Haunted in Africa
I have no conscience memories of my birth mother, Ella. My earliest memories are those of my stepmother Anna when she and my father were missionaries in Africa.
The image I still hold of Anna, in my early days, was her constant reading, sometimes well into the night. She wore a green celluloid visor pulled down to her eyebrows to shield her eyes from the glare of the kerosene lantern. She was always happy to read me a story before bedtime, after which I said my prayers, my head on her knee. Then she would hold the mosquito netting on my bed aside until I got in, and I went to sleep listening to the night sounds of the forest that surrounded us. Whenever hyenas prowled near our compound with their barking laughs, she would let me get into bed with her, something my father didn’t like. Anna didn’t wear perfume, but used rose water that gave her a clean and fresh scent as if she had just taken a bath.
It took me some time to distinguish between my father, Montrose, and God, who he talked to on a regular basis. But I knew that he was Honorary Chief of the village of Falaba. My father was held in high esteem by the villagers and was continually approached for advice. He could converse in Pidgin English or the Yalunka language. Some mornings, my Father would let me walk with him to the village Palaver Hut (town hall). I tried desperately to match his steps but ended up trotting along side of him trying to look as important as he did.
The Palaver Hut, a building without walls but with six bamboo poles holding up the straw roof, was used as a village court. At one end of the hut sat the Paramount Chief, flanked by my father and the Big Men of the village, who would hear complaints, disagreements, and petitions. I watched with a special pride when the Chief would turn to my father and ask him to comment on things that involved other parts of Africa and the outside world. Montrose was particularly useful to the village when it came to dealing with the British District Commissioner, who came around once a year to collect a hut tax that was usually paid in rice. If the villagers didn’t have sufficient rice to meet their quota, they were forced to give free labor to the government, which in some cases meant leaving their farms and traveling some distance to a government construction site. Montrose, usually the only person in the village possessing English currency, would often step forward and pay for a needy villager. His fame in the village and surrounding areas, however, stemmed from his expertise in rice farming.
I discovered later in life that Montrose had pastored in South Carolina while waiting to go to Africa. There, most of his congregation had been rice farmers. Not only had he learned a lot about rice but was able to get new rice grains from America.
Kabu, my friend and playmate, was slightly shorter than me. His skin was blue-black, while mine, even though sunburned, was a light brown like my sisters, who were away at the missionary boarding school. His father was the Paramount Chief of the Yalunka people, a branch of the Mandinka people, who traced their ancestors to the ancient Mali Empire.
The Palace, where Kabu lived, was a large building located in the center of this village. Like the rest of the houses, it was made of mud bricks, but it had a square roof. A bamboo veranda ran around the outside of the building where ceremonies were sometimes held. In the rear of the Palace stood twelve small houses, one for each of the Chief’s wives. Kabu had lived in one of these houses with his mother until she had become senior wife, then they both moved into the Palace.
Kabu often came to our compound to play with me. I was as fluent in Yalunka as he was, and he would tell me what was going on in the village.
We helped my father with his gardens, using special hoes whose handles Montrose had cut down short enough to be managed by six-year-olds. I can still recall the praise he heaped on us when we finished weeding a row of corn. He was always building something—a warehouse or a small school.
Montrose patiently taught us how to make clay bricks for the buildings. He would mix up a heap of clay, dirt and water into a mortar, then it was our job to use a trowel to fill up the wooden forms. He then pulled off the forms and leave standing bricks that baked in the hot sun until they dried. In the late afternoon we would help him round up the livestock and fill the horses feedbags with corn. The only time we couldn’t talk to my father was on Saturdays, when he was preparing his sermon for Sunday. He would practice on the pulpit. An old gray bed sheet was strung out behind the pulpit that featured the Angel of the Lord in the upper right hand corner surrounded by clouds. Below him in the bottom right hand corner was the devil, with horns and a pointed tail that came up over his head, surrounded by a ring of fire. On the left was a line of hearts that marched to the right hand side where they split, with the hearts that went up to the Angel of the Lord getting whiter and those going to the devil getting blacker.
Montrose’s message was straight-forward: ‘Get God or you go to hell.’ It was a simple message, and I wondered why everyone didn’t get it.
We lived just outside of the village of Falaba in a compound that was enclosed by a woven bamboo fence. The compound was located on a dirt trail that began in Kabala, the capital of the northern province, and ran through the center of Falaba to terminate at the border of French Guinea. To the villagers it was known as Pa Waite’s compound. Beyond the village, the trail ran past the rice fields, which had large pools of water and a stream running through them. Every morning and afternoon, a contingent of village women with jugs on their heads laughed and joked on their way to fetch water from the stream.
