Liberian Letters 7

By Merran Fraenkel

10th January 1958.

There was a concert by the Youth Spiritual Club in Doe’s church. Lots of improvised playlets under the guiding hand of a man who calls himself Dr. S.Wiah, B.SC. (Freetown). He has clearly plenty of ability plus a sense of humour, Interspersed with the gluey hymn-singing some very funny parodies about the church …taking off the preachers who go on too long, pinch the church collection etc. and the old ladies who “get the shakes”. The audience roared with laughter all the time especially when they started guying the idiosyncrasies of some of the local revs. The revs’ pew, I must say, sat looking benevolent and puzzled. Another play was The woman of Samaria and that was a real riot, women getting the holy ghost all over the place and huge fun.

15th January 1959.

We are in the middle of the Kru celebrations. Yesterday afternoon they marched through Monrovia – a fascinating procession of people in all kinds of dress – top-hats to war dancers, the Shosimmy girls and about five other dancing societies… various big shots like Moses Weefur dancing round like schoolboys.  I rushed frantically around the town taking photos. At 5 p.m. we all went to the Mansion.  It was carefully segregated into big shots on the Broad Street side, the Kru hoi-polloi on the Ashmun Street side with the president and the Kru big shots on the dais in the middle. I moved rapidly to the lower orders’ side which was entertaining but made it impossible to hear the speeches because the odd 4,000 Kru present were a very lively crowd indeed …and one or two big men on the platform periodically leaping up and yelling Bati! Bati! Batio!! To be greeted by shouts of delighted laughter….The speeches went on for three hours, all rather repetitive adulation of WVS [Tubman]. I alternated between European-type distaste at the bootlicking and an African-type delight at hearing the Big Chief’s praise-songs. But most interesting of all was the audience.  It was hard to believe that such a motley gathering could in fact be the gathering of one African tribe!   The Ghana and Nigerian delegations spoke and, in some cases looked so British – but the Liberians alone contained an enormous variety of types. It’s when you see them altogether like that, though, that you realise what curiously lively and intelligent faces the Kru have, even the womens’ associations – the latter mostly illiterate. A sort of impudent beauty.

The picnic today was a chaos. The female association have written a new song. “The president gave a cow and governor Nanklen ate the head.” Apparently he kept half for himself. But one way or another there wasn’t enough to eat. Or people didn’t get served. The Ghana and Freetown delegations left in disgust… “Does he bring us here to make us feel small?”  I feel rather sorry for Nanklen.  It was a terrific task to undertake. Someone should have stopped him or organised it for him.

1st February 1959.

Do you remember the lame man from the house next door, the one with the good English? (They call him Speaker because of that.) Well, he’s a professional beggar, relies particularly on the Saturday morning visit to the Mansion. Doolittle used to give $1.00 to each beggar every Saturday. Well, one day the beggars affected by the general tralala, put their money together and bought a goat as a grateful thanks present to Doolittle. Latter took one look at it and reduced the dole to 50 centres!

The   house next door is completely crazy. If every household turns out to be as balmy, this will be a Gilbertian social survey.  The main source of income is Mary … who has a lover from Ghana. . The house, however, belongs to Nah Dixon, only Martha was pinched his deed so the poor man is out on a limb.  Martha is, he says, “like an American woman. Everything she gets she spend.” He has tried her on trading but she just spends the money and returns with half the capital, let alone any profit. He had a good wife before, gave her a carton of cigs. She brought back $1.00, gave her two more cartons etc.  I said to her “That’s right, that’s what I want. Sometime man no work, woman must make money.” But now she has up and left him.

Feb. 8th 1958,

We nearly had a strike. It was settled in a very Liberian way. The stevedores threatened to strike if the shipping companies didn’t give them a 45% increase.  They were offered 25%, refused. At the last moment Doolittle stepped in and ordered the companies to increase basic pay from 55 cents to 75 cents…. So there’s another example (as a high-rank civil servant official of the labour union said to me) of democracy in action in Liberia, of the fact that employer-employee relations are so good that unions and strikes aren’t really necessary.

Anecdote: one of the university staff had a letter saying, please, will you give me coaching in Higher Mathematics? It won’t take much time, because I already know them fairly well… I have mastered addition, subtraction and multiplication, it’s only division I’m not sure about. It’s mean to laugh at this, of course.

Christianson, the maths prof at University has been having fun …in the exam, as usual, all the girls cheated.  So the next day he brought them, one by one, to the board to show the class how they had achieved their brilliant results.  The answer you can imagine! What he is going to do about it, I’m not sure. But I’m proud to think that I’ve established a precedent.

[Merran had refused to pass a near-illiterate girl for her university finals. The girl came from a ‘big shot’ family. Great pressure was put on her but  Merran stuck to her guns.]