95. Blidi

By Peter Fraenkel

It was one of those silly wisecracks that whites were always making in Liberia: “Troubles come when you least expect them.”

Unwise cracks. But this one did happen to come true. Merran had not expected trouble from Francis Pupo Blidi – a sober, sensible chap. He was the principal of a Catholic primary school at Monrovia and had started teaching Merran the Kru language. He also said he would be pleased to accompany us to the Kru Coast and to act as our guide, provided she could time her visit to coincide with his school holidays.

She agreed. Merran had been down to the Monrovia airfield and had found an air taxi willing to fly us to Grand Cess. There were, as we knew, no regular airlines going that way.

“Can do,” the pilot had said. He had flown there before, though he explained, there wasn’t a regular airfield at Grand Cess.   There was, however, a good flat field where one could land. He had been there before and the locals knew the drill. A pilot had to swoop down over the field two or three times.   The schoolmaster would then send all the kids running to drive cows off the field. The kids enjoyed such unscheduled breaks.

This was to be our honeymoon. Merran and I had got married only a week earlier. But for her it was also work. The International African Institute was paying. Merran was to make a sociological study of the Kru community so a trip to the Kru heartland seemed essential.

But – yes – troubles do come when you least expect them. Blidi refused. “No. I’m not flying – not with a Liberian pilot!”

But wasn’t he a Liberian himself?  Of course he was. That is why he was refusing. He knew them. Hadn’t she heard about that accident a few weeks earlier? One dead, several still in hospital seriously wounded?

She had.  Even I knew about that accident. Merran had written to me about it before I flew out from England.  I still have her letter:

There was a ghastly accident last week. One of the air taxis crashed on the French frontier [with French Guinea] killing one man   and injuring two others.  Among the injured was a friend of Ma’s [Merran’s landlady] and two other passengers. The pilot lost his way, had no compass and only one tank of ‘gas’. He had lost his nerve completely. I went to see the injured in the Firestone hospital. The Liberian passenger was in a terrible shocked state. “We people don’t understand European techniques… We are fatalists. If there is only one tank of gas we say ‘we are in God’s hand” instead of getting more. Gas is the reason why the plane keeps flying… but we don’t look for the reason”.  He went on and on, this poor young man with his head all bandaged and a lost expression.”

Merran and I could never have refused to fly with a Liberian pilot. We might have been accused of racism! But faced with Blidi’s firm refusal she was compelled to find another pilot – a white pilot. She did indeed find a Frenchman who delivered us safely to a rather bumpy landing strip at Grand Cess on the Kru coast. He also undertook to come back for us two weeks later. As I discovered later, Merran had made sure by arranging to pay only after he had got us back to Monrovia.

As we landed, all the ‘big men’ of Grand Cess turned up to welcome our plane. There appeared to be an animated consultation going on. Something was wrong but after only two weeks’ tuition, Merran’s command of the Kru language was insufficient to understand what it was. Blidi eventually explained. He had been certain we could be accommodated in the large house that belonged to a good friend of his.  Unfortunately the friend had just leased this house to the government for their newly appointed district commissioner. However, Blidi rapidly arranged with one of the two local traders, a Mr Nebbo, to put us up. However, an embarrassed Mr Nebbo apologised: toilet facilities at his house were not really suitable for kwi people. The term meant ‘civilised’ or white. However, the one and only local Lebanese trader – a Mr Webby – offered his moderately more kwi facilities for our use.

For night use we had a large, open bucket in the corner of our bedroom.  A little boy came to empty it each morning into a deep pit behind the house.  But during the day there was the wide golden beach.

No problem for me – but it was different for Merran. She was the first white woman seen at Grand Cess for a decade.  Webby’s Lebanese wife had departed years earlier. They said she couldn’t cope with all these kids following her about all day long. Others, however, whispered that Webby’s ‘outside wife’ or wives may have been a stronger reason.

Merran and I discovered a way of coping. Half a mile from Grand Cess a rock outcrop narrowed the sandy beach. A beautiful golden beach! It might have – one day – become a tourist paradise, if only Liberia hadn’t descended into civil war.  But there I stood like Horatio defending the bridge and stopped those kids following.

Merran spent much of her day interviewing and then typing up her field notes. I found myself with little to do, but once did accompany the Rev. Nimne and his suitcase carrier (on his head, of course) on a pastoral visit to Picni Cess and beyond. Later I walked back to Grand Cess alone, feeling a little dazed by too much sun. A vulture decided I was potential carrion and circled slowly over me.  I shook my fist at the beast, then shouted, then bawled. Eventually I threw stones but the bird circled patiently – mile after mile… waiting. Waiting.

Twice I stripped and ran into the sea and swam to invigorate myself, but even that did nothing to discourage the bird.

When I got eventually got back to Grand Cess I hoped to drop into bed but Merran was to be the guest-of-honour at the local school’s open day and I had to accompany her.

We had been given a large room with a double bed but the far wall at our feet was all-glass and the main passage through the house passed on the other side.  Awkward! Not quite as I had imagined our honeymoon.

But the swimming at Grand Cess was wonderful. A mere two or three minutes from the Nebbo house was the sea – cool, clear, unpolluted.  There was an inlet – a large private pool. No, not quite. A few little naked boys jumped in with us. The sea surged… a pulsating new surge every few minutes.  The incoming waves of salt water washed over the rocks that surrounded our pool. I found it a struggle to swim to the far side. The surge was strong but I soon learnt – if I timed my swim to await the reverse surge, it became easy.

We had been warned that all well-water would be polluted. We hailed a small naked boy and pointed to the top of one of the many coconut palms all around us. He shinned up with amazing ease and threw down several. I had acquired a machete but the little naked boys were far more skilled at wielding it. One single swipe and a thrust and we were handed a cool, juicy drink. We had been assured it was safe to drink.

Merran found her interviewing productive* and I loved the swimming. Two weeks passed very quickly. I ran with the village kids as the French-piloted plane circled over us and I joined them driving cows off the field. The pilot waved to us before landing. Blidi looked at his watch: “White man” he said admiringly “dead on time!”

*Tribe and Class in Monrovia.

Merran Fraenkel.

Interntional African Institute,

Oxford University Press. 1964.