explanation might be that African societies
were a lot stronger than many Westerners thought. If Africans were sufficiently
grounded and strong in their way of life, they could accept or reject cultural changes
that missionaries sought to achieve. I presumed that Africans would seek to retain
the best of their traditional life styles and values and add Western elements
where they might help. That sort of change could be very constructive. And,
very possibly, missionaries would adopt some African life African values and
lifestyles and represent them back in their American home towns when the time
came. Neither American culture nor African culture was done evolving. Each could learn from others.
The most important factor seemed to be the shrinking of the
world. The first European vessel rounded the cape at Dakar in the 1400s. Before
that, tropical West Africa had been relatively immune to external impacts. Some
invasive impacts came over the Sahara from North Africa; the results were
visible in the presence of Islam in Sierra Leone. But now, vessels were reaching
West Africa regularly from all around the world. Airplanes were shrinking the
world even more, as Bill was demonstrating by flying from Madrid to Sierra
Leone and on to Nigeria. The presence of missionaries in Africa was a function,
largely, of modern travel technology that shrinks the time cost of global travel.
To get a better idea of the impact of Europe, Asia, and the Americas on West
Africa, one would have to spend time in Monrovia, Freetown, and Dakar, not just
in the bush where I was thinking about these things.
Given all of the variables, the question seemed to resolve into
the ability of the “receiving” culture to select and adapt the best of the
“donor” culture. And even more to the point for Americans, how may peoples
around the shrinking globe benefit as both receivers and donors?
It was clear to me in Juarzon in 1961 that we’d all be
living in an even smaller world in the future. Missionary presence was just one
part of global interconnectedness. I hadn’t seen enough in Juarzon, in my
opinion, to know whether or not local groups were benefitting spiritually and
materially from interaction with missionaries. The question was important
because, in a world like ours, there’s not even a ghost of a chance of small
groups, like tribes, maintaining cultural isolation. All cultures, big and
small, will be challenged to change. It’s up to each cultural group to make the
best of outside inputs and impacts.
I realized that I needed to define and redefine myself. What
values or ways of life, what songs and ideas, would I take back to America to
enhance the life of my family and community? What had I learned about myself in
interaction with West Africa? What gains had I achieved in self-discovery
through travel? Probably this: creative change of one's personal style is a lifetime
Within a couple of weeks I was able to become acquainted
with a few Juarzon-area indigenous people. Let me introduce them to you. As
background, in Juarzon, as in Sierra Leone, the local culture seemed to rest on
a reluctance to disclose, almost the opposite of the missionary
culture's high value of reaching out.
The gems of the village and tribe were to remain hidden, not trotted
out for display. Their cultural defense mechanism was a barrier. I began my
stay on the starting line of my personal cross-cultural acquaintance. And in my
case the race necessarily was a sprint—my departure deadline loomed. Despite
the short course dotted with hurdles, I gathered there some stories that are
worth my telling.
Lunch break from clearing brush for rice farm
I was gratified to form a notable relationship with one Jackson
G. Doepeh—17 years old, short of stature, and a fifth grader. What made him
unusual was that he did not “tie his tongue” as expressed in the colloquial English
of the forest people. I spent time with Jackson, laughed with him, talked at
length and shared much. Why did the relationship work? I couldn’t discern his
motives for sure. I simply took him as genuine when he spoke of himself and his
From the start of our friendship, Jackson was different than
most. Whereas others asked me for things, Jackson mainly asked me for
information. One day he asked me to show him how to operate my camera. I
explained the basics and he took a couple of photos. On another occasion, he
said, “Reeck, show me more about this star-business.” In response, I explained
the constellation Orion to him.
In return, Jackson “learned me” much of great interest. He
showed me how he made fish traps, dug animal traps, and harvested palm kernels.
He briefed me on the skills of gathering food from the forest. Once, he carried
me on his back across a river to show me Saba Town, a place near the mission.
Jackson G. stripping Palm Kernels from the Fruit. Clusters of fruit grow among the foliage
I began to pick up some of his grammatical forms. Instead of
asking “When?” he’d say, “Which time?” Instead of asking, “Have you been to
Greenville before?" he would ask, “You been to Greenville first?” Instead
of “Where is it?” he’d ask, “Which place?” Not “astronomy,” but “this
When my departure time was nearing, Jackson did make a
request for a gift. He asked for my ballpoint pen. I asked, “Why do you want
Jackson gave a variety of reasons. He wanted to remember me
by it. He wanted it because “We Africans are very poor.” I refused to give my
pen because I would need it every day for writing in my journal, but he continued
to ask for some present that I’d leave for him. On our last time together I
gave him some French, Guinean, and British West African coins as a remembrance.
He liked the coins, he said, and I hoped that he could hold on to them for a
few years to help him remember me as an American friend.
I left with great memories of this friend, Jackson G. Doepeh.
He was unique. More than any other traditional Liberian, he’d shared some of his
way of life. I wanted more.
Zacchaeus, an Embodiment of
Jackson’s didn’t live with his own family. Like many of the school
kids at the mission, he lived with another family. Jackson lived in the household
of Teacher Zacchaeus Swenh, school master of the government school in the nearby
Saba Town to which Jackson had guided me. Jackson gave me access to glimpses of
his life in the Swenh home.
Though only a guest in the home, Jackson behaved as though
he’d been born a Swenh. He helped in whatever work Teacher Swenh had for him,
and he received food, clothing, spending money, and room in return. This arrangement
seemed to work well for both parties.
In addition to the many cultural lessons Jackson gave me,
he performed an additional great favor to me by giving me entrée to Teacher
Swenh. I learned that Teacher himself had only an eighth grade education and yet
was responsible for teaching all grades up to eight. He was identified very
much as a Christian and served as pastor of the Juarzon mission church,
conducting religious meetings daily. In this and other respects, he seemed a
natural leader with a level head for dealing with problems.
Teacher Swenh reigned over a large household. Including his
own children, Jackson, and other guests living there, his family numbered 19. In
addition, he usually had one or two temporary visitors on the grounds, swelling
the grand total to 20 or 21. He skillfully organized his large household for
common work. This ability to elicit work and direct it toward common goals
resulted in Swenh’s ownership of a large farm, including cash crops of cocoa and
rubber trees. Thus, Teacher had money, which allowed him to purchase metal pan
roofing for his new house house and plaster the mud walls with cement. During
my time in Juarzon, skilled workers in Teacher’s family were engaged in
enlarging the house. I was able to observe the project underway.
