Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Missionary Story: Joseph and Mary in West Africa


Americans to Africa


Welcome friends!  What you'll find here.  First, an introductory chapter.  Then ten more chapters--interesting people, scenery, conflicts.  Finally, a concluding chapter that brings it all together in a wonderful harmony that brings tears of joy to your eyes.

Remember the story of the heroic Sengbe Pieh, a Mende West African?  Sengbe had been enslaved and sent in a loaded ship from Africa to the United States.  The journey was cut short when Sengbe led a successful slave revolt.  The slave ship was towed into harbor and a legal case was heard by the Supreme Court of the U.S.A.  Sengbe acted as a spokesman for the slaves.  The court resolved the case by freeing the slaves, who were sent to Sierra Leone, Africa.  Once Sengbe had returned to his town in the interior of the country, he disappeared.  

A few years after that time, a Black-American missionary couple, Joseph and Mary Gomer, arrived in Sierra Leone, sent by their United Brethren Church to rebuild the Shenge mission congregation.   Joseph felt strongly that it was his calling to discover the truth of Sengbe’s disappearance, which he did according to my historical fictional rendition.  Read on and enjoy!

I thank Clella Jaffe, Ph.D., for reading the entire manuscript and suggesting grammatical corrections.  Others provided invaluable support, too, especially including Lucille, my dear wife; Anna Morford and Jane Eberle, members of Servants of Sierra Leone.  

If you enjoy the read, consider suggesting it to your friends and provide them with the link to the blog post.  I thank all readers for your interest in the intriguing story of social change in West Africa.  

In sum, you'll enjoy both historical and fictional episodes throughout.  



Darrell Reeck

July 2022


 Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1960.

Atlantic Ocean in the distance


 Chapter One:

 Mary and Joseph’s First Sighting of Sierra Leone



On a very hot day in 1870, Mary and Joseph Gomer gazed eastward toward the sun. They were on the passenger deck of a sail-driven commercial ship from Liverpool, which had brought them southward along the West African coastline. Now, six days from Liverpool, each day hotter than the one before, they could see the bulky, fortress-like mountains of the Peninsula of Sierra Leone, or Salone for short.  Their travel goal was in sight.

 Mary and Joseph were black young adults, headed directly into the former center of the vortex of human slave trafficking prior to Lord Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Acts of 1807.  Joseph’s earlier occupation as a carpenter in Ohio, U.S.A. had provided him with little concept of the cultures of their new destination.  They were here, now, because they’d been appointed as missionaries to Sierra Leone by the American United Brethren in Christ Church, a part of the broader Wesleyan religious movement.  

Their long journey began a couple of weeks earlier when they traveled from Ohio in the Midwest to New York City.  There they boarded a ship bound for England. In eight days, they’d crossed the Atlantic Ocean, ending in Liverpool, England. There, they had transferred to the coastal vessel now carrying them and other passengers and cargoes to Freetown, the capital city of the British colony of Sierra Leone.  Now, today they viewed the African coastline and, finally the small, hillside city of Freetown itself.

 “Today, we see the land of our African ancestors for the first time,” Mary mused as the ship approached the small coastal city. They planned to spend a short time in Freetown getting some orientation, buying needed supplies, and finding transportation to Shenge, a rural village about thirty miles by sea south of Freetown. Shenge, a chiefdom center, was their final destination--their new home.  There these new missionaries would be in charge of the United Brethren congregation and school.

 “I wonder, did our parents see this very scene receding from their sight as they sailed toward England on the slave ships all those years ago?” Mary asked Joseph.  As if to accent the question, the steamer hit the bottom of the deep trough between two waves. Spray flew.

 “Probably so,” said Joseph. “I am sure they were weeping, as they sailed away.  What a tragedy, what a travesty slavery was.  I’m so glad we are free. We’re Africa’s rightful children, returning to our Motherland.  Our Maker has something wonderful in store for our new life here.”  He stepped back as if to leave for their room.


Mary reached out to catch his shirt sleeve.  She nudged him to stop.  Looking at him she said, “Yes.  It seems as if I’ve spent much of my life traveling from place to place since we met each other in Ohio. Now we’ve traveled back to Africa. It’ll be wonderful to be settled here.  I feel at home already.”


“Settled?  What do you mean?”


“Just that I dreamed last night that we’ll be here for a long time.”  She turned to him and smiled.


“Yes, but Dr. Brewer said we’d get a furlough year home every four years,” Joseph replied. “Isn’t that what the Mission Board promises to missionaries? Did I get that right?”


“Yes, of course, dear Joseph. But even four or five years can be a very long time, especially if difficulties arise. “

“Oh, don’t worry, Mary.  We have a reliable income from the Board.  We’ll buy supplies tomorrow in Freetown, before we go down the coast to Shenge.  We’ll be alright.”


“Yes, you are right.  And I am comforted by the name ‘Free-town,’” echoed Mary.  “A whole city of former slaves, now living free.  And down the coast from Freetown is the homeland of Sengbe, the hero of the Amistad slave ship rebellion years ago.  Joseph, will we meet Sengbe or his children, do you think?”


Joseph dropped his head toward his chest.  “I wish I knew about that.  We’ll see.  We’ll certainly try to meet them.”  Looking up first, and then at Mary again, he said, “As for me, personally, I’d give my all to meet Sengbe. When I was young my dad told me about the slave revolt and the Supreme Court trial of the rebellious slaves. He said that in the trial the ex-slaves were accused of stealing the boat from the crew.  Sengbe was always on Dad’s lips whenever he told those stories.  My father was so proud that the American Supreme Court let the slaves free to return to Sierra Leone.”

“Look there.  That must be the wharf,” Joseph speculated.


“Wharf?  Where?  I don’t even see a dock,” Mary said.  


Joseph pointed and said: “Right there.” He lifted his arm and pointed toward buildings above a beach.  We’re turning and heading toward it.”  Mary saw it and, sure enough, they soon approached a small dock.  A flotilla of small boats quickly assembled around their ship.


“Look at this,” Joseph said.  “What colorful little boats, Mary. What should we purchase first in Africa? Oranges or dried fish? I can see that men in the boats want to sell to us both.  Oranges or dried fish, or both?  What do you want?”


“Oh, I’d like an orange to start our new life in Africa,” Mary replied. She quickly found a coin in her purse, then tossed it to a boat vendor.  The vendor threw back an orange, partially skinned and ready to be sucked. Mary offered it to Joseph. He smiled, sucked, and then remarked on the great taste, so Mary tossed another coin to get an orange for herself.


“I can’t wait to set foot on shore,” Joseph said. “I’ll be glad to be off this boat. I want solid ground--the solid ground of our Motherland.”


As their ship eased closer to the dock, they saw a large man in a dark black suit and a bowler hat. “That must be Rev. Williams,” Mary supposed out loud, and smiled. She waved. The man returned a smile and waved a pink handkerchief in welcome. Soon Joseph and Mary were on the dock, exchanging joyous greetings with Williams, superintendent of the American mission in Sierra Leone, including the Shenge station.  Rev. Williams was to be their contact in Freetown. His continuous welcoming smile made Mary and Joseph feel very welcomed by a friend.


As the three of them walked up a ramp leading from the dock up to a city street, Rev. Williams pointed to certain landmarks. “That tall mountain there is Sugar Loaf. Tops out at almost 3,000 feet. Over there by the water is King Jimmy Market.” He pointed to three wooden boats, twenty-five feet long Joseph thought, and said, “Those are the boats of Bullom people. They bring goods from farms to the market here.  The market women sell them to the shoppers.”


“Up there, on the slope of the mountain,” he continued, “is Tower Hill and the barracks of the West African Regiment. Those soldiers will keep you plenty safe,” he grinned, but then adding somewhat ominously, “at least safe here in Freetown. The Regiment has no influence in the town of Shenge of course, but there your Chief will keep you safe from all danger.  He supports our mission.”


Next, Williams said, “Let’s go to your hotel right away,” and he guided them a few hundred yards into the city.  They turned onto Water Street, which led them further into the city. Soon they arrived at the hotel--a tiny structure by Liverpool and New York standards. It included only a street-side two-storied building with an elevated porch covered by a rusty, sloping metal roof. Williams guided them through a courtyard and into the building through a door on the far walk.  They found the hotel lobby and check-in office.


Joseph, who’d been a carpenter by trade in Ohio, sized up what he’d seen of the reddish aggregate brick outside walls of the hotel, and also noted rusty-looking corrugated tin roofing.  Williams asked him, “Will this do?” Not even pausing for an answer he continued, “Tomorrow we’ll collect your trunks and crates and we’ll be off down the coast to Shenge.”


Once they’d checked in, a clerk showed them their room--whitish walls, lace-covered windows, very simply furnished.


“This will do fine for a day or two, I’m sure,” Mary mused.  It was pretty clear from the tone of her comment that she didn’t feel at home yet.


Because he needed to secure the Gomers’ baggage and obtain their entry permits, Williams had to leave Mary and Joseph in the hands of, Horace Caulker, the hotel proprietor who’d showed them to their room. It contained two iron framed beds, one wicker chair, one barred window, and white calcimined walls.  The host said, “I wanted to speak with you about America, but they need me just now in the dining room.  However, please dine with me at dinner.  Rev. Williams will return soon.  Just wait here for him.  We’ll all meet at the dinner table. We’ll have time to talk over dinner.”  He left the room, deftly ducking under the low header at the doorway.


Mary and Joseph sat on the bed in the cell-like room.  She slumped a bit and sighed, then admitted to some confusion. “You know, Joseph, the sight of the mountain made me feel like we were crossing onto a solid rock, our Promised Land. But now, the pounds and shillings, the crowds, the food, the Bullom boats, the heat, the dusty air, the weeds in the street. . .this is not what I expected.  But soon I’ll feel at home, I’m sure.”

Joseph’s shoulders slumped. “This isn’t what I expected either, but we really didn’t know what to expect. Let’s just rely on Rev. Williams. He’ll definitely help us through Freetown. He’ll get us settled; I feel sure.” Joseph assisted Mary with her pillow and bedsheet as she relaxed on the mattress.  He shifted around to the other side of the bed and stretched out on it, hoping to rest a bit himself.


Two whole hours later, Joseph awakened to street noise.  Since the heat was slowly decreasing, he decided that he could explore the street outside on his own. He wrote Mary a note about his walking plan, closed the door silently, crossed the courtyard and exited onto the street.  But then, he heard Horace Caulker calling from somewhere, “Rev. Gomer, Rev. Gomer, would you join me for a drink?”


 Joseph called out, “I’d be delighted, but where are you, Horatio?”

“Sorry, sir, it’s not Horatio, but Horace. Horace Caulker.  I’m over here, to your right.”  Sure enough, on the porch of the bar overlooking Water Street was Horace, seated and beckoning amiably for Joseph to come up three steps to the open-air table.  


“Good afternoon, Sir,’ chirped Horace. “Very unusual to have an American in my hotel. I’m glad to see you! How is Madam Gomer? Taking her rest, I hope. Please sit. Can I ask you some questions about America?” He asked the bartender to bring over two orange drinks.  The bartender brought two glasses and a couple of whole oranges.  Horace deftly cut off the tops of the oranges and squeezed them.  He handed Horace a glass half-full of juice and retained a similar half-glass for himself.


“Of course, you can ask me about America, Horace. And what do you want to know?” Joseph replied.

Horace asked about cities and travel, hotels and restaurant menus, climate and cowboys, the North and the South, and the Civil War and reconstruction. Joseph realized that Horace already knew a lot about America and probably could continue posing questions for a very long time.  


After several minutes of question-and-answer, Joseph saw an opportunity to shift the topic of discussion from America to Sierra Leone. He asked, “Advise me, Horace. How can I as a foreigner get good treatment here in Sierra Leone, and especially in Shenge, where I’ll really be the foreigner?”


Horace replied, “I already knew that you’d be moving there, and I’m delighted.  Shenge is my hometown. I’ve already discussed you and Madam with Chief Caulker in Shenge. He’s my uncle. Let me tell you this: Chief Caulker resisted all the American missionaries before you, from 1853 until Hadley left two years ago. He disliked them all. Why? Because none of them treated him with dignity due to a king. He is King of Sherbro and considers himself to be an equal with the Queen of England! He deserves respect. His wife also.  Queen Sophia, she is an equal to Queen Victoria.”


Joseph squirmed and said “Maybe missionaries made mistakes. Help me to avoid such mistakes! What should Mary and I do to show respect for Chief Caulker?”


“He likes important people like you.  He’ll want you to sit with him in his compound, to talk with him about the affairs of the chiefdom. He wants you to listen to his family history and remember it. He really needs you to invite him to sit in a place of prominence in public meetings, like in your church services. You must ask him for permission to visit villages round about the chiefdom. He likes you to shake hands with him in Sherbro fashion and to dash him on the first visit.”


“Dash him? What’s that mean?” Joseph asked.

“It’s when you give him a ‘handshake,’ a gift of some kind.”


“A gift? I’m a poor man. What gift would a missionary like me have to give to a chief?” Joseph asked.


“Give him something from your country. He likes whiskey, but maybe you don’t have any.  Give him two or three pencils and writing paper. Do you have spare spectacles? He badly needs spectacles. These are just examples. You’ll think of something, I know.  The main thing is to give him time and attention. The Americans do not give time. They rush here and there, they get tired from the sun and then, exhausted I guess, they lie in bed.  They do not spend time with the Chief.  You will do well to give him plenty of time.  You’ll also do well to let Madam Gomer spend time with Queen Sophia.”


Just then, Rev. Williams returned and took his seat at the table. Mary appeared, too. The foursome deliberated on options provided by the dinner menu.  Williams suggested rice and stew; the other two consented and ordered the same.   


After they’d placed their orders, Williams reported that that the crew had unloaded all of the mission shipping crates safely and had placed them in a secure depot. Even more importantly, he assured Mary and Joseph that he’d already presented their travel passports at the Colonial Office. The officer had stamped them with the word “approved”, which gave Mary and Joseph freedom to travel throughout Sierra Leone. “Now it’s just a boat ride that lies between you and your mission,” Pa promised.


Mary placed her elbows on the table, leaned forward, propped her head in her hands, and thought to herself that Freetown was turning out to be more organized than her first impressions had led her to fear.  Joseph and Rev. Williams noticed her posture, but Williams also knew that he, Williams, had dashed certain amounts of mission money to key officials to keep the arrival process moving along so quickly.


As an upholsterer and carpenter, Joseph was always observing dimensions and looking for perfect fits of doors and windows.  As he and Mary returned to their hotel room, he noticed a three-inch gap between the bottom of the door and the patio surface. Once in the room, which was illuminated by one candle only, he saw a shadowy something hops out from under the bed, scurry across the floor and exit through the gap between the door and floor.  To Mary he reported, “A toad! A big one! Hmm.  For tonight, I think I’ll close the gap under the door with some stuffing.”


But before he’d even started to close the gap, he was diverted again. He called to Mary: “Dear, come you here; you’ve got to see this! The moon is low in the sky and seems huge and bright. And I hear voices. Listen. The street sounds like it’s just alive with happy people.”


Mary guessed that exploring the neighborhood is what Joseph really wanted to do just now, so she said, “Go explore the street. But for me? I need to stay right here to get some rest.”


So, Joseph exited the hotel and followed the sounds of a crowd, walking a ways on Water Street, then up a side street. He counted his steps, using a procedure he’d learned as a spy during Civil War days. He looked back over his shoulder occasionally to memorize the route. As two-story buildings gave way to one-storied cottages Joseph noticed that change. Just further on, he saw that the one-storied cottages became dominant.


Between two of the smaller cottages an empty lot appeared.  Here he paused and saw that a group had assembled. Joseph tried to make himself scarce by turning up his collar and pulling his hat down a bit.  He peeked in.


In the center of the lot, a man in a white gown wielded a rod. A police whistle hung from his neck.  A drummer sat behind him. Men and women, boys and girls were mingling all around the drummer like a wheel revolving around an axle. Playing a slow beat at first, the drummer would then quicken the rhythm. The crowd danced to the sound, whirling and exuding joy as the tempo raced ever faster.  As the drummer sweated, the crowd exuded joy and elation. When he could beat no faster, he just stopped abruptly. Then the dance master leaned forward slightly, blew his whistle loudly, and the dancers stood still, laughing and panting.  After a few minutes of rest the cycle began again.


“Well, what a party. It looks so friendly,” Joseph thought.  He decided to join the crowd for a few minutes of fun.  Though he felt a bit out of place, he boldly introduced himself to the dance master as an American. The dance master welcomed him with a vigorous handshake, bowed to him, introduced him to the dancers as an American guest, and re-started the dance cycle.   Joseph shuffled to the initial slow beats, pranced as the tempo sped up, and finally just trotted in place.  Suddenly the loud whistle brought all action to a sudden halt. The crowd laughed and applauded for Joseph, who responded by raising both hands to quiet the group. He smiled and then shouted, “Thank you. God bless!”


Joseph started walking back toward the hotel, but the crowd caught up and gathered around him. Little children cried out, “Tank-e Pa, Tank-e!”  Adults circled him and invited him to return for another round. The dance master stepped to Joseph’s side, asked everyone else to stand back a bit and shook hands.  While shaking hands with the drummer during a restful moment, Joseph noticed that the man ended the shake-hand with a twitch of his middle finger against Joseph’s middle finger, a gesture of some sort that left Joseph feeling a bit curious.


Walking back to the hotel, Joseph was overcome with elation. The mood of the dancers had affected him deeply. “I can get used to this happiness and joy,” he thought to himself.  He padded on through the now-empty streets to the hotel, through the entry and up to his and Mary’s room. Once in the room, he found Mary to be soundly asleep. Joseph plopped on his bed and soon dreamed of the voyage tomorrow.


While Joseph was walking from the dance to the hotel, the dance master had briefly “hung heads” with a couple of the strong male dancers. “Follow this American. Find out who is he,” he said.”  “Who is he? Why is he here? Where will he go next? Those are my questions.”


“Yes, Pa.” In Krio, the man said, “Ah de go jus’ now. Ah de come back quick.”





Chapter 2



Onward to Shenge’s Shores



Just as Mary had been the first to bed Thursday evening, she was also first to awaken on Friday morning.  Bright morning sunlight was beaming through the barred hotel window.  She spoke gently to her still-sleeping husband.  “It’s Day Two, Joseph.  We’ve got miles to sail today.”  Seeing no response, she’d switched to a stronger voice: “Up! Up and at ‘em!  Time’s a flyin’!  No more snooze time now.  You can sleep in the boat.”


Joseph opened his eyes and smiled.  “That was a great party last night, Mary. The moon was so bright!  I’ve never seen a brighter moon.  I could’ve read a newspaper by the light of last night’s moon.  Okay, you’re right; it’s on to Shenge today.  Let’s get started.”


During breakfast in the food bar across the courtyard, Rev. Williams joined them. Horace Caulker, the hotel owner, was there, too. He gestured toward Rev. Williams and praised him to the Gomers.  “Rev. Williams amazes me, you know. He completed all of your arrival requirements so quickly at the Colonial Office and also with the Elder Dempster Line. But that’s not all. He also arranged for two coastal boats, not just one, to take you to Shenge. So, both you and your goods should arrive together this afternoon unless the weather turns bad.  Williams is great; he just works miracles!”


Turning to speak directly to the preacher, Horace said, “Williams, can’t you come to work for me? I need four or five of your miracles right away.  Here.  In my hotel!”


Williams smiled.  “Certainly. I’ll report to you tomorrow and do a few miracles just for you.” After laughs all around he shifted to his attention to moving the Gomers to their goal--the coastal town of Shenge.  Turning to Mary and Joseph, he asked: “Can you meet me at the waterfront in an hour? By that time, I can have all your baggage loaded onto the freight boat. You and me, we will ride in the other boat.”


Mary flinched at the poor grammar but agreed to the schedule.  “We’ll be there in fifty minutes,” she promised. “But right now, I just want to get some news.” She turned to a nearby barefoot vendor wearing ragged, short pants and an oversized shirt, approaching with a head tray of news sheets.  This salesman, really just a boy, stopped and gazed at Caulker, and his guests, waiting for a coin, which Joseph promptly provided.


When Mary had the news sheet in hand and had scanned it, she noticed the title: “The African Advocate”.  Lovely title, she thought.  Abruptly, they all rose from their chairs to tend to their tasks.  Rev. Williams parted hastily to finalize the day’s travel arrangements.  Horace Caulker walked the Gomers back to their room, where he handed Mary a carrying bag. He explained, “This contains a few things I want you and Reverend to have for the journey. Bread and fruit for the journey and a bottle of tea. Drink plenty! You’ll be under the hot sun all day.  And greet my uncle and my family for me when you arrive.  Do not forget to dash the chief, Joseph.  Any small gift or present will do.  Visit me any time you are here in Freetown.  He shook hands, uttered “God go with you” and parted.


“I do like Horace,” Joseph confided to Mary. “We’ll need a contact we can trust here in Freetown.  Someone to help us with mail, shipping, money. I think we’ve found our man.  Right now, though, we must dress for today’s sun.”


“Exactly, I plan to do that,” Mary said as she pulled out of the closet a neck-to-ankle black cotton dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat with a black band and bow. “And you, Joseph, don’t forget the umbrellas. I want one for shade.  And keep that African Advocate handy, okay?  I’ll need something to read.”


“Yes’m!” Joseph responded. He wore his light, loose-fitting cotton shirt and dark pants. He added a wide-brimmed straw hat. After tightening the buckles on the four suitcases, he headed for the bar to say a final farewell to Caulker. But a young man interrupted approached him before he’d closed the door.


“Mistuh Gomer, Suh? Missus Gomer?” The young man was towing a baggage cart and stood just outside their room door. “Pa Williams, he done sent me fo’ to git you.”   


Joseph opened the door a bit further and said to Mary, “Good! Williams has done well. He’s sent a porter to help us with our bags.  Freetown has been good. Shenge will be even better, I predict.”


The young porter lifted their bags onto the cart and led the Gomers down Water Street to the beach, arriving there just at the right time to load the boat.  


Standing there, Joseph sized up the two green and yellow boats Williams had hired for the trip to Shenge.  Across the stern of one he saw two words, “God Dey.”  Across the stern of the other, “We Go Win.” Each boat had a triangular sail, a tiller, two oars, and a crew of four. Joseph estimated their lengths at eighteen feet, maybe a bit longer, and their widths at about five feet. He praised Williams:  “You got us two good boats, my friend.”


The freight boat crew had already loaded their baggage, barrels and crates. Mary and Joseph scanned the baggage and confirmed that all their belongings were on board.  Then the crew helped the Gomers into the passenger boat. Once out in the current, the easterly breeze pushed them out of the river and straight into the inbound Atlantic Ocean swells.  Mary said, “Joseph, where’s that African Advocate magazine? I have time to read it now.”  


Joseph produced the Advocate.  Mary soon began to read an article about conditions in the island city of Bonthe.  Article headings announced a shortage of fresh water and described difficulties faced by vegetable growers seeking to ship fresh produce to Freetown.  Suddenly, Mary said, “Joseph, listen to this! Amazing!  Here’s a story about Sengbe Pieh. It’s described as reporting a ‘well founded rumor.’ It states that Sengbe disappeared after he came back home to Sierra Leone with the Amistad settlers. It says that he became a slave trader himself, up-country in Mendeland. Oh please! A victim of the slave trade is freed and then becomes a slaver trader himself? Seems unbelievable to me. If true, it just trashes the dream we hold of freedom for people of this place.”


Joseph took the news sheet. When he’d read the article, he exploded: “I think this is just plain rubbish!  Would a man like Sengbe turn tail and become what he detests? No! No!”  With a clenched fist he banged the gunwale.  “We jumped at the opportunity to mission here, among our other opportunities, because Sengbe and the Amistad passengers came back to a land of freedom, not back into slave trading.”  He raged on: ” That thought hammers a thorn deep into my heart!”


Softly, Mary replied: “Just think of the wound to the heart of Jesus if this story be true.  Even if it’s just a rumor, God must be weeping.”


Rev. Williams, sitting in the same boat, overheard this conversation and was drawn into it. “My friends, I wish I could inform you about Sengbe. I know little, and can only report this: Dr. John Carlisle, founder of the Mende Mission, watched helplessly, thirty years ago, as many Amistad returnees sifted like sand through his fingers, leaving the Christian colony he’d founded just for them.  I know one of the returnees, and he told me that many of them returned to their villages and reverted to their old ways of life. Sengbe disappeared with the first wave.  Carlisle feels he actually led the first wave of returnees. What is certain is that nothing has been seen of Sengbe for a long time. The rumor you just read is one of many that have floated around the coast here. All I know is that bush natives make poor Christians compared to us Creoles.”


Mary was startled by Williams’ put-down of “bush natives,” but she ignored that in order to emphasize a different point. “Thank you, Rev. Williams, but either this rumor has to be proved false or it undermines our mission. Will people believe that Jesus frees?  Not if they see the freed turn into people who capture and enslave others. We have to get to the bottom of this. I want to meet the reporter:  Victoria Burnside--that’s her name, I read.”


Williams tried to cool the conversation. “I suggest that you and Joseph wait a bit. Ask questions of people who can help. And you will be able to ask Victoria herself, of course.  She’s often seen around Shenge-town--in Timothy’s company. You will meet Timothy today because he works for the mission.  You’ll see Victoria soon, I am sure.”


Joseph picked up on Mary’s comment too. “You’re right, Mary. The search for Sengbe will be a high priority once we get settled.  Definitely.  We both see it as part of our mission.”  And to Williams he said, “We can begin this search right in Shenge, then? I look forward to meeting our Timothy.  And Mary.  I do not want to waste time before starting to search for Sengbe. Do you have any further information that might help us, Williams?”


“Sorry, ma’am, but no. None. You are peeking through a door. It’s open just a crack, but you’re peering into a very large room. The light in the room is dim, but when your eyes adjust, you’ll see many people, some in palavers, others in brawls. When you open the door and walk into the room, watch your own back. That’s my advice.”


Mary accepted the newspaper back from Joseph and tucked it deep into her bosom, under the armor-like embroidered front panels of her dress. She felt it was the safest spot for the article. Then she said, “Yes, the Search is part of our task. Sengbe just evaporated into thin air?  No way.  We’ll search to find him.  His story is key to everything we’ll do from this time forward.  Yesterday you wanted detail for our work plan. I think we got part of it from the news today.  Sometimes God speaks through the news.”


Williams thought to himself, “Earlier, Mary and Joseph were chattering like excited children at the goodness they’d felt here in Africa.  Now they sense another side--a barrier, a block in their path. From optimism to pessimism so quickly.  I must help them stabilize or they will not survive as missionaries.”


The hard-working, perspiring boat crews, unaffected by the sudden mood swing of their passengers, propelled the boats along.  As seen from the mountains of the peninsula above to the east the two boats were merely small specks progressing slowly on a huge ocean.  At sea level the winds were favorable, the ocean swells were low, and the rowing went well.  As the sun dipped toward the horizon, Williams said, “We’ll soon arrive at Shenge. Prepare to be welcomed.”


“The scenery is certainly changing quickly,” Joseph said.  “We’re leaving the mountains behind. Looking ahead, I see only flat land to the east and the sea to the west.  All flat.  Just like Ohio.”


