Liberian Letters 8

By Merran Fraenkel

Krutown, 9th February 1958.

This evening a lengthy session  with the young intelligentzia  (her research assistants. They met with -) Plenty of resistance to the survey work. People … think the investigation must be „political“, i.e. on Doolittle’s  behalf (President Tubman’s). So tomorrow another session with Mr. Nanklen (the Krutown governor) seeking for a little more publicity….

What makes it all terribly complicated is the language of the flaming lawyers (Merran was attending many court cases) .  In a case today they asked that a man be made to sign a “life insurance bond“. After much hard work I managed to make out that the reference – which nobody but me finds confusing – is to an old Kru custom of “giving word“ that you will be responsible for someone’s well-being. This arose in the case of a man who burnt his wife’s chorister’s  uniform and was suspected of  having “evil intentions“ i.e. witchcraft. All very interesting, but dreadful to be presented with a phrase like “life insurance bond“

One key, I think, lies in a discussion  we were having tonight about the Kru words for „bewitch“, „witch“ and „witchcraft“. In Kru they are virtually the same word…..It was awfully hard to get it across to the group that words in one language can’t always be directly translated into another…. that the Poro devil isn’t quite the same as the Masonic Grand Master….

The Mambo is hard at it, the Maryland hasn’t started yet. (Two nearby bars which often kept Merran awake with loud highlife music.)

16th February 1959.

Since  lunchtime I’ve done  plenty of work –  checking Mono’s schedules, planned the budget study, had a long session with Wiah about a case involving fishermen’s law, talked to a man who manages an extraordinary institution called  Nekrondi (= if you live you will see it) which is, to all intents and purposes  a savings bank of very intricate operation, run by illiterates or semi-literates!

16th February 1958.

Just as I was getting out this letter in came Kidi to say he was going to tell me about his institute. By the time I had made out the word more clearly it appeared to be „instincts“, which was much more alarming. But it   turned out to be his Christian instincts and how he had „withstood in the evil day“ when the Kabor people tied him uplike a cow and smoked him in the rafters … subsequently he went down to the beach and annointed himself with fish-oil and ever since then no witch has been able to touch him and his persecutors are all burning in hell. Only to make Kidi a good informant, I would really have to buy him some false teeth, but I don’t know where to get them.  We had some high drama  … everything being acted out for the benefit of the half-wit white woman who can’t understand English!!

Judge Mwa from Picnicess has been in tonight and promises to bring me his MS tomorrow.  After all the big talk it turns out that he has read 8 books (sic)  and that he’s scared someone will pinch the information he got from them.  His MS is only completed for Part 1 which is a history of Africa… no less!  He agrees that Part 2 is nearer my level. (I told him that my scholarship didn’t go so far as a history of Africa). Part 2 is just confined to Liberia, but there are only a few pages so far.

I wish I could make out what it is that drives all these people to write.  There are dozens in Krutown who say “Oh, yes, I too have written/am writing a book.“  The other day, for example, a man brought me his “book“, which is about six very doubtful pages on the battles faught by one Kru town and a list of Kru words for fish traps…. Little eagerness to read … but great interest in writing, even though they know they’ll never “be able to afford“ to publish ..  “only the rich can get their books published“.

Any ideas about the motivation? … Need for self-expression?…  Maybe a hangover from the early days of the AmericoLiberians?  They had no money, they couldn’t live very grandly. What did they have? They had Christianity and they (or some of them) could read and write. But they don’t write manuscripts about just anything.  They write about tribal languages, history, customs… not about trees, or God or people….

Sleep well, darling, and if the cold worries you, just imagine … you had ten pigs grunting and snuffling under your window.

Bob Allen gave a farewell party. He is being tranferred to Tangier. I talked with the Simpsons there who made a fine remark “Liberia is best of all when you’re sailing away.“ I’m not giving a party – too complicated in Krutown. Attempts to mix civilised and tribal people never really come off. I may give a small party for Krutowners alone… but there is the problem of those who will be shocked if there is drink, and those who will  be shocked if there isn’t any.

24th February 1958.

Yesterday I met Amegashie who asked me again to teach in his nightschool 2 nights a week, English literature.  I said I’d teach one night a week, English composition, for six weeks. And was accepted. So I start Friday week: High school, 2 top grades – policemen, clerks, mechanics and unemployed … mixed tribes. It should be quite useful   [to make contacts] and even if, as ever, I get carried away with conscientiousness about teaching. It’s only six weeks and a subject from which I can hardly fail to get something useful. And no homework except reading essays…. Yesterday I had lunch with Hanno in one of those scruffy eatinghouses at Waterside .. and all night I have paid for it in full measure. Today I am limp but no longer sick.