Unlike Jackson, Teacher Swenh exhibited a typical Liberian reserve,
but at times he opened to conversation. He disclosed his hope of becoming self-sufficient
with cocoa and rubber income so that he could quit teaching and become a
Each child has a chore, like carrying water from a stream to the home
One of my practical questions about the Swenh family was,
where did all those family members sleep? Swenh’s current house seemed small
for 23 people. It was the Kockers who answered this question. They told me that
the Swenh family slept two and three together in small beds. In addition, some
of the boys slept in the “attic” on the bamboo poles that formed the ceiling of
the living quarters. I was rather shocked to learn about the restricted
sleeping conditions of people in a relatively upscale household. But I knew
that American children of earlier generations often had to share beds with
brothers and sisters.
Teacher Swenh feeds his people well, Jackson told me. They ate
three times daily, which is two times more per day than many rural Liberian or
Sierra Leonean families could afford.
As a visitor to rural Juarzon, I experienced something of
importance about how to learn something of a traditional culture that shielded
itself from an outsider. On the basis of a friendship with one person like
Jackson I built bridges to additional people in the community, resulting in at
least tentative trust and confidence. Having learned that lesson, in a short
time I was beginning to enjoy a glimpse into indigenous, rural life.
As a result, I’d encountered one specific and influential
group, the Swenh family household, that confirmed my guess that traditional
Africans could pick and choose what to borrow from missionary presence. I’d
learned something similar back in Sierra Leone at Harford School when Lois
Olsen told me that poor families sent their children to school. Traditional
elite families, chiefs and the like, held back. The result: that the poor were able to make a better
adjustment to new circumstances. The children of the poor learned to read,
write, and do math more readily than those of the elite. Jackson certainly, and
Teacher Swenh perhaps, seemed to confirm that same pattern of adaptive learning
here in Liberia.
I had to admit, also, that conflict between the old and the new,
or the indigenous and the foreign, can balloon into a huge challenge for some rural
Liberians. I learned of the distressing situation of a mission-trained school
teacher and his mission-trained wife. They were attempting to set up a family
life on Western lines in an equal-to-equal partnership basis, probably as
they’d seen modeled by missionaries.
The success of the marriage, however, was
threatened by the husband’s old-fashioned live-in mother, who lived in and
insisted on very traditional ways in the home. She bossed her son’s wife, attempted
to make every household decision, and tried to take over raising the couple’s
baby. The young mother was acting inappropriately judged by traditional family
patterns, but behaved appropriately in a more modern lifestyle. Whereas Teacher
Swenh and his household seemed to merge old and new, the second teacher and
spouse found that old and new can can’t coexist in some situations.
The teacher was caught in a dilemma. He couldn’t ask his elderly
mother to leave the household. Family loyalty and community customs forbade
that. He couldn’t argue or reason with his mother either, for if he had, the
village people would “carry his name,” or blacken his reputation as one who showed
disrespect to his mother. African families trying to adapt some new ways to
rural life can run into formidable barriers.
Life on a Balance Beam
More personally, I felt compelled to revisit the difference
between myself and my counterpart rural Liberian of a similar age. Adding up my
assets, I owned a car, a closet of clothing, a Winchester .308, books galore,
and other personal effects. I had a marketable education. Back home, I lived in
the comfortable house of my parents, where I enjoyed luxuries of good food,
modern appliances, and sanitation.
My African counterpart living in a traditional village was
part of an extended family, or perhaps he lived as a guest with another family
down the road. Ten or 20 people would be living in the house. He’d be sleeping
on a stick bed. His personal possessions would be limited to two changes of
work clothes and a pair of good clothing. His tools would include a cutlass or
machete. In addition, he might own a few outdated magazines, a tin box in which
to store his clothes, and possibly a bush gun. He would navigate fears of
death, witches, devils, and the weather. He would eat cassava root and rice.
I was amazed at my good life circumstances. Did the luck of my
birth circumstances, my particular family, and my citizenship imply some responsibilities
to others much less fortunate? How could I remain in such personal comfort, having
learned a lot about the impoverished born by the luck of the draw to
unfortunate situations? What did justice demand of me?
My Second Age-mate Friend, David
David, the teenaged “mission boy” who’d met me at the plane at
Greenville with Brother and Sister Kocker, befriended me along with Jackson. One
day, he volunteered to guide me to a sight down at the streamside. We were
acquainted with each other from some earlier conversations. As we walked a path
through knee-high green grass and then through a forest of giant trees en route
to the stream, he reached out to entwine his fingers with mine. I had instant memories
of seeing men in Monrovia, Conakry and most everywhere in Sierra Leone rambling
along walkways or streets and holding hands. Though none before this had ever reached
out to me in that way, I decided that I could hold hands for a few moments with
this young man on that walk. I did entwine fingers, and then withdrew as soon
as it might seem polite.
Now, I’d not only observed the practice of men holding hands
or entwining fingers everywhere I’d been in West Africa, but had experienced it
”What is this? Just a display of friendliness?” I wondered,
but I didn’t discuss it with Brother and Sister Kocker. I just observed that
David seemed as free with the hand holding as I was anxious to terminate it. His
motive or feelings remained a deep secret that I didn’t try to penetrate
Time and again through experiences like this, I was aware
that a huge gulf separates African traditional ways from the Western worldview.
Because I’d absorbed from infancy through my college years, I knew I could not
understand more than a fleeting glimpse of the African point of view. What was the
ultimate status of witches, spirits, and other powers, for example—fictional to
me but reality to my new friends? I didn’t choose to come to Africa to ask
these questions. But once there, they impressed themselves on me. Which understanding
was more true to reality? Or, was truth relative to one’s culture? Caution
called, lest I become dogmatic myself.
Rainfall or Waterfall?
Rain in Juarzon made Sierra Leone’s downpours look like a
sprinkler running at low volume. During a Liberian “shower” water fell in huge
drops. Rivulets fell to the ground from corrugated metal roofs. During the peak
rainy months, up to 15 inches could fall in a day. I wasn’t there to see that;
I just heard about it. I was in Liberia during the dry season and even so I witnessed
all the rainfall I wanted to see.
In both Sierra Leone and Liberia, abundant rainfall ensures that
traditional rice will grow on hillsides (swampland neither required nor wanted.)
In Juarzon, I had a chance to participate in the brushing of a farm in
preparation for growing rice.
Step one: men chopped down all the trees and brush. Step
two: They burn the cut wood, prize mahogany included. Step three: women plant
I watched a mahogany tree come down. It rested on the ground
where it fell and the farmers would burn it. What a shame to see valuable wood
go up in smoke, I thought. But there existed no feasible way to transport the log
to Greenville for export.
Later, flying over southern Liberia on my way to Tournata at
2,000 feet altitude, I easily could see the effect of slash-and-burn farming. It
produced a quilt-like landscape of active farms and spent farms lying fallow
while returning to bush, contrasting with virgin jungle. Though I considered the
destruction of the forest to be a shame, I also realized that deforesting the
jungle was, perhaps, no worse than the clear-cut logging of the hills and
mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Back home, timber companies considered trees
to be a crop like corn, the difference being that the tree crop took much longer
to get to harvest. Here, rice and cassava were the crops, and the ash of the burned
trees was the fertilizer. The ecological consequences were the same, whether
cut for wood or cut for farmland: decades or centuries of forested land were
lost in a year or less.