 Williams picked up on Joseph’s observation.  “Well, yes, Shenge-land does lie flat,” Williams explained, “and as you explore you will see plenty of mangrove swamps, muddy riverbanks, fisherman canoes, swamp rice farms and tall, tall palm trees.  Shenge is part beach town, part river town. The ocean side is for fishermen and their nets. The river side of the town is where we’ll land on a safe beach. Close to our school and church and close to many huts and houses.”


“They must be expecting us,” Joseph said. “I see trader canoes heading in our direction.”

Williams chuckled, “Yes, you’re expected, but those are welcome canoes, not trade canoes. They will give you something. You can expect coconuts. But they do not expect you to pay. You’re important visitors here. This is their hospitality welcome to you. Just accept gratefully and say, ‘Tank-ee, tank-ee plenty.’ That’s Krio for ‘thank you very much.”


“Krio?  I’m confused,” Joseph replied. “I thought people here speak Sherbro.”


“You’re right. They do speak Sherbro.  But everyone here speaks Krio, too. Krio works between tribes and peoples, and you should learn it first.”


“. . .and speak it even with Chief Caulker?”


“Mayhaps,” Williams cautioned.  “But the chief likes to be addressed in English by strangers like you. Later, once he knows you and trusts you, he will greet you in Sherbro or Krio.  You’ll see how it works.”


Soon, Joseph exclaimed, “Ah! There’s Shenge town!”  At the same time, many canoes, a dozen or so, Joseph thought, approached from over the river bar.  Mary and Joseph waved at the rowers.  Ocean swells diminished to nothing as the two boats and greeter-canoes entered the river and traveled upstream.  Joseph and Mary watched a crowd forming at the canoe landing.  Children came running down a broad trail from the town to the waterside.  Williams was already acknowledging the crowd, waving his trademark pink handkerchief and flashing his big smile. As the boats approached the landing area, Joseph guessed that about one hundred fifty people had assembled, two-thirds of them children.


The welcome was truly exuberant.  Both kids and adults reached out to touch hands with the newcomers as they walked from the boat up the wide path toward the mission.  As Williams led Joseph and Mary up to the mission house, Joseph noticed the plank siding and the rusting metal roof.  Once inside the house, the couple discovered two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room and a large closet.


Right away, Mary asked: “Where’s the kitchen?”


“Out there,” said Williams, pointing to an outbuilding about fifteen feet from the back porch.  “But you won’t be working in it. Your cook will prepare the food.  You’ll be able to relax.  Oh, you may join in the cooking if you wish.”


Soon, the sun was already setting, and the moon was rising off to the east.  The crowd outside the mission house began to dance as a drum whomped out a rhythm.  Within half an hour, the baggage from the canoe arrived at the house, carried on their heads by men.  Williams directed them to a storage room.  Still dressed in his three-piece black suit, Williams asked the missionary couple, “Is this not a glad day?”


“Yes! Definitely,” Mary and Joseph replied. “But we did not see the Chief at the beach nor here at the mission. That seems curious.”  


Williams replied, “He will not come here to greet you.  You need go to him.  Not until tomorrow, though.  You will need to ‘shake hands’ in the customary manner and ask his permission to be in his chiefdom.  It’s for that purpose that I have arranged that we will see him tomorrow.  As for tonight, sleep well.  You are safe in your new home. Now you may get your rest.”




Chapter 3


The Dusty New Beginning



Sunday dawned with a haze of dust borne on a dry easterly wind. Mary and Joseph noted that the temperature had dropped overnight.  “They call it the harmattan season,” Joseph said. “Dry, dusty wind.  It won’t last forever. Pa Williams told me to expect maybe a few more weeks of it.” Mary suggested that Joseph notice how some villagers, visible from Gomers’ windows, had wrapped themselves in hand-woven country cloths to keep warm.  “I can understand why they do that,” he replied, mimicking a shiver.


Then something unexpected occurred. Joseph saw a messenger walking along the path leading from the village. The messenger was calling out a message: “De Chief he beg you go Churchie wit’ him dis day.”  


“Of course. We’ll meet him there,” Joseph mumbled, mostly to himself. To Mary, he said that they might expect a large crowd to gather in the little village church building, due to the chief’s instructions delivered to the town via the messenger.


Joseph and Mary hurriedly ate a banana breakfast and appeared at the church before 9:30 a.m. Joseph asked an assistant to ring the church bell.  Shortly thereafter, the Chief himself arrived in a ceremonial hammock, carried by four men, and halted at the front door. The chief was dressed in a black three-piece suit.   Joseph was there to escort him to his reserved seat in the front row.  Members of the chief’s retinue sat near him, including three royal women gowned in swaths of bright cloth and wearing headdresses.  


The chief’s route from his compound led through the village to the church.  Villagers, children and adults, had grouped themselves into a line following the Chief.  They completely filled the church building. Late stragglers clustered outside the open front door, hoping for a peek, at least, at the goings-on inside.


Mary, watching from her seat on the platform, noticed the variety of women’s clothing, which ranged from simple dresses to elaborate country cloth gowns. Many wore with colorful flowing head ties.  Younger people dressed in school clothing.   Boys, fidgeting in shirts and shorts, were seated together in one section; girls, wearing blue dresses, sat in their own section. A few of the men wore brightly colored robes, made of hand-woven cotton. The seats filled quickly. Latecomers had to stand along the side aisles or in front of the back wall or gather on the front porch.    


  What order did the worship service consist of?  Rev. Williams, at first, directed a period of singing to drumbeat.  Then the chief’s speaker welcomed “our new man of God," Rev. Gomer and wife.  


That was Joseph’s signal to walk to the pulpit. He began his short sermon with thanks to all for their warm welcome.  Then Joseph spoke of the church, and the village also, as one body in Jesus Christ.  He ended with the promise that, “Mrs. Gomer and I will be serving you with love, in peace and justice.“


After his sermon, Joseph prayed to God on behalf of all present. Next, he invited all to stand and sing some additional familiar songs.  Instrumental accompaniment was limited to drumbeat.  Joseph ended the service with a few closing words of support for all and a prayer asking God to bless the congregation and the town always.  The gathered people dispersed, chief and party first, then the rest.  Within fifteen minutes the church building was empty again.

Back home, Mary said: “Joseph, that was superb.  What a welcome.  I feel at home here already.  What a fulfillment of our hopes!  Good for you, Joseph.  Now let’s enjoy the afternoon.  Let’s get some rest.”


Joseph agreed that he felt much the same as Mary about the church service.  However, their rest-time did not come quickly.  Following a typical Sunday pattern, most village people found their way to the yard of the mission house.  The Caulker compound had sent over a huge pot of goat stew and rice.  Villagers gathered in the yard for their portions of the meal.  An energetic girl danced in a country cloth-raffia uniform for the entertainment of all.  Along with the excitement, the temperature rose, too.  People slowly drifted back to their homes. The yard was empty, finally, by about 5:00 p.m.  Mary and Joseph helped a couple of workers to straighten up the yard and clean up the cooking pots.  Williams stayed on, urging Joseph and Mary to take care of themselves and not to waste energy. Then he, too, departed and Mary and Joseph finally did relax, lying side by side in a wide hammock, guarded by mosquito netting.  Soon, they were asleep.  


“A heady few days it’s been!” Joseph said to Mary as they awoke, still in the hammock, on Monday morning.  


Joseph gazed out over the yard and continued: “Yes, Sunday was almost too good to be true.  It worries me a bit when things seem too good to be true.” Pointing to the sky, he continued: “This the morning air seems quite cool. That’s good. But the dust seems heavier today.  I can’t even see the Peninsula mountains today.”


They went indoors and walked up to the second-floor bedroom.  It seemed to be the only location in the house where they could be private and confidential.  Anywhere else, whether in or around the house and at any time, they might find someone else watching and listening, no doubt enjoying the novelty of the new strangers in residence.


“Our new neighbors certainly love to watch us.  Have you ever felt us to be so different, so foreign, so much in public view, Mary?”


“Never”, Mary replied. “I’ve never felt myself to be an object of such curiosity.  It’s tiring me.  Let us make sure our bedroom shades are working in good order.  You’re in charge of that task; you’re the ‘simple carpenter.’  Alright?”

“And by the way, Joseph,” she continued, “I’m wondering.  Can you think of a better way of introducing yourself?  These people don’t want you to prostrate yourself before them. They regard you as a ‘big man’!  One of them actually said that to me.  I think that’s why they’re calling you ‘Pa.’”


Joseph thought, tugging a bit at his curly black beard.   “Well, what does ‘Pa’ mean here, anyhow?  Have you heard an explanation?”


“I did ask Queen Sophia that question.  She told me that ‘Pa’ means distinguished man or ‘big man,’ someone to be respected.  ‘Ma’ means the same thing for women.”


“Well, to me, I am who I am but I’m not a ‘big man.’  I didn’t own an upholstery company. I just worked for one.  Anyhow, I’ve examined the shades in our house.  They’re fine for now.  We’re in private when they’re closed.”


“You know,” he continued, “it seems as if months have been packed into just the past few days.  Shouldn’t we lay back for a bit of a rest, dear?  This tropical heat and excitement will wear us down if we’re not careful.  Don’t forget what Horace Caulker said about Americans rushing things too much.”


He continued, “Well, you can take it easy, Mary, I guess.  But for me, I need to make up a maintenance list, maybe hire some help, get this distressed mission running again.  First on my list: I just must get better acquainted with our employee, Timothy Tappan.  Then I need to make a list of the urgent items. I just must find some time to devote the Search, too.  All of that in this tropical heat.  I can cope with the heat, I think.  Not that much different than a hot summer day in Ohio.”


“Oh, alright,” she conceded.  Mary was fully aware of Joseph’s huge reservoir of energy.  “Let the program roll.  But you watch your health.  This is not Ohio, you know. It’s not even like Louisiana. It’s tropical Africa.  So right now, just have a seat there.  I’ll bring you breakfast.  By the way, wiping the dust off the furniture is necessary.  Seems that there’s a new coat of dust everywhere, every single day.  It’s a challenge.  I’m going to need help dealing with it.”


That night they slept soundly.  On the next morning, right after their Monday breakfast of tea and toast, Joseph walked out into the dust-dulled sunlight, heading toward the maintenance shed.  There, he hoped to meet Timothy.  To his right, on the town side of the path, he noticed a long, shallow slope of dry grass about waist high, marked here and there with skeletons of bushes.  It was obvious to him that the bushes had shed leaves to conserve moisture.  On flat land beyond the slope, he saw the thatched roofs of huts and the larger roof of the town barri, a public meeting place for discussions and palavers.  But in the distance to the north, where he knew that the mountains of the Sierra Leone Peninsula met the sea, he still could see nothing but gritty, gray haze.


Once at the shed, Joseph found Timothy Tappan, sitting at the entrance to the shed just as he’d promised. Timothy stood as Joseph approached.  Joseph liked Timothy’s appearance in his comfortable cotton work shirt draped over his twenty-year-old’s strong frame.  “Height, about medium,” Joseph judged. He noted the generous wide smile, well-formed teeth, and the black hair tightly fashioned into medium length dreadlocks.  “Handsome young man,” Joseph thought. In addition, he appreciated Timothy for his punctuality.  “What a great assistant he’ll make.”


“Good morning, Timothy.  Let’s talk as we look over the inside of the shed.  Right now, where did you grow up?”


Looking Joseph in the eye, Timothy said, “I was born in Mano Bagru, Pa, a chiefdom south of here, a bit up-country.  Father was a fisherman and farmer and a village headman.  He wasn’t dumb.  With missionaries, traders and English all around, Father could see that I would need education for the future.  So he gave me to be raised by missionaries.  I moved into their household.  American missionaries.  I was a mission boy for five years.  I have a Mende name by my father, but missionaries name me ‘Tappan’ for Mr. Lewis Tappan, the millionaire who favored the Amistad prisoners who. . .”


Joseph interrupted: “Yes. . .Tappan, who funded and guided the Africans of the Amistad Committee here in Sherbro country, thirty years ago.  That resulted in the four American mission centers, one at Bonthe, three on the mainland.  They call the entire program ‘the Mende Mission.’  Did I get my history right?”

“That is the way I learned it, Sir.”


“I’m so glad we’re on the same page!  Mrs. Gomer and I love the Amistad story.  Sengbe Pieh is a hero in America,” Joseph continued.  “He’s a hero of mine! I hope to meet him or his children.  That would fulfill a dream.  Timothy, you are the first Mende I’ve met here, as far as I know anyhow.  And here you are, on our mission team.  And now I believe that in some way or other, you may unlock the door leading to information about Sengbe after his disappearance.  Great to meet with you here this day!”


“Yes sir.  I am as Mende as I can be, but I know enough Krio to pass for a Creole.  In Bonthe I worked for a Creole trader.  That man bought palm kernels from Mende farmers and sold them to palm oil producers.  I found buying opportunities for him among the farmers.  Sometimes it helps me to pass as a Creole but sometimes it’s death.  When it doesn’t help me, I am myself--an upcountry native, educated by the American mission.  I try to wear the right mask at the right time.”  


“Uh huh, good to know. Chameleons live in the bush right around us, don’t they? Adapting keeps them alive.  Well, what is Creole and what is Mende to you?  What do the words mean, exactly?”


Timothy looked at Joseph.  “Mende is the name of the biggest tribe in this country.  Creole?  That’s the name for the prisoners and former slaves from all over, who have come back and were settled by the British in Freetown.  They’ve blended all their backgrounds together and speak their own language, Krio.  Krio combines English and sounds like this: ‘How de body, Pa?’ ‘De body ee fine-o.’  Can you repeat after me?  ‘How de body?’


Joseph: “How de body?”


Timothy: “Now try this: ‘ow de body?’”


Joseph tried: “’ow de body?”


Timothy, enthusiastically: “Y-e-s-s-s!”  Then, “De body ee fine-o! Krio is spoken everywhere in the country.  Creoles are educated and run the Colony government under the British.  They center in Freetown, but many trade in the hinterland.  Some trade in the Bumpe and Cockboro Rivers.  You’ll meet them here and there.”


Joseph shifted the topic and his position too, from standing to sitting.  He continued: “Another question for you, Timothy.  Shenge is a distance from Bonthe.  So how is it you came to work for the Shenge mission?”  


“Well, a couple of years ago, the last remaining missionary before you had to leave--he very sick with fever after a few months on the Coast.  He thought the church would close the mission, but he wanted the mission to continue.  For help, he contacted Rev. Carlisle, the old Pa of the Mende Mission.  Pa Carlisle recommended him to hire an African to keep the mission open and suggested me.  Pa wanted to see this center stay alive.  He hired me and I moved here and kept it alive.  I reported to Ohio headquarters by postal mail.  Now that you and Missus have arrived, the plan has succeeded.  I do want to stay as an employee.  That’s my story, Pa, and my request”


“I am elated,” Joseph said.  “I thank you!  Yes, stay! You are hired!  Now, let’s get to work and go to see the maintenance shed.”  Once there, Joseph realized right away that it was far from dilapidated.  It was stocked with some good tools and some useful materials.  Joseph commended Timothy on having kept thieves away.


Then they walked down the road and passed by the house.  At a corner they turned west on the perimeter road.  They passed by the stone church again and arrived at the school building, which had only one classroom.  The big room was enclosed by a white-washed wall up to eye level, but the wall did not reach up to the overhang of the roof.  A gap ran the full length of the wall on each side.


Inside, they found Rev. Williams, seated at the faded wooden teacher’s desk and working with papers.  Joseph asked, “Timothy, did your school have benches like this, or desks?”


“Benches only, Pa, until secondary school.”


“Perhaps in time we can get desks for the Shenge school.  Who does what in the Shenge mission?  Day to day, what do you do, Pa Williams?  And Timothy, what do you do?”


Rev. Williams spoke first.  “I run the school as head teacher, and I preach on Sundays.  Because the church and the school are very small.  You’ll see.  I also receive letters and funds from Ohio.  I keep records and write reports, which I send to Ohio.  Timothy here--well, he should speak for himself.”


“I maintain the buildings,” Timothy said.  “And I’m the Sunday school superintendent.  I purchase all supplies for the mission and the church.  That means trips to Bonthe (at which he smiled) or even to Freetown.  Williams receives the funds; I spend them.”  The three men chuckled.  


“Very helpful.  Both of you, I’m glad you’re here.  Please, do not consider leaving.  We need you now and will need you even more, I think, as attendance growth continues over the time ahead.”  


“Bless you, Pa Gomer.  We both plan to stay.  Now let me ask about you and Missus,” Williams said.


Gomer said, “Well, our story is amazing to us.  John Newton’s ‘Amazon Grace’ describes us exactly, I think.  ‘Once I was lost, now I am found.’”  


Timothy interrupted.  “Yes, but do you know that the African home of Newton, and the slave pens he supervised, are not more than five miles from where you are standing right now?  Just walk over to the fisherman’s beach below the headland and ask a fisherman to paddle you out to Plantain Island.  There you will stare, and maybe cry, at the remains of Newton’s slave factory!”


“Truly?  Another sight not to miss!  You know, Mrs. Gomer’s first husband was killed in the American Civil War.  I fought in the Civil War, too, in Louisiana, as a spy for the Union Army.  At the end of the war, Missus and I found ourselves on the same crowded river boat, traveling up the Mississippi River to the Midwest of the country.  I asked Missus for a conversation.  She thought I wanted permission to court her lovely young daughter and was very chary.  But I quickly assured her that I wanted to court her because she was even more lovely than her daughter.  We became well acquainted during the voyage.”


“As we neared the end of the voyage, I asked her to marry me, and she consented.  The ship captain agreed to marry us, and after the short ceremony he blew the ship’s foghorn in celebration.  We made our home in Dayton, State of Ohio, and joined a congregation that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Do you know about the Underground Railroad?”


“Of course,” Timothy beamed.  “We read about it in our Bonthe Academy history class.”  


“Oh, good for you, Timothy.  But I don’t know about it,” Williams said.  “Tell me about it some time.”  


Joseph continued on.  “Will do that, Pa.  About the time you two were hired to work here, a bishop approached us.  He explained about this mission and asked us to staff it.  I was puzzled, so I asked.  ‘Why me?’  I’m just a carpenter--a carpenter!”


He said, “Because black people survive very well there in Sierra Leone, and you are black.”


Joseph continued, “We prayed about the decision and said yes.  Now we are here by God’s amazing grace, so we know what Newton was writing about.  That’s our story, our song.  Well now, my new friends, let’s continue around the farm, Timothy.  Pa Williams, see you at the house this afternoon.”


With that, Joseph and Timothy left the school building and continued on the farm review.  “Yes, the farm is definitely big enough to supply the food we need.  But I’m afraid that irrigation and cultivation must wait until we complete the more urgent repair items,” Joseph decided.


Both Joseph and Timothy felt quite hot when they finally arrived back at the mission house after their walk-about.  Once inside the house, Joseph introduced Timothy to Mary.  Right away, she offered refreshing drinks of water to both of them, then plates of nourishing country rice topped by thick and tasty fish stew.  The three sat at the table to eat, and after a prayer of thanks led by Joseph, Mary introduced her question: “Joseph tells me that you lived in Bonthe, Timothy.  Do you know the Sengbe Pieh story?”  She brought out the wrinkled African Advocate article about Sengbe that she’d guarded ever so carefully.  


“Oh yes.  I do know that story, Ma’am.  I know the reporter who wrote it, too.”  With undisguised eagerness he volunteered, “Miss Burnside is a special friend of mine.”


“Your friend! What a great surprise!  What a blessing.  How did you come to know her, Timothy?”


“She was working as a reporter at Bonthe while I worked there too.  It’s a small town, Ma’am.  We could not help but meet, and we really enjoyed each other’s company.  You will probably meet her here in Shenge this coming weekend.  She still lives in Bonthe and writes for the Advocate.  She visits me here a lot.” Joseph nodded at Mary knowingly.  All smiled, Timothy a bit self-consciously.


“Well, g-l-o-r-y- b-e!  Yes, I want to meet Victoria.  I hope you’ll introduce me to her,” Mary said.  Or, better yet, let us invite you and Victoria for dinner here, either Saturday supper or Sunday after church.  Which would work best?”


“Saturday would be fine-o, Ma’am.”  Thank you!”


Joseph chimed in too.  “We need you, Timothy, and we need your friend Victoria, too, as we search for Sengbe.  That’s why we’re so excited at the news that you’re friends.”


Later that day, the Gomers, Timothy and Pa Williams met to set mission goals and plans in motion.  Rev. Williams offered that he would move from the mission house to the village, probably in the same house that Timothy is living in.  He would reconvene the school right away, using the books that Mary brought from America.  Timothy agreed to begin work on maintenance chores, making sure, first of all, that they had enough water to last through the dry season.  Joseph, now the mission superintendent, said he’d take over communications with the mission board in Dayton.  Also, he’d begin visiting people in the town and surrounding villages.  Mary would occupy herself with homemaking, continuing the role she’d filled in Ohio.  She’d also worked with Timothy to make certain that the food supply was sufficient and secure.  


By day’s end, the Gomers conferred, and both agreed that things were coming together much better and more quickly than they could have asked.  They’d arranged to meet their immediate housing and needs, and the mission team was up and running.  The Chief and townspeople had expressed exuberant support.  Joseph and Mary also agreed that a Sengbe search team seemed to be forming.  


“Now for a good night’s rest!”, Joseph said as they fell into bed, exhausted from heat and intensive interactions. He kissed Mary lightly and they slept immediately and soundly.  


Mary, just after breakfast on Tuesday, as the best writer of the missionary couple, drafted Joseph’s first letter from Shenge to the bishop back in Ohio.  She wrote:


“January 17, 1871.            Dear Bishop Flickinger:  Mary and I arrived in Shenge five days ago.  The welcome has been surprisingly pleasant.  Rev. Williams and Timothy Tappan have succeeded in keeping the mission buildings in good condition and in maintaining a skeleton program.  We will continue to employ them.  There is much to be accomplished.  I will be visiting outlying villages with a view to extending the mission program. I will send periodic reports.  I know you will write as you have time or questions.        Sincerely yours,       Joseph Gomer       Superintendent, Shenge Mission”


Joseph read, approved and signed the letter and gave it to Timothy, who said he’d mail it at Bonthe.  He seemed happy to have a reason to go off to Bonthe.  Bonthe was becoming more than a dot on the map for Mary and Joseph.  Though a much smaller town than the capitol city of Freetown, Bonthe was closer, and travel there required less exposure to the open ocean than travel to Freetown.  


Later in the week, Timothy told Mary and Joseph that he’d received information from a friend that eight town chiefs had met with the paramount chief in Taiama.  The friend reported that the chiefs discussed the news that black Americans had joined the Freetown Mende community dance days ago and had greeted everyone in friendly terms.  The chiefs also knew that the Americans left Freetown the next day on a boat destined for Shenge.  They judged that the Americans must be missionaries, since no Americans other than missionaries ever visited Shenge. The town chiefs asked their paramount chief for some guidance.  “What do you make of this?”, they asked.  


Since the paramount chief had no further information or guidance to offer, one of town chiefs said, “We thought that the mission was dead when the last missionaries left two years ago.  However, the arrival of two new missionaries says that the mission has come back to life.  We judge that the existence of the mission strengthens the Cockboro chiefdom.  And we are asking ourselves, are the Americans there in Shenge to stay?”


Another chief intervened with a “No.  I see that Americans come and go quickly, or they die soon from fever.  These will be no different.”


“But these American missionaries are black,” said the paramount chief.  “This is new.  You know how black Americans have populated the coast in Liberia, don’t you?  So, the two new American missionaries will survive here too.  Let us keep an eye on this man and wife.  Do they travel, where do they travel, and how and what work they do with the villages around them?  If they are open to us, we will talk with them.  If they seek to get our secrets, we must beware of that.  You know that we have a Mende man who works at the Shenge mission?  The English and Creoles call him Timothy Tappan.  Let us send someone to Shenge to talk with Timothy Tappan.  And let us watch the two new missionaries.


 Once the crews had pushed the boats off from the beach, Williams leaned toward the Gomers and explained the route.  “We are now going down the river to the ocean. There we sail south in open ocean along the Peninsula to Yawry Bay.  We’ll land at Shenge’s protected, sandy beach.  If we have a steady wind today, we will arrive well before night falls. The boats will travel together, of course.  That’s for safety.  The crews may use oars for greater speed.  It’ll be a fine trip.  This is a day the Lord hath made.”  


Chapter 4



Clouds of Gloom



Mary and Joseph fell into daily routines right away, allowing them to regain their emotional balance.  During the week of January 15, they waited with anticipation for the visit by Victoria.  Early in the week, with the help of Pa Williams, Mary hired an eleven-year-old Sherbro school girl (her English name was Ruth) as a live-in household helper.  Then, with the assistance of Sophia Caulker, Mary sought to find a cook for the household.  For his part, Joseph spent time developing a list of property maintenance issues.  Working with Tim, Joseph began some of the house and school repairs. He also cut back some dry grass.  


On Wednesday, Pa Williams reopened the school.  He reported that he’d enrolled thirty-one pupils, an increase of nine compared to the session that had ended before Christmas.  This increase was achieved despite the great demand by rice farmers for children to chase birds away from their ripening grain fields.


Weather-wise, the harmattan season continued to produce both disturbing and calming effects.  The resident population was used to dryness of the air at this time of year.  Mary and Joseph, though, were experiencing for the first time in their lives considerable chapping and even some splitting of their lips.  Especially, they developed rough and tight skin at and around their fingertips.  Mary made sure that she and Joseph drank plenty of water daily.  Joseph, playing the manly role, continued as if the harmattan didn’t matter.  But when a huge crack opened in a wooden side-table in the dining room, he, in his skilled carpenter role, suddenly found the power of the harmattan to be a hazard.  


Mary and Joseph did discover a benefit of the dry harmattan weather in the form of outstanding sunsets.  Almost daily, just before the sun set, they walked to high ground to see Plantain Island out in the Atlantic.  They marveled at the red, pink, and orange sunsets.  A rough bench on the hill, placed there by predecessor missionaries they guessed, gave them a resting place.  They were a romantic couple and their handholding in the sunset provided public evidence of that.  Only the few school kids who tagged along with them on the walks noticed, of course, but the kids told their adult family members.


Timothy’s state of mind was changing.  He’d been knocked off balance.  Eligible and isolated, his excitement level increased during the week.  Anticipating ever more intensely the arrival of Victoria Burnside on Saturday, he expended his excess energy by whitewashing his rental room in town, dusting and tidying his workspace in the mission maintenance shed, and by beautifying the guest bedroom the Gomers offered for Victoria’s use.  It wasn’t easy to court the Bonthe woman he hoped to win when he was in remote Shenge, so far from Bonthe.  In his journal Timothy wrote, “I hope to make the most of Victoria’s weekend visit.”


On Wednesday, Mary began to realize that the cook she’d sought wasn’t going to be on board in time to prepare Saturday’s meal.  So, late in the day she visited Queen Sophia and asked for advice.  Sophia’s solution was to loan her own cook to Mary for a couple of days.  This enabled Mary to use the best cook in town, who accessed his own private sources of fish, coconut and palm oils, rice, plantain, potato leaves and pineapple--more than sufficient to allow him to prepare a fine, multi-course meal.  Because Mary had requested the help of their cook, the Caulkers guessed that an important guest would visit the mission.