3rd March 1958.

Talking of pyrotechnics: I have just had a most alarming experience. As I drove past the Maryland [bar] a very strong smell of burning from this direction. And as I came up from the car … a very clear set of tyremarks coming right to the house and then turning round and going back.  What, I said to myself, but a fire engine? Verandah light on, but ominously no other, and a truly fierce smell. Oh well, I said to myself,, it’s a pity about Myer [her servants] But the loss of my field notes wouldn’t be at all a bad idea.  As it happens, nothing wrong. The smoke comes from the old lady next door but doesn’t seem to worry her. People do burn rubbish here in the most haphazard fashion.  Why the bamboo huts don’t go up in flames more often, I don’t know. Says something for the humidity! 99“ in the shade today…

You remember the incident of small Mary and the enemas? Well, I’ve noticed similar events so many times, I could bear it no more so I enquired. It’s an old Kru custom. They use a gourd of varied size depending on the size of the child/adult. And the one thing they never use it for is constipation. The gourd contains medicine for strengthening the backbone, making the child grow, stopping fevers and so on. Country medicine involves the insertion of peppers in this and other orifices. So next time you catch a cold, look out! You sent me to the bush to learn things like this!

Wednesday night. If only you could hear! One of the ladies on the Board of Trustees of Doe’s church died a few days ago and tonight is the final night of the wake… It isn’t just hymn singing, but people processing to and fro calling out to each other all night – last night I had hardly any sleep. And tonight the Maryland [bar] is offering competition with a vengeance.

….Last night both church and Maryland bar went on until 4 a.m. at least.  I fell asleep then but they were still at it when I woke at 8.  I had a bit of a sleep on the beach at lunch-time. That’s how I keep going.

Friday 27th, 1958.

We have a witch. It is a dragon and it meows like a cat and makes a knocking noise and then it comes in and sucks the blood of children under 4, giving them anaemia from which they die. So periodically when you hear a meaow or a knock you rush out of your house beating on a tin tray witha spoon and yell „Koko, koko, pici no lay“ which is Krio for Koko we have no babies here. It is a special Sierra Leone witch from Freetown and some say it came during … demonstration week and resembles the heart-men scare from previous elections…..So when Krutown starts beating tin trays at 1 a.m., I go sit on the back step and mutter imprecations against all anthropologists and their perverted ways when I should be rushing round with an interested pencil poised…. Why only children under 4 years? Obviously because the election term is four years. Since this didn’t get me very far I decided to ask some intelligent people about Koko. So I asked Lloyd Whisnant.  All he can say is that he doesn’t believe in Koko. So I drive into town and ask Oscar Norman [her mentor and Undersecretary of a ministry]So he too says defiantly that he’s never seen Koko, he doesn’t believe in it, and takes the wind out my sails by apparently assuming that…. I’m frightened and need reassurance!

I am still chasing will-o-the-wisp labour organisations….But since the [union] officials are all government officials this means another bout of sitting around in departments waiting for people to turn up to appointments they have forgotten about.

To come to practical details: remembering the scrum of the RLI women [in Northern Rhodesia]  when I started discarding things I’ve started early and, I thought, discreetly … but, alas….I have women appearing at all hours of the day asking and asking and asking. They’ll have me stripped naked by the time I leave. One old harridan whom I’m sure I’ve never seen before came today and asked me for a coloured shirt which has been in my wardrobe all the time. I’ve never taken it out. How did you know I had it? I asked. I’ve seen it, she innocently replied, leering towards the bedroom. So I wonder whether Myer charges entry!…   . I have been trying to share things round but to every women who comes I have, in the end, to say firmly No, you must go home. If I give shoes, they want a dress. I give the dress too, they want lipstick; pots and pans, another dress and so it goes on. Horrible.

You remember that hermaphrodite you took to the hospital? She’s one of the worst. The other day having got shoes and a blouse and a skirt she went on demanding, so I said firmly that I had to go out and went to the bedroom and closed the door.  She comes in after me.  So I take her by the arm and say firmly “Look dear, you must go now. Party over.“ and close the front door behind her. An hour later she’s back. So I get mad. She says plaintively “But I promised to bring you a big rooster on Saturday“. I say it was very kind of you but I thought it was a present.  I can’t pay you $2.00 for a rooster. You take it to market and sell it. Today she comes back for $1.00 for her fare to the market! So I show her the front door and hope Koko gets her!