About five days after my own arrival in Juarzon, the Kockers
and I piled into the Jeep and drove to town to meet the DC-3 once again. Bill
deplaned. He’d been housed at the ELWA compound in Monrovia while making
arrangements to visit mission work in Nigeria in the very near future. After
driving by some of the Greenville sights to orient Bill, Brother Kocker drove
us out to the mission station.
vehicle in Liberia played many roles, here as a roadside picnic table
In Juarzon for the next few days, Bill and I spent good
times together in conversation, work, and worship with Brother and Sister Kocker.
Then, on Saturday, Feb. 11, Bill parted ways with me for the final time. He
left by the Pentecostal mission Piper to Monrovia, and from there he planned to
travel to Nigeria and possibly the Middle East. Together, he and I had shared
amazing experiences since October 1960. Without his companionship, sharing and
partnering, my trip would have been lonely and worth far less in human terms. I wished him the very best and then—whoosh—he was
gone and I was flying solo for the rest of my trip. But that was not the end of
the episodes of the green flying machine. Another episode occurred just a few
Bill departing from Liberia for Nigeria
Monday, Feb. 20, was a busy day. Early in the morning, Mark
Bliss, the pilot, delivered a “light plant” (a gas-powered generator) from
another mission station to be repaired by Pa Kocker. Later on that same day, Mark
flew in again to pick up the light plant, already repaired and producing
electricity thanks to Brother Kocker and his skills. This time, the Bliss wife
and two children arrived with Mark for a visit with the Kockers. Leaving them
for the time being, Mark flew out alone to deliver the light plant to its owner.
He was to return for his family late in the afternoon, but he had not arrived
The tension that built during the wait gave me an idea of
the anxiety a missionary pilot’s spouse might face. Mrs. Bliss had no clue why
Mark, her husband, hadn’t arrived. Perhaps he’d crashed, or his engine had
failed, or otherwise. There was no radio report. All afternoon, Mrs. Bliss
tried to act bravely, but you could tell by her prayers at meal-time and her
angriness with the children that she was very anxious. The girls were anxious,
too, and continuously asked, “Will Daddy come back to get us?” “He’ll come soon
now, won’t he, Mother?”
Since Mark had not returned by sunset, the Bliss women had
no choice but to stay overnight with the Kockers. Mrs. Kocker hastily made up beds.
Next day, Mrs. Bliss heard an airplane motor and Mark’s Piper appeared over the
treetops, descending under power for a landing. There was joyous relief. Once
on the ground, Mark explained that he’d been delayed by rain so heavy that he
couldn’t fly safely. He’d slept overnight as a guest at a different mission airfield.
It seemed to me that perhaps the greatest anxiety level
faced by couples in any similar situation would be the separation due to
travel, especially since there was no way to communicate. I remembered Dolores
Thomas fighting off army ants while her husband, Jack, was miles away and out
of contact. She must have experienced great anxiety when she finally blew out
the kerosene lamps after rescuing Tonda.
During the previous evening of waiting, Mrs. Bliss had
mentioned that the condition of the road from their mission at Plasaka to
Mattro had deteriorated and become practically unusable. Considering this, I
felt it would charitable to volunteer my help that they seemed to need so
badly, even though this would delay my travel to Tournata. I mentioned this possibility
to Mark, and he accepted my offer. We agreed that I’d be ready for pickup on
After the Bliss family left by plane, I felt completely
tired out and sore, not because I had worked that hard but because I felt sick.
Malaria: that was the diagnosis of Brother and Sister Kocker. They had enough experience
with it to recognize the signs. On Wednesday night, I went to bed early after
taking two chloroquine tablets. I ran a very high fever all night. Though I
don’t know how high for sure, the fever kept me awake. I sang to myself, talked
to myself, sweat gallons, and soaked the bed. Eventually I slept and,
fortunately, woke up next morning feeling better. I ceased to take chloroquine.
So this is what malaria is like, I thought. It’s like a runaway train. It hits
hard and goes away quickly.
Revitalized, I was able to continue my learn-and-work
program for the rest of that week at the Kockers’ mission. Much of my work during
my stint with them involved assisting Brother Kocker in maintaining the 3.5
mile access road from the Greenville-Juarzon highway to the mission station. I
helped skin logs with the chain saw, hauled dirt, repaired bridges, and so on. I
also painted the stick frames on the church and helped white-wash parts of the main
house and the “boy-house,” where residential students lived. In addition I
helped to maintain the runway.
Liberian rain shower.
No rain gutter provided; none could handle such volume.
Twice, once when walking on the airfield and on another day when
power-mowing, I noticed a deer at about 3:15 p.m. On Thursday, I decided to
check the schedule of this short, stocky black deer. Sure enough, at 3:15 p.m.,
he crossed the field in the same place. At 3:30 p.m., another deer, a doe with
a fawn, crossed in the same place. On Friday, I waited on the airfield with Pa
Kocker’s .22 Hornet to shoot the buck I’d seen. The buck appeared on schedule,
and I shot, but missed. Fortunately for the deer, the distance was over 200
yards and the rifle was fit with a peep sight. That was the end of my game
hunting in Africa or anywhere else, and the last time I ever fired a rifle.
On to a Leper Colony
I left with Mark a few days later, on Saturday, February 18,
as we’d previously agreed. I thanked the Kockers for their hospitality and
their insights, and they thanked me for my maintenance work. I’d been with them
for three weeks. They had been fantastic hosts and were becoming like parental
figures to me. I was sorry to leave.
Mark had become more like an elder brother than a parent.
His airplane, a 1953 Piper Super-Pacer, had a new 135-horsepower engine—the best
thing I can remember about the plane. Otherwise, it seemed like being aloft in a
green very used airplane, somehow still flying. Eight years is a long time for
a piece of machinery to endure the exceptional climate of Liberia. But yet,
flying over the bush in a rickety Piper is vastly preferable than walking
through the back-country jungle for weeks like Graham Greene had done earlier
in the century and Africans for centuries. And, from 1,000 feet, you do see the
landscape as well as some detail.
“On the coast here,” Mark said, “a small plane can seldom cruise
higher than 1,000 feet. There’s a nearly-perpetual cover of clouds, sometimes
mixed with smoke, hanging at about that altitude. You don’t have far to glide
in case of engine failure, and little chance of spotting and reaching an
emergency airfield.” Nevertheless, I imagined, the little plane would, somehow,
survive to ferry people and equipment for years to come.
The Bliss’s mission station was newly built. I could tell
that from the moment of touchdown. The bumpiness of the landing strip revealed that
little grading had been done. Another bit of evidence: the Piper’s hangar was
only at the block-laying stage. It was like a garage with no roof and no door.
