Liberian Letters 1

May 10th 1958.

I am out of my clubfoot.

I went to the doctor this morning and asked whether one week (in a  plastercast) wasn’t enough. He agreed but insisted he could not take it off himself, I would have to go to the hospital and be operated on with a circular saw.  At the hospital nobody knew where anyone was, nor did anyone seem to care.  Back to the doctor who insisted the thing was too hard to remove without an electric saw. So, McCulloch comes home and has a go. In 20 minutes my dressmaking scissors were seriously damaged but my foot was free. What a wonderful feeling…

Went for a first walk in Vaitown. All the people looked so surprised to see me walking round. I thought I ought to explain myself.  Two men, one of whom looked like an elder, were talking under a tree, so I introduced myself and explained that I was taking a walk.  The elder gave me 50 cents. I do know what it means – a “white thing“ – a sign that one’s heart is good towards someone.  But I don’t yet know what you do in return.

The basic thing about Liberian English, apart from odd and often charming phrases (“I just go walk-about“) is that they leave off final consonants. “Aigobaifee“ – I go buy fish.

May 24th 1958

So many of the foreigners … hate living here, but stay because they can, or hope to, make money. One frequent crack is “the love of liberty brought us here [quote from Liberian constitution] – the love of money keeps us here.“

One thing about fieldwork: that I’ve never been through before … you get no privacy.  If people call,  you thank your lucky star that they are friendly and take advantage of it, even if they wake you up from sleep or interrupt other work.

There was a ghastly accident last week. One of the air taxis crashed on the French frontier [Guinea] killing one man and injuring a friend of Ma’s (=Massaquoi – Merran’s landlady) and injuring two other passengers….. The pilot lost his way, had no compass and only one tank of “gas“ and 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 hands“ 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.

…. When you go into a government office – or for that matter, post office, bank etc – even at 9 a.m., half the assistants are sprawled asleep over the desk.  There is never a desk marked “enquiries“, so you ask the first awake person you find .  They look at you sleepily, yawn and say they don’t know.  By mid-day the general air of lethargy gets you.  Hence I’ve taken to swimming each afternoon to wake myself up.

Yesterday Oscar Norman asked if I’d like to take a drive, since he was going to a governors‘ board meeting at the Booker Washington Institute at Kakata … just over the border of what they call the hinterland –  bush to you. We drove through Firestone [plantation] and I saw my first and my ten millionth rubber tree…. tall and shady and quite pleasantly cool to work under….. Firestone really made me feel at home – labourers‘ compounds … like in Rhodesia, rather poor identical houses….. On a green mowed hill – the European club….

….They pointed out to me… where the American staff live. The Liberian counterparts have communal dwellings inside the school.  Apparently it’s a big bone of contention… but I’m surprised to find this sort of segregation existing at all here.

….. I’m nearly at the stage I reached at Lusaka of driving round at night just to look at the lights in the windows.

…. She (her landlady, Mrs Massaquoi) was telling me the other day about her trip to New York. One of her foster daughters was Vice Consul there, and she stayed in her flat.  Every morning a big black car with a chauffeur came for her. Once she drove through Harlem and was terrified. “Oh, my people, my people, fighting each other, slitting each others‘ throats.  Here was I hiding in the back of the car, scared to look out of the window, and a big man pointing at me saying Look at the old darkie, being driven by a white driver. I was so scared.“

June 3rd 1958

Please don’t think I’m being unsympathetic – it suddenly does seem rather amusing or ironic – your palaver with the BBC. My nice conservative Peter may be getting a red reputation.

Peter was  applying for BBC jobs. Several times he was virtually promised a job but, at the last stage, was turned down. His friend Martin Esslin suggested Peter might be suspected of communist affiliations. Years later it turned out this was true. Merran’s ‘pick and spade‘ work on the Yugoslav Youth Railway and her unsuccessful attempt to launch an Anglo-Yugoslav Frienship society had put a “Christmas tree“ i.e.the symbol indicating politically suspect on his file. Later Sir Hugh Carlton Greene, who had met Peter in Northern Rhodesia, had it removed. 