Saturday arrived.  At about noon Timothy caught a ride with the surf boat that pushed through the breakers to meet the larger coastal vessel running from Bonthe north to Freetown.  Out in the channel when the vessels met, Timothy gallantly gave Victoria his hand to steady her big step from the larger to his smaller boat.  When she was in the boat he gave her the customary greetings--a hello and kiss on her cheek--and the surf boat headed back to the waterside at Cockboro River.  Here, Timothy carried Victoria through shallow water from the boat to the shore, ending an afternoon adventure that would provide for entertaining conversation at dinner.


When Victoria and Timothy arrived at the mission house, he said, “Pa and Ma, you’ve asked, ‘what’s a Creole.’  Here’s a Creole in person.  Please meet the lovely Victoria Burnside.  Victoria, here is Rev. Williams and Mary.  You know him from before.”  


Mary immediately noticed Victoria’s white blouse and cotton skirt.  The blouse was printed a flower pattern.  She observed her straightened and styled hair, her thin figure and her pleasant and easy smile.  Mary thought, “Victoria is a perfect example of what freedom and education can do for a African young woman.”


The Gomers’ evening meal was flawless.  Mary used her mother’s china, which she’d located in one of the shipping containers. The dinnerware sat on Mary’s dear lace tablecloth.  Candles provided light and beautified the setting.  The cook served three courses:  first, the rice soup, then an entree of filleted ocean fish, served with delicately fried plantain on potato leaf.  Finally, he brought in a pineapple dessert and tea.  Ruth, the live-in girl, served as the cook’s helper.  She carried empty plates from the table to the kitchen for washing.


During the meal, Victoria told a story about Timothy in his earlier role as captain of the Bonthe Academy soccer team months ago.  Bonthe was playing against the Bendu team and Timothy, as a forward, scored the winning goal for his team.  The team, she said, celebrated by throwing Timothy off the dock into the “pond,” as they called the Sherbro River.  This episode had become known as “Timothy’s baptism.”


Mary queried Victoria about Bonthe.  What was it like, she wondered?  How much did Victoria enjoy the town, compared to Freetown?


Victoria replied, “Its population is only five thousand, far smaller than Freetown of course.  It’s the seat of government for that southern part of the country, but it’s cramped and smelly.  Smelly in part because it’s built around a mangrove swamp.  The Government House and the churches are made of stone.  The housing and the schools are fine.  Overall, I’d say that Bonthe is less healthy than Shenge.  Here in Shenge, the sea breezes cool the air and so many flowers grow.  Bonthe, though, is a much bigger trade center.  There, the main interest is money, money, money.”


When Mary felt completely comfortable with her guest, she brought out the copy of Victoria’s article on Sengbe Pieh’s rumored slave trading career.  “We couldn’t help but notice your article on Sengbe.  I’d imagine that it stirred some controversy.”


“Not really, Ma’am.  Rumors have circulated for years about Sengbe’s disappearance.  Some say Sengbe went to Jamaica.  Others think that he died of some disease as soon as he went up country.  My article is based on an interview I ‘d done here in Shenge.  My informant asked for anonymity.  This is just the kind of article editors assign to a rookie, of course.”


Mary explained, “Fine.  I just want you to know, Victoria, that Sengbe is so very important to many African Americans.  Why?  Because they know that he overcame huge obstacles when he led the Amistad slave revolt.  They know that he maintained the spirit of his group during the Supreme Court fight in America.  Some African Americans think Sengbe went to Jamaica.  Others think that he returned to Africa and died of some disease as soon as he went up country.  Sengbe did learn English and he expressed the slaves’ determination to return to these African shores in public speeches in America.  His was the character of a freedom fighter as well as a scholar and an ambassador.  That’s why Joseph and I cannot and must not believe that Sengbe could have become a slave trader himself.  It doesn’t make sense to us.  It must be a false rumor.  Since Sengbe’s such a hero and inspires millions of Americans, black and white, we want to do whatever we can to dispel the false rumor.  And there’s another thing.  Actually, we feel that this rumor can thwart our calling to serve the people here.  I wonder.  Do you, as a reporter, have thoughts on all of this.”


“Yes, I certainly do,” Victoria said immediately.  “If you could prove the rumors to be false, I’d support you!   It’s just that it’s been more than twenty years now, and the rumors have never been proven to be either true or false. There’s been no evidence available.  So, people are free to float rumors about Sengbe to serve their own purposes.  Rumors become news.  Sengbe is a famous hero here, of course.  And Timothy has told me of your interest, by the way, and Timothy’s safe to talk to.”  She smiled at Timothy.  “But do be careful whom you talk to about your search for Sengbe.  News travels very quickly here.  Your search will be controversial.  Unless you’re careful, it could become dangerous.”


“But if you could find evidence,” she continued, “that would become the news story of the decade!  Ma and Pa Gomer, I’m a reporter.  I proceed by asking questions and getting information in reply.  Could I assist you in your search by asking some guiding questions--and I hope they’d be the right questions?”


“Questions like what, Victoria?” Joseph asked.


“Well, who saw Sengbe last?  Which two or three people?  Do their stories agree?” As for me, I’m a woman reporter in Bonthe; I just cannot go upcountry.  For safety’s sake, I have to wait for news to float down to Bonthe.  But I do have some ideas about whom and where to ask.  There are several possible key contacts.  You would want to answer this question: do their stories give hints about Sengbe’s destination when he went into the bush?  You’d strike gold if you could determine his destination and investigate his life there.”


“Those are great questions, Victoria,” Joseph said, “and you’ll probably get more questions as you sift through any reports I can offer as I keep my ear to the ground.  I face several problems, of course.  I don’t speak the local languages.  I don’t know the back country.  Are these barriers surmountable?”


“Well, you definitely need an interpreter and guide, sir.  But many traders ply the hinterland roads and trails with only their Krio or European languages, or even just Arabic in the case of the Syrians.  So my answer is, yes, you can do it if they can do it.”  


“Am I looking across the table at a qualified and willing interpreter and guide?”  Joseph was looking at Timothy.  


“I may be a bit biased, sir, but I think you’ve found your man, if he’s willing,” Victoria volunteered.


“Are you able and willing, Timothy,” he asked?


“Absolutely, sir,” Timothy affirmed, “provided Victoria is on board, I’m willing, regardless of where this boat is headed.”


“Oh, of course I’m ‘on board’ with the search, Timothy,” she affirmed.


“You realize this is an expansion of your duties, of course, Timothy.  I’m sure you’ll demand a raise!”  Joseph said and the other two laughed.


“Well, how exciting,” Mary said.  “Imagine.  Just four of us fighting all kinds of unknowns to rescue Sengbe’s reputation.  Lead on, Chief Investigator Joseph!”


They spent a few more minutes determining when they could meet again, realizing that it would be impossible to meet in Shenge tomorrow, given their Sunday morning responsibilities.  The boat back to Bonthe would take Victoria away early Sunday afternoon.  So, they came up with a plan to meet in Bonthe later in the week, when Timothy and Joseph would be there on mission business.  “We will kill two birds with one stone,” Joseph announced.  


He continued, “Here’s a plan.  Mary you’ll stay here in Shenge and manage the mission with Pa Williams.  Rev. Williams, you’ll take on some additional responsibilities whenever I’m out in the villages, but no more than before Mary and I arrived. At Bonthe I will need to meet with Victoria.  I’ll also make a courtesy call on Rev. Carlisle at the American mission in Bonthe.”


Rev. Williams confirmed his support and then excused himself to go home before night settled in.


Timothy then raised a question for Joseph.  “Pa Gomer, Victoria and I both did well in secondary school and we’ve wondered. . .well, we want to ask you, can you help us get to America for a college education?”

Joseph averted his eyes and coughed.  He seemed a little startled, actually--unusual for the unflappable Joseph.  Soon he said, “That’s a question I can’t answer, Timothy.  I can’t say ‘no’ and I surely won’t say ‘yes.’  I just don’t know what would be involved.  You see, I never went beyond grammar school and.. .”


“But I did,” Mary broke in, probably hoping to save her spouse from a minor stumble.  “I went to what we call high school--secondary school here, I guess--and I did well.  I wanted to continue in college, but I could not find the money necessary to pay the costs.  My college dream did not become real.  I’d love to see both of you realize your wonderful dream.  You do sound well qualified to me.  So, I believe it’s just a question of finances, mainly.  I think we can say that we’ll look into it, don’t you, Joseph?  There’s just got to be a way.”


“Yes, we will check into it.  But an answer will take time.  Be patient please.  When we get an answer I’ll let you know.”


The evening meal ended with compliments and thanks all around for a wonderful meal and great conversation.


But once in the privacy of their room, Joseph asked, “Who, in Shenge, was her source of information for her article on Sengbe as slave trader?  Who, do you imagine?  I felt I couldn’t just ask for the name.”


You should try to find out, of course,” Mary said. I think you could ask Chief Caulker.  But that was a great conversation.  She’s a gold mine of information and don’t you believe that your Sengbe search team is coming together?”


“Oh yes!  I think it has already formed.  It’s the four of us:  you, Timothy, Victoria and me, with Rev. Williams playing a supporting role.  Imagine:  two strangers to the country and two young Africans, all striving to find a clue in the tropical forest, where wood rots and metal rusts.  Seems unlikely, doesn’t it?  But, well, we will find a way.  I feel sure of it.  But are you certain that you will be safe here in Shenge overnight while I go to Bonthe?”


” Pshaw, Joseph!  Of course, I’m safe here!  Everyone in town is our friend.  Williams will look after me.  No problem.  I’ve been looking ahead, and I’ve realized that you’ll need be gone overnight a lot in the future.  It’s part of your job and I’m prepared for that.  I am more concerned about you and your eagerness and what seems to me your overconfidence about this search.  We are discovering that there are dangers out there--upcountry.”


On Sunday, January 15th, the air was grim once again with harmattan dust.  Victoria teamed with Timothy to help teach the Sunday school children.  Rev. Williams helped Joseph lead the church service.  He rang the bell at 10:00 a.m. on the usual schedule but the worship ritual began only after the chief had been ushered to his seat of honor around 11:00 a.m.  Attendance was lower than one week earlier, and the weight of dust in the air lent an oppressive note that Joseph’s inspirational sermon could not overcome.


After the benediction dismissal Joseph greeted the chief, of course, but the chief’s mood surprisingly seemed as grim and gritty as dust. “Joseph, come see me this afternoon at the compound.  I must speak with you about the American Civil War,” he ordered.


Joseph appeared at the chief’s door immediately after lunch.  He had to cool his heels for a while before a boy ushered him into the chief’s room.  The chief paced about as he spoke, dressed in his relaxing gown of country cloth.  They greeted each other--not too formally, but totally devoid of any joking.

The chief began with a question: “Joseph, I understand you plan to travel to Bonthe this week.  Is that fo’ true?”


Yes, that is true.  (Joseph was startled.  How did Caulker know about the travel plan?)


“And the reason for the travel?”


“To greet Rev. Carlisle, an American missionary there.  We’ve not shaken hands yet.”

“All right.  That be good.  Any other reason?”


“Yes.  Actually, only one other.  I will speak with Victoria Burnside, the reporter whom you know, about the story of Sengbe.  She wrote an article recently.  Mrs. Gomer and I read it.”


“I knew your second reason, of course.  You should have alerted me.  I myself gave the Sengbe story to Miss Burnside.  Are you aware of that?”


“No, Sir.  But allow me to ask, why would you tell her that story?  The story is unlikely to be true, in my opinion.”


“Look.  Sengbe was Mende.  I wanted to shame the Mende by stating that Sengbe maybe became a slave trader.  That indicates to the British that slave trading still occurs in Mende-land.  I want the British to protect our Sherbro against the Mende by offering us status as a Colony.  I want to give them a motive to press back the Mende.  To suppress active slave trade would give them a strong motive.”


“I see,” Joseph replied.  “Also, you said you wanted to discuss the American Civil War.  Perhaps you see the potential of a civil war between tribes.  You want to think about how to defend the Sherbro, and maybe there are answers to be learned from the American War.  Is that right?”


“Yes, as Chief of my people, I do see a bush war between Mende and Sherbro as possible.”


“I would hate to be here if war broke out,” Joseph said.  


Gravely, the Chief said, “If you have ideas, speak out to me now.”


“Thank God,” Joseph began.  “I lived through the American Civil War.  I could have died.  Millions did die.  Millions.   “In the war the South proved to be weaker than the Union, but there was an even weaker third party--the millions of freed slaves.  They learned that military victory did not give them strength.  After the victory by the North, they had no work.  Some starved; all were weakened.  Their former masters herded them, exploited them and raped their women.  Hooded men lynched innocent blacks.  This is what I learned:  war does not work magic.  It is terrible.  Therefore, I preach peace.”


“Here,” he continued, "the Sherbro will not be safer if the British attack the Mende.  Not safer in my opinion.  We need to find a better way--a way that will work for both the mission and the Sherbro.”


“My concern is not the mission,” said the Chief.


“I know,” replied Joseph.  “But my concerns are the future of the mission and to reach out to both the Sherbro and the Mende.  I believe in prayer to God, yes.  And the power of it.  But I also know there are forces out there--forces of the sort that abuse others for selfish ends.  These are the real enemies of both the Sherbro and the mission.  These are the manipulators of Sengbe and his legacy.  The way to defeat the pressure is to identify the forces and expose them.  That’s what the Search is about.”


“So, your search proposal is. . .? the chief asked.


“My proposal is this.  I travel upcountry to investigate the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Sengbe, and find any evidence that exists.  Some evidence must certainly exist.  I will ask your blessing in this endeavor and hope for your support.  If I am successful, Sengbe will return in story and legend as the man of honor that he was--a fighter for justice for both the Sherbro and the Mende people--a father of his country, Salone.”


“Joseph, you are persuasive.  Here is my response:  for now, I forbid you to travel to Bonthe just now, but I will consider all you have said.  Come, see me tomorrow, here in my court, before the sun goes down.”


“Thank you, Sir.  That’s all I can ask.”


Later, to Mary, Joseph asked, “How did he find out what we’d discussed at dinner?  Once again, they’d walked with Timothy out to the bluff at sunset, just to get privacy.


“Simple,” said Mary.  “We talked openly at dinner and the Queen’s own cook was undoubtedly listening from just a few feet away.”


“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Joseph groaned.  I don’t mean to hide anything from the Chief, but I do want to disclose my thoughts on my own terms at my own time.  We must tighten our security, like in the Civil War.”


“You should be aware that the Chief is probably in regular contact with Bishop Flickinger by mail,” ventured Timothy.  “If you want to disclose your plans or anything to the bishop on your own terms, you need to write to him before the Chief communicates.”


“Good, Timothy.  Very good advice.  And Mary, please keep drafting letters to our Bishop as soon as things develop.  Please.  Right now, I want to inform Bishop that the mission is locked into tiny Sherbro-land until we can develop reliable contacts in Mende territories.  I intend to begin soon by developing accurate information about the disappearance of Sengbe.  That is the open window into Mende-land, I believe.  And it can’t hurt the Sherbro, either.  Tomorrow I will see the chief.  I believe, without any real reason for my optimism, that he will support our search.  God wants the search to happen.”

They walked east, back toward the village and the mission.  To the three of them it seemed that gloomy air had enveloped the mission, the village and even the skyscape as the blood-red sun dipped below the horizon.




 Chapter 5


Frightful Night Visitors


At mid-morning the next day Mary quietly slipped out of the mission house to visit Queen Sophia.  After the usual pleasantries at the gate, Mary was ushered to the Queen’s parlor.  Face-to-face with Sophia, Mary shifted to her main concern: “Madam, I need some help from you.  I have long held a high interest in Sengbe Pieh.  He’s a hero to my African American friends in the United States.   Joseph and I want to dispel rumor circulating here about Sengbe.  We Americans think it’s contrary to human nature for a freed slave to become a slave trader himself.  Because the rumor, if it is a rumor, would be harmful to our mission.  Therefore, Joseph and I want to dispel the rumor once and for all.  However, we need encouragement from the Chief to support the Search.”  

The Queen replied, “Chief is skeptical about the Search, I know.  I will see what I can do.”

On Monday afternoon, a messenger from Chief Caulker interrupted Joseph’s work by announcing, “The Chief, he ready for you now, Pa.”


Hearing this, Joseph walked to the meeting with very quick steps.  He anticipated that the chief would stop the Search immediately if he were convinced that doing so would be in the interest of the Sherbro people.  Nevertheless, he thought it was possible that the chief would support the Search because he did not flatly disapprove it yesterday.  


“Come right in,” Chief encouraged.  “I wait for you.  Glad to see you.  ‘Queen and cowboy’ today.  Cowboy there,” pointing to Joseph, “and Queen there,” pointing to the photo on the wall.”


“I’m encouraged,” Joseph thought to himself.  “He’s a happy chief again.  Maybe he’ll be supportive.”


Chief continued: “Joseph, I want you to know that my war chief and I had a long talk.  I explained your ideas.  I needed him to buy into your plan of course.  And he did approve of your search, but with conditions.  I will explain the conditions.  First, though, the war chief and I also met with my councilors--those whom I could gather on short notice at least.  Two are from Shenge and several from some outlying villages which would be first to suffer if anything goes wrong with your plan.  Therefore, it’s important to get their approval also.”


“Yes.  Understood, Sir.”


“Good.  Now, my proposition is this.  I am able to support your voyage to Bonthe and Sherbro for the purposes you have stated.  You should limit your trip to Bonthe itself, the American mission, and the Jong River up to the navigable head.  By that point you will be into Mende-land itself.”


“Now, the conditions.  One, you will sail in a boat I will provide, with my own crew.  Two, you will take only one assistant with you.  I suggest you take Timothy.  He speaks the Mende language and knows the river Jong.  Three, the voyage itself will be quick.  You’ll leave on Wednesday this week and return by Friday night, weather permitting.  Four, when you return you will report your findings to me.  Five, any further investigation will depend upon the result of the first outing.  Now, Joseph, do you accept these conditions?”


After pausing to reflect, Joseph said, “I gladly accept the conditions, chief.  You not only permit the Search, but you support it.  You are probably close to turning a corner, chief, from defensive to offensive, like General Grant did at Vicksburg in 1863.  But we have not reached that intersection yet.  Think of me as your scout who’s surveying the lay of the land.”


“Fair enough, Joseph.  Now, would you be ready for a trial voyage tomorrow?”


“I’d like that, Sir.  Will you accompany?”


“No.  I’m needed here.  But your Mrs. Gomer might like an invitation to accompany you.”


“Thank you, Sir.  Thanks very much.  We’ll be at the boat tomorrow morning.  Just after dawn tomorrow, at our Shenge waterside.  Yes.  Thank you, Sir.  We’ll be there.  Thank you again.”


Following this agreement, the two men adjourned to the inner courtyard of the compound for complete privacy to discuss details of some diversions that Joseph might employ in the next few days.


Later, back home at the mission, Joseph reported to Mary and Timothy, “The abruptness of the chief’s decision has put us on a rapid pace, but it’s for the best.  Timothy, will you take charge of preparations?  Clothing, food, water, and other things you can think of.  The prospect of seeing Victoria again so soon should give you ‘plenty plenty’ energy, right?”


Timothy replied with zest, “Agreed!  I’m at work on it already.  I anticipated a positive report from your visit with the Chief.”


Early on Tuesday morning at the waterside, Mary and Joseph looked over the chief’s boat for a few minutes before the voyage.  “I feel pampered, Mary.  This will be better than the boat Williams hired for us when we traveled to Shenge from Freetown.  A bigger boat:  a couple of feet longer, maybe a foot wider.  And it has some decking and a higher prow.  I just hope these men know how to sail.  I really love the name painted on the side of the boat: ‘African Brother.’”


Once on board, the wind drove them quickly out to Plantain Island, a low, narrow, curved piece in the sea just a few miles out from the mainland.  Joseph exclaimed, “Just hard to believe.  This little sliver of land was Newton’s slave trade headquarters?  And later it was the chief’s town for Bumpe Chiefdom?  The island seems too small for any of that!”


“Small, maybe, but safe from surprise attack,” replied Mary.  “Think what life was like in those days.  I can’t help but wonder whose grandparents or great grandparents sailed as captives from this island for America.  Yours?  Mine?  Maybe so.”


“Now that they’ve turned back toward Shenge we’re in a headwind.  We’ll see how the crew handles this challenge.”  After thirty minutes of skillful tacking, Joseph said, “These men are real sailors!  They know what to do, how to do it.”


Back at the Shenge waterside, Mary asked the crew about themselves.  The leader replied, “We be Kru men, lady.  From de Liberia Coast.  De Chief he keep us here for him and his family.  Go to Freetown.  Go to Bonthe.”


Mary said, “I’ve read about Kru people.  Remember Kru-town in Freetown, Joseph?  These Kru people are the sea sailors of West Africa.  You’re in wonderful hands.  I feel confident about your voyage.”


Little did they know, as they were on the test run to Plantain Island, that somewhere in a strictly secret ritual enclosure deep in the Mende-land forest the five highest ranking members of a reptilian secret society were meeting.  The head of the society, an older man with responsible chiefdom functions, had called the decision makers together on an urgent basis.


He began speaking, his voice soft, his brow marked with deep creases of concern.  “Brothers, I need your advice and counsel concerning our response to newcomers in Sherbro-land.  These two people present something different than we have faced, perhaps something threatening to our society.  They are black American missionaries.  They know nothing of our people, the Mende, and our ways.  They depend totally, for now at least, on the Sherbro chief in Shenge.  In their unknowing they could cause trouble for us.  We need to educate them.

“What is threatening just now is that they are asking questions about Sengbe Pieh.  First, they arrived in Freetown weeks ago.  Then they settled in at Shenge.  Their boat brought food and equipment.  By last Friday they had read an article about Sengbe from a Freetown newspaper.  On Sunday they entertained the writer of this article, a Creole from Bonthe.  We know nothing of the conversation between them.


“Just yesterday, they sailed with the chief’s Kru men to Plantain Island.  This may be a hint of their deep interest in slavery.  Why else would anyone go to Plantain today?  There’s nothing on the island except old evidence of the slave days.  And now I learn that the American may travel to Sherbro to interview the old Pa in charge of the American Mission there.  


“I want you for be aware.  I want you to listen to all sources of information you may have.  And I propose a plan.  Should the American man go to Bonthe we must send a band of our members to demonstrate our power by frightening--only frightening at this time--the woman, who will stay in Shenge.  Do you support the plan?”


A council member asked, “How certain are you of your information about the missionary’s plan?”


“I heard these things from our usual reliable sources.”


Another man said, “We must take action, but only mild action at this time.  We have been ‘educated,’ as you say.  And we do know that we can frighten the Shenge royal family if we need to do that.”

“Then, brethren,” said the headman, “Thank you.  I shall send a message immediately to a Mende-man lodge near Shenge to ask them to pull a minor devil tonight.  Get people on the alert.  That’s the goal.  In the next few days remain alert to receive messages that I will send you.   Do you not travel.  Do you stay available.  We may need to decide things quickly and active decisively.”


On Wednesday morning Joseph and Timothy loaded the boat for travel.  Both men were traveling light.  Chief Caulker appeared at the waterside to provide a sendoff.  He advised, “Joseph, you are not just a passenger.  You are the captain.  Johnny is head of the crew, but he will report to you.  If you tell him to sail at night, he will sail at night.  In case of danger or storm, Johnny will give orders.  But Joseph, you are responsible to provide food and lodging for the crew.   I am sending three days of rations for the crew.  Does everyone understand?”  All occupants--crew and passengers alike-- signaled their understanding.  Then the crew shoved the boat off the landing beach into the deeper water and it departed.  


Mary and some villagers walked quickly from the waterside to the headland to watch for the sail propelling Joseph’s boat to Bonthe.  The boat receded across Yawry Bay, finally disappearing into the vast blue sea.  Then, with a bit of resignation in her voice, she said to those around her, “Now I go to the mission house and work hard until Joseph returns.”  By chipping away at the backlog of her chores and responsibilities, she felt she could control her worries about dangers that Joseph might meet on his trip.  

First, she checked food and water supplies.  Then she planned menus for herself and Pa Williams, who’d eat with her and the live-in child.  Following supper, she tucked the child into bed and told her a bible story.  Then, after a day of strenuous activity she fell exhausted into bed, tired from the emotional strain of being out of touch of her traveling spouse.


At first, she allowed her thoughts to drift to Ohio and home.  “So beautiful there; so far from Shenge to my friends in Dayton.”  Midwestern fields of green and forests of oak trees drifted about in her consciousness.


Tired, alone, feeling vulnerable, yet sleepless, Mary told herself, “I just must go to sleep.”  But she felt her heart beating heavily and rapidly.  And she thought, “All’s quiet in the house.”  The girl, Ruth, was sleeping soundly in her room, as usual.  


Her internal dialogue continued.  “It’s very quiet in the village too.  Normal for a night with moonlight like this, but still, I’m afraid.  I don’t know why, but I feel an intruder could be lurking in any room, behind any doorway.”


She peered out of the window to check on things in the yard.  The moon provided dim light.  The distant palm trees seemed as if they were tall, thin warriors, doffed with enormous headdresses keeping watch.  “If Joseph were here now, I’d feel at peace, but without him I cannot calm my worries.  Even the night animals are hushed tonight,” she thought.  It was quiet, as if humans and nature both were in awe before the arrival of a tornado.  “Lordy, something is coming, but I do not know what it could be,” she fretted.  “Oh, dear God.”


Inside her, fear rushed up causing a tingle where her hair met her scalp.  She knew Joseph was probably only thirty miles away, but she felt as if he were far, far away.  “Woman, be strong,” she told herself.  Never have I felt so weak from fear.  Why now?”


Against the imagined ominous forces, she closed the shutters and blew out the kerosene lamp, though feeling that these acts were mere gestures.  She pulled the blanket higher and tried to sleep.  But after a long, lonely hour in the darkened room, Mary suddenly felt that eyes really were spying on her.  Goose bumps tingled in patches all over her body.  To get a bit of light she opened a shutter a crack and a beam of moonlight breached the darkness of the room.  


Peeking out through the cracked shutter again, Mary saw a dozen costumed men on the road outside the low fence, not more than thirty feet away.  In the middle of the group a masked figure stood, dressed from head to toe in raffia grass.  She immediately ducked back out of sight onto the bed and prayed that not a single man had seen her peeping at them.  “Maybe I should get under the bed,” she thought.  But she held steady.


Each man, as she remembered the scene, held a stout stick about three feet long.  The sticks reminded her of the Bobbies’ nightsticks she and Joseph had seen in Liverpool.  The most frightening image was the masked figure.  His body was covered by a neck-to-toe camel-colored raffia skirt.  His head wore a helmet made of raffia, with outlandish, enormous lips protruding out and dangling down.  “Don’t take another peek,” reason told her.  “Don’t risk detection.  Don’t!  Don’t!”  


She remembered that, early on, Queen Sophia had advised her, “When the men’s society pulls a devil, we are not to look.  A woman caught looking could bring on a flogging.  In the old days it brought death.”