Their permanent house structure consisted of three rooms
altogether—a family room, a pantry, and a bedroom. The kitchen was a structure
added on to one side chicken-wire screened. The open sides of the kitchen
provided greater air circulation compared to an enclosed room. My bedroom was a
thatch and mat cubicle tacked onto another side of the main house. My gratitude
was enormous for the hospitality that this family of four, crowded into such a
small space, gave to me. I could understand more clearly now why Mrs. Bliss and
the kids probably enjoyed their unexpected layover at the Kocker home, a mansion
relatively speaking, except for the anxiety about Mark’s welfare.
I went to bed early on Saturday evening. On Sunday, as the
new guy in town, I was invited to preach once again. This congregation was different
than any others I’d experienced. All of the attendees were lepers. The Plasaka station
itself, it turned out, primarily provided medical service to a leper colony. Few
in attendance at the worship service, however, manifested any visible signs or
symptoms of the illness. The medical staff must have been skilled at keeping
lepers looking well and feeling energetic.
The service was another great example of rousing Pentecostal
worship, comparable to the one at Koindu, with musical instruments in
abundance, lots of singing, and long-winded testimonies. Responding to my message,
three women and a man came forward to accept Jesus as savior. The converts
stayed on to pray, but Mark suggested we duck out. He estimated that the prayer
meeting would continue for another three hours, and he had other things to do.
Hello again to Malaria
After worship, I felt myself plunging into another health downturn.
First, I experienced aching in my eyes, continuing through the afternoon and
into the evening, getting worse each hour. Two nurses from the leprosy clinic
came over after supper for a visit. I told about my European leg of my trip and
answered many of their travel questions. Medical care had second priority. By
the time the nurses needed to leave for the evening, I could scarcely look
directly at a lantern because it was too bright for my aching eyes.
Right away I went to my bed in the thatch and mat guest
bedroom, thinking that a little sleep would help. As the night progressed,
though, I realized that I was sinking further; my vision problems worsened, my
temperature remained high, and my headache was more intense. I faced Monday morning
with such a terrible headache that I couldn’t eat a thing, not even cinnamon
rolls had they been offered. I must have been delirious also, to decline such a
Mrs. Bliss guessed that I had malaria and brought me three
pills of some sort. I wasn’t so sure that I had malaria, but I took the pills anyhow.
As the day progressed, the head pain grew still worse, and the throbbing sensation
made my nerves as tight as guitar strings. At noon, I tried soup but threw it
up. Finally, late in the afternoon, a mission nurse came by and gave me a
diagnosis: “You’ve got a case of malaria.”
Now I was diagnosed professionally. “Okay, then—it’s malaria!”
I thought. I was ready to accept the diagnosis, finally, because I needed to
give a name to whatever ailed me. I had recurrence of the eye pain.
The nurse provided four more tablets of some sort of
medicine; they eased the pain. She had me drink plenty of water and gave me more
chloroquine. That evening, I was able to hold down a simple meal. The peak of
the crisis seemed past.
Here I was, out in the jungle and completely dependent on
these wonderful strangers who’d opened their home for me on the basis that I
could do roadwork. Now I was bedridden, but they took care of me. Their hospitality
and care was more than one could expect but also essential to my survival, so
it seemed. I empathized with rural African children and adults who contracted the
fever and could obtain no medical help.
On Tuesday I couldn’t go out on roadwork even though I
wished to do so. I was just too dizzy even to walk with confidence. I continued
to take chloroquine. I felt miserable now for another reason—that of being
cooped up in the tiny house with the children, who were whining about something.
Finally, on Wednesday, I felt well enough to go out for
roadwork with Mark.
That day, I realized how futile it was to think that I’d add
any value at Plasaka, but not due to fever. It was that Mark had hired a crew
of Africans to do the labor, and he spent his time bossing them. Neither he nor
I did any physical work—we merely sat, observed, and directed the laborers. My
time was by no means wasted at Plasaka. It was a unique experience, full of
learning about the power of tropical illness and the power of healing. Malaria became
personal to me. I thanked my stars to have been taken to a mission station where
trained medical help was available. Had I been back with the Kockers, no professional
medical person would have been there to diagnose and treat me.
Sadly, my time in Liberia was running out. I’d been in the
company of Pentecostals since entering the country at Foya. I was utterly
amazed at the Pentecostals’ hospitality and their open doors. I was puzzled at
another aspect, though. Conversation with them, and among themselves as far as
I could observe, was quite formal and sober. No joshing, no kidding one another.
Really, no fun! Instead, they seemed to prefer conversing seriously about
personal matters, such as sexual and religious preferences. I spent much of my
meal time silently chewing my food and gazing off into space to avoid such
conversation and was relieved when we turned to something impersonal, such as
Corporate America in Liberia
On Thursday, Feb. 24, Mark flew me in the green Piper from
Plasaka to Tournata at Bafu Bay, on the coast south of Monrovia and north of
Greenville. Tournata would give me a very unique experience of mission, Mark
said. R. G. LeTourneau, the founder, had designed it to focus on both church
and industrial development.
En route, we stopped briefly at the Mattroe Pentecostal mission,
where I met a Rev. Konsmo from my hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Besides our common
background in Tacoma, we had another tie: His father, a contractor, constructed
my church’s new building on Sixth Avenue, one of the town’s main thoroughfares.
We enjoyed chatting about some Tacoma friends we held in common and about places
we both knew. Just this chance meeting with the man from Tacoma caused my
mental focus to shift back to thoughts of home. On the trip to date, I’d never
felt homesick, but starting on February 24 I began to think pleasant thoughts of
arriving back in the States.
Once back in the Piper to complete the trip to
Tournata, my thoughts began turning toward home—my parents, my brother, and my
girlfriend that I’d jilted. If all went well I could be back in Tacoma in just a
few more weeks.
Mark was already preparing to land at Tournata. The landing
field was the most noticeable feature. Nearly a mile long and very smooth, this
field provided a definite contrast to the short, rough fields I’d experienced
with Mark so far. Mark dropped me and my suitcase off at the airfield office by
the side of the runway. I thanked him for all of his support of me, and quickly
he was off again for his home field at Plasaka.
Another wonderful feature of Tournata that one sees out of
the window of a landing airplane is the view out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Tournata, a linear village, spreads out right along the sandy beach of Baffa
Bay, sometimes called Sinoe Bay. Buchanan, Liberia lies to the north of
Tournata, and Greenville to the south.
At the airfield office I received a warm welcome from a
couple of men on the staff. I’d previously experienced a welcome, support, and
an invitation to visit, back in January when Bill and I met Walter Knowles in
Monrovia. Mr. Knowles was the general manager of Tournata, which, in turn, was
a project of the industrial magnate R. G. LeTourneau, the godfather of earth
moving equipment. The place, I learned, had been founded in 1953, just eight
years before my visit. I looked forward to the luxuries of American living
standards, which I felt I might find in a place of Tournata’s repute.
