Liberian Letters 2

By Merran Fraenkel

5th July 1958.

When I came home …a taxi was blocking my apology-for-a-road. I got out of the car, all polite, (Liberians normally just hoot like mad) and said “Would you mind moving to one side? I want to get past”.

I was greeted by a flood of vituperation from a lady passenger who seemed to be having some palaver about paying her fare.  “Excuse me, lady, don’t take any notice of me. I’m just a bloody nigger. I’m no better than an animal. Don’t try and treat me like a human being.”  I said “Whatever is the matter? And look, you are dropping your money on the road.” We extracted the lady from the taxi and the taxi drove off.  It was apparent by now that she was drunk … and also that she wasn’t at all sure which house she lived in. So we walked up and down a bit and it emerged she was Miss Bertha Burton who, as far as I can make out, is an American negro… director of a secretarial training school.  She’d been at parties, it being the 4th of July [Liberian Independence day]. She was overcome with feelings that nobody loved her, nobody accepted her, why wouldn’t the Liberians treat her as a human being?  ….which just goes to show that one mustn’t be paranoid. Of course I thought her wrath was directed at me because of my white face. There were plenty of tears by this time and purses being dropped and every now and then she would say “You’re being so sweet. Why are you talking to me? Where do you come from? What do you want with me?”  But at last we found her house….She’s coming for tea on Sunday…..How awful it must be for an American negro. I know how queer and cold and unfriendly this town often seems to me.   Imagine what it must be like for someone [black] who comes with high hopes to an African republic to live as a citizen!

13th July 1958.

I’ve just been for a 5-minute walk around my estate to get some air. It’s quite a pleasant crazy “garden”…. Coconut tree, mango, paw-paw, pineapples, hibiscus and cannas. Lots of birds – blue and yellow and black. Heaps of black rock. The rock was blasted to put in the foundations of the houses but then the bits of rock were just left there. Most Liberians don’t make gardens so you get these rather grand houses surrounded by rocks and weedy chaos, though the Thorntons {whose house she was occupying] have made a bit of a garden. No, I’m not right next to the sea but one can see it about half a mile down the hill and at night there is the wonderful noise of breakers. Sometimes I get lonely …. Though I have plenty of droppers-in…. People come up from town in taxis just on the off-chance. Black droppers-in are almost always Ghanaians or Nigerians. These Liberians are truly a difficult lot……

Tonight I’m going to Sister Blatch’s Lighthouse Full Gospel Church to hear the Sister deliver a message from the Holy Spirit.

16th July 1958.

I had a fine time at Sister Blatch’s. … a very interesting sect… tambourines, wild elation and people testifying.  Apparently the congregation is made up of Americo-Liberians, possibly “poor whites” or whatever the equivalent term would be. At one point in the service I had a nasty moment.  They announced that the baptismal pool was ready for unveiling. True enough, there was a great bath in the front of the church with a piece of lino over it.  These people go in for total immersion.  It must be a lively business for even in an ordinary service they get “drunk with God”. But fortunately the opening ceremony is not yet. I must see it … but I shall make a point of sitting somewhere way at the back.

And while I was there young Sylvester [one of Merran’s assistants] was having a bad time at the Church of the Lord, where the elated women decided to drive his ill luck away.  They made him kneel and beat him over the head – not hard, though –and prayed and the poor lad was terrified. I said to him that I hoped I wasn’t the ill-luck they were trying to drive away and he charmingly replied “If I thought that I’d go back and ask them to give it back to me.” He’s been telling me fascinating tales about the magical practices in connection with football games…

Last night I went with Hanno (who really is a godsent) to a very low bar near the port. Foreign sailors, very drunk, African prostitutes, very lively, African sailors, soundly asleep. We brought two of the girls back to town in the car. One of them was a Vai girl and was she surprised when I started talking Vai with her. I shall never get very far using Vai for interviews but it’s a great social asset to be able to open a conversation in it.