“Can I get help,” Mary wondered.  “Can I send for the chief?  Impossible, I think.”  While she tried to think of options, she heard a paralyzing chant--a lengthily intoned “m-m-m-m-m-m.”  The warriors began and ended the hum in perfect unison, then absolute silence prevailed.  After a minute or so it began again: “m-m-m-m-m-m.”  This time it seemed more distant.


“Maybe the party is over,” she thought.  Relieved, and with her curiosity overcoming her caution, she peeked out again.  She realized that the group was parading around the perimeter of the mission farm, finally becoming nearly invisible over the field.  To her dismay, they then marched back toward the house!  The devil weaved and bobbed like a drunk.  Two attendants propped him up and steered him along the path.


Mary ducked back behind the bed as the line of men formed once again outside her window.  After they vocalized one final, ominous m-m-m-m-m-m, she heard them swish off.  Watching once again, she saw them move toward the village and pass into the bush on a distant path.


Relieved, Mary felt her heart rate return to normal.  Though her anxiety was subsiding, she still shook involuntarily from time to time.  Then she relaxed more, and her eyelids began to weigh heavily.  She ached for sleep.


“Before you sleep, go check on the child,” she instructed herself.  She lit a candle and found Ruth to be in bed asleep.  Apparently young Ruth heard nothing of the commotion and had slept through the entire event.  Mary thought, “There’s a blessing for you.  Will not your Heavenly Father care for you like one of these?” The child’s sleep seemed to confirm that old, old promise Mary had learned so long ago.


The moon was still shining, and nature was back on course.  Chirping and howling animals had resumed their nighttime chorus again.  She could no longer detect any human activity down the road in the village.  Back in bed, Mary resolved, “I will find out who those visitors were and why they came.  I just cannot believe this!  That group certainly acted like the Klu Klux Klan back home!”  


She awoke when a rooster crowed at dawn.


Shortly after dawn, Pa Williams arrived.  When she answered the door, Mary was surprised to find him dressed in his black suit.  


“Good morning, Mrs. Gomer,” he began.  “I heard a terrible ruckus last night up in your direction.  Are you all right?


“I’m fine, but I had a fright from a band of costumed men last night.  They paraded the mission grounds and stood for a long time right outside the front gate here.  I have no idea what or who they were, or why they were here.  Do you have any ideas about that?”, she asked.


Williams replied, “I know nothing about them, Ma’am, but I’ll guess.  I think it was maybe a demonstration against Joseph’s investigation and an attempt to frighten you.  But did you show any fright?”


“I was very frightened.  A lot, actually. But didn’t show myself to them at all.  I did peek out of a crack in the window shade, but I’m sure they could not have seen me,” Mary answered.


“Well, thank God for that.  You were brave, ma’am.  I think this was a delegation from up-country, possibly some war-boys of a town or chiefdom, or members of a secret society.  Do you know, the ‘natives’ have many secret societies?”


“No.  I have no knowledge of any secret society, except the Masons, back in Ohio.  Are the Masons organized here?” Mary asked?


He answered, “No Ma’am, but the Poro society, the Wunde Society, the Bundu.  The first two are for men, but Bundu is for women.  There are others too, some very terrible.  You need to learn about the secret societies, Ma’am, because some--well, they wield energy and weapons and may want to oppose the mission.  If they are against you, some will stop at nothing.  This is dangerous.  But for right now, I advise you to request an interview with the Chief.  Most likely, he has information about your night visitors.  May I request his attention on your behalf?”

“Of course, Pa.  Wonderful idea.  Do go to the Chief.  I’ll wait here.”


Williams hurried to the chief’s compound and reported the events.  The Chief, still in his relaxing gown, returned promptly to the mission house with Rev. Williams.


After brief greetings, Mary explained: “Last night was bad for me, Sir.  Joseph is gone to Bonthe.  A band of night visitors paraded around the mission ground and sang and acted strange just outside my fence.  Can you tell me whom they were?  Do you know what they want?”


The Chief replied, “Ah yes, I was very aware of them, Mrs. Gomer, and my man was watching their every move.  They came from a neighboring chiefdom to frighten you.  They want to frighten Rev. Gomer too.  Probably they want him to cease and desist his desire to visit villages.  Usually, they parade and dance and bring out their devils to influence us through fear.  You did a brave thing by showing no reaction.  If I had tried to drive them away it could have led to a fight and many injuries.  They could have damaged the town.  It was better for us all not to risk a big fight.  I was sure you were anxious and afraid.  If I could have sent a message to you last night I would have, but I had to avoid a worse ruckus.”


“I see,” Mary said.  “I’m so very glad to know you were watching.  Will they return?  What do you think?”


“They will not return tonight, Mrs. Gomer.  And not soon.  We see such visits occasionally, but not often.  Whenever we take an initiative, like Rev. Gomer’s voyage to Bonthe for example, we may get night visitors.  They come in secret, they attempt to frighten, then they leave in secret.  In this band of men, you see the face of your opposition.”


“It’s like the Klu Klux Klan,” reasoned Mary.  “My Chief, we black people in American have learned that you cannot give in to fear and hate.  It will get worse if you give in.  You will lose your dream.  Will you take any action against them, Sir?”


“Little I be able to do.”  He continued, “The British do not act because the intruders do not come from within the Colony.  No one else can protect us.  I am ready to act to defend you if they return and they seem ready to harm.  Then my war chief and men will fight.  I am sending a message today to the British in Freetown, just to report.  Perhaps someday the government of the Colony will act.”


“Well, thank you, sir, for responding to my message.  You reassure me.  Now I fear for Joseph and long for his return.  He will agree with me that we must and will stand fast, trust in God and show no fear.  We shall not give up our dream for Africa and for ourselves, and our dream is grounded in faith.  The night visitors have the power of fear.  We have the power of love.  We dare not give up.  We will see which power prevails.  We need you to work with us.”


“Joseph will return safely, Mrs. Gomer.  In two days or less.  Send a message if I can assist in any way while he is gone.  I will send my own watchman to guard you safe at night until Joseph returns.”


Mary rose, curtsied, and turned toward the mission.




 Chapter 6


The Deadly Thunder Storm



Joseph found some simple joy in being out of Shenge.  He was finding Shenge to be comfortable for sure, but a bit confining.  The Kru sailors, deftly handling Chief Caulker’s boat, gave Joseph an opportunity to relax and see new sights.  His assistant, Timothy, knew the route to Bonthe because he’d made the trip to and from many times as he and Victoria visited each other over the previous months.  He pointed out landmarks to Joseph as the journey progressed.  

For the first twenty miles or so, the African Brother sailed parallel to the shoreline in the open sea.  The boat rose and fell on the ocean swells rolling shore-ward.  Joseph and Timothy had nothing to do but watch scenery, talk and plan.  They planned some diversionary tactics since the Shenge chief informed them that their opposition, real but not yet visible to them, would likely have posted observers on the way.  


By the time they’d finished agreeing on diversionary tactics they’d reached the broad estuary of the Sherbro River, bounded on the East by the mainland and on the West by the Turtle Islands and the much larger Sherbro Island.  Timothy described Sherbro Island as a twenty-mile-long patch of sand, up to ten miles wide, covered with scrub grass overall and mangrove swamps on the eastern side.


They sailed southeast according to Joseph’s compass, down a wide but narrowing channel formed by converging shorelines of island and mainland.  Joseph could easily pick out the delightful feathery tops of coconut palms lining beaches on both sides.  Behind the palms he saw occasional rising plumes of smoke.  Timothy explained that people were brushing and burning farm plots in preparation for planting once the rains had set in.


Joseph supposed out loud, “It may help our search that people are preoccupied with farming right now.  They’ll be on the farms, leaving us more freedom to poke around their villages.”


As they traveled south Timothy pointed out several nearly invisible indentations and bays.  He explained, “slave traders from Europe parked their boats in these hidden harbors while waiting for cargo.  When a vessel reached its full load of slaves, the captain easily slipped out of hiding to make a run for the open sea.  I think Sengbe was spirited out of the Sherbro that way.  When the British began coastal patrols to intercept slave trading, they found detection very difficult here.”


In the late afternoon their captain turned toward Sherbro Island and sailed slowly and carefully into a narrow passage leading to a lagoon lined by docks and dotted with anchored boats.  Rising slightly above the docks they saw the wooden structures of Bonthe.  Beyond the buildings, Joseph saw only a fringe of tropical vegetation and the big sky above, reddening with the light of the setting sun.  He commented, “This is it, Timothy?  This is Bonthe?  It seems small and cramped.”


Timothy responded, “Yes, it’s a small town, I guess.  But it is the capital of this part of the country.  Small in size but big in importance for you and me.  There, and over there.  See those buildings? “ (He pointed.)   “Those are trade factories.  Canoes bring cargoes of palm kernels to them from the mainland to sell to traders.  From here the kernels go to Europe on ocean going ships.  See the white building over there?  That’s the Academy building, where I went to school.  Since our African Brother is the official boat of a chief, we can dock at the government wharf.  It’s safe and Victoria should be there.  Go dey,” he directed the crew.


As the boat angled toward the wharf, Timothy saw his friend walking with a swoosh toward the dock.  He said to Joseph, “It’s Victoria!  The Bonthe branch of the African Advocate, here to get the breaking news!  Exactly as expected.”   She and Timothy exchanged waves.  As the boat neared the dock, Timothy leaped the gap to the wharf as soon as it was safe, and he greeted his special friend with a robust kiss on the cheek and a bit of an embrace.  The group of two was now a trio.


With darkness coming, the threesome had little time left for making arrangements for the next day’s expedition.  First off, Joseph gave the crew chief, and his men leave to get food, then he sat on a bench beside Timothy and Victoria to reconfirm the plans for further travel.  Joseph recapped: “Tomorrow, my look-alike will sail in this boat with the crew in the direction of the American Mission on the Bum River.  Dressed as a Creole trader I, with my Mende assistant Timothy here--we will paddle in a trade canoe up the Jong River toward Taiama.  Does that sound correct?  And have you made all the necessary arrangements, Victoria?”


“Yes, Sir!”


Joseph wondered out loud: “Where will we get food and then sleep tonight?”


“I’ve arranged for that, sir,” Victoria answered.  “You and Timothy will stay at the American Mission just south of Bonthe.  The mission has an employee who can serve as a look-alike for you.  You will give your clothes to him and Timothy will bring Creole clothes for you to wear.  You need to get a shave right away; the barber will close soon.  Timothy will make sure of your clothing, canoe and tools.  I’ve rented them from a Creole trader, so you will look authentic.”


Joseph acknowledged her arrangements: “Victoria, thank you.  You are great!  Anything I can do for you?”


She replied promptly: “Yes, if you can give me an interview about your expedition, Sir?”


Joseph replied with caution: “Let’s see if there’s time for an interview.  Right now, Timothy, you run to the trade depot to get the clothes and confirm arrangements with the trader.  When you’re done with that, meet me at the mission house.  Mary, right now, please take me to the barber.”  


Johnny, the crew captain, returned, and Joseph instructed him:  “Please provide a watchman for the boat tonight.  Tomorrow, I will not see you.  Instead, you will take my substitute, who will see you as if he were me--take him up the Bum River.  No need to go on to Mo Tappan; no need to dock anywhere.  Just sail out and sail back tomorrow evening.  I see you here, tomorrow, at this time.  Understand?”


Johnny nodded and agreed.


The threesome--Timothy, Victoria and Joseph--accomplished their individual errands quickly.  Before long, they regrouped in the mission guest house, a fine stone cottage set back from other mission buildings on the six-hundred-acre estate.  When Timothy arrived and saw the newly shaven Joseph he asked in disbelief, “Pa, is that you?  You look so different.”  He noticed the Civil War scar on the right side of Joseph’s face at jaw level.  Until now, it had been hidden by whiskers.


Over a fine rice and stew meal, they talked, much more leisurely than at the dock.  After eating, Joseph excused himself in order to dress in his Creole clothing and also to give Timothy and Victoria a chance to be alone.  When he reentered the room, he was wearing a billowing white shirt, dark pants with line line high on the waist, and was holding a folded black parasol.  He looked like a figure right off the King Jimmy Wharf in Freetown, indistinguishable from dozens of Creole traders they’d all seen.


Timothy also displayed his trader costume:  white cotton pants, short jacket, sandals, and one long cutlass.  About his 30-inch cutlass on his belt he said, “This is essential for a trader.”  


“Fine,” Joseph agreed, “but you really look more like a pirate of the Caribbean.  You’re fearsome!  And what is that stack of iron bars for?”


“Up-country man no use money at all.  Use irons for money,’ Timothy drawled in Krio, causing Victoria to laugh.  “If we want to appear as genuine up-country, we need irons.  Is that not right, Victoria?  They still use bars for money?”  

Victoria nodded her head in agreement.  “You’re terrific Timothy.  You thought of everything.”


The evening drew to a close.  Timothy volunteered to check on the boat once more to make sure the watchman was on duty and, at the same time, to walk Victoria to her room on the other side of town.


“I’ll see both of you tomorrow morning.  Good night.  Have a good sleep.”


Joseph then finished his evening by giving his normal clothing and his travel plan to his look-alike.  In his own evening prayers, he thanked God for his trustworthy companions and asked God’s special blessing on Mary.  


The next morning at the wharf, Victoria arrived to see Joseph’s look-alike.  Then, back at work, she watched from the balcony of her office as a trader canoe slipped out of the inlet.  The crewman, Joseph and Timothy were all paddling, moving the boat at a good clip east toward the mouth of the river Jong.  She could also see the Shenge chief’s boat, African Brother, leaving the harbor and turning south.  


Joseph and Timothy paddled into the outlet of the Jong, heading in a northeasterly direction, directly into the Harmattan breeze.  Joseph marveled at the sights on this river that originated in the heart of the tropical forest.  Occasionally, alligators slid down the bank and dove for the depths.  In the upper branches of giant cotton trees, which towered several stories over the dense lower bush, groups of monkeys chattered.  Joseph observed that the lower jungle was like one huge bush, impenetrable to sight.


As they paddled along on a rising tide, the sun rose higher above the foliage and Timothy announced, “Now we are getting close to Mokele, a Mende town.”


Gomer asked, “Timothy, how much further to go?  An hour or so?”


Timothy replied, “We are close now.  You will soon see.”


Joseph looked up and what he saw was not Mokele.  Rather, over the river he saw a black, boiling, quickly expanding cloud.  “What on earth is this?” he asked in disbelief.  “A thunderstorm cloud at this time of year?  I thought we’d never see. . .”


The hired paddler cut Joseph off.  “Dat no storm cloud, Pa,” blurted the man as they watched with widening eyes.  “Dat be Thunder medicine cloud.”  


“Sir, this could be a sign to us to go no further,” Timothy suggested, his voice cautious, bordering on fear.


Patiently, as if instructing a pupil, Timothy provided a lesson.  He said that there was no hurry because the men had stopped all padding except to stabilize the boat in the stream and against the still-accelerating wind.  In a low, quiet voice, Timothy said, “The Thunder Man has powerful medicine, Pa.  He can call down lightning to kill any man.  No man sells you a medicine to protect you from the Thunder Man.  No one has medicine stronger than Thunder.”


“Now, I myself do not believe in the Thunder medicine,” Timothy continued.  “But one man cheated my uncle out of his wages in Bendu.  So, my uncle hired the Thunder Man to work medicine for him.  Then my uncle went to his boss and said, ‘Now, my friend, I have paid the Thunder Man and he ready to strike you.  You pay me and I tell him to cool the medicine.’”


“Well, did your uncle get his wages?”


“Yes, that day.  That very day!” Timothy testified solemnly, as if under oath.  


Gomer thought to himself, “Obviously Timothy actually does believe in Thunder medicine. How can I give him and our canoe man the confidence to continue?”


Looking upward and motioning, he said, “Men, if Thunder man has pulled medicine on us, I know what to do.  Here.  Wait a minute.”  He searched his bag and pulled out four shiny emblematic pins depicting a celestial Jesus, arms open, enfolding the mission headquarters building in Dayton, Ohio.


Continuing, he said, “Thunder is powerful.  Yes.  But God is stronger than any medicine.  God created the thunder.  God keeps people safe in the worst of storms.  He will keep you and me safe now.  Pin these on your shirt, so we can go forward without fear.”


Joseph pinned an emblem on his shirt and dipped his paddle.  The others took confidence and followed his example.


As they rowed forward, the cloud continued to boil and grow.  In time, it filled a third of the sky.  Vivid sheets of lightning rippled across the face of the cloud, accompanied by loud claps of thunder, frightening them all.


“How would Sengbe have reacted right now, facing such a monster as this?” Joseph wondered to himself.  Sengbe probably traveled this river often, since it formed a convenient and frequently used trade route between his hometown, Taiama, and the coast.  As he pondered, the wind picked up more force--not as a pounding, choppy wind but as a strong wind steadily gathering ever more strength.  “If this wind blows harder, we’ll not make it to Mokele,” warned Timothy, shouting into the wind.


“So, paddle harder, men!” urged Joseph.  “We can make it if we try hard.”  (“Maybe we can,” he admitted to himself as he watched leaves ripped off the trees zip past, and felt white caps break against the bow.)


By rowing very hard, the men were able to pull ahead.  After half an hour of extreme exertion, breathing hard and perspiring copiously, they rounded a band.  There, on the right bank, stood the town of Mokele.


Once they reached the beach, the wind subsided and within five minutes it stopped entirely, as if on command.  The black cloud remained but it relaxed.  Had a Commander above ordered it to stand at ease?  Given the letup of lightning and thunder, the search seemed to be safe again.  Joseph’s companions calmed down.


Joseph looked around at the deserted Mokele -waterside.  Not a soul greeted them.  He thought it was just as well.  Greetings and formalities could wait.  The three men were winded, exhausted, hungry and thirsty.  They secured the boat, reclined on the beach and relaxed a bit, sipping at their drinking water and eating the bread and dried fish that Victoria had furnished.  She’d also sent along some oranges that helped with their thirst.


Their breathing was slowing, and they’d quenched their thirst when they realized that a man in a country-fashion robe was watching them from a point at the top of the slope about sixty feet away.


Timothy recognized the man and said to Joseph, “There’s the Speaker of the Chief.”  The two men rose, stepped out onto the ground and waited.  The Speaker slowly descended the bank and presented himself to the men.  Timothy translated as the man spoke in Mende, saying, “You are here.  Chief waiting.  Bring yourselves and come with me.”


“This is a welcome?” Joseph asked Timothy as they climbed the bank and walked into the village.  “Seems like an arrest to me.  Will the canoe be safe?”


“I don’t know.  It’s out of our control now,” Timothy said.  “There’s nothing I can do about it.”


Once they ascended the bank, they could look about the village.  To Joseph, Mokele town appeared to be planted in an opening in the thick forest.  Very huge trees dominated the center of the village, but several surrounding acres were free of forest and were filled, mainly, with mud-and-wattle houses with thatch roofs.  The houses surrounded a disorderly stockade made of upright logs about twenty feet tall, butt ends driven into the earth.  Some logs displayed leafy branches sprouting at their tops.  The upright poles were interwoven together with horizontal branches.


“This is the war fence,” Timothy explained in English.  “Hard to know what might be inside of it.”


Still walking away from the riverbank, they passed a path branching to the left.  Along the path were trader stalls but no traders were in sight.  Then Timothy and Joseph passed compounds with no women, children, or cooking fires.  Everyone, seemingly, had disappeared or fled.  They came to a widening of the path into a sort of plaza, in the middle of which was a larger thatch building lacking walls.  “The palaver hut,” said Timothy.  “And there’s the Chiefs’ compound on the right.”


Even as he spoke, they heard powerful drumming inside the war fence.  Joseph thought, “This drumming mimics the thunder we heard earlier, coming in claps, deep and pulsing.”  Meanwhile, the Speaker was walking them toward the chief’s veranda.  Joseph remained on high alert.


Up just one step and they were on the veranda itself.  Both the hardened dirt floor and a mud house wall showed blotches of painted decoration that had mostly disappeared, a crooked door frame made of beams hewn from tree trunks, and finally, to one side, a large, wooden chair.  Joseph figured that the entire veranda measured about thirty feet wide and fifteen feet deep.  He observed that the roof over the veranda was an extension of the house’s thatch roof.


“Wait here,” the Speaker said.  He left the trio standing as he stepped through the doorway into the darker interior of this house.  Clearly, the Chief was taking his time.


As they waited, the drumming swelled and changed in character, with high drums joining the thunderous bass drums.  Soon, they saw a single file of costumed men walking toward them from inside the war fence.  The line was long--the end of it was out of sight.


Joseph noted their abbreviated costumes:  brightly colored breechclouts, white spots they’d daubed on their arms and legs and lined patterns on their faces.


Timothy whispered, “The Wunde society”


Joseph, Timothy and the crewman turned to face the approaching marchers, who moved silently and powerfully as if on the feet of leopards.


Behind them, even above the noise of the distant drumming, they heard someone clear his throat.  Turning around, a man in a voluminous white gown and white hat appeared.  The Speaker said, “The Chief.”


The Chief walked to his chair and sat down.  He spoke in Mende and Timothy translated, “I see you have arrived.  But you were not invited here.  You are not welcome here.  Yet you are here.  I want you to stay with me while I review my men.  Watch with me.”


Joseph whispered to Timothy that he’d like to reply to the Chief with a “handshake” gift.  But Timothy disagreed.  He said, “Not now.  He is hostile.  You should just tell the chief that you will follow his instructions.”


Joseph replied, “Alright.  Go ahead then.”  And Timothy said to the chief that the two men would follow his guidance and instructions and felt honored to be in Mokele under his protection.  Timothy knew this is what the chief wanted to hear, although Joseph, Timothy thought, was probably feeling just the opposite.


A second line of men filed into the square, replacing the first line, which had disappeared to the left.


“These fellows are superb!” said Joseph, admiring their musculature and powerful movements.  This second group was dressed uniformly, each man wearing a short skirt of raffia and carrying a long stick--a six-foot straight pole, skinned of bark and whittled smooth.


Joseph counted marchers.  He’d reached one hundred forty by the time the line stopped and faced the review party . At a signal from a leader, they thrust their poles toward the chief, then held the poles vertically in their right hands and, all at once, struck the poles on the ground.  The force of the impact shook the ground.  The men turned and moved off silently.  The square was empty now, but the Chief remained seated.  Joseph and crew knew that he was waiting for more men--warriors, perhaps-- to enter the square.


The three visitors waited on the veranda.   Joseph remembered the reviewing stands from the Civil War back in the 1860s.  They exchanged no words though the tension they were experiencing was rising.  Then, the loud drumming stopped suddenly, making them feel even more tense.  


Suddenly, both groups of marchers reappeared.  The loin-cloth group ran in from the right and the raffia-skirted men ran in from the left.  The second group held their long poles while the first group carried wooden swords about three feet in length.  Directly in front of the reviewing stand, the leading members of the groups collided and fell into a pell-mell fight.  Joseph heard stick cracking against swords.  The entirely square was a mass of small groups actually fighting each other, vigorously and furiously.


Joseph viewed the scene with alarm.  How would it end, and how would the crew pick their way through the field of battle back to their boat?  He wondered, was this a demonstration of force that might be applied to him and Timothy?


More worrisome, as he looked up, he realized that the black cloud had reappeared and now hung directly overhead, whirling and writing with great energy.  He looked proudly at his crew of two, fingering the emblems which he’d supplied to give courage.  The crew members showed no fear.


As the battle raged on, some of the men broke off in small groups of two or three and to perform directly in front of the veranda, facing the trio of out-of-town visitors.  These small groups of warriors crouched, flexed, grimaced and growled.  A threat or just an entertainment?  Joseph could not tell which and did not ask.


Next, the warriors spilled out of the square into the market and began to tear down trading stalls.  The din of crashing stalls and thunder from above, amid yells and cries from the  battle, was becoming chaotic.  The violence continued.


Suddenly, they all saw a huge flash and heard a loud cracking sound as a bolt of lightning struck the palaver shed just across the plaza.  The chief, who’d seemed serene up to this point, jumped up out of his chair, ran to the mud railing of the veranda, propped himself up with his arms, and stared.  Apparently taking that as a sign, the fighters dropped their skirmished and ran as fast as bare feet could take them toward the forest.  Joseph and crew took advantage of the seeming confusion to run for their boat, passing in front of the apparently astonished chief.


They found the boat, hopped into it, and this time the wind and currents propelled them rapidly downriver.  They rounded the first bend and distanced themselves from Mokele.  The large black cloud dissipated, and before they had traveled for thirty minutes the wind subsided back to the normal Harmattan breeze.


Joseph felt they’d reached a point of safety and asked the two others to fold their paddles.  He voiced a prayer, thanking God for saving them from harm and asking for safety.  After Joseph’s prayer, Timothy looks up at Joseph and asked, “Now what do you think of Thunder?”


“Okay.   It seemed very real,” Joseph said.


Timothy cut in:  “On the veranda, I heard the Chief and the speaker talking.  They were worried because they’d noticed the medals we were wearing.  The speaker said:  ‘These men have strong charms.  I have never seen such fetish.’  But the Chief said, ’Just watch.  Our Thunder Man will destroy their boat with lightning, and they can walk back to Bonthe.  That will learn them never to come to Mokele again.’”


Joseph was amazed.  “You mean that lightning was aimed for our boat and missed?”


“Exactly, Pa.  That was the intent. But because the Thunder missed the canoe and destroyed the town barri instead, now they think you have medicine stronger than the Thunder Man.  A strong, strong medicine that you bring, they think.”


Joseph demurred:  “I don’t claim to have a medicine.  But God’s power is great.”


Then the paddle man said, “Well, you give me strong, strong medicine, Pa.  T’ank-ee, t-ankee plenty,” as he fingered his medal.


So Joseph’s denial of having channeled medicine and his fame as a man of powerful medicine grew and spread around the much of the upcountry because of his supposed victory over Thunder in Mokele.  His unintended reputation would help him in the further quest for Sengbe, as well as in many other endeavors.


Joseph thought back to the previous day’s conversation about the people being preoccupied with preparing their rice fields.  He mused, “Evidently the Chief was able to reach a lot of farmers quickly and call them in to battle.  


Timothy replied, “Not the chief, Pa.  It was the Wunde society  Wunde is a warrior society drawn from many villages above Mokele.  Something is happening here.  More than one power is at play--Thunder, Wunde, the chief, and maybe something more.  The Chief was as surprised as you.”


“Well then,” Joseph decided, “we’re done here for today, that’s for sure.  “Let’s get back to Bonthe and then to Shenge.  We’ll sort things out and plan for our next steps.”


With that, they pushed off to paddle downstream for the coast.



 Chapter 7


Fear and Confidence



Upon arriving back in Bonthe the three exhausted men craved food, water, rest, and relaxation.  Victoria had spent the late afternoon watching for them from her perch on the balcony.  She rushed to the wharf the moment she saw the canoe enter the harbor.


“What’s the news, my heart traders?” Victoria called out.


“It’s all good, all good!” Timothy yelled back. When the boat drew closer to her, he said, quietly: “Wait for details.  We can talk when we’re at the guest house.”