“Paradise” is a word that came to mind when I finally got to
walk on the beach of the Atlantic. Baffa (or Bafu) Bay was a large
semi-circular cove, defined by two points about two miles apart. The beach of
white sand formed a crescent, with Tournata about midway between the northern
and southern points. The beach was lined with coconut trees tilting outward
toward the surf and seemed like a setting from “South Pacific.” Located elsewhere,
it might have been a playground for a travel poster. But here, in Sinoe County,
it was an industrial project of significance, combined with Christian mission
activity. This combination struck me as unique and creative, just as Mark had
said. I looked forward to learning more.
The “back street” at
Tournata: housing for African staff.
During the moment in which I opened my suitcase, I learned
something about the price of tropical beauty. On a humidity scale of 1 to 100,
Liberia must rank about 110. The enormous rainfall and high humidity account
for the luxuriant vegetation. But at Plasaka, I learned of a different side of
humidity. I first noticed white spots of mildew as I was hanging up my clothes
in the closet of my host family at Tournata. All of my clothing had mildewed! I
knew that mildew was difficult to remove, so I turned for help to Mrs. Knowles,
the first person who helped me to get settled in. She brushed the spots of mold
and hung the clothes in the hot sun for a few hours. The mildew marks almost vanished.
It was great to have a “mom” in Liberia who knew what to do. I tried to remove the
remaining traces the next day but without complete success.
That very afternoon, I was invited to meet with Mr. Knowles
himself in his air conditioned office. As general manager of the entire LeTourneau
project in Liberia, Walter was a busy man. I felt fortunate to have any of his
time. In our meeting he reiterated that Tournata was a Christian mission
project, founded and sponsored by R. G. Letourneau, but organized under and led
by a business manager. In fact, he said, there were several small businesses,
aimed at stimulating economic development in Liberia, using American management
Walter took time to give me his perspective, not only on
Tournata, but also on Liberia and its peoples. His most striking thought was that,
socially and economically, rural people in Liberia were living as if in
Biblical days. A large family is necessary to farm and to ensure against
untimely deaths. “This,” he said, “accounts for polygamy.”
“In the Old Testament,” he said, “one finds a commandment
that if a man dies, his brother should take the widow as a wife. The brother of
the deceased has the same responsibility in rural Liberia.”
Knowles asked me to consider the conflicts rural Africans
may face when confronted with Christianity. This topic was right down my alley,
given my budding interest in ethics and values. Walter posed this situation: if
a polygamous family converts, the man will not be baptized unless he shrinks
his marital situation to only one wife. The other wives, returned to their own
families, will be forced into adultery, dowered again, and married to another
person. He asked, “Is it more Christian to baptize a polygamous family, or
should one force the wives beyond the first into adultery?”
Walter gave a concrete example of a dilemma faced by a real
person. “Joseph Wa is a professing Christian, as are his three wives. The three
wives are baptized because they have only one husband, but he is not baptized
because he has three wives. “
"What is the result? Joseph Wa is ‘vexed,’” Knowles
added. I could understand his vexation. But were solution A and solution B the
only options, I wondered?
Though a thinking man, Walter in this conversation never
suggested baptizing the entire polygamous family including the husband. He
assumed that monogamy was required. But if Joseph Wa kept one wife and let two
go, would that be considered two divorces in the name of Jesus? However, Walter
did suggest that spiritual conversion also entailed social and cultural
transition and that such a process takes time—a long time. He knew that a
missionary must have understanding and empathy with converts caught in
“Islam,” Knowles said, “seeks to convert people to an
enlightened view of God. But Islam has two advantages over Christianity. First,
it permits multiple wives. Second, conversion brings one into a fellowship that
is strong enough to replace tribal loyalties.”
“At the bottom line,” Knowles concluded, “missionary work requires
a man to hold with the conviction that Christianity has the only completely
valid answer for life.” He held my gaze to bring my attention to the point.
I felt I had that
conviction. But maybe not to the exact same life alternatives for converts as Walter
had outlined them. One of my mental strengths, as I knew them, was flexibility.
Bringing that into play, I was considering a third option: the baptism of the husband
and allowing his polygamous family to continue as such. That, I thought, might
be the most humane and Christian solution. I was smart enough not to voice my
idea in the meeting with Mr. Knowles.
After the privilege of conversation with Mr. Knowles, I had free
time to explore the town. This was my first chance to nose around a bit on my
own and perhaps to meet some residents or workers. The town was arranged along two
main streets parallel to the beach. Closest to the airport were staff
residences, elevated on poles with a breezeway beneath. Traveling through the
town I passed a dispensary, the electrical generating plant, and then came to a
huge machine shop where equipment, large and small, was repaired. Next came the
carpentry shop, some rusting derelicts of machines and one operating landing
craft. Finally, I came to a church building, houses for African workers, and a
government customs house where Liberian workers lived.
The industrial side of Tournata became clear on the walking
tour. In the orientation he gave me before my walking tour, Knowles stated that
the business was incorporated in Liberia and all profits were dedicated to
reinvestment in schools, roads, and other improvements. The equipment I saw on
the ground, plus the landing craft on the beach, seemed to represent an enormous
I wondered, however, whether there’d be any profits realized
from the many expensive, disparate activities: rice growing, chicken raising,
road building and more. I saw no reports or any other evidence of profitability
of these operations. Possibly they were all subsidized, most likely through Mr.
On the industrial side of Tournata’s program, a major activity
was road building. I’d seen a working example in the form of the construction
crew on the Greenville-Juarzon highway the day Brother Kocker met me at the Greenville
airport. Because Mr. LeTourneau was a leading inventor of dirt-hauling
equipment, road construction was logical. God knows that Liberia needed road
improvements. Other industrial activities included a poultry program, a sawmill
and mechanized farming.
A Tournata enterprise to raise poultry for the Monrovia market
Road-building was the project people talked about more than
others. It seemed to be the pet project. Naturally, R. G. LeTourneau would want
to share his knowledge and skill with highway construction, particularly with regional
neighbors around Tournata.
I wanted to raise questions as I spoke with personnel. My
goal was to dig up some information. Right off, I learned that the rice
production program had been unsuccessful. The experiment began with someone’s observing
the slowness and inefficiency of traditional rice harvesting techniques. The
solution attempted at Tournata aimed at planting and harvesting African rice
mechanically and efficiently with machinery. The program flopped when
industrialists discovered, too late, that African rice ripens unevenly. Because
some rice is ready for harvest, other rice is green, and some is overripe, the
one-sweep mechanical harvesting resulted in an enormous waste of unripe or
over-ripe grains. West African rice is harvested a head at a time with a small
knife for a reason.
