97. Punish him, oh Lord

By Peter Fraenkel

Merran, my sociologist wife, was making a study of the Kru people of Liberia. She discovered that this required a lot of church attendance. The Kru – especially their women – were spending much time at prayer and hymn singing. Sadly, unlike most Africans I have come across, the Kru were not musical. There were numerous little churches around New Krutown, a suburb of Monrovia. One of these was only a few steps from the house we were renting. Our sleep was often disturbed. The funeral of a respected church elder, for example, would require an entire night of hymn singing – bad, unmusical singing.

All this “god palaver” as the men called it (they were usually far less god-fearing than their womenfolk) could create problems. If Merran was observing a church ceremony, the parson might suddenly turn to her: “Mrs. Fraenkel, would you lead us in prayer?” She had, many years earlier, turned her back on the Presbyterian community in which she had been raised and now regarded herself as an atheist. However, when required she did lead them in prayer. Usually she simply launched into the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father….!”

She often came back exhausted, to tell me about these services. They could take many hours. I was under less pressure to attend.

“Great praising today,” she told me one day. The pastor had, in a funeral oration, lauded the memory of a deceased: the man had, in the pastor’s words, “been faithful to his wife as long as was humanly possible.”

“How long was that?” I wondered.

“Not very long, I suspect” she replied.

It was the subject of frequent discussion among the Kru – straying menfolk. But also in their discussions with God: In prayer, errant husbands were denounced with fervour and loudly, for all the community to hear!

“Punish him, oh Lord, punish him!”

By tradition the Kru had, of course, been polygamous so imposing monogamy on them was proving a struggle.

‘Big men’ married legitimate wives but, in addition, maintained ‘outside wives’ and fathered outside children. These were usually brought into the main household. Their status was somewhat below that of the ‘legits’ so they were expected to perform the less pleasant household duties – like emptying toilet buckets. But they were fed and educated – locally. It was only the legits who might be sent to overseas schools or universities.

One ‘big man’ we knew had studied in the USA and brought back an American wife. She, unaccustomed to Liberian ways, had refused to take in an outside child that her husband had fathered. It earned her massive disapproval in the community.

But Merran and I, too, did not escape censure. We were offered several children to take back to England with us. These were not ‘outside children’ of mine. Honest they weren’t! We were told they could act as our domestic helpers.  In return we were expected to give them an education. We refused and our refusal was seen as mean-spirited and unworthy of our status. After all, weren’t we rich? We  owned a motorcar!  Moreover, was it not true that in England we might not even have to pay for their schooling?

We were a sad disappointment to Krutown, Monrovia.