They had plenty of urgent tasks to complete before enjoying any rest:  first, to return the canoe and other articles to the trader, along with a payment; then, to instruct the four Kru sailors to secure the African Brother overnight and to prepare to sail to Shenge the next day.  Finally, they had to make final arrangements for their overnight stay with the superintendent of the American Mission station.  It was a busy end to an ultra-busy day.


After completing their urgent tasks, the team finally gathered in the guest house to eat yet another rice and stew meal by lamplight while briefing Victoria on the day’s events.


Timothy spoke of the Mokele chief’s hostility and of the powerful display of Thunder medicine.  He described the demonstration of force by the Wunde society.  Victoria responded like a very good investigator by asking, “Why was Wunde involved at Mokele?  Mokele is miles from Taiama, right?”


“Yes, but Taiama views Mokele as a barrier to any invasion of its own territory from enemies down on the coast.  If there’s any palaver at all in Mokele, Wunde will know that and will try to cool the trouble,” Timothy replied.  In an aside to Joseph he explained, “Taiama is a much bigger, more important town, with eight war stockades, not just one.”


Victoria continued to interrogate: “So here’s another question for you heroes.  Who hired the Thunder medicine, and why?”


Timothy attempted to fill in some details: “I don’t know for sure.  I imagine, though, that the Chief hired Thunder people to keep us out of Mokele town.  To deter us from even reaching Mokele someone sent Thunder against us while we were still a mile downstream.  Who?  Probably the Chief.  However, Joseph gave us Jesus medals--one for the paddler and one for me.  He pinned one on too.  These medals gave us courage to continue on despite the storm.  Actually, the paddler thought Joseph had gifted him a gris-gris, and that excited him, as you can imagine.”


“When we reached the Mokele waterside, the Chief’s Speaker lured us from the canoe so that Thunder could strike it.  But the lightning totally missed the canoe and destroyed the barri instead.  I overheard the Chief and the Speaker talking with each other.  They believed that Joseph used his medicine, the medals in other words, and steered the lightning to the barri.  That’s when the confusion took over and we escaped.”


Victoria, ever the news sleuth, said, “Look.  Something else is going on here.  I know that the Taiama people demand absolute loyalty from Mokele.  I ask myself, why was the Wunde of Taiama in Mokele?  Probably not because you two and Joseph were expected.  Too little warning for that.  More likely there was suspicion that the chief had shifted his loyalty from Taiama to some other power or group.  You’ve reported on things you saw.  But I think there’s another factor.  Something unseen.  The other factor is the roiling of the waters.  Do you think I’m right?  And if I am right, what is that force?”


Joseph interjected, “Victoria, when we met in Shenge a few days ago, you asked if you could be helpful to us in the Search.  You’re helpful today by prompting us to think of all possibilities.  You and Timothy know the hinterland, but I know next to nothing about it, and there’s so much to learn, so quickly it seems.  I know we’re in deep waters.  I’m in over my head.  I need you to keep asking your good questions!  And if you get any new information, for heaven’s sake pass it along.  Undoubtedly, you’ll pick up some news.  I understand that there’s something called a ‘hinterland telegraph?’”


She replied, “Yes, and I’m sure that I’ll hear much about this day’s events.  But will what I might hear be reliable?  That’s always the major question.  I do have ways of sifting information from misinformation.  I have to, because I get both information and disinformation.   But meantime, Joseph, are your travels reportable?  I need a story of course.  Do I have your permission?”


“Not a problem to report what we’ve told you, Victoria,” Joseph replied.  “But I do ask that you don’t hint of any future plans we might employ in this Search.  If the hinterland ‘telegraph’ brings you information that we were frightened off and fled to Shenge, never to return, that might be helpful to me, actually.  You’re in a bind, here, aren’t you, Victoria?  You’re a part of the Search, but you’re also reporting on it.  Use your judgement.  Exercise restraint now.  You’ll get a better, bigger story later.  I’m sure of that, and you can tell that to your editor.”

He continued speaking to both Victoria and Timothy, “Outcome so far:  we had to retreat today but we did hit a nerve.  We’ll waste some time in retreat, maybe, but I think that we were close to the target.  Although our diversionary tactics seemed to have failed, our team is together still, and we have Chief Caulker on our side.  We need to develop a strategy for the next steps.  We must close in on any evidence of Sengbe.  What do you two recommend?”


Timothy was first to respond.  “You and I, Pa, we must hurry back to Shenge to brief the Chief and Ma Gomer.  I have another idea too.  There’s a trader in the Bumpe River who can help us.  Freddie by name.  Remember him, Victoria?”  

“Absolutely,” she replied immediately.  “That’s a wonderful suggestion.  He totally understands lower Mendeland and he can be trusted.”


“Great.  So we’ll meet with this Freddie to get his ideas,” Joseph said.  “And Mary will have some suggestions too.  Victoria, you’ll stay here in Bonthe and pass along any helpful information that comes down the river.  Stay alert, both of you.  I’m sure the opposition will be active and watching our every move.”


Timothy walked Victoria through the night to her apartment. They walked slowly, taking detours to prolong the pleasure of their precious time alone.  


About the time the team broke off their meeting in Bonthe, the five top leaders of the reptilian society met in an emergency secret conclave for the second time in two days.  Once again, the head of the society indicated the urgency of the meeting.  “I am updating you.  Today, two supposed traders came up the River Jong, headed to Mokele to buy produce.  But I received a message from a friend in Bonthe that these ‘traders’ had stayed overnight in the mission guest house in that town.  So, I guessed, they must be missionaries too, disguised for some reason as traders.  I reported this to the Mokele chief.”


“I then stayed in Mokele town and watched as the missionaries entered the town.  The Chief emptied out the town in order to give the missionaries a lightning strike, if you follow me.  However, the Thunder failed.  It did not deter the missionaries, and once they were in Mokele, the lightning struck but also failed to hit their canoe.  Instead, it destroyed the town barri!  The missionaries escaped and paddled back downstream and are probably in Bonthe by now.”


“Thunder has never been defeated like this before.  How could Thunder have failed this time?  We must answer the question quickly, or possibly lose our grip on our people if they believe they see stronger medicine.  Does the missionary have great control over energy?  He maybe possesses an extreme gris gris of some kind.  No previous missionary had a gris gris.  However, this man is different--he is black.  Someone saw him, and his two men also, wearing shiny medals with an image of a white man, in a dress like a country cloth, bigger than a house in the sky, rising over a large building like a colonial office.  This white man, whoever he might be, is his power.  What will he do next?  What are we to do to defend our society?”


“First,” said a middle-aged man, “do we know that he, the missionary, do we know that he is aware of us?  Is he our enemy, or are we just imagining that he is our enemy?”


“If he has greater control over energy, he is our enemy,” replied the first man.  “We will lose our power if the people believe there’s a greater power.”


“Well, did our comrades frighten his wife when they displayed their power days ago at Shenge?” asked another.


“There’s no evidence that she paid any attention to our men at all.  No call for help, no messenger leaving the house.  True, she did meet with Chief Caulker the next morning.  That’s routine, and we have no information about their discussion.  Caulker, of course, won’t tell us what went on and there is no use asking.”


“Is the missionary planning to return to Mokele?” asked a helper.

“Well, what do you think?” the older leader retorted.  “This is my guess, personally.  The missionary’s motive is to extend his influence into Mende-land.  It would take five days to walk from Shenge to Taiama.  Even more with a headload.  It takes only two days by boat to Mokele, and a day’s march to Taiama from there.  The missionary’s goal, I think, is to extend influence through Mokele, and if he succeeds, he brings the British with him, and that is the end of our society.”


“Then,” said another, “we must do everything necessary--everything possible--to deter him.”


“Very well, then.  If you are all committed, I have made plans.  The next time we see the missionary in our territory will be the last time anyone sees him at all.   

      . .


“Goodbye, bustling Bonthe,” Timothy said the next day, gesturing grandly with his right hand while holding to the mast with his left hand.  Joseph steered African Brother away from Government wharf, heading back to Shenge.  Timothy pointed Joseph to look at fishermen steering their canoes out toward deeper waters, trading vessels setting out to deliver goods up-country, and a coastal vessel en route from Monrovia to Freetown.  The bustle gave the impression of great industry.


Joseph and Timothy had hours of leisurely conversation as the African Brother sailed up the African coastline in a northerly direction.  A steady breeze and the energetic paddling of the four Kru men moved the small boat along.  Joseph used the time to question Timothy about Mende secret societies and beliefs.  As Timothy unfolded layers or lore, Joseph got the impression that Timothy himself might be a member of one or more secret societies.  However, Timothy volunteered nothing along those lines and Joseph decided not to ask.


Timothy, however, seemed more than willing to explain the Mende idea of energy, or halei.  “Yes, the Mende people believe in God,” Timothy assured Joseph, “but God above, according to Mende wisdom, is a real pool of energy, a spiritual energy that stretches over earth and sky.  Every person has some bit of this energy, or ‘medicine’.  Good medicine? Yes!  If you have good ‘medicine,’ you might use it to control and direct energy for your own purpose.  Our paddler yesterday referred to your Jesus medal as medicine--the strongest he’d ever seen.  Everyone wants a stronger medicine.  Secret societies control the strongest medicines, and the price is high.  But you may have a stronger medicine still.  That’s what people are thinking.”


Joseph, trying to get his practical mind around this new idea, responded, “I believe in spiritual energy.  The Spirit of God is energy.  In the Bible I read that the Spirit broods over the void, even before the creation of earth.  It’s not that different, is it?  And Christians pray to God to use divine energy--for healing, for comfort, for rain if there’s drought, for any variety of things, but the prayer, of course, must coincide with Jesus’ will.”


“There’s the difference,” Timothy replied.  “Halei can be used for any purpose that the practitioner may hold, whether selfish or not, good or not good.”


“I can’t say how yet” mused Joseph, “but somehow this helps me feel that we’re close to finding what we’re searching for.  So far, you’ve helped me see how the Jesus medal could be a medicine.  I now pray that the intimidating powers that concern this search become evident soon.”


“Joseph, my teacher to me, be careful always what you pray for.  Because it may come true,” Timothy cautioned.


Out over the sea, the sun was setting as the African Brother was inching up to the Shenge waterside and Joseph was joyfully waving to his relieved wife.  Mary gestured back by rubbing her chin, smiling with joy at their safe return.


Timothy and crew unloaded the boat and carried the goods to Gomers’ house.  As Mary and Joseph ate their rice and stew, Mary described her frightening encounter with the night visitors, as well as how the Chief had interpreted the event.


“Mary, I’m so shocked and sorry that you had to go through all of this,” Joseph said.  “I’m truly sorry that I was gone when it happened.”


“Oh pshaw, Joseph,” she replied.   “We both planned for your journey and we both knew you had to take it.  You were the brave one, not me.  Tell me more about what you learned in Bonthe.”


“Well, Timothy and Victoria were wonderful,” Joseph reported.  “What a team!   Timothy and I traveled up a river in a canoe in the direction of Taiama.  I’ve never seen such dense brush in my life, not even in Louisiana swamps.  The riverbanks were coated with deep, deep mud.  We saw a few alligators, but the big payoff was watching the monkeys, playing and chatting in the cotton trees high above the jungle floor.”  


He related the encounters at Mokele with the Chief, the Thunder and the Wunde warriors.  “Fortunately, Timothy had a cutlass with him.  I had none.  But the next time I go out there, if I do, I think I need to take a weapon too.  It’s dangerous out there.  There is something deep under the surface of the hinterland, Mary, like a gravelly riverbank hidden by layers of mud.  This hidden something relates to secret societies.  Since they’re secret, you and I may never learn about the hidden side.  Timothy does know some of it, though, and I’ll bet that Chief Caulker knows too.”


“Is this ‘something’ evil?” she asked


“Well, I don’t know that it’s actually evil.  I do know it’s definitely powerful, though.  It’s a belief that people can wield or use a spiritual energy.  Evil people can use it for their own ends by what people call a ‘medicine.’  I’m going to say it can be used for nefarious ends, though the energy itself seems neutral.”


“Well, I will tell you,” Mary said, “that Pa Williams has a few thoughts about ‘medicine’ and secret societies.  He actually lives in some fear of the ‘natives,’ as he calls them, and of their powers.  And he has had a lot of experience out here in the bush.  We should consult with him on this.”


Joseph agreed. “Yes, from what I’ve seen so far, it’s important to respect these powers and their hold over the people, especially until we know more,” Joseph responded.  “Maybe your night visitors believe they have some special control of spiritual energy, or they fear that we have secret power that will break their franchise.  I think our search for Sengbe is somehow hidden beneath the secrets of some tribal society we don’t yet understand.”  


He continued, “Here’s how the energy worked in Mokele. Timothy and the crewman were afraid that a particular medicine--Thunder--was being worked against us.  To counteract their fear, I handed them the little tin mission society medals--the ones with the pictures of Jesus.  The medals calmed the crew totally and we proceeded.  The paddler touched his medal and actually told me, ‘Pa you got strong medicine.’  Then, suddenly the lightning struck, hitting not us or the canoe but the town barri!  The chief believed that I had caused lightning to miss its target--which was us--by using the power of these pins!  So now, I have a reputation as a man with very strong medicine.”


Mary pondered, “Well, so be it, then.  I say, use your medicine for all it’s worth.  Are you not denying yourself, taking up your cross, following your Lord?  Yes, you are, so use the tools God gives you.  So much to learn, and to think about.  So little time to think.  Let’s speak with Chief Caulker first thing tomorrow and ask for his wisdom and guidance.”


Joseph said, “And in the meantime, Victoria gave me a copy of the latest edition of African Advocate to give you.  Maybe you want some good bedtime reading.”  They bedded down for the night and Mary read by candlelight.


First thing next morning following breakfast, Joseph met with Chief Caulker in the Queen and Cowboy room and recapped his experiences with Timothy in Mokele.  After Joseph recapped the events, the Chief replied, “A few things are clear.  You have made progress.  You’ve shown that someone--someone out there in the bush--knows what happened to Sengbe.  And that person--or group--is raising all their quills, like a porcupine, to keep you away from the evidence.  So far, you don’t know who or what they are, nor do I.  We can only guess at their motives.”


Continuing, he said, “But, if you wish to continue your search, I support you.  If you reach your goal, it will benefit the entire country. But if you fail, the country, including the chiefdom and the mission, slips backward.  You’ve walked a way down a path toward your goal, and I judge that you cannot now turn around.  It’s important that you reach your goal, and here are some things to know.  Your search is taking you into Mende territory and on into Imperii, home to the most dangerous of secret societies.  I don’t even want to give you their society name because I’m not sure they’re relevant to your search.  Timothy, you must be aware of the society?  You grew up down there.”


“I have some knowledge of them, Sir”, Timothy said.


“Well then,” the Chief continued, “you keep Joseph and Mary from stumbling into trouble with the society.  Joseph, keep this in mind:  you did hit a hot spot at Mokele.  That town is located very near to the border between lower Mende and Imperii.  Go back to it, but beware:  many a trader has run into trouble in that area, and there are constant wars.  The last thing I need is to have to rescue you from entrapment in Imperii.  Surprise your opposition.  Use a different route into Mokele the next time.”


Joseph asked, “Someone suggested that I meet with Freddy Brandenburg to get information about the area.  Is that a good idea?”


“Yes, I think so,” the Chief replied.  “Of course.  You should meet with Freddy. He’s our trader in Bumpe.  He’s a friend and he knows all the tricks and tracks.  But I think speed is important.  You must do your work before your opposition, whatever it is, knows your goal and organizes to stop you.  I’ll do whatever I can to provide cover.”


While Joseph remained with the chief, Timothy excused himself to find food.  As he walked from vendor to vendor, searching for good fruit, rice and fish, one of the vendors called to him in Sherbro, “Come back in here, I show you something.”  Timothy followed the woman trader, who led him behind a bush.  There, a man addressed Timothy in Mende, “My Mende son, the elders in Taiama want to know about the American missionary.  You work for him.  He probed up the River Jong toward Taiama.  What does he want?”


Surprised, Timothy demanded, “Who are you?  Who sent you?”


“I am a trader,” he replied, without giving his name.  “I know your family.  The Paramount Chief of Taiama chiefdom is asking this question.”


“Well, about Joseph,” Timothy replied, “you can tell the chief that Rev. Joseph Gomer prays to the Christian God to bless all the people of Sierra Leone.  But will he ever come to Taiama?  I cannot answer that for sure, but I think he would be delighted to be invited.  I know he thinks that the country will be stronger if the bush wars cease.  I think he wants this one thing right now:  he wants to find any evidence of Sengbe Pieh, who is the missionary’s hero.  I can say no more.  Except this:  you can tell the chief and elders that the Reverend can be trusted.”


Timothy moved out from behind the bush, feeling fortunate to be walking away from the strange contact and wondering whether he had said more than Joseph would sanction.  


On Saturday, January 28, Joseph and Timothy paddled from Yawry Bay to the estuary of the Bumpe River.  They paddled up the river two miles and found a trade factory.  Joseph observed a large, thatched building housing a general store.  A large sign provided a name: “Berlinsche Gesellschaft.”  Walking up the slope to the store, he and Timothy greeted several people, some arriving with hampers of produce to sell to the trader, others leaving with goods they’d purchased from him.  Entering the store, they found a gaunt, middle-aged white man, bearded with thinning light hair, the frayed cuffs of his dark pants hanging over jungle boots.


“Welcome to Berlin,” Freddie the trader said.  “I’ve been expecting you.  Chief sent a messenger yesterday to alert me of your intent to visit.  What can I get for you?”


Timothy maintained his guise of purchasing agent and generated a shopping list, which Freddy filled promptly.


“Now, can I invite you in for a drink?” Freddy asked.


“Of course,” Joseph responded.  As they entered the sitting room, he said, “But I need drink water only.”


“Well, you two can have Wasser and I’ll have my kirsch-Wasser,” Freddy volunteered.  “I must be fortified for the rest of the day.”  In a snap of time, a servant brought out two bottles, one containing plain water and the other with alcohol for Freddy.


“We are on a mission to find evidence of Sengbe Pieh,” Joseph began.  “Do you think it’s possible to find such evidence?”


“Of course, I think so.  I’m confident of it.  People sometimes disappear completely, but someone will have a memory or a memento.  Where are you searching?”


“We are looking upcountry from Bonthe, since Sengbe is or was Mende and was last seen at Mo Tappan.  Earlier this week,” Joseph continued, “we attempted to visit Mokele on the River Jong, disguised as traders.  We met strong, strong opposition.”


Freddy countered, “Well, first of all, no use disguising yourself.  You’ll be found out as soon as people hear your speech, anyhow.  And a missionary certainly will have more success than a trader in searching for a mission person.  Missionaries are respected; traders are merely tolerated.  I do think it’s a mistake to approach Mokele a second time by water, though.  You should try the overland route from Mo Tappan.  It’s a well-traveled path.  Do you know the route, Timothy?”


“No, Sir.”


“Then I,” Freddy continued, “can suggest a guide.  You’ll find him at Mo Tappan.  Mo Tappan is a good starting point for you.  From there, you’ll be walking.  You will approach through the forest and be less exposed than on a river in a canoe.”


“Now here is the secret to success.  Go slowly, walk quietly, listen before you talk, greet all you meet.  But above all else, keep your eyes and ears open.  The country is very disturbed.  If you push one domino, they all may fall.  I would be suspicious of any Sherbro and more trusting of Mende people.  The only real stability is further up-country around Taiama.”


“Further,” Freddy said, “You will be successful, Joseph.  You seem to be a modest man, unlikely to be seen as a threat.  Timothy knows the territory and the language.  And by the way, you are aware of the secret societies in Imperii, yes?  Be careful there.  Even you are not immune from their intentions.  And you and I have no way to know who their clandestine agents might be.  Now, as we walk to the landing, no more talk about this search.  Instead, we will discuss only your shopping list and the weather.”


On their trip home, in the canoe and a mile offshore with no other boat in sight, Joseph told Timothy, “My plan is taking shape.  Meet me tomorrow, mid-afternoon, at my house, and go with me for a walk out where we may talk.”





Chapter 8


Daring to Dream



Sunday at about 10 a.m., a schoolboy rang the Shenge church bell; the townspeople responded by filing along the paths from town to mission, eager to see Joseph, now their new man of power, at first hand.  Stories had circulated in the town about his victory over Thunder, at first hand.  Questions had been raised too.  Would Joseph seem larger physically, having trounced Thunder?  Would he do a thing of power, right in church maybe, here in Shenge?


Pa Williams had his own goal for this church service of the new school term.  He asked Mary, “Ma, do you and Joseph--I mean, did you and Joseph--bring a missionary barrel with you from America?”  Williams knew that previous missionaries always had entire barrels of clothing for distribution.  


“Yes, Pa, we did, and we do have clothes in it,” Mary affirmed.  “I’d be guessing you’d like to give clothing today to the children who have enrolled in school.  You can do that.”


As young scholars filed to their seats in church, Mary and Pa Williams distributed shirts or blouses, dresses or pants to each boy and girl scholar--all thirty-five of them.  A new song arose spontaneously and the whole gathering, children and adults, began to chant and sing:


Pa Gomer gonna gi’ me clothes,

Pa Gomer gonna gi’ me clothes,

Pa Gomer gonna gi’ me clothes,

Oh Pa Gomer!


After the singing, Joseph gave a talk on “power,” a new topic for him, and he reached out to every person’s need by saying:  “Each of you has a dream, and you can reach your dream, whatever it is.  To reach your dream, use the energy that God provides.  Not all powers are equal.  The ancestors have power.  The societies have power.  But God’s power is great, and God’s power is good.  Great and good!  Use God’s power and reach your dream.  Even if you fail at first, everything is possible if you love God.  My friends, I am speaking to you, and also to myself.”


Earlier, while searching through the clothing barrel, Mary had found many mission medals.  She gave these to Joseph, and he invited people to file forward to receive one of these medals.  Mary, Pa Williams, Timothy and Joseph welcome each boy and girl, man and woman, by looking them in the eye, pinning a medal on their clothing, laying a hand on their shoulder and praying, “God, give spiritual energy to this, your servant.”


When, finally, all were seated again, Joseph said, “Okay, now you got spiritual energy.  Go and use it for good in your life, your home, your family.  Thanks be to God.”


After the service was dismissed, most of the community remain in the mission yard for the after-church meal.  This custom had quickly evolved into the anticipated highlight of the day.  People had walked in from outlying villages, knowing that that they would not be sent home hungry.  Everyone enjoyed the chance to exchange news and to share impressions of the new man of power in their midst.  


When back at their home, Mary and Joseph reflected on their experiences.  “What have we learned?” they asked each other.  Mary began: “I was amazed at peoples’ reactions when they received the medals.  It was fun to see!”


Joseph agreed.  “Yes, it was great to see, but I gave medals to meet my own needs too.  I’m searching for the energy we will need this week.  I shot to the edge of the target at Mokele last week, but I’m aiming for a more difficult target this week and I hope to hit the bull’s eye, God willing.”  


Just then, Timothy arrived.  The team of three--Mary, Joseph, Timothy--talked briefly about the morning’s events, but Joseph quickly shifted the conversation to planning the next step in the Search.  He proposed that he and Timothy would travel the very next day--Monday--toward Mo Tappan, there to start walking overland for Mokele, and finally return to Bonthe, hopefully by Thursday, and back to Shenge by Friday.  For reasons of stealth, they’d avoid Bonthe while outbound.  To prepare for all eventualities, Joseph would carry a handgun, but only to be used as a last resort if necessary.  The goal of the trip:  to get actual evidence of Sengbe’s current situation, whether dead or alive.  The difficulty, they agreed, would be the long walk through the jungle from Mo Tappan to Mokele.   For direction they’d be dependent upon Freddy Brandenberg’s guidance.  


Later in the day after Timothy had left, Mary said, “Joseph, there’s something we want to read right away.”  She produced an envelope, postmarked December 27 in Dayton, Ohio.  They opened the envelope and unfolded the contents--a letter written by none other than Bishop Flickinger.


December 24, 1870


“Dear Brother and Sister Gomer:


“Grace and peace to you.  


“By the time you receive this letter you will have been in Shenge for several weeks.  I hope and pray that you are well and are settling in.  I remember Shenge; it is a glorious spot.  Thank you for answering the call of God to be in Shenge for our Missionary Society.  I know that this interrupted your fine career in Dayton, Joseph, and that both of you miss your friends and families.  They miss you equally.


Your first objective in Shenge must be to restore the property and the program of the mission.  There are many distractions in Africa, as I learned early on my own trips there.  Do not succumb to distractions.


I know how hard your work is.  To relieve you of some of the difficulty I plan to appoint a new superintendent to take over the management work.  The most likely possibility is an Imperii boy, Daniel Flickinger Wilberforce, whose father I knew in Bonthe in 1853.  Daniel is studying in Dayton now and plans to return to his homeland.  An educated native would be the best superintendent of the overall mission work.  When I make this appointment, it will free you for farm and industrial work.


By separate letter I will convey this information to Chief Caulker.


I bless you as we work together in the Kingdom of God.




Rev. Daniel Flickinger, Bishop



Stunned, Joseph reacted, “Oh my goodness, Mary.  Until just now, I was feeling secure in my job and my position, and you in yours, but now he’s already thinking of replacing me?  If I’d know this before we left America, I would have stayed there.  I feel like I have stumbled over a stone.  This makes my sermon this morning seem naive, almost dishonest.”


Mary agreed.  “A shock, Joseph.  A shock!  I think that if Bishop were here with us, he’d urge us to stay in Shenge and not to search and serve beyond.  But look, he is thousands of miles away.  So, let’s say, between you and me, that building the mission program depends upon completing the Search.  The Search will succeed or fail before the bishop knows about it.”


“I truly feel caught betwixt and between,” Joseph said.  “I need to obey the bishop of course.  But I need to follow my own lights also.  That’s my main obligation, I think.”  He reached as if to tug at his beard and then remembered that he’d shaved it off, so he just fingered his Civil War scar instead.  “I guess I’m with you, Mary.  We’re here, on the spot, and we know that our success in the Search can bring a boon, not just to us but to the mission and to Shenge.  I’m going to Mokele tomorrow as scheduled, knowing what we know now.  If I don’t have a big accident of some kind, we’ll be fine.”


“Good for you, Joseph.  Brave decision,” Mary asserted.


Joseph continued: “And there’s some really good news in the letter for two people we want to boost:  Timothy and Victoria.  Couldn’t we nominate them for the scholarships the bishop mentioned?”


“Let’s wait a bit on that.  We don’t know them well enough.  Give them more chances to prove themselves before we decide,” advised Mary.


Meanwhile in Taiama, fifty miles northeast of Shenge and thirty-five miles east of Mokele, the three most powerful commanders of the Wunde Society met in a secure hut inside one of the eight war fences of the Mende town.  They had come together to resolve a dilemma.


The top grade general, a man in his fifties with a still-powerful physical appearance, said, “As an old man in lower Mende, I see a big change.  For years we’ve protected ourselves by commanding loyalty from the Imperii Sherbro people.  Now, it seems to me, the Imperii Sherbro are making serious mistakes that may affect our defenses.  Three days ago, we saw how weak they’ve become.  When the Black American missionary headed up the river Jong, we sent our warriors to back up the Thunder Man and repulse the missionary.  But the missionary overcame the medicines, and the Lightning nearly struck our own warriors.  What do you two make of this?”