Tournata consisted of an attempt to transplant industrialism
developed in the United States to Liberia, where some pieces didn’t necessarily
fit the situation.
Mechanization of the
tropics, underway at Tournata
On the other hand, the chicken project seemed very
successful. Before 1953, I was told, Liberia had no poultry industry. But under
the manager of the poultry program, Joe Sutton, Tournata had developed an
egg-marketing program and was selling hundreds of dozens of eggs weekly in
Monrovia and Cape Palmas. Still, when I saw the poultry house, I thought back
to the army ants in Yekior, Sierra Leone, and wondered how much damage they
might inflict on cooped up chickens. I had no question about the road-building
program. Liberia needed roads and LeTourneau knew how to build them.
On the religious side of the program, expanding on what the
Assemblies of God team had already accomplished was the major effort at
Tournata. At the time of my visit, Tournata was supporting 25 pastors and
evangelists. Twenty-one pastors were based in village churches, and four
evangelists walked the trails to smaller settlements. This operation was known
as the Baffa Bay Mission Church.
I had time to record in my journal some observations about
missionary morale. Some of my thoughts were triggered by my learnings at
Tournata. Missionary morale, I wrote, was observably low among the Independent
Assemblies of God and Tournata persons. Morale was highest among the EUBs in
Sierra Leone and the Sudan Interior Mission personnel. What made the
difference? The method of making mission policy seemed important. Among the
Independent Assemblies, policy was made strictly between the supporting
congregation and the missionary at the station. In practice, each station
superintendent seemed to determine the policies, apparently without much consultation
with the supporting American congregation.
Policy at Tournata was said to be in flux. General policies
were laid down by R. G. LeTourneau, but he constantly changed his mind. Mr.
Knowles, as manager in Tournata, translated R. G. LeTourneau’s policies to
specific circumstances in Tournata. The confidence that Mr. LeTourneau must
have had, to make policy decision about mission work or even industrial work in
a country environmentally so different from his U.S.A. amazed me. Staff people
on the ground in Liberia no doubt advised him of opportunities and problems,
but he called the shots. With his creative mind, little wonder he switched
policies right and left, if he actually did. He was probably trying desperately
to find an untried industrial-evangelist approach that would have high odds of working
successfully. Of course, it helped maintain his authority that he provided the
budget. And, in addition, it must be recognized that he lived in many different
locales in the U.S. and traveled abroad on business, all of which must have
given him a wide perspective on adapting his management style varied settings.
Among the groups of missionaries with higher morale,
policies were made by a home board upon advice received from missionaries on
the field. Plans were subject to modification locally, but goals and programs were
mapped out years ahead.
A few days later, I took the opportunity of bringing matter of
policy-making among missionary groups up with Dick Reid, general manager of
ELWA. He confirmed what I’d guessed, that the manner of policy making influenced
On a Tuesday following a five day visit at Tournata, I left
for Robertsfield and Monrovia aboard Tournata’s Cessna 172. Propelled at a
faster speed by a smooth engine, I felt held aloft by angel wings compared to Mark’s
old green Piper. I, of course, was grateful for transportation by either
airplane and by both. In Monrovia, I spent plenty of money on an airplane
ticket to Conakry, where I’d catch the paquebot
to return to Bordeaux. I purchased new shoes, paid the $4 head tax to leave
the country, and splurged on a couple of taxi fares to save a lot of walking.
While in Monrovia, I met my ELWA friend, Samuel Kamara, at President
Tubman’s executive mansion. Samuel was now working there as a calligrapher. Together
we shuttled out to the ELWA radio station compound, where I stayed overnight in
In 1961, ELWA
Liberian headquarters building
Leaving ELWA the next day I traveled to Robertsfield by bus
for 80 cents, compared to $10 by taxi. Congratulating myself on saving so much
money, I arrived several hours before the flight. I really felt the need to be
in touch with my parents and took time in the terminal to write a long letter
home, not requesting money for a change but just to touch bases and to let them
know I was finally heading home.
Just as my Air France flight was landing at Robertsfield, I
heard a ticket agent call my name.
“Monsieur Reeck, I am very sorry. We cannot take you to
Conakry as scheduled. Something is wrong with the plane,” he explained. “If we
landed in Conakry, the mechanics there might not be able to fix the plane, and
there’s not enough hotel space in Conakry to accommodate the passengers.”
(“Oh yeah?” I thought. “I can put you in touch with a guy who
can find hotel space in Conakry.” Was I getting experienced yet?)
I let the agent know that I was very frustrated at the
situation, and why. I needed to meet the boat!
“Ah,” the agent offered, “so we’ll fly you to Dakar instead
and pay for your hotel while you wait for the paquebot.”
(I began to understand why expatriates called the Air France
operation in West Africa by the name Air Chance. And I felt I’d just gotten a great
deal. By chance.)
Upon arriving in Dakar, I had to get a transit visa—a simple
procedure--and then take the Air France shuttle to the specified inn, the Hotel
la Croix du Sud. When I reached the hotel, I found it to be surprisingly lovely,
situated on a downtown street corner within walking distance of many shops and
cafes. My lodging and even my delightful meals in the hotel’s courtyard restaurant
were compliments of Air France.
Early the next morning, I went to the office of Compagnie
Maritime des Chargeurs Réunis to inquire whether I could board the ship in
Dakar. They agreed: it will be possible, monsieur.
Back downtown and still that morning, I stopped by Air
France. I was surprised to be told that I’d not be able to fly back to Conakry
until Saturday. Oh no! I was in trouble again. By Saturday the boat would have
left port. Yet I had to dispose of 1,700 Guinean francs and could do that only
Later that day, Air France telephoned me at the hotel to say
that the airline could fly me to Conakry on Friday and that they’d pay for two full
nights in Dakar! Another “chance” from Air France! “Will this plan hold?” I
surely hoped it would. It would be the best of all possibilities.
While I waited in Dakar, I wanted to spend my time well. I toured
Gorée, the nearby island on which slave export “factories” had flourished in
the 1800s. The signs, explanations, and remembrances there moved me to tears at
slavery—the inhumanity that had affected millions of Africans. I felt that Gorée
was an appropriate exclamation point to my West African journey.
I also walked around several blocks in the downtown. It was
so pleasant, so well organized, and, architecturally, so French. Besides, I
found patisseries and restaurants with French food and shops with French
clothing items for sale. Dakar, at least in the downtown area, seemed quite
wealthy compared to the three other capital cities I’d visited down the coast.
The contrast between the evidence of slave day horrors at old Gorée and the
pleasant ambience of modern Dakar was not lost on me.
