Liberian Letters 3

By Merran Fraenkel

July 20th 1958.

I started writing in a state of complete and utter exhaustion after two-and-a-half hour of Pentecostal church service. These people have terrific staying power.  Though many of them …curled up in the pews and went to sleep between hymns. Being an obvious stranger I couldn’t….  I was able to join in “When the Roll is called up yonder”.  Who’d have thought that my Presbyterian Girls School background would come in so handy? … It’s dawned on me suddenly that the relationship between High Life, which is very popular here, and hymns isn’t a one-way thing…. If you listen carefully to High Life you find lots of hymn melodies… and sentiments, come to that….. Oh, darling, I’m tired of all this. It’s much too big a job to tackle. I wish it were over and I could come home to you. Particularly over this Vai/Kru business. All this time and trouble spent learning Vai and it’s becoming crystal clear to me is that the Kru are not only a much more interesting group to study … but also that they are much easier to study….they have a unified political set-up in the town and they’re extremely easy to approach…It’s the Kru-Grebo lot who’ve given the Coast and the city its character, much more than the Vai.

July 25th 1958

It’s the eve of Independence Day … and Tubman’s police car and motorcycle escort has just whined its way past my house… It’s like Christmas Eve in London, the shops had “26th sales and foreigners (and other relatively wealthy, I suppose) have been besieged for 26th presents…..There is a party at the Executive Mansion to which I’m taking Ma so I shall sit with the old ladies and pull everyone to pieces….

Tomorrow week I am moving to a house at Mamba Point and look forward to it immensely.  I’m really tired here… It’s not so simple to board with someone and I do need a certain amount of peace and quiet.  The other morning the climax came. I had been out late and got to sleep about 3 a.m. having developed an awful cold. At 4.30 a rooster started and crowed non-stop ever five minutes till 7.30.  I appeared like an army with banners, swearing that I would first murder the rooster and then its owner… to find to my horror that the rooster was Ma’s lunch (I had thought it was in the next-door yard).  She had left it with its legs tied up under my window.

5th August 1958.

Morriaksa turned up at lunch time with a friend, a Kru boy, and they told me wonderful things about witchcraft.   The father of the Kru boy is a paramount chief at Cape Palmas who made a rubber farm – then sent all his children to Monrovia to save them from witchcraft “to keep them safe from the jealousy of the people.” They went on to stories which I found really fascinating in view of the never ending complaints of teachers (Liberian as well as foreign) about their pupils… it seems it is not good to be too clever in class, to get higher marks than other pupils or “they will be jealous and harm you. There are people who can do things when you are sleeping and you don’t know what is happening to you.” I must say they were making no attempt to joke about this. They not only believed it but also had apparently never heard anyone question their beliefs…..

…I have been truly Liberianised. When I arrived at one school I found a notice pinned to the notice-board:

Distinguished visitor: Miss Merran McCulloch, journalist, Social Anthropologist, Fellow of the International African Institute, writer on African Problems and Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Liberia, will visit the school to discuss with you your lives and problems.

I must be a terrible disappointment after that!

One thing that has been running through my mind, is the degree of what Marx calls alienation. He talks about it in connection with relying on, or blaming everything, on outside bodies – the state etc. …. When I get back I must read it up again – the young men who say how difficult life is for them since they have no big man to help them on – often an excuse for not trying… the witchcraft beliefs blaming misfortunes on others… the heavy emphasis on god, especially acute in Pentecostal churches…. Even in the mythology surrounding Tubman…”I shall go and talk to Tubman about it, he will fix it” or “if only I could get to see Tubman, but the Mansion staff make it so difficult, they lose your name slip” and so on….

I used to get upset by the men who would launch out into the middle of the road in front of the car as one swerved to pass them, said “You want to kill me?”  Nowadays, when – as so often happens – a pedestrian officiously waves me on when I’m waiting for a great truck to pass me, I put my head out of the window and say “You want to kill me?” – and people seem to enjoy it.  … Cars are a big fascination here… As I pass people yell “Right hand drive” or “British car.” If one doesn’t shut the door properly, someone will yell from the sidewalk “Shut your door” or “Your dress is caught!”  One of the nicest remark was a young man: “The English are wonderful people – they even make cars for people who are left-handed.” (He’d seen me change gear with my left hand.)

August 25th 1958.

One quite pleasant evening I spent last week. The Church of the Lord had a torchlight procession finishing with an all-night service (Ad: “Come and be spiritually entertained”) on a hill which is called Lighthouse Hill (by foreigners) Snapper Hill (by Monrovians in general) or The Holy Mount Taborrah (by the Church of the Lord adherents) I went up there with Hanno and we sat some time talking with a lonely Lebanese and a charming Liberian lad of about ten years old. We couldn’t take part in the service because I’d foolishly forgotten to take a head-cover.  But we sat on the edge with the white-garbed ladies on one side, the drumming and singing and ecstasies among the wild, primeval-looking rocks and on the other side a wonderful view over Mamba Point and the rolling breakers of the Atlantic. Three ships were moored, waiting to come into harbour the next day.

….Last week my work was about two rather specific topics (a) Is hut tax paid in Monrovia? If so, how much is it and is it paid by those inside tribal communities like Vaitown? (b) When was the system of urban tribal chiefs introduced, and why? On neither is there any documentary information.

You’d think the hut tax question was a simple one. So far I’ve had five different answers, both as to amount and as to who pays. The Interior Department, the Superintendent of Taxes; the Chief of Vaitown, the Director of the Bureau of Information and my steward who lives in a hut in the Bassa Community give five separate and conflicting answers.  As for (b) there are two officials of the Interior Department who are scrapping over the answer.  I have spent a full week on each of these two questions without getting anywhere…. Oh, well, I can only try.