“Here is my thought,” said a second man.  “Already, the missionary has strengthened the Caulker chiefdom.  He has demonstrated his own medicine against the greatest of all medicines.  His medicine is a very strong medicine.  I ask, would we benefit more by siding with the missionary if there’s a struggle between him and the Imperii Sherbro?”


“I agree and want to add another point,” said the third man.  “We know that the Colony wants to stop the activities of Imperii secret societies.  If the missionary sees the secret societies as an enemy and exposes them, he furthers the British cause and removes our main barrier against British invasion.  But if we cooperate with the missionary, the British will see our own Wunde society as a benefit to themselves and not seek to kill the Wunde.  That’s a different way of extending our influence.  We must adjust to the new situation.”


“Well, as you say, times change and yes, we must adjust,” summarized the top commander.  “An observer has gathered some information from the Caulker chiefdom.  He spoke with a son of the Mende people who now works for the missionary.  This young brother of ours was with the missionary in Mokele.  He said that the missionary can be trusted and that he would welcome an invitation to Taiama.  So, I believe that if the missionary does return to our borders, we will not send our warriors to the side of the Imperii people as we did before.  Instead, will make our warriors available to fight on the side of the missionary.  We do not want that missionary as our enemy.  It’s the less dangerous strategy for the Lower Mende.  All agreed?”


Without pause, he continued, “And besides, he informed people in Bonthe that his goal is to rehabilitate the name of Sengbe Pieh.  That is wonderful.  Sengbe was one of us--a Lower Mende, one of our own.  We ineptly and completely lost track of him many years ago.  This missionary may use his own Power to find Sengbe.  If he clears Sengbe’s reputation, he does us a favor by removing a blot from the record of the Mende people.”


“This is a very big change, but the best way ahead for the Lower Mende,” agreed the second and third men.


Meantime, in Bonthe, Victoria wrote in her journal:


“Went to Matins today.  Spent the rest of the morning and afternoon being completely bored.  I wonder what Timothy is doing today.  What am I to do in this small apartment in this boring little seaport town?


“My editor wants stories.  There’s nothing to write about here!  I could wish for a good, solid crime to happen.  That would make a story.  It would sell papers.  Though, I admit, I got a good story last week, the story of the Mokele disturbance.  

So far, the Gomers have been good for my writing work.


“I really do love Timothy.  I think he likes me.  But does he love me?  How can I get him to propose marriage?  He’s so strong physically but so shy personally.  I need more education in order to get out of this little mangrove swamp of a town, but I have to get back home to Freetown to get more education.  I’m in a trap here in Bonthe.


“Timothy and missionary Gomer frighten me in a way.  Gomer knows nothing about our up-country.  If he and Timothy travel into the hinterland again, God only knows what might happen.  I want to warn them not to tempt the fates.  If Timothy dies in the service of the mission, then I’ve lost my only earthly hope of fulfilling my dream.  Yet I do want them to succeed in their search.  If they do succeed, maybe things will open up for Timothy and me.


“I had a dream last night.  That the Queen invited me and my knight to a ball at her Palace in London.  My knight was a Mende, but he looked and acted like the best of the Creoles.  Dreams do come true when the dance starts.  I think the dance is about to begin for me.”






Chapter 9


The Silenced Ones



When dawn broke on Monday, Joseph and Timothy were back on board the African Brother, casting off from Shenge once again to sail toward Bonthe and beyond.  Joseph was worried about the possible dangers of the trip--he wasn’t truly pessimistic, but he was definitely cautious.  He remained on the alert as they swept across Yawry Bay.  As they were by-passing Bonthe on the right, love-lorn Timothy looked longingly in the direction of Bonthe and Victoria.  He said to himself, “Sorry.  Not today.  Sometime soon.”


On the way to the River Bum and the Mo Tappan station, they sailed several miles south-westerly along the Bum Kittam waterway in order to avoid getting lost among the islands, waterways and mangroves.  Joseph memorized landmarks to avoid any confusion on the return trip.  To the right of the channel, they saw the long, wooded sand spit named Turner’s Peninsula.  On their left they saw low-lying mainland, fringed with mangroves.  The low waters of the dry season challenged the crew, who used enormous caution to avoid submerged logs, spit, and bars.  


After turning into the river Bum and following it into the interior, they enjoyed a free ride on a rising tide.  The afternoon sun beamed down on the high canopy.  The trees shed a luminous green glow.


“Men, the trees clap their hands in joy before the Lord,” Joseph called out.


“Yes, Pa, dat dey do,” replied a crewman.  “Dat dey do.”


All six of them saw the nostrils, eyes and ears of a couple of nearly submerged hippopotamuses lazily bobbing in a large pool of river water.  This rare event completely topped their previous sightings of monkeys and birds.

Floating along the languid, blue waters, with walls of green trees to the right and the left, Joseph clarified his goals.  At the Mo Tappan stop, he wanted to meet and greet Dr. Carlisle.  He hoped to obtain information from Carlisle or anyone else about Sengbe and his disappearance from Mo Tappan years ago.  He wanted to scout out Mo Tappan itself, the station he’d heard so much about--the oldest American mission station in Sierra Leone.  Finally, he wanted to get absolutely safe moorage for storing the African Brother during their planned overland journey.


After an hour of tedious rowing up the river they spied a few squared-off buildings on the left bank.  “Of American construction,” judged Joseph.  “That’s got to be Mo Tappan.”  He immediately fell to comparing what he could see of Mo Tappan with what one would see approaching Shenge by boat.  Approaching Shenge, a traveler would see fishing canoes, boatmen and women fish traders at work on the beach, and enjoy the sight of children in beach play.  The traveler would see no signs of any missionary presence.  But here at Mo Tappan, the mission totally dominated the scene.  A steam launch, the John Brown, was tethered to a sturdy dock of sawn timbers and planking.  The wooden stairs led up to level land where the buildings of the mission compound sat.  But Joseph could see no sign of an African village.  “Surely, there has to be a village.  Maybe it’s to the rear,” he thought.  He was puzzled but knew that time would tell.


In the afternoon sunshine Joseph saw that a tall, gray, white man was awaiting them at the dock.  This person looked regal, exotic and foreign.  By reputation, Joseph knew him to be Dr. John Carlisle, superintendent at Mo Tappan, the oldest American in Sierra Leone as well as the American who had the longest continuous presence in the country.


After shouted greetings, a wave and final oar strokes, Joseph stepped onto a solid dock.  Dr. Carlisle reached out with a handshake of welcome.  Joseph was delighted to see an American, to hear American English, and simply to grip the hand of a revered colleague.  Carlisle warmly welcomed Joseph and embraced Timothy and Timothy immediately thanked Carlisle for recommending him for employment at the Shenge mission.  “I’m doing so well, there, Sir,” he said, and thanked him again.  


The group of three walked up a slope from the dock to the veranda of the two-storied mission house.  The veranda offered a grand view over the river.  Joseph was able to keep track as men unloaded gifts from Shenge to Mo Tappan, including vegetables, fruits and rice.  Carlisle seemed relieved to receive this abundance and expressed gratitude as men carried each load up the steps from the dock.


Viewed from the approaching boat, the regal Dr. Carlisle had the noble bearing of a learned gentleman suited in white.  But up close now, Joseph realized some carelessness.  The white shirt was rumpled, pants cuffs were frayed, and bursts of gray air erupted from Carlisle’s eyebrows, ears, and even his nose.  Joseph thought, “He seems a bit like a wilted lettuce plant that hasn’t been watered lately.”  


When Carlisle inquired about Mary, Joseph responded, “She’s such a great wife.  She is very well and sends her greetings to you.”  (Joseph thought to himself, “Carlisle really needs his wife.  So regrettable that she succumbed to fever nine years ago.”)


“Ah,” responded Carlisle with satisfaction and relief, “please greet Mary for me.  And how goes your mission work?”

“Quite well! Thank you for asking, Sir,” Joseph stated.  “The farm will begin producing food once the rains begin, the buildings are in repair thanks to Timothy here, and Chief Caulker supports the mission.  We see him and his retinue in church services on Sundays.”


Carlisle enthused, “How encouraging!  As for me, believe me, I’m getting older every day.  I used to be able to handle the heat.  Now I must endure the heat, and my naps are getting longer.”  Joseph thought Carlisle slumped a bit as he continued reciting more health woes.  


“It’s all part of the cycle of life,” Carlisle said in conclusion.  “The young replace the old, and someday I’ll need a replacement here at Mo Tappan.  But not too soon.  I think I can carry on for months or years.”


Joseph, privately admiring Carlisle’s fortitude, then asked: “How have you been able to survive in Sierra Leone for all these years?  Other Americans, it seems, have fled or succumbed to heat and disease.”


“Well,” Carlisle said, “I gleaned some survival lessons from European traders who were living here when I arrived.  They knew what to avoid and how to stay well.  For example, they wisely used mosquito nets.”


“Well, Dr. Carlisle, now that Mary and I have settled in at Shenge, we’ve committed to a quest that I’ve had in mind, to. . .” Joseph began.  


Carlisle intervened with a question:  “A quest?  What sort of quest, son?”


“. . .to find any possible evidence relating to Sengbe Pieh.”


“Sengbe?” queried Carlisle.  “Oh my.  He’s been away without leave for years, you know.  He disappeared into the bush a long time ago, soon after I arrived back here with the freed Amistad prisoners.  Sengbe left among the first wave of my deserters.  The bush just closed around him, and we had no further contact--but I think I heard years ago that he had died, didn’t I?”


“I suppose that you might have heard that.  I’m certainly aware that there are many rumors still.  But Sengbe is a hero to us Black Americans.  That’s why Mary and I want to uncover any evidence at all of Sengbe’s destiny” Joseph replied.


“Well, he was a hero for the rest of us Americans, too, you know,” Carlisle affirmed.  


Joseph continued, “. . .and Mary and I want to dispel the rumor that tarnishes Sengbe’s name--that he became a slave trader himself.  In order to be successful in the mission and realize our own dream I must get to the bottom of the Sengbe mystery.  The rumor of his slave-trading cracks the foundations we are trying to lay.”


“Yes yes, that would discredit our cause,” Carlisle affirmed, “but there is no way to prove or disprove such rumors out here in the bush.  I do not recall hearing such a rumor, and Mo Tapan is a good listening post.  I’m sorry, Joseph, but I believe your cause is a lost one.  Probably there is no evidence to be found; the jungle and the climate quickly destroys evidence of the sort that might help you.”


“Well, what was your dream when you came here in 1841 with the released Amistad prisoners, Dr. Carlisle?” Timothy asked?


“To release the prisoners, to set the captives free.  I was committed to the great abolitionist movement and to ending slavery in America.  I gave up my ministry career in New England to help the Christian Amistad prisoners start a village of free people here in their own land and to act as a light for all of Africa.”


“Did you achieve your dream?” asked Joseph.


“Well, both yes and no,” Dr. Carlisle replied.  “No, because the Christians of the Freedom Village disappeared into the outback like drops of water falling into the ocean.  But yes, because a new generation, including Timothy here, rose up and to carry on the dream.  Personally, I have fulfilled my calling.”


“I thank you for sending Timothy to us at Shenge.  He’s an indispensable right hand for Mary and me,” Joseph acknowledged.


Carlisle then excused himself because the time had come for Joseph and Timothy to walk back into the village to shake hands with the chief of Mo Tappan.  Joseph asked Dr. Carlisle to accompany him, but he replied that he was just too tired to walk to the village.  As they set out alone, Joseph said to Timothy,” It’s good, in a way, that we’re going alone.  We can greet the town chief on our own terms and size up the real estate here as we go.  Some day we may be able to help here.”


The distance from the dock to the back gate of the town, Joseph estimated, was about one quarter of a mile.  A straight, dirt road led from front to back.  Grass and weeds overgrew the surface of the road except for a path down the center.  Similarly, the squared-off design of the large mission property did not stop the African residents from forging narrow foot paths through the grass from one point to another as convenience suggested.


Joseph’s interest in the disrepair that he’d observed led him to think of many quick, small repairs that could be made.   For example, he asked Timothy to straighten up an unhinged entryway door at the dispensary.  Joseph also estimated that the church plus the six houses, a machinery shed, a dispensary and several school buildings would total at least 15,000 square feet.  Mostly, the two men were fascinated by the church building.  “A true bush cathedral,” Joseph said, describing the design for Timothy as New England, featuring a pillared porch and topped with a steeple rising to a high point.  All of the exterior surfaces had succumbed to the destiny of everything in the jungle that was been painted white.  Enormous splotches of gray mold marred the pristine look.  Like the missionary himself, the building was regal viewed from a distance but deteriorating when viewed up close.


The centerpiece of the village was a rectangular plot of ground, resembling a small-town square in New England, planted with tropical vegetation.  Paths in the square came to a focal point in the center of the green.  There, on a foundation of river rock, they saw a monument to the captives of the Amistad.  The symmetry of the square appealed to Joseph’s carpenter instinct for measured order.  


Timothy gestured at the buildings and exulted, “Pa, this is a great mission compound!  Will we build like this in Shenge?  I’d like to learn how to build this way.”


“Yes, we will build in Shenge.  Yes, absolutely”, Joseph promised.  “We will, but with more practical designs.  We should build for durability and efficiency; we’ re not trying to impress the colonials or the Creoles.”


Nearing the back gate of the compound they passed through beds of wilting vegetables and gave an upcountry handshake to a watchman, who told them how to find the town chief.


Upon plunging from the geometrically ordered compound into the irregularity of the village, on the left they noticed several women sitting on bare ground, legs extended before them, cooking over an open fire.  While chickens scattered, children converged to greet and to beg from the newly arrived strangers.  Timothy parted the surging sea of children and the two men walked ahead toward the chief’s compound, a mud-walled house with a substantial veranda.  Overall, the compound was smaller than the Caulker compound in Shenge.  The village was small, too.  Joseph and Timothy counted the houses and multiplied by fifteen persons per house, arriving at a guess of about three hundred inhabitants.  


The chief had been reclining in his hammock, and Joseph and Timothy watched as he shifted to a sitting position to await his visitors.  He tapped the bowl of his pipe on the dried mud railing, spilling smoldering ashes onto the bare dirt floor.  His drooping, twitching left eyelid added to the gravity of his appearance.  He was perhaps the age of, but less disheveled than, Dr. Carlisle.


Timothy greeted him in English and the chief responded by thanking the two for visiting the village.  He himself, he said, had been a mission boy.  He had lived in the home of the very first missionaries to the village.


The chief offered a small bag of rice and an egg to the visitors.  Joseph responded with a similar gift--a  bowl of threshed riced, topped by two fresh chicken eggs.  He also handed over a hen chicken, hunkered down in the stick-built crate in which she’d traveled all the way from Shenge.


The chief beamed a smile as he thanked the two visitors for the gifts.  But when Joseph tried to move the conversation to Sengbe the chief grew quiet and elusive.


“Did you actually know Sengbe Pied,” Joseph asked?


“I know the Amistad captives,” said the chief.  “They all slaves, one-time.  Not a free man among them.  Not all Mende men, either.”


Joseph replied, “But about Sengbe, did. . ..”  


The Chief cut him off:  “They all drifted, Pa,” he said.  After a time, none here; they all walked into the bush.”


Joseph wondered to himself, “Is this happening to me?”  He realized that he was being stonewalled.  But why?  He’d try one more question, he decided.  And, having noticed the chief drifting into Krio English, he decided to follow the example.  “Well, Suh, if you go fo’ search fo’ Sengbe today, which side you go fo’ see?” Joseph asked.


Maybe the shift into Krio helped, or perhaps it was just the audible clucking of the valuable chicken.  For whatever reason, the chief began to talk more freely.  “I deh go to de Motaiya side.  Yass, dat de side to look for Sengbe.  Sengbe left diss side to Motaiya to farm and to trade.  So dat chief who can help you.  You can say to dat chief I sent you.  I am his sub-chief.”


Joseph decided to push a bit further.  “I need a guide.  Will you show me de way to Pa Danny?  Freddie Brandenburg told me to get Pa Danny to guide.”


“You will find Pa Danny on dis side,” and the chief motion to his left.  “Three house away.”


Joseph flicked a victory glance to Timothy.  They rounded off the interview with niceties and left for the nearby house of Pa Danny.  Once there, they easily secured his services as a guide for the next day’s trek.  Joseph just mentioned the name “Freddy Brandenburg,” and it worked magic.


Back at the mission compound, Timothy quickly began to straighten the dispensary door, giving Joseph some time alone with Dr. Carlisle.  While with Carlisle, Joseph spent some time reviewing a regional map of Southern Sierra Leone that he found on a wall in the room.  Prepared by the Colonial Office, it indicated neither a town named Bataiya on the River Bum, nor a town named Mo Tappan.  Mokele did not appear also.  Joseph concluded, “This map is of no use at all in this part of the country.  Probably based on hearsay from traders, but not on actual surveys.  At least the coastline seems accurate, and Bonthe and Shenge are in correct locations.  Therefore, guidance will depend entirely on Pa Danny.”


Soon, the evening darkness fell.  Joseph and his crew gratefully gathered with Dr. Carlisle and a local African pastor for a fine meal of Jollof rice.  Joseph guessed that the cook used the very upland rice he’d gifted earlier in the day.  A few bristles still clung to the goat meat, but the hungry travelers disregarded them and ate ravenously.  Dr. Carlisle president over the feast like a grand patriarch.  His blessing prayer included a request to God to “gird and guide” Joseph in his travels.  He concluded with a flourish, ”And may the blessing of God Almighty be with you as you return to Shenge.  Amen.”  


Joseph decided to disregard the implication that he should just head back home.  After dinner he enjoyed his first tub bath in a long time.  Carlisle had graciously offered his own bathtub for Joseph’s use.  After drying off with a furnished towel, Joseph, feeling warm and relaxed, went to the bed and slid into a deep sleep.





Chapter 10


The Alligator Attack


On Tuesday morning, to isolate themselves from other potential listeners, Joseph and Timothy met alone together at the dock just as dawn broke.  “We’re sound-proofed here, right, Timothy?  We have to decide whether to follow the town chief’s suggestion to travel upriver to Motaiya, or to take Dr. Carlisle’s wish for us to return to Shenge.  Or we could continue on to Mokele.  What is your recommendation?”


“You decide, Pa.  I cannot make a judgment on a matter that is so important to you.”


“Thank you,” Joseph replied.  “I will decide then, and my decision is to continue on overland to Mokele, as we planned earlier, even at the risk of offending Dr. Carlisle.  Did you notice, last night, how reticent he was to discuss Sengbe?  Remember, Carlisle’s the first and only person we’ve contacted who actually knew Sengbe, and he won’t even talk about him?  I feel we were stonewalled by both Dr. Carlisle and the town chief.  It sounds crazy, I know.  But there’s more here than meets the eye.  They appear to be cooperating, and I think they are trying to hide something.  They’re putting up a smokescreen.  That’s my guess.  And whatever they are hiding is probably what we are trying to find:  evidence of Sengbe.  Therefore, we must march on today.”


“Your explanation makes sense,” Timothy responded.  “Maybe Dr. Carlisle is intimidated, as you say.  I’m with you.  Let’s continue.  So how do you want to proceed with packing, safe keeping the boat, and getting out of town?”


“I want to be straightforward here with Carlisle,” Joseph said.  “I’ll explain our plan to him.  We have good reason to explain nothing at all to the chief, but we do need to tell Pa Danny that we’d like to march by mid-morning.  You find him and alert him please.  Let’s be very public about this and assemble our goods and our group on the grass in the mission compound.  You put the boat into the hands of two of the Kru men for safe-keeping, and the two other men will march with us.  You choose, Timothy, as to who stays here and who accompanies us.”


“Consider it done, Pa.”


At about 10:00 that morning the party gathered.  Joseph stated the plan of travel and assigned roles.  “You two Kru sailors, this time you will walk with us and carry these lightly loaded hampers, which contain food and water.  Pa Danny, you will walk at the front of the line.  And if you need a messenger to precede us to announce our arrival in villages along the path, I’ll hire the man you select.  Timothy, you will follow Pa Danny and I’ll follow you.  The other two Kru sailors, you will bring up the rear.  I’m most concerned about them because I know that leopards attack from the back.  So, the Kru will have the highest risk.  Pa Danny, you, too, will be at risk up.  You’ll be very alert to risk of snakes.  Scour the trail-side with your eyes.  Everyone must be alert and you notify me if you see any usual thing.  Danny, you have your cutlass and shotgun; Timothy carries the cutlass.  I have a weapon I can use if it becomes necessary to defend us against man or beast.”  


Joseph continued, “Moment by moment, we will follow Pa Danny’s directions.  I retain the right to issue the final order.  Does everyone understand and agree?”  All agreed.  


“Good.  Now, I’ve told Dr. Carlisle that we must follow the commitments we’ve already made to Chief Caulker and Freddy Brandenburg to march to Mokele today.  Freddy is expecting us to return in two to three days.  If we do not return by the third day, he’ll send to Bonthe and request help for us.”


Pa Danny then instructed, “Pick up your loads, men.  Let’s step out.”


The group began to march.  After an hour on a very narrow path through dense forest they reached the first village.  Small and unfenced, it was a mere wide spot on the trail.  However, it boasted a small palaver house, a clump of banana trees, a streamside, and about a dozen small, thatched huts overhung by tall cottonwood trees.  Next to the forest was a small platform mounted on four poles.  A bowl, with rice and a green gin bottle rested on the platform.  Joseph asked about it.  “For the ancestors,” the chief said.  He looked old and tired, and about half of his teeth were missing.


Learning that Joseph was a missionary, the chief said, we are Christians.  Give us a lesson, Pa.’  The chief gathered a few people who sat on logs around the village fire pit where Joseph provided a few words of encouraged to them and gave Timothy a chance to make some comments.  The chief then gravely expressed thanks for the “word from God.”


The first village visit set a pattern that continued from one village to the next at about one-hour intervals.  After they’d seen several similar villages, Joseph said to Timothy, “I have great respect for these people, living here in the deep forest with good and bad spirits all about.  How do they manage?”


“They must live their lives while they are young, Pa,” Timothy explained.  “That old chief in the first village was probably forty years sold.  People in the villages die young.”


“All the more reason that we must find a way to extend the work to many villages beyond Shenge.  I really want to help these people with health and education.”


They trudged on, and by late afternoon Pa Danny said, “Pa Caulker, we will not reach Mokele this day.  If we continue, we will arrive at night.  Or we could spend the night along the trail and arrive at Mokele tomorrow morning.  What do you want to do?”


Joseph turned to Timothy, “Here’s my idea.  We don’t want to arrive at Mokele at night.  So I suggest that we stop at the next village for the night.  What do you think?”


“We can do that if the next village chief can provide a house for us and food.  Otherwise, we will have a palaver with our Kru men.  Pa Danny, can you describe the next village?”, Timothy asked.


Pa Danny answered, “We are on the road to Mokele, and the next village is the last large village before Mokele.  It is Jerra, a Sherbro village.  I know the chief can provide a house, and I can send our messenger ahead to ask for food.  The village has a stream with good, clear water and a clean waterside.”


“Decision made to stay at the next village, then,” Joseph told Pa Danny.


When they actually reached Jerra, Joseph compared it to other villages he’d seen.  “This is larger than we expected, right, Timothy?  Quite a few huts, a bigger barri.  What’s that enclosure we passed on the way into town?  The one with the fence woven and tree and palm branches.”


“It’s a bigger town for sure.  I don’t know for certain what that enclosure would be,” Timothy said.  He seemed puzzled.  “It looks a bit like a Poor or Bundu society bush, but it’s better built, stronger constructed than I’ve seen until now.  Almost as if it’s fortified.  I will have to ask.”


The town chief came out to greet Joseph and “dashed” with rice and an egg.  In turn and per custom, Joseph “dashed” the chief with oranges and two eggs.  All smiled.  Pa Danny said the chief would provide a house and food, so the Shenge party went to view the available hut.  Round, with thatched roof and mud-plastered walls, it provided two raised earthen platforms to serve for sleeping.  Joseph and Timothy laid their goods on the beds.  The other men would sleep inside too, but on raffia mats.  A door, woven of wooden sticks, would keep out larger animals like chicks wandering about the yard as well as goats.


No sooner had Joseph and party begun to relax than the chief’s son delivered a message that a devil would dance for them.  The devil turned out to be a female entertainment devil.  Timothy explained, “This word ‘devil’ is Englishman’s word.  In African languages, the meaning is closer to ‘spirit.’  These ‘devils’ are not evil, but some do inflict harm on occasion.  All of the require respect.  The ‘devil’ dancing right now is a comedian.”   


The devil emerged from an opening between huts at the far end of the village, swaying and moving in irregular steps toward Joseph’s party.  The huge raffia skirt covered her from neck to ankle.  The large black mask portrayed a female face, with pouting eyes, flaring nose and bulging lips, outlined in cowrie shells.  In front of the men’s overnight house the devil sank on the ground and uttered guttural sound.  Next, it stood and approached a bit closer.  Timothy nudged Joseph to give a coin.  When the devil’s attendant saw Joseph reach into his pocket, she extended her hand to receive the dash.


“I’ve never seen dancing like this,” Joseph said.  “It’s totally different than European dancing--waltz or ballet.  I’m more familiar with what we Americans call square dancing, and there’s just no resemblance.”


“Well, she was good, for sure,” Timothy said.  “This is the sort of dancer you can expect to see in any village at festive times, like harvest or full moon or Christmas.  Harmless and fun.  You could invite such a dancer to entertain at the Sunday afternoon church meal and everyone would love you for it.”


“I’ll keep that in mind for the first visit by my bishop, and I’ll say that it was your idea, Timothy,” Joseph promised.


After the dance, the chief’s son led the visitors to the barri for a meal.  Women brought out tin plates heaped with steaming country rice, topped with a hot chicken and meat stew.  Men supplied a few gourds of palm wine.  Joseph cautioned his men not to drink more than a polite swallow or two.  Given their mission, it was more important to stay alert than to relax and enjoy themselves.


An older man--the oldest in the village, joined the group.  He was distinguished by a smoking pipe hanging out of his toothless mouth.  “Native tobacco,” Timothy explained.


The chief introduced this old man as the village priest and said he’d pray for Joseph’s party.  It made Joseph a bit uncomfortable that the man prayed to the village ancestors, not to God.  But the man’s presence offered Joseph his first chance ever to speak to a village priest.  Joseph thanked him for the prayer and asked, “Why do you pray to the ancestors but not to God?”


The man used a translator to say, “the ancestors are close to us.  We remember them by name.  They live in the trees and bushes around the village.  If we feed them, they protect us.  If we don’t feed them, they punish us.  God is far away.  It is better to pray to the ancestors.”


Joseph had an answer.  “I see that you do believe in God but think he’s far away.  But the man, Jesus, came to show God to us, right?  If you believe that, then you can understand what God is like as reflected in Jesus.  Does that help?”


“Yes, Pa, thank you for remember Jesus.  Show us God.”


“Joseph, you could offer to pray to God for the village now,” Timothy suggested.


Joseph, then, did pray, asking God’s blessing on the old man, the chief, and the entire village. Devout silence prevailed.