Black White Man, White Black Man
Still in Dakar, I got up on Friday, March 6 at 4 a.m. and,
according to the plan, taxied to the airport. The Air France flight departed right
on time and touched down at 8:30 a.m. at Conakry’s airfield. I taxied into town
and found the Eglise Protestante, which
I remembered from my first visit to Conakry weeks earlier. I knocked at the
After I explained who I was and why I was in Conakry, I was welcomed
into the parsonage by Rev. Paul and Florine Ellenberger. Ellenberger explained
that the French Protestant Church of Conakry was looking for a new pastor but could
not immediately find one for permanent hire. So Paul, an American, was serving
temporarily as pastor while also continuing in his role as business agent for
the Christian and Missionary Alliance mission in Guinea.
Paul had business to take care of in town. As I accompanied
him from place to place, I gathered that he was legendary. Obviously, he knew
the city and Guinea’s government officials well. He communicated with various
people both in French and Wolof, the dominant traditional language of the
country. A son of missionaries, he’d been born in Guinea.
On Friday, while running around town with Paul as he took
care of his business, we also obtained my exit visa (yes, I was learning the
ropes finally!) and finalized my Chargeurs
Reunis ticket. As we shuttled from one office to another, I observed that
Guineans seemed to look upon Paul as a “white black man,” one of them. As such,
his was a status to be admired, I thought.
With Paul’s skillful and deft help, I was able to board the
General Leclerc with no trouble. It felt good to back on the liner as I was
headed home at last. I took my goods down to my room, which I’d be sharing with
five French men, all of whom were monolingual French speakers. I went back topside
to say goodbye to Paul. I told him how much I’d appreciated his help and advice
As Paul departed, I remained on deck to watch the loading of
the ship. Only if one has no feeling for fellow human beings would it be
considered a colorful affair. A long line of 100 or more porters brought cases and
bags of fruit up the gangplank and piled them on the deck. Each man carried a
huge load that must have weighed more than 150 pounds. The weight bore down on
them so hard that they were staggering, grasping with their hands for any
available support until, unable to walk further, they simply collapsed under
their loads, leaving them lie where they fell. Worse still, uniformed police
were beating, cursing, and mocking them. Time for another revolution, it seemed
to me. Another onlooker told me that the African laborer calls his African boss
the “black white man.” How much better or worse was the quality of work for the
laborer today than it had been for his enslaved ancestors?
When the boat slipped out of the harbor and accelerated into
the ocean, I watched from the deck. The small fleet of anchored Soviet-bloc ships
which had prompted my fears when I arrived weeks earlier were still there. This
time their red flags seemed like an ordinary part of the scene, and not objects
to fear. Then the land mass of West Africa, too, slipped below the horizon. Many
vivid memories passed across my mental screen—from the punctilious police who,
in hindering me had, ironically, helped me, to the villagers, church leaders,
lorry drivers, and immigration officials—a treasure trove of helpful humans and
kindness that I could remember and cherish but never repay. The West Africans
in their own ways, and the generous expatriates, too, gave me a new focus on
life as well as a multitude of [A19]examples of kindness.
Immersed among French-speakers once again, with no
noticeable improvement in my ability with their language, I realized I was longing
for conversation with an English-speaker.
I did know that “goodbye” in French, au revoir, meant something like, “Until we see each other next time.”I felt knit into West Africa and knew
that I’d definitely see Africa again.
While musing over the West Coast I was leaving, I suddenly
became aware that a couple of Africans leaning on the rail right next to me
were speaking English! I lost no time in making myself known to these young
men. They, in turn, introduced themselves as two of eight on board from Nigeria
and Ghana, all students sailing to England via France.
A West African
student friend from the ship, touring Las Palmas
In addition to the students, I heard that three other
passengers spoke English, but they were in first-class quarters. First class
was separated from third by iron doors and I knew I’d never met the first-class
English speakers. However, we students became constant companions for the days
The General LeClerc put in at Dakar briefly to load and
unload. I said “au revoir” all over again to Africa. After leaving Dakar, the
ship stopped for a few hours at Tenerife, Canary Islands. I took special note
of Tenerife’s hillside location and of the lovely señoritas who hung around the
dock area and introduced themselves to me. I found that I could communicate
reasonably well with them in Spanish, and they with me in English. But naively,
I never pondered why they might know English so well. When I finally caught on that
they might be prostitutes, I decided that I’d prefer to be pestered by the
souvenir salesmen and pimps of Dakar than pampered by the ladies of Tenerife.
Back on board, I asked my English-speaking African friends
how they reacted to Tenerife. They shared their reactions freely, to my
delight. Uniformly, they all appreciated the beauty of the town. One of them
said, “I was astonished. All day I did not see one black person except those
from the ship.” This city was the first European town they’d experienced.
How Does the Mind Work?
The Africans and I had many conversations and interactions that
an anthropologist would have had fun assessing. I spoke at length with a
student, Amato, about his beliefs. He was Christian. Apparently he’d been
exposed to plenty of religious knowledge in secondary school, and also to science.
He knew many Bible stories. He classified epic events such as the
creation, the flood, and the crossing of the Red Sea as moralistic myths. He
doubted that characters such as Abraham and Moses ever existed. He believed
that Muslims would enter heaven after death just like Christians. (He did hold
a belief in a literal heaven.) I was aware that I’d never change his beliefs
but thought that God might do so. I guessed that Amato wondered how I would be
freed from superstition, but he never voiced that question if he held it.
A story, told by another educated young man, a Christian
headed for university entrance in England, tantalized me and stuck with me.
One day, in a Nigerian town after
school dismissal, a boy met a dear adult friend from a village that was a
five-days walking distance. The boy was surprised to see the man because he had
never visited this town.
The schoolboy greeted the man and inquired,
why have you come here? The visitor said he’d come to get an item from the town
market that he couldn’t obtain closer to his home village. The boy invited the
man to spend the night with his family. He declined because he had business in
other villages and had to leave straight away. The man seemed to feel that it
would take weeks to reach his home again.
The visitor did ask the boy to do a
favor, however. He gave the boy a set of keys and made this request: “Send them
by post to my wife. She will need them.” The boy was to say to the wife that
he’d seen the man in that village.
The boy took the keys home. The
next day, the boy’s elder brother received a telegram stating that the man had
died at home three days previously. In other words, the boy had seen,
recognized, and spoken with a dead man.
When the widow received the keys,
she let it be known that she thought they’d been lost and had been looking for them.
The keys fit the locks in her house.
I felt compelled to contemplate testimony about a dead man
handing over metal keys that opened their intended locks. I knew how to debunk
my new friend’s story: he had confused dates of the man’s appearance and death,
or had recited someone else’s story gained second-hand. There was some obvious fault
of fact, some error, in the story. However, why would I, who believed that a dead
Jesus appeared to his disciples, who were able to recognize him—why would I dismiss
this young man’s story? And this wasn’t an isolated story, either. One of the
other young men gave me a recap of the appearance of a deceased relative. I
pondered the stories, wanted to dismiss them as fable, but felt unable to do
so. I decided to cherish them as lures to bring me back to the Africa I was
learning to love.