I don’t blame you at all that you start wondering whether your associates, including me, have anything to do with it. Naturally I too had had that thought but dismissed it as paranoid. My worst crimes in Rhodesia were to argue endlessly and ineffectually with various Europeans and along lines that would sound the palest pink to many UK Labour supporters. I remember that when I was returning to the UK and told people [in Rhodesia] that I was going to work for the Colonial Office, they reacted as if I had said I planned to work for the Communist Party.

Peter, if ever my name should arise in these discussions, you might like to mention this: Just before I left Lusaka the Colonial Office (through Sally Chilvers, Secretary of the Social Science Research Council) wrote out asking me whether I would prepare a report on their behalf on labour productivity – this was assembling materials provided by the various [British] Colonial governments, for a CCTA conference. All the other countries had government officers prepare the reports but in the UK they asked me.  (Mind you, John Barnes told me my report sounded like a Fabian Colonial Bureau pamphlet, but Fabians really have a pretty respectable background.)

If there is one thing that gets my goat more than Liberians being pompous, it’s listening to foreigners encouraging them, when you have a strong suspicion that they’re laughing up their sleeve.

This is a bad tempered letter. I began to get more and more fed up with an anthropologist’s life. Listening and asking and analysing people like guinea-pigs, standing outside, being objective and cold.  Not that I do. On the contrary I am only too liable to take likes and dislikes.  But I’m just a simple girl.  It‘s a real effort for me to treat social chat like material.

June 10th 1958.

I guess you are right when you say I should keep quiet about parts of the census being badly done. But I do use plenty of preliminary apple sauce: “The census was a terrific achievement, one of the best that have been done in Africa. Of course you couldn’t get accuracy on all the points… A first census is always a try-out…. But it seems a pity if, because some of the enumerators found their task difficult, the results produced by the others shouldn’t be tabulated.   You have really good social surveys of some of the areas…. etc etc.

June 13th 1958.

Friday 13th and I didn’t realise. The worst that happened was that last night someone broke the triangular front window of the car.  I didn’t notice till this afternoon. Our Lebanese neighbour and I have just been having a big palaver with the watchman, so let’s hope the wrong-doers don’t come back to finish the job and make off with the car…..

By the way, all the trouble you went to, darling, to have mirrors fixed on the front…. I have given up long ago attempting to use them…..The car stands on Front Street. The mirrors are extremely  useful to women who pass and want to fix their headcloths.  It’s impossible to keep them aligned, the mirrors, I mean.

Tuesday night.

This week I bestirred myself a little. I’ve interviewed the Lebanese charge d’Affaires and got some information about the Lebanese community, and some contacts in it. Also a delightful woman, a Liberian, who is under-secretary for education.  She arranged for me to see some schools, especially the one in the Bassa community and there I hope to arrange questionaires, essays and so on….. And today, after a lot of bother, I tracked down the port manager and arranged to talk to him next Monday about port labour.  Also I arranged to go and talk to a Roman Catholic priest…. who will, I hope, give me some leads into the seperatist churches.

And I bought a map of Liberia.  You think that isn’t worth mentioning? Well, first you go to one end of the town, to the Cartographic Service and find the map you want.  Then you go to the other end of town, to the Department of Revenue. Say you want the map.  They keep you waiting an hour, then someone writes a receipt for you.  Then he gets three separate people to sign it, which makes another hour or so.  Then you take your receipt and the money to the cashier. Then you get one of the triplicate copies of your receipt back and cross Monrovia again to the Cartographic Service and – if you can find the man you talked to in the first place – you get your map.

22nd  June 1958.

The man at the port. I found eventually on boards a German cargo boat, drinking beer, so I had a beer with them but this was hardly the place for an interview.

Oh, well, it’s quite an entertaining life, if you can manage to keep calm.

I nearly forgot to tell you something which might amuse you.  I caught a bad cold.  In this climate colds have an awful effect on you.. You feel at death’s door. So I went to see Dr West who gave me penicillin injections and vitamin pills and told me that, though I did have a cold, some of my symptoms suggested sex starvation.

“Right, doctor“, |I said,“You know how to cure that: A really interesting job for my fiance at $7,000 a year plus expenses.“

Dr. West had been trying to start a local radio station and  Merran had suggested he might bring Peter in to run it.