Back at the guest hut, Joseph stretched out for sleep.  The instant the men blew out the lantern, Joseph heard scurrying noises.  “Rats,” Timothy told him.  “They are playing.  They won’t hurt you,” he said.  Joseph slept.


The next morning, Joseph rose at dawn when the rooster crowed.  He opened the creaky door and let in the dim light that filtered down to the forest village through the canopy leaves high above.  There was very little movement in the village and Joseph could not help but watch a young girl, perhaps a five-year-old, barefoot and wearing a faded cotton dress (probably from the U.S. via a missionary barrel at Mo Tappan), set out for the stream with an empty water bucket on her head.


Joseph decided to follow her.  The girl saw him but just continued on her way.  She continued to her destination by walking down the village’s main path, the same path that Joseph’s group planned to follow later in the day.  The entire walk took less the five minutes because the stream was so close to the village.  Joseph saw that the water level was very low.  Where the stream ran over a gravel bar, even a child could ford from one side to the other.  Immediately thereafter, though, the stream widened, deepening into a dark, deep pool.  “I would fish right there in the pool; it would offer a spot for the fish to hide from the birds,” Joseph thought.


The girl wended her way toward the waterside and, approaching it, she slowed down abruptly and gazed intently, as it trying to decipher some object she could not recognize.  As she crept forward carefully, suddenly a very large animal erupted from the pool.  Water and spray flew.  The girl froze in place, then screamed.  Huge jaws opened.  Joseph recognized the animal and yelled at the top of his voice, “Alligator! Help!”   The huge jaws opened, and a human hand shot out and grabbed the girl’s ankle.  Joseph grabbed her arms and pulled her toward land, but the alligator dragged her just as strongly toward the water.  Then Joseph heard thunderous steps approach from behind.  It was Timothy, shirtless, wielding his long machete in his right hand.  Timothy dove onto the alligator’s back and struck it several hard blows before the human hand released its grip on the girl’s ankle.  Joseph and the girl fell backward onto the riverbank.


The alligator turned and, with Timothy on its back, it headed slowly for deeper water.  Joseph dived for its tail to help Timothy.  As they slowed the huge thing’s escape, its back popped open like a cargo door.  A man was inside the contraption; he tensed up, planning to spring away.  However, Timothy tackled him, and Joseph was able to control the man’s right hand, important because it was armed with three razor-sharp blades like long fingernails.


The girl ran at full speed for the village while Timothy and Joseph sought to subdue the man, still struggling to escape.  Timothy hit him hard on the top of his head with the butt end of his machete.  The desperado sank in the water.


“Don’t let him get away, Timothy,” Joseph yelled.  “Men from the village are running to help us.”


Unfortunately, Joseph was mistaken.  The five village men were running to rescue the alligator man from the missionaries.  They tackled Joseph and Timothy still in the pool.  They shoved the two under water, intending to drown them.


Suddenly, for some reason, the assailants released their holds.  Joseph and Timothy surfaced to see their would-be captors fleeing.  The forest on both sides of the stream exploded with near-naked black men painted head-to-toe with white spots.  They wielded machetes, clubs and swords.  “Wunde men,” Timothy yelled.


The alligator operator dashed up the path toward the town center, then through it, with the Wunde team in hot pursuit.  The escapees had no choice but to duck into a fortified enclosure, the last building in the village.  Once past this point, they’d be in the forest where they could never hope to match the speed and ability of the Wunde warriors.  In the enclosure, however, they lost all chance of escape, with Wunde men surrounding them on all sides.


A cloud then appeared abruptly in the morning light.  Joseph recognized it at once: “Thunder medicine, again,” he said.  As he and Timothy watched, the cloud ballooned to epic size.  Suddenly a bolt of lightning, accompanied by a thunderclap, scored a direct hit on the tinder-dry thatched roof of the hut.  Screams, shout, and moans provided evidence of a high mortality rate within.


Timothy shouted “T-h-u-n-d-e-r” with a primal force that Joseph had never heard before.  “T-h-u-n-d-e-r!”  Crackling fire rose from the hut immediately, and a cloud of black smoke appeared above.  The roof burned with intense heat.  The woven wood and palm frond wall exploded into flame.  


“I can’t see how anyone could survive that,” Joseph said to Timothy.


The town chief was nowhere to be seen but one of his wives sent other women get buckets of water.  They threw their water on the burning wall and the smoke eventually turned white.  Water and ash mixed with soil flowed down through the village the village and on toward the stream.   Children and women gathered to stare.


Suddenly, out of the burning, a man staggered, holding a large woven raffia basket.  Joseph said, “The town chief!”  Joseph knew immediately that the chief was seriously burned and stricken with smoke inhalation.  As the struggled to stay alive, Joseph rushed forward, supported him and guided him to a clean place where he could lie down.  Between gasps and coughs, the chief said in Sherbro, “In this. . .basket. . .is. . .Sengbe. . .Pieh.”  Then he died, joining his previously deceased brothers in their long voyage over the great river to the land of the ancestors.


Joseph closed the man’s eyes, firmly grabbed the bag and looked around.  The Wunde men had already melted back into the forest.  Wailing women and frightened children turned their backs and walked quickly to their huts.  Pa Danny and the crew rushed to assemble with their equipment, readying themselves for the walk back to Mo Tappan.


To Timothy, Joseph said quietly, “I see now what our chief meant by ‘dangerous secret societies.’  You and I are lucky to be alive.  Thanks be to God for his care.  We’ve nearly reached our goal.”


Timothy pointed up, “Look, Pa.  Above that cotton tree.  A snake eagle.  It’s a good omen among we, the Mende people.”


Chapter 11


Basket of Bones



Joseph and Timothy opened the basket which contained bones, not in the form of a human skeleton but rather broken into bits.  Joints and small sections of long bones seemed like bits of a crossword puzzle.  The bones were whitened, as if they’d been bleached in the sun.  The two men repackaged the bones in a stout white bag for transport.


Pa Danny instructed the team to take up their loads.  He then led them through Jerra town, past the still-smoking ruins of the alligator society lodge and then into the forest, following the path toward Mo Tappan.  The mood of the African village behind Mo Tappan had already reached a high state of exuberance when Joseph’s crew filed out of the forest in late afternoon.  Dr. Carlisle and the town chief had somehow heard the news and were standing at the head of a long line of townspeople--both children and adults--to greet the heroes.  As the eight hikers filed past, they were greeted with hearty handshakes by Carlisle, the chief and every single townsperson.  


As they walked along, Joseph asked, “News travels faster than people in the forest, doesn’t it, Timothy?”  They continued on through the mission gate to the mission house itself, accompanied by palm-waving, dancing celebrants.  Joseph was intent on having a long conversation with Dr. Carlisle.  He walked directly onto the private veranda overlooking the river Bumpe while Timothy handled the final business and repacking tasks.


Carlisle was waiting.  Joseph greeted him and said, “You’ve probably heard about the alligator attack, Dr. Carlisle.  I’d like to get your opinion about it, but first, please let me offer mine.  Early this morning I was lured to the waterside by a little girl.  There, a human alligator grabbed her, but I believe the ultimate goal was to kill me, not her.  The girl baited me to the human alligator.  However, Timothy joined the struggle, and together we overpowered and exposed the assailant.  But immediately, Timothy and I were overpowered by strong men who tried to drown us.  But, as they held us down under water, Wunde warriors miraculously jumped into action and saved our skins.


“Now, Dr. Carlisle, I’ve had time to consider the bag containing Sengbe’s remains--his bones, I mean.  Today, I was given this bag of bones by the master of the Alligator Society as his last act.  After he explained the bag’s contents he just died in my arms.  I closed his eyes in death.  I’m grateful for the bag because it contains evidence of Sengbe’s disappearance.  Is it possible that Sengbe was a victim of the human alligator society at Jerra?  Surely, they had learned of his life in America and of his status as a hero and a big man.  The Society requires each initiate to supply a human victim.  Do you think the society directed an initiate to cannibalize Sengbe Pieh as a victim?  Did the society preserve Sengbe’s remains to create a fetish or strengthen a medicine?”


Carlisle sighed.  “Joseph, I must confess that I’ve known the fate of Sengbe all these years.  You see, the Alligator Society is worse than the Mafia.  They threatened and bullied me to keep quiet about what I knew.  They gave me a very difficult choice between giving them the silence they demanded versus witnessing the destruction of the mission property.  I chose the easy path.  One might say that I chose the low road.”


“But” he continued, “because of what happened this morning, I’m now free to tell you what I do know.  Sengbe returned to Africa as leader of the Amistad group.  He instantly enjoyed the status of a hero here in the hinterland because he had led the rebellion of prisoners on the Amistad.  He had a reputation as a fearless leader--a fighter who could prevail against all.  He spoke English and knew the outside world.  His mistake, though, was to underestimate the barriers he would have to break to get back home once he’d left Mo Tappan.  Yes, they killed him at Jerra and left no trace.  They gave the convenient excuse that he’d been killed by an alligator.  He disappeared for a hideous purpose: to feed the medicines of the Alligator Society.  Their formula is simple:  the stronger the victim, the more powerful their medicine and the more easily they can rule through fear.  Their goal is control over people through total fear.  Because they are so ruthless, I had to be prudent and hide this information.”


Carlisle continued, “They killed and cannibalized Sengbe years ago.  Today, they tried to murder you ritually, also.  Thanks be to God, both you and Timothy are safe.  You could have disappeared like Sengbe did.  That is what I’ve feared for myself all these years.  If I have caused you trouble, or if I have contributed to the defamation of Sengbe, I ask for forgiveness.”  He exhaled, as if exhausted from years of not telling all the truth.  He held his head in both of his hands, covering his face.


“Dr. Carlisle, Sir, I do understand, and so very well.”  Joseph comforted him: “You are out here all alone, with no police and no armed protection at all.  You chose what you felt was the least harmful way.    We all benefit from hindsight; we often learn where we err in retrospect.  I have made such errors and have learned that the universe forgives.  I learned that I could forgive myself and that God forgives me.  There is time for a new start.  You are a marvelous person, Dr. Carlisle.  I appreciate what you’ve said today.  And Sengbe? He will be restored to his rightful place as hero of the hinterland.”


“In celebration of victory,” Joseph continued, “there is great joy.  But today I am both sad and joyful.  I mourn the death of the able men of the Alligator Society, even though they walked intentionally in the ways of death themselves.  Any death is sad.  Although I did not personally cause their death and someone else hired the Thunder man who struck them, it did happen because I searched.  I grieve for the families of the men who died, and for the village of Jerra.  We must reach out to the families in that village.  That must be your responsibility, if you will, since you are located so close to Jerra.”


Dr. Carlisle provided Joseph and Timothy with a second night of lodging, a good meal, another warm bath for each, and separate beds furnished with mosquito netting.  The two searchers slept soundly.



Next day, as the sun rose and illuminated the lush forest foliage along the River Bum, Joseph and Timothy cast off for Bonthe.  Timothy was anxious to see Victoria and Joseph wanted to get back to Mary and Shenge.  Carlisle bid them goodbye and requested them to take a letter to the superintendent of the American Mission at Bonthe.  The three men parted, feeling trustful of each other and cleansed of any doubt about their relationships.  Their goodbyes were wistful.  Given his advanced age, Joseph and Timothy wondered whether they’d see Dr. Carlisle again on this side of heaven.


“What a great man,” Timothy said, reflectively, as they walked to the boat.


“Yes, and greater as time goes by; Carlisle is changing and still growing, I think,” Joseph replied.



Timothy was standing eagerly before the boat’s mast as they entered the harbor at Bonthe--shirt tail blowing in the wind, eyes alert for a white dress.  His eagerness turned to despair since, though the crew had already docked and secured the boat, Victoria had not appeared.


“Victoria will be here soon, you can be sure,” Joseph reassured him.  “Meantime, help me a bit.  You stay with the crew.  Secure the boat and its contents for the night.  I’ll make my way to the mission and see you there as soon as you can arrive.”


At the American Mission, the superintendent received Joseph and made arrangements for two nights of lodging.  Joseph felt he did not need extra time in Bonthe, but also judged that Timothy might be able to use the extra time well.  Joseph delivered the letter from Dr. Carlisle to the superintendent and waited while he read it.


“Joseph,” the superintendent said, “this search of yours has resulted, in my opinion, in allowing a new start for Mo Tappan and for Dr. Carlisle.  I thank you for all you’ve done.”


“You’re welcome, of course,” Joseph said.  “But you do know, don’t you, that the coup de grace was delivered by the Mende, not by me.”


“Of course, we’ve heard of that already.  But the Mende action depended upon your prior action and your power.  In his letter, Carlisle indicated that you were gracious with him.”


“It’s a good feeling to be gracious and inclusive in victory,” Joseph said.


The superintendent then concluded, “Please feel free to wander in the town and wherever you might wish to go in our 650 acres.  You’ll be safe wherever you go on our land.  I’ll have dinner ready for you and your party at the guest house by sundown.”


Joseph scouted around.  Once he returned to the guest house, Joseph heard a knock at the door.  It was Victoria.  “Hello Victoria; so good to see you,” he said.  “Have you seen Timothy yet?  He’s waiting to see you.”


“He is?” she asked.  But then she said, “Well, I have a question for you first.  You know that Timothy and I’ve known each other for years.  He seems to love me.  But he can’t seem to talk about it.  I need to move on with my life.  Do you think he’ll ever ask me to marry him?”


“I’m giving him an extra day in Bonthe, Victoria, in hopes that he might propose to you.  I think he’s ready now.  Just give him a chance.  Because of the events up country this week, I think he’s gained new confidence.  He’s definitely a more mature man.  He’s a hero, you know.  He jumped on the back of the alligator submarine and single handedly forced the occupant out.  He was very brave.”


Just then, they heard another knock.  Timothy arrived!  When they saw each other across the room, Timothy and Victoria rushed to each other and embraced each other boldly.  Joseph politely applauded this grand show of affection and judged it to be more heartfelt than their former cool, polite demeanor.


Timothy said, “Let’s go for a walk, Victoria.  We’ll be back for dinner, Pa.”


At dinner Victoria asked, “Can I get more detail on the alligator attack?  I think I now have the story of the century, as you promised, Joseph.”


“We’ll give you all of the details, definitely.  The main thing, though, is not the alligator society’s attack on us.  The main thing is that we obtained definite evidence of Sengbe and of how he disappeared years ago.  That was the goal of the Search.  We proved that Sengbe was an honorable man right up to the end of his life.”


Next, but only after she obtained more details of the Search by further quizzing of both Joseph and Timothy, Victoria turned to the news of the mission at Shenge.  “How is Ma Gomer?  How is Pa Williams doing?  How is little Ruth adjusting?”


Joseph wished the couple would bring up a different topic, one they themselves had to bring up.  To set a conducive atmosphere, he served the dessert course by candlelight.  (Did nothing happen on that walk they took earlier?” Joseph wondered silently.”)  But even under the romantic influence of the candlelight, Victoria and Timothy continued talking about the events of the Search.


Finally, Timothy said, “Pa, before I walk Victoria home, I need to make a request.  I brought no money on this trip, but I need some now.  Can you give me an advance on my next month’s pay?”


“I suppose, Timothy.  How much do you need?” Joseph asked.


“The whole of this month’s pay.”


“Big business!” Joseph retorted.  “Let me try to withdraw the funds tomorrow morning when the bank opens.”  To himself he thought, “Evidently, they have talked.  How great!”


The next day was Friday, and Timothy and Joseph shared a breakfast brought to them from the mission kitchen.  Timothy confided, “I’m confused, Joseph.  Maybe you can help.  Victoria and I want to marry.  Last night I asked for her hand.  That’s what a man is supposed to ask, isn’t it?  What did you do on that steamboat?  You didn’t ask Mrs. Gomer’s father for her hand in marriage, did you?”


Joseph replied, “No, but our case was different than yours.  She was a middle-aged widowed woman.  She answered for herself.  It simplified things and cutout that long waiting period.  But you have no way out.”


“But, you know, there are big problems.  Even though I can pass for a Creole, I’m not a Creole.  I’m a Mende man.  And the Creoles know that, not by my appearance but by the way I speak their language.  And Victoria’s parents are very Creole.  The Burnside family goes ‘way back in Freetown.  They’re educated.  They have manners and money.  I am from a hinterland farmer family, way below their level.  And now, Victoria tells me she cannot give me her hand in marriage without her father’s permission.  I want to marry Victoria, but I don’t want to ask her father.  His answer might be, ‘No, you’re not a Creole.’  What is a man in my position to do?  I do not even know the Creole marriage customs for sure.  I only know what Mende young people do.”


“Ummmm.  I do see your problem,” Joseph said.  “Well, these are some things I know.  You love Victoria, so you have to follow your dream to marry her.  There’ll be a way to realize your dream.  I’m sure of that.  But I do not know for sure how to proceed in Creole society.  So what do you suppose would happen if you and Victoria traveled directly to Freetown, skipping Shenge for the time being, and you met her family?”


We’ve talked about that idea already.  It won’t work because my Creole clothes are in Shenge.  All I have here is what I’m wearing.  What if I go to her father with this dirty shirt, ripped pants and a long machete?  It just won’t work.  I have to go to Shenge first.”


Joseph paused.  “Well, then, here’s another question.  If you and Victoria marry, where will you live?  I doubt that there’s a call for a reporter of the African Advocate in Shenge.  Can you find work in Bonthe?”


“If we marry, we’ll probably have to live in Freetown,” Timothy said.


“I do know two people who understand Creole society,” Joseph offered.  “Perhaps one of them can give you some advice, or even some leverage with Victoria’s father.  One of them lives in Shenge and you know him well:  Pa Williams.  The other runs a hotel in Freetown:  Horace Caulker.  May I introduce your problem to one, or to both of them?”


“Alright.  I’ll go to Shenge with you and speak with Pa Williams.  Perhaps he really can help me with the Burnside family,” Timothy said.  He sighed.


Joseph continued: “Good decision.  Going to Shenge will slow things down a bit.  But we’ve been moving rapidly for the past weeks and a pause now will be good.  It’ll give you a chance to lay the right groundwork.  Or maybe you should just elope and move down the coast to Lagos,” Joseph twitted.


“Now here’s a very serious point.  I don’t want you to move to Freetown.  I need you very much at the mission in Shenge.  And the program is expanding quickly enough that I believe I need Victoria, too.  I can see her doing lots of things.  She could continue writing by sending articles of the Shenge mission and about other needs in Sierra Leone to periodicals in the United States.  Just think what she could say about health and educational needs in the hinterland!”


“That sounds like a great idea, Pa!” Timothy said.  He smiled and continued, "I would never have thought to ask!”


“See,” Joseph said, “that how you pursue a dream.  You have to ask.  Friends will help you see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.  Friends will help you live your dream.  Now, imagine that you approach Victoria’s father with a sound business plan.  You tell him that you have a good job and Victoria has a good job offer in Shenge.  You prove you can make her life comfortable by Creole standards in Shenge.  Well, I imagine he’d say, ‘You’ve got a deal, son.’  Now, next step.  Let’s talk to Victoria, and I’ll offer her a job.  Okay?”


Shortly, Victoria, Timothy and Joseph met.  Joseph followed through with the job offer.  “Joseph, I accept the offer,” Victoria exulted.  “I do want to work with Mrs Gomer and you.  Yes, I do.  Thank you for a wonderful opportunity.  But I think Timothy is too nervous about my father.  Timothy and I don’t need to waste a week in Shenge just to speak with Pa Williams.  Speaking with Horace Caulker in Freetown will be enough because Mr. Caulker and my father know each other.  Horace may offer us some help.  I think that Timothy and I should go directly to Freetown.  There, I’ll see my editor and resign.  Timothy can stay in Mr. Caulker’s hotel, and he can use my brother’s clothes to dress up for a family meal and meeting with my father.  All of that will take a few days.  We can be back in Shenge about the middle of next week.”


“Middle of the week will do just fine, Victoria.  Oh, and I want to give you the Jerra alligator story.  Wouldn’t that make a triumphant final contribution to the Advocate?  Or maybe here’s a better idea.  When you submit the story, speak with your editor about your marriage and work.  Ask him if you could shift from full time reporter to a part-time correspondent, based in Shenge.  I think he’ll see from the story you’ll submit that there might be more news to come from Shenge, maybe more than from Bonthe.”


The meeting was over with goodbyes and Joseph went off to the Standard Bank of West Africa.  He withdrew a substantial sum.  The Creole bank teller said, “Mr. Gomer, the whole town has heard about your confrontation with the alligator society.  You accomplished something that no one else has had the courage to attempt.  This is the event of the year.”


“Thank you, sir,” Joseph said, “but I merely did what I had to do to reinstate the reputation of Sengbe Pieh.  And I didn’t work alone.  On their own initiative, the Wunde society came to our rescue and defeated the men of the alligator society.  They rescued Timothy and me from being drowned.  Someone, and it must have been the Wunde, used a thunder man to destroy the alligator society.  Also, someone, and it must have been the Wunde again, used a thunder man to destroy the alligator society lodge.  In war, you never know the ending in advance.  The alligator society for many years made war on the innocent and the good.  Somehow, God put together a team that could overcome.  Or, God and the ancestors, maybe?”


Joseph gave the salary advance to Timothy at the dock, saying, “This sack of money is valuable, Timothy, but not nearly as valuable as the bag of bones I’m holding in my hand just now.  I thank you for your part in rescuing Sengbe.  I will consult with Chief Caulker about a decent final burial place for Sengbe’s bones.  You’ll be in my thoughts while you are in Freetown!  Go in peace and may the Force be with you!”


In the bright light of the midday sun, the African Brother angled out into the channel.  Timothy waved a goodbye and walked back into town to help Victoria pack her belongings for the trip to Freetown.  






Chapter 12


The Way to Succeed



Joseph traveled joyfully to Shenge that Saturday, rocked gently by the sea as the sailboat took modest swells.  He napped deeply, letting go of his anxiety and tiredness.  He very much needed to see Mary again, and to hear how she and the mission had gotten along during his absence.  She’d had no more night-time threats, he hoped.  He also wanted to discuss with Chief Caulker the events of the past two tumultuous days.  Joseph was hoping that the chief would see that the interests of the chiefdom had improved and that he’d be please by the outcome of the Search.


The African Brother struck the shore of Shenge late Saturday afternoon and Mary was there, right at the waterside, to meet Joseph.  As he waded ashore holding the bag of bones, Mary beamed, “Welcome home!  So happy you made it!  How was the trip?”


“A huge, great success, Mary.  I can’t wait to tell you.  But how was your stay here in Shenge?  No more trouble?”


“It was a very quiet the whole time, and I have a surprise for you when we get home.”


Joseph instructed the crew to carry his loads to the mission house.  The items included Victoria’s personal goods packed in a trunk along with his and Timothy’s equipment.


The golden reds of the tropical sunset always amazed both Joseph and Mary, and this evening was no exception.  They walked through the glow.  


Once in the house, Joseph exulted, “It looks great in here.”


“Well, come on into the dining room, then,” Mary urged.  There she pointed to a man, a stranger to Joseph.  “This is Momadou, our new cook!  I was able to hire him two days ago.  And today he has cooked his first supper.  It’s for you.”


“Ah ha.  Welcome, Momadou,” Joseph said.  “Which side you come from?”


“Ah dey come from Freetown, Pa.”


“Well, alright!  We need you here.  Welcome again.”


Mary filled in some detail.  “He worked in the household of the Governor, Joseph.  Queen Sophia helped me recruit him to Shenge.  You go ahead and wash up and then we’ll enjoy our first Mamadou meal.”   


When Joseph returned to the dining table and seated Mary, Momadou entered.  “Welcome again, Momadou,” Joseph said.  We are so glad you’ve joined the mission team.”


Momadou excused himself for a moment but soon returned with a potato leaf salad.  He retreated to the kitchen and a few minutes later brought out a filleted fish and yam entree.   Finally, he produced a tropical fruit dessert.  


Joseph said to Mary, “When I travel, I am all the more grateful for home.”


“All of this except the fish came from our garden.  Momadou, Ruth and I have been making good progress, wouldn’t you say?” she replied.


Joseph agreed.  “Yes, yes!  Good work!  Now, you’ve probably noticed some extra loads coming up from the boat, right?  I have some great news from the trip.  Victoria has decided to take a job with us here in Shenge.  Partly to be closer to Timothy here in Shenge of course.  Those extra loads you’ve seen are her belongings.  She’s looking forward to working with you, Mary.  Timothy and Victoria went straight on from Bonthe to Freetown.  Probably they’re there right now even, to ask Mr. Burnside for his permission to marry.  Isn’t that something?  Since Timothy is not a Creole, he expects a little friction.  Personally, I think they’d marry even without permission.”


“Really, Joseph?” Mary asked.  “And what can she do here that helps us?”


“She will help you write articles for publication back home, for one thing.  And Pa Williams will need help with the school.”


“Okay, she’ll be welcome, of course, and I’m delighted to hear about their engagement.  You didn’t say the word, but I assumed ‘engaged.’”


“Not yet.  But I do predict that their engagement is on track.  When does the chief want to see me?  Tonight?”


“As soon as possible,” she said.


“Then let’s hurry right now over to the compound.  You’ll hear about the rest of the trip as I explain it to the Chief.”


The Gomers walked to the Chief’s compound with a lantern lighting their path.  The waiting Chief greeted them in the Queen and Cowboy room.  “Welcome back, Joseph!  I thank God for your safe return.  I’ve heard snatches about your trek.  Please give me the full story.”


Joseph began with the alligator attack.  “You may not know that I was lured down to a waterside at Jerra town, Chief.  There, a member of the Alligator Society attacks a girl, then came after me, too.  The girl ran off.  Timothy aided me.  Just then, as we were fighting with the alligator, a group of men ran to the aid of the culprit and tried to drown Timothy and me.  We fought but were overpowered.  The man in the alligator submarine wore sharp knives on one hand.  I suppose they would have used the knives to make it appear that our deaths were caused by an actual animal.”


Mary said, “Joseph, I’m horrified!”  The chief showed no emotion.


“I want you to know, Chief,” Joseph continued, “that Mende warriors, from the Wunde society, so Timothy tells me, suddenly jumped into rescue us.  As the Alligator Society men tried to drown us, the Mende ambushed them and drove them back to their fortified enclosure.  As the Mende watched, the Alligator Society enclosure itself was attacked by Thunder and the lightning made a direct hit.  The thatch was so dry that it seemed to explode into hot flame, which then expanded to the fence around the bush.  Only one man made it out, staggering and coughing from smoke.  In his dying moments he gave me a bag and identified it as containing the remains of Sengbe.  It’s a bag of Sengbe’s bones.”


“Joseph, your telling of the story agrees exactly with information brought to me by a messenger, who ran here all the way from Taiama,” the Chief replied.  “The messenger also said that the Taiama chiefs have decided to weigh in on your side.  They have seen that you have a greater halei, a greater power, than even the alligator society.  Besides, they see you as the hopeful future, not as the hateful past.  They’ve been watching you.  Some of the strangers in our village since your arrival here have been Mende observers, here to trade--yes--but also to see first-hand the improvements at the mission.  Other Taiama men watched you in Bonthe.  Relationships have changed between the powers in the hinterland.  Changed for the good.”