There were other Africans besides just the students in third
class. One, a visibly pregnant young woman journeying to join her husband in
England just in time for the birth of their child, had a difficult time
adjusting to eating the food, foreign to her, in public. In fact, she did not
adjust and simply quit coming to the dining area for meals. Instead, one of the
students carried food to her and she ate in her room. When at the table, she
irritated fellow diners at the way she’d sit and, literally, turn up her nose
at most of the offerings. It was as if she reacted to the entire menu as I did
to the smelly dessert cheese. Occasionally she would unbend enough to eat a bit
of this or that at the table. It seemed better, more discrete perhaps, for both
her and the other passengers that she react to the food privately in her room.
In the dining room I was fortunate to eat at a table that
included four Africans. We were a cell of English-speakers who could converse
with each other and not with the Francophile diners. One, a fellow of about 25
five years, was headed to England for further study. He was farthest ahead
academically but further behind on manners. For instance, when the waiter had
put sufficient food on his plate, instead of saying “Thank you,” he waved his
knife at the waiter. One day the waiter exploded at the man for his
knife-waving. After that, he stopped waving his knife and simply said, “No.”
All four of the Africans at my table had the habit of
reaching right across the table for whatever they might want instead of asking
someone to pass the item. All of them left before the last course arrived if
they thought they would dislike the announced food item. As soon as they’ve had
all there was for them, they simply stood and walked off, often without asking
to be excused. Mealtime was not talk time for them. They concentrated on eating
and leaving. Was this the real African? Or was the “real African” Teacher
Douda, who had been the epitome of politeness and a master of table-talk back
in up-country Sierra Leone. Did he epitomize the real Africa? Better just to
observe than to come to a judgment without truly knowing the territory, I
Several of these young Africans were Protestants. When they
learned that I was a ministry student they asked me to conduct a Sunday morning
worship for them. Five of us met in the third class bar. They were what I understood
to be High-Church Anglicans but I was informal EUB. I tried to present a
combination of their usage and mine, which led to a hodge-podge, eclectic
service. On the second Sunday they asked me to present a worship service again but
only two attended this time.
Language usage—theirs and mine—was another matter of
interest. All of the Africans in third class had impressive English
vocabularies, which they used with skill to construct very formal, polished
English sentences. Further, even after two weeks together in the same cabin,
they still called each other by the surname, like “Mr. Amaharo,” or “Mr.
Momoh.” They normally addressed me as “Sir”, and occasionally as Mr. Reeck.
Their taste in titles synchronized well with their preference for prayer-book
liturgy. The frontier hick in me wished they’d loosen up and call me by my
Had I hung around Fourah Bay College in Freetown, or
Cuttington College in Liberia, these young men were the sorts I’d have met. But
I mainly had hung around villages instead of educational centers. So these
young people, in their late teens or early twenties, provided much of my access
to educated, upwardly mobile Africans of roughly my age. Their immense energy,
intelligence, and hopes for a better lives lifted my eyes away from the
dockside beatings to a hoped-for green and verdant future Africa, just now
emerging from colonialism to independence and freedom.
My French cabin mates, those in third class, were
interesting, too. They initiated a relationship with a nice touch by giving me
a drink of orange juice as we set sail from Conakry. I had become a bit more
comfortable in speaking my halting French. I conveyed greetings and even
managed to communicate some thoughts in French. Some of the French speakers
would reply slowly enough to help me understand their thoughts.
The French must have met some American named Johnny. All the
French called me “Johnny”. It was difficult for them to say “Darrell”. They all
preferred “Johnny” and found it humorous. Every time someone called me by that
name, all others within earshot would go into gales of laughter, myself
included. It furnished a respectful but humorous way to bond.
I retaliated by calling every single man among them
“Jacques,” and the women “Jacquie.” Both of those names also threw them into
high gear laughter. The inbound voyage had many more pleasurable moments and
much more life than the outbound.
Au Revoir, Afrique
I was headed home, having said, “So long for now, my African
friends!” On the voyage back to Bordeaux, I had plenty of time to think about
people and places I’d encountered. Time for thought and reflection was a
benefit of travel by boat, compared to the saving of time when traveling by air.
I recognized benefits in both modes of travel, but as a cogitator I enjoyed the
freedom to think back over the experiences of the previous days and weeks.
One question I pondered was quite simple: which country did
I like best? Still, it was a subtle question and I spent plenty of time
pondering it. Despite having visited Senegal and Guinea for only a few days
each, there was something about each of them that that truly intrigued me. That
“something” was what I didn’t see, not what I did see in the port cities of
Dakar and Conakry. What intrigued me was the interiors of those countries. I’d
heard them described: the desert, the Sahel, and, in Guinea’s case, the
highlands. I guess I had a bit of T. E. Lawrence in me. I wanted to experience
the heat, the camels, the desert, and the elegant and flamboyant dress styles
of the Wolof people. I’d sampled those features on the border of the Sahel in
upcountry Sierra Leone. My sampling of Guinea and Senegal intrigued me, but I
could not say that I’d fallen in love with either of them. They remain unknowns
except for the capital cities.
I loved Liberia. Although I spent considerable time there, I
came away feeling I knew less about the people and the countryside than I’d
learned about the same features of Sierra Leone. I had wonderful hosts in
Liberia, as in Sierra Leone, but the people of the country seemed less
accessible. Perhaps it was that my hosts in Liberia were really concentrating
on their own work, such as equipment, road and building maintenance, and I
spent days of my time helping with that.
Sierra Leone quickly moved to the top of my “love-you” list.
For starters, I enjoyed Freetown more than Monrovia. Monrovia, as I knew it,
lacked the mountains behind, the estuary in front, the symbolic and mysterious
cotton tree at the center, and the accessible ocean beaches. Freetown had all
of that. Crossing the headwaters of the Niger River on the eastern Sierra Leone
border gave me a tie me to a greater West Africa.
Maybe it was the season. In Sierra Leone I’d visited during
the Christmas holidays. Traditional society activities, like initiation
ceremonies, were at a peak. Perhaps it was the buoyant spirit I felt in Sierra
Leone, the optimism and joy of the people as they looked toward their national
Certainly, the quality of the hosting in Sierra Leone made a
difference. The EUBs made certain that Bill and I experienced many facets of
traditional and national life. I came away from Sierra Leone having gained far
greater access to the country than I gained or received in Liberia. In Liberia,
I came to know a couple of Africans well. In Sierra Leone, I met many Africans
from many levels of society and in many different life circumstances.
To sum it up, to my great surprise Africa had me hooked and
Sierra Leone, in particular, had my heart. I would never have predicted this
result when Señora Hemenway challenged me to travel to Latin America.
Freetown's Cotton Tree: a place to begin and a place to end this post, "Love West Africa, 1960-61." Please continue reading at the final section of the story: Part 5, "Beeline Home to Love."