“Here’s the amazing thing,” said Queen Sophia, who had joined the circle.  “The Taiama Mende would like an agreement with this chiefdom, to abstain from war with each other and to trade.  This is a big step.  There’s something else, too.  The messenger reported that one or more Taiama families would send a child here to join the mission school.  Can you accommodate more children?”


“Yes,” Joseph replied, “I’ve already made arrangements to expand the school, Queen Sophia.  Victoria Burnside, whom you know, has agreed to join us as an employee.  She’ll help Pa Williams with the school and assist Mary with some of her work.  Victoria’s things have arrived already, and she should arrive herself in two or three days.  Can you help us find a fine lodging for her in the village?”


“Of course, I shall.  I have an idea of a fine room already.  And congratulations on your plans, and they will pay off, I’m certain,” Sophia said.


“But now, Joseph,” said the Chief, “relationships have changed dramatically for you here in Shenge and among the chiefdoms around us.  I had my worries about some of your proposals for the Search and so on.  To my great pleasure you have dispelled all of my concerns.  I am impressed, and you have my complete confidence.  One more thing:  I will take charge of safekeeping the bones of Sengbe.  The Queen and I--well, our strong recommendation is to send these bones to Taiama for burial with Sengbe’s ancestors.”


“That will mark the final end to the Search, Joseph,” said the Queen.  “Do you agree with us?”


“This is a fine gesture of goodwill, I think.  Yes, I agree fully,” Joseph replied.


The Chief continued, “I’d like to have a day of celebration here, Joseph.  I will publicly acknowledge your success, and I will invite a delegation of Mende to be present to receive the remains of their ancestor.  I will schedule this day as soon as possible.”


“A day of feasting, dancing, and making merry,” offered Queen Sophia.


“Let us plan for that, then, and perhaps there will be much more to celebrate by that time.  Timothy and Victoria may have an announcement for the public by then,” said Joseph.


“How sweet!” Queen Sophia replied.  “This day will be grand for Shenge, grand for our chiefdom, great for the mission, and good for Salone.  We will plan it for a week from today.  We will see you in church tomorrow.”


As soon as they were on the walk back to their home, Mary asked, “Joseph!  Why on God’s earth didn’t you tell me about this alligator attack until now?”


“I didn’t have enough time, Mary.  I felt I could tell you and the chief at the same time.  I don’t like to relive the scene in my memory.  I need to let it go.  I’m sorry.”


“Well why didn’t you use your weapon to defend yourself when you were attacked?” she wondered aloud.


“Because of stupidity, I think.  I got up early and intended just to go to the waterside to enjoy a peaceful spot under the protection of a ‘friendly’ chief.  Up until then, the chief of Jerra seemed very friendly, so I left my weapon in the hut, along with my other travel things,” Joseph explained.


“Goodness gracious.  How did you feel when you were under attack, Joseph?”


“I felt I was in danger for certain, but no worse than when I was under attack in the Civil War.  I felt, probably, a lot like Sengbe felt when he was under attack, maybe in the same village at the same waterside, thirty years ago.  I felt surprised that this was happening to me.  I felt at peace with myself, because you and I both know that to realize the dream given us by God you must be prepared to ‘drink the cup.’  The full cup, I might add.”


“We know that, yes, but I’m a human being and I want you here with me as long as I am in Africa.  I’m grateful to God and to the Mende for your life,” Mary concluded.


On Sunday, the Chief and the Queen sat in their accustomed places of dignity in the Chapel, with the usual groups of schoolboys, schoolgirls, other village children, men, and women spread out behind them.


Rev. Williams preached on Psalm 47.   First, he read it aloud: “O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.  For the LORD Most High is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.  He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet.”


Then he explained: “People and authorities understand this psalm in different ways.  For us today, it means that God’s power is above all earthly powers, and that we may celebrate God’s rule as he works out his way among the tribes and people of Sierra Leone.  Rejoice in the Lord!”  He concluded in Krio, “Dis be de way to success.”



In Freetown at about the same time, Timothy was experiencing a liturgical service at the Cathedral.  The large stone church building, marked by its fine square tower, dominated its neighborhood.  Inside, Creole families were dressed in Sunday finery.  They filled the front pews.  Conspicuously, British civil servants edged in near the back doors.  Victoria sat toward the front with her family while Timothy sat toward the rear with Horace Caulker, the friend of Rev. Williams and the Gomers.  Timothy did notice Victoria glancing wistfully back at him whenever discretion allowed.  He thought, “I so hope this agonizing separation ends as of today.”  He told himself, “If her family approves of ‘Mende Timothy,’ it can and will end.  But it’s up to this Mende to behave up to their Creole standards.  The testing will come today at dinner at their house.”  


The Burnside family had invited both Timothy and Horace to their home for dinner.  After eucharist they walked together uphill to the family’s large, two-storied residence.  Although the exterior was austere, the interior was flamboyantly decorated in purple, red, and green with matching upholstery and window coverings.  The dining room centered on a wooden table, set with silver and china.  Timothy, dressed in a borrowed black suit, felt awkward, which the others noticed but ignored.  Fortunately, he had little trouble using the silverware pieces at appropriate times; Victoria had instructed him to follow Mrs. Burnside’s example.  Thoughtfully, Mrs. Burnside placed Timothy next to Victoria, who nudged him when she felt it was necessary.  Mr. Burnside prayed a blessing, and the conversation began as the kitchen staff served the first course.


“Timothy and Horace, it’s so pleasant to have both of you with us today,” Mrs. Burnside began.


Mr. Burnside began to dominate conversation right away with aggressive questioning.  “Timothy, I understand that you’re a young missionary.  Is that correct?”


“Not exactly, sir.  I am young--that’s correct.  I recently completed secondary school in Bonthe.  But I cannot call myself a missionary.  As you know, I simply work there, at the mission in Shenge,” Timothy replied.


“Well said, young man!  I appreciate people who can draw distinctions!” Mr. Burnside roared.  “Wonderful.  Now, your secondary school, I understand, was American.  Is that correct?”


“Yes, sir.  A school of the American Mission.  And I lived in the home of an American missionary family.”


“Fine.  Very fine.  Here, of course, our young people attend schools based on the English system.  We consider that system to offer the finest education in the world.”


“Yes, sir, I understand.  And if I’d had a choice, I would have attended such a school.  My father was a rural farmer, sir, and he saw that I needed an education.  He did as much as he could; he gave me to the American missionaries as a mission child.  But all of us in the Colony must remember that the United States is nothing but another English colony grown up and endowed with our language and law by the mother.  My teachers and my school had connections with Yale University in America.”


“Possibly Yale University may attain to some degree the standards of Oxford and Cambridge, someday far in the future,” Mr. Burnside said.  “But I can see that your teachers sharpened your logic!  I like that.  What do you plan with your life, Timothy?  Surely a young man with your background will want to become a missionary?”


“Not necessarily, Sir.  For now, I’m proud that the mission is my employer.  I’m proud that, with Rev. Williams, I saved it from closing during the absence of missionaries over the past two years.    My main hope for myself?  I hope for further education.  I want to attend university.”


“Well now, that would be a first, would it not?”  Mr. Burnside began to probe further.  “An upcountry Mende, am I correct? --attending a university?  Has that happened before?”


“I think you know of Rev. Bowen, sir, an Anglican minister in Freetown.  Is he not the President of Fourah Bay College?  He’s a Mende.  And the entire Creole population is nothing but Yoruba, Aku, and other tribes one generation removed from the hinterland.  Someone among them had to be first.  My teachers have taught me to love freedom--freedom to attain to my full person and freedom to bridge the barriers that divide peoples.  So yes, let me be among the first of my people, and let us all remember that my people occupy half of the hinterland of this country while Creoles cling to the coast.”


“Excellent answer, young man! I can see by your rhetoric that you could become a lawyer, not merely a man of God.”  Noticing the glance of disapproval from his wife, Burnside slightly modified his implication after a pause: “But of course, all professions have great nobility.”


Meanwhile, Victoria was thinking, “What a conversation!  I’ve never seen Timothy spar like this.  What is it about Daddy that’s making Timothy into such a defender?  I’m so proud that he’s not wilting.”  Sensing the right timing, she cleverly steered the topic toward the weather, which broke the intensity of the repartee, frustrating Mr. Burnside but bringing relief to the other diners.


After dinner, Mr. Burnside invited Timothy to the drawing room where he explained, “You know, I get few chances to talk with a Mende, and no chance at all to speak with an educated Mende.  You are the first.  I wanted to give you an opportunity to demonstrate your dignity.  You did well.”


“Thank you, sir,” Timothy replied.  I am thankful for my debate teacher, who gave me the inspiration to speak with your honor, and courage to do so as well.  I feel sure you know why I wanted to see you today.  You see, Victoria and I have gotten to know each other well.  We are attracted to each other strongly, like neither of us have experienced before.  And the only way to fulfill this attraction is to marry.  So, sir, I humbly ask you and Mrs. Burnside for permission to become engaged with your lovely daughter.  A wedding will follow, granted your permission.”


“A little birdie told Mrs. Burnside and me that you might ask today, Timothy,” Burnside smiled.  “And while it’s unusual for a Mende--unheard of, in fact, until now--we are pleased to give permission.  We will welcome you into our family I have great confidence, especially after our conversation today, that you will take excellent care of my daughter for the rest of her life.   I have only one request--that you and Victoria ask a creole minister to provide a dignified ceremony.”


“I will guarantee you, Sir, that we will find a creole minister, even though I don’t know right now who that might be.  You can help us to find the right person, of course.  My other guarantee is that I will do my best to work with your daughter to create a wonderful home and bring grandchildren into your family.  I don’t know that I need to care for your daughter.  She is able to care for herself, as she has done in that frontier town of Bonthe.  We will care for each other.”


“Shake my hand, Timothy, and proceed,” Mr. Burnside said.


Monday morning, hand in hand, Timothy and Victoria went shopping at the establishment of a Syrian goldsmith.  They found a simple silver engagement ring, which Timothy purchased with the money Joseph had provided on Friday in Bonthe.  Then they hurried down to Government Wharf in time to catch the coastal boat to Shenge.  Mrs. Burnside sent them off, tears of joy flowing down her face, while Mr. Burnside took care of urgent legal business at Government House.


On Tuesday morning, February 6, Victoria and Timothy were at breakfast at the Gomer table back in Shenge.  “We have so much to do!” Victoria lamented.  “I must set up housekeeping.  Timothy should get back to work at the mission.  I’d like to get to work as quickly as possible, helping Pa Williams.”  


“Yes, there’s much to do,” said Mary.  “But let us relax and enjoy this special time.  You have a wonderful story, Victoria.  Madam Sophia has invited you and me to tea later this morning.  Would you like to tell her your personal life story?”


As the air temperature increased, Victoria and Mary stepped happily into Queen Sophia’s sitting room, made relatively cool by the effect of the dim light.  Victoria greeted the queen with a curtsy and Mrs. Gomer said, “This is the only room in Shenge that displays such fine lace, Victoria.  And the only room in Shenge in which you will drink tea from bone china.”  Victoria had already noticed laced and embroidered cloths covering the tables and framed illustrations hung on each wall.


The Queen put Victoria at ease immediately with some kind words, saying, “I understand that you have had a great two weeks, Victoria.  Give me the highlights.”


“The main highlight, your majesty, is that Timothy and I are ready to announce our engagement.  My parents gave us permission to marry.  Timothy and I are so happy!  Another highlight is that I’m moving to Shenge to work at the mission.  We’ll be together in one town, Timothy and me.  Travel back and forth to Bonthe is difficult and expensive.”


Madam Sophia replied, “We are so pleased that you will be living here, Victoria.  Already knowing about your move, I made an inquiry and found a room for you with a fine family.  You are not obligated but I would like you to look at it, if you will.”


“Thank you, Ma’am,” Victoria said gratefully.  “I will stop there right after we leave your compound.  I do have a question for you and Mary.  My father’s only condition on the marriage is that Timothy and I find a creole minister to provide the wedding.  Can you help me by thinking of an appropriate minister?”


“Of course, if the minister must be Creole, that eliminates Joseph.  But Rev. Williams does seem to qualify, does he not?”


“Yes! He does,” Victoria replied.  “Of course!  That’s a fine suggestion.  I asked the same question of Horace Caulker before I left Freetown, and he suggested the same person.  You see, my father knows Rev. Williams well, even though one is Anglican and the other is Methodist.  I think that I’ll ask Rev. Williams right away.  I surely hope that he’ll say yes.”


“Your father did not insist on a Freetown wedding, did he?  Just a Creole to preside, correct?  If that’s the case, I’d like to offer the Shenge church,” said Mary.


“Yes, a fine idea,” Queen Sophia agreed.  “We would decorate the town and the church in a dignified way and make it beautiful with flowers.  Would your family travel to Shenge?”


“That would be a challenge for a group that only goes out of Freetown to ride on the mail-boat to England,” Victoria mused, “but I can ask.”  The audience with the Queen concluded with uplifted spirits all around; Victoria and Mary walked briskly back to the mission house to tell Joseph about the conversation.


On Friday, a Mende delegation arrived in Shenge.  They asked to meet with the Chief.  After they had shaken hands with the Chief, he decided to invite Joseph, Mary, Timothy and Victoria to come to the compound right away, or “now-now”, as the messenger put it.  


Very soon, Joseph and family stepped into the chief’s Queen and Cowboy room.  They were surprised at the large size of the Mende retinue.  The Mende paramount chief had sent his speaker, assisted by several additional men.  Joseph and Timothy shook hands with each person, using the traditional up-country grip that ended with a click of each person’s middle finger against his own palm.


After the greetings, Chief Caulker presided, “The Taiama Mende have marched three days, Joseph, to be in Shenge to ‘hang heads’ with me, and with you also.  They have already, earlier this morning, sworn a agreement of cooperation with me, including not to wage war on each other and to send half of their produce to Shenge for shipping, even though that will be more difficult for them than shipping it down the Jong by boat to Bonthe.  I suppose Freddy will open a store to get the business here in Shenge.  This agreement is a first for my chiefdom with the Mende, and a wonderful event it is.  But the Mende men want to say something directly to you.”


With Timothy interpreting, the Mende Speaker said, “Pa Gomer, you have brought a great blessing to Taiama.  We watched from the background as you settled in Shenge and as you explored upcountry out of Bonthe.  At first, we felt threatened by a new, foreign force.  But as we watched, we realized that you have medicine that we need.  You solved the old mystery of the disappearance of the most famous son of Taiama, Sengbe Pieh.  And it was our old allies themselves who were secretly responsible for his disappearance years ago.  They were traitors.  That is why we protected you at the waterside in Jerra and brought Thunder to destroy the Alligator Society compound.  We realize that we need to treat you as a friend, not as an enemy.”


He continued, “Today, to show confidence and respect, we bring you two children of Taiama for you and Ma Gomer to raise.  We want them to be in the school of Pa Williams, and we want them to live in your house.  The two are a boy and a girl from the great Pieh family of Taiama.”


From an anteroom, a beaming Queen Sophia ushered in two delightful children about eight and ten years old.  Each child was dressed in a handwoven country gown, striped with indigo blue bands alternating with white bands.  Mary rushed forward, holding back tears, and wrapped the two children in her arms.


Joseph volunteered, “We will name the boy Sengbe Pieh II.  We will give the name Mary to the girl.”


The Chief continued, “Now, let us all get ready for tomorrow and prepare a great village celebration.”  With that, they all shook hands and departed.







Chapter 13





As Saturday dawned, great anticipation was evident in the village.  Men, up earlier than usual, cut fresh palm branches for decoration.  Women placed the branches along the paths leading to the town barri, where festivities would be held in the afternoon.  Women brought out large blankets of country cloth, handwoven of wild cotton in strips about three inches wide, dyed in basic colors.  The blankets were hung from walls and ceiling beams in the barri.  Cooks set up huge rice pots and enormous stew pots on rocks over wood fires.  Brewers prepared gourds of palm wine.  Musicians brought out the largest array of log drums and kettle drums ever seen at one time in Shenge.


At the Shenge mission, Mary and Joseph were busy.  Joseph asked, “On your list, Mary, can you include preparing small gifts for the important visitors from Taiama?”


“I’ll search our supplies for appropriate gifts, for sure.  Ruth can help me.  She’s become a great help in homemaking.  I could use a couple more kids like her.  Are you making progress on your own work list, Joseph?”


“I have more on my list than I can do.  The main thing is to get ready for church tomorrow.  I hope I can find some time to spend in the carpentry shop today.  I need to repair the table that split a few weeks ago.  When I do carpentry work, I get inspiration, which is what I need in preparing to preach, you know.”


He continued, “But I have a question for you, Mary.  What did you think of Rev. Williams’ sermon last Sunday?  ‘Subduing all the peoples under our feet,’ he said.  I have been wondering what you think he meant by that.”


“Well,” she replied, “he seems to rejoice that the Alligator Society is dead.  If that’s true, it’s good in my opinion, too.  They benefited by killing Sengbe, and Sengbe and his advisers were the losers.  But I think that Williams intended to mean even more--perhaps that the Mende of Taiama have capitulated, too.  That’s what he hopes, I think.  But capitulated to whom?  The Sherbro?  Nonsense.  To the British Colony?  Not at all.  My view is that the Mende have just opened their door a little to you in gratitude, and we’ll have to work hard to earn their trust.  The Mende have not capitulated and that’s as it should be, in my opinion. “


“I think you’re hitting the target,” Joseph said.  “I’ll introduce a different theme, tomorrow, based on St. Matthew:

‘Our Father who art in heaven. . .forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors. . ..’     That speaks to the need of the moment, I think.  At least it speaks to my need,” Joseph said, “and--.”


Just then, the Gomers heard a voice calling them, and a knock.  They recognized the voice as that the chief’s messenger.  With the door open, the man said, “Ma and Pa, de chief and queen gib me one t’ing for you and you.”  He handed a decoratively wrapped package to each of them.


Mary opened her gift first.  “Oh Joseph.  Look?  A wonderful colored gown and head tie!  From Sophia!  May I wear it to the celebration tonight?  This is wonderful!”


Joseph, while opening his own package, replied, “Of course you’ll wear it!  If I can wear mine.  Just look--a marvelous country cloth gown:  black and white.”  Slipping it on over his clothing, he said, “Perfect fit, too.  My gracious, how can we give adequate thanks?”


Mary counseled, “When people give to you unexpectedly, you just accept and say thank you.  It’s all that one can do.  I wonder how long it took a weaver to create the cloth for your gown, using that little loom, weaving in three-inch strips.”


“Six months, I’d guess,” said Joseph.  “Well, we’ll look more at home here by wearing these gowns at the celebration today.”


The waterside was crowded with canoes bringing delegations down both the Cockboro and the Bumpe rivers.  Freddy came over from Bumpe in his old German steamboat and anchored just offshore, offloading goods that he intended to sell or, as a last resort, give away at the last moment.


The sun glowed, though its full force was shaded by friendly high clouds tracing white cottony curls across the blue sky.  In the late afternoon, the Governor’s official launch arrived from Freetown and anchored near Freddy’s old steamboat.  Canoe men ferried to shore a detachment of the governor’s West African Regiment.  They wore gray and dark blue uniforms and carried rifles.  The soldiers stood at attention as a boat brought three passengers to shore:  a serious Mr. Burnside, a beaming Mrs. Burnside, and Horace Caulker.  


Then another boat approached, bearing the Honorable Sir Edward Kennedy, Governor of the Colony, himself.  


Chief and Queen Caulker, the Gomers, Timothy, Victoria and the Mende visitors greeted the dignitaries and led them on a quick tour of the mission and the town.


Mary and Joseph finally had some time to themselves at home as the officials went off to the chief’s Queen and Cowboy room to discuss political changes in the in the hinterland.  Mary invited Joseph into the dining room to review plans for the evening.  But, as he pulled up a chair at the table, his eyes lit upon a newspaper and he said, “Mary, this is the most recent edition of the African Advocate.  Victoria must have left it here.”


“No, I think her parents brought it for us.  They must have dropped it off here when they toured the house.  Look, here’s a note:  ‘Dear Rev. And Mrs. Gomer, our daughter wrote an article you will appreciate.  See the front page’”


Mary read the banner headline and the beginning of the article:  




“Earlier Rumors Denied, Heroism Confirmed”


“By Victoria Burnside”


“Sengbe Pieh, leader of the Amistad revolt, was replaced on his rightful pedestal as a father of our country on Thursday of last week.  An American missionary, recently arrived in Sierra Leone, turned sleuth to find the facts of the case.


“Rev. Joseph Gomer and his assistant, Timothy Tappan, were given the bones of Sengbe Pieh in a small village, Jerra, east of Bonthe.  The two obtained the remains only after a battle, nearly to the death, with members of the Alligator Secret Society.


“In Freetown, Governor Kennedy commented on the case and commended the investigators.  ‘This is a breakthrough for all of the Colony’s neighbors.  For the first time, someone has successfully challenged the Alligator Society, the most harmful influence in the country.”


“The article continues on the next page,” Mary commented.  “There, she gives credit to you and me but also to Chief Caulker and the Taiama Mende.  And to Timothy, of course.  And look, here’s an editorial on the Search.  We could not buy advertising like this!  Everyone will know about our dream of furthering freedom for all!  What a great way to begin an evening of celebration by reading this article your new employee wrote!  She ends with a note that this is her last report for the Advocate and that she is leaving the newspaper staff.”


As the sun set, making it easier to see the rising moon, the village breathed in an atmosphere loaded with excitement and anticipation.  With the dusty air having disappeared, all could see a bright moon rise over the forest and beam on the village, the river and the bay.  Then a powerful musician, head bent down, beat out a slow, rhythmic call to celebration, using a deep rounded kettle drum covered with a tightly drawn bush cow skin.  That call drew everyone to the village center.


When Joseph and Mary walked into the village center, wearing their new African gowns, people pointed, clapped and waved.  “Look, she is one of us!  He is one of us,” many said.


A skilled Bundu society dancer provided the first act, wearing the familiar wooden mask with the coiled neck-piece joined to a raffia skirt.  Comical stilt dancers towering above the crowd succeeded her.  Dressed in bright colors, they swayed athletically as they entered the village, passed the barri, sat on the eaves of the roof, and strutted on to the chief’s compound.  There, they collected the dignitaries and brought them to seats of honor in the barri.


By the light of the cooking fires and the beams of the moon the feasting began.  Even as people ate, Chief Caulker introduced the dignitaries to waves of applause and shouts of acclaim.  Then he invited Victoria and Timothy to join him, backed by Rev. Williams, Mr. And Mrs. Burnside and the Gomers.  He said “Timothy has a question.  Timothy?”


Timothy, adorned in his best flowing white shirt and pants, dreadlocks bouncing with colored beads, stepped into the beam of moonlight.  He was joined by Victoria.   After reaching into one pocket, and then finding something in the other, he knelt before her.  Looking up, he said, “Victoria, will you accept this engagement ring?”


Victoria looked down, pulled him to standing position, and in a loud voice proclaimed, “I will!”  He then placed the ring on her finger and they embraced and kissed as drums rolled, dancers danced, and all the people cheered.  The crowd broke into their own dances--Timothy with the Mende, the villagers with the Bundu members and stilt figures, Victoria with her parents, Rev. Williams, the Governor, and the Gomers, while the Caulkers presided overall.  Timothy broke from the Mende circle and returned to Victoria’s side when the chief signaled for silence.


Chief Caulker then called upon his Speaker to greet the crowd on behalf of his chiefdom.  The Speaker asked Timothy to interpret.  “Pa Gomer,” he said, “You solved our old, old trouble--the riddle of the disappearance of Sengbe.   We thank you plenty for that.  As soon as you can make the trip, I invite you and Mrs. Gomer to be guests of the Paramount Chief of Taiama.  Will you please learn English and your ways to these, our two children?”  He formally presented the two Pieh family children as scholars for the mission school while applause spiked high and drums rolled.


Then the crowd quieted as Chief Caulker asked Governor Kennedy to speak.  The Chief interpreted into Sherbro and Timothy interpreted into Mende.  “Rev. And Mrs. Gomer, I officially welcome you to the Colony and its whereabouts.  I note your beneficial and large impact here in just one short month.  In recognition, I am awarding each of you a gold medal, the Order of the Palm.”   Applause and drumbeating reached a new peak volume.


Mary, with the young Mary and Sengbe Pieh II in hand, took the podium at the invitation of Chief Caulker.  Mary thanked the villagers for accepting Joseph and herself into the community. Then she thanked the Mende for the unexpected gift of the wonderful new mission children.  


Joseph then addressed the Chief: “Sir, we have a small item to show you our gratitude for your hospitality and support.”  He presented a pair of spectacles, as earlier suggested by Horace Caulker.  “The better to see with,” Joseph commented, as the chief slipped on the spectacles, beaming with pride and distinction.


Joseph invited the Taiama Speaker to join him for another presentation.  Joseph began by explaining the quest that Mary and he once had accepted--the Search for Sengbe.  He also spoke with profound gratitude for the intervention of the Wunde warriors when the alligator men intended to drown Timothy and him at Jerra.  He then said, “Mr. Speaker, it is our honor, on behalf of the Cockboro Chiefdom and the searchers for Sengbe, to return his remains to you for final burial with his ancestors in Taiama chiefdom.  May the Taiama Mende be blessed as their great hero returns home.”


The crowd was absolutely silent as Joseph handed the bag of bones to the chief.  The latter’s response was short and dignified, “Perhaps only you could have achieved success in this search, Pa Gomer.  You have caught our attention and gained our loyalty.  Thank you on behalf of the Pieh family and the chiefdom.”  Deep drums sounded as the remains of the hero of the hinterland passed to his ancestral people.


Joseph continued, “Now, friends, Mrs. Gomer and I have an announcement.  Our Bishop, Daniel Flickinger, has promised an American college education to two secondary school graduates.  He asked Mrs. Gomer and me to nominate two young people of our choice.”   Again, dead silence fell over the huge crowd as he paused briefly, then continued, “And we are pleased to announce our nominees:  Timothy and Victoria!”


Drums boomed rapidly for the nominees.   The detachment of the West African Regiment shouldered their rifles and shot six volleys into the air.  People shouted acclamation and broke into dancing that appeared as if it might continue until dawn.


A wide-eyed Mr. Burnside looked at the tear-eyed Mrs. Burnside and growled, “Well, I’ll be damned.  What a party.  Up-country is not bad.  So surprising, so good.”


Joseph pulled at his beard and asked Mary, “My dear, are we not living our dream?”

























End Note:

Joseph Gomer (1834–1892) was an African American missionary on behalf of the United Brethren Church active in Sierra Leone.[1]

Gomer was born in Michigan. During the American Civil War he served in the Union Army.[1] Following the end of the war he settled in DaytonOhio.[1] Here he became involved with the United Brethren Church. He married Mary Wiley, and in 1870 the couple were approved by the church for approved for missionary work in Sierra Leone, where they arrived in 1871.[1] Here they were stationed at ShengeSherbro Island.[1] They joined a mission station which had been founded in 1855 and which grew coffee and rubber trees. Gomer introduced improved farming methods. Following a fund-raising tour of the United States, he established an industrial school.[1]

He remained in Sierra Leone, where he would die of apoplexy.[1]          Source: Wikipedia
























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