Our compound contained a three bedroom house and had the only tin roof and cement floor for miles around. It also included a large church, a small school house, a warehouse, and a corral for livestock. Behind it were a huge garden and my father’s experimental field where he had experimented crossing different plants.
It was Anna who insisted on the family calling me Robert, rather than Bob or Bobby. My village name was Susu. I was told that our cook Kamera had given me that name when I was still in a crib. He never told the family what Susu meant. We speculated that perhaps he was of the Susu people who lived in Eastern Sierra Leone, but no one had ever thought to ask him.
Montrose had rescued Kamera at the age of ten from a small village to the east, where he had frequently held his evangelistic campaigns. Kamera had been born with one leg shorter than the other, giving rise to suspicion in the village that Kamera’s family was harboring evil spirits. Kamera’s father, a palm wine tapper, had fallen from a tall palm tree to his death, and the following week when his mother was killed by a bolt of lightning, the villagers were convinced that Kamera’s parents’ house was inhabited by evil spirits. According to custom in such cases, the house was pulled down to release the spirits.
Montrose had arrived on the day the house was pulled down, and Kamera was being turned out of the village to exist on his own. Montrose then interceded with the village chief and was able to take Kamera with him. Ella, my birth mother, had taught him how to cook, and he had been with the family ever since. Life for me was wonderful. I was the center of attention for Montrose and Anna, and I had no reason to expect it to be otherwise. The only intrusion was when my sisters came home from boarding school for vacation, but when they went back, tranquility returned.
Then one day Anna told me she had a big surprise in store for me. She explained she was taking me across the border to French Guinea where she would give me this wonderful present. I pestered her as to what it might be; I thought it might be a pony. But she said, “You’ll just have to wait and see.” We arrived in the town of Faranah, and to my surprise it looked far different from Sierra Leone. Flowers lined the road, and there were a number of French stores. We stayed with Anna’s missionary friend Sally, who ran a clinic that smelled of all sorts of medicine. Then one day, Sally, who was helping Anna with the present, finally announced it had arrived. To my shock it was a red-faced bawling baby boy who Anna called John. What kind of surprise was this, I wondered. I never wanted a brother. I don’t remember much else about the trip except for John greedily sucking on Anna’s breasts, something I wanted to do but wasn’t allowed. Anna seeing my extreme disappointment tried to assure me that John was mine as well as hers.
Several months after our return, Anna, who had doted on me since she joined the family, began to dote on John instead. When Anna began calling John her first born, and predicting that he would be a great missionary, I became alarmed. I was the oldest boy and as such was due to inherit Montrose’s title of Missionary and Honorary Chief, just as Kabu would become Paramount Chief one day. In time it became clear to me that I had to get rid of John. But how? Kabu had no ideas, but one day, quite by accident, I saw a mound of dirt almost hidden by a bush, that had driver ants scurrying around it. I started to run and tell my father, then I stopped; I realized that God had sent me a sign. I looked up to sky and said, “Thank you, Lord.” I was familiar with how characters in the Bible smote their enemies, and now I had the means to smite mine. The mound was not far from a tree stump on which Anna would leave Baby John’s crib in full view of the kitchen so Kamera could watch it while she taught class. I knew about these ants. I had once been shown a young goat that had stumbled into a driver ant colony and had been killed in a matter of minutes and its bones cleaned by the end of the day.
My only problem was how to get these fierce ants to the crib. That night, after Kamera went to his quarters, I stole a calabash of honey off the kitchen shelf and hid it behind the kitchen. The next day when Montrose called Kamera to help him do something, I spread a thin line of honey from the anthill to the stump where Baby John lay fast asleep under the mosquito netting. Hiding the calabash in the notch of the huge cottonwood tree in our backyard, I quickly scrambled up to the third branch that gave me a clear view of the yard. I waited for what I thought was an indeterminable time and was ready to give the whole thing up. Kamera had returned to the kitchen, and the ants had not taken the bait. Just as I prepared to climb down from the tree, I spotted two ants marching down the honey trail, followed by two more, after them marched a phalanx of ants. Mesmerized by the scene, I watched them march toward the crib. They moved like a thin black wave until they hit the stump and stopped. Then one lone ant crawled onto the stump, followed by another, then others. The stump quickly became an undulating mass of black ants. They began to crawl up the side of the crib. I was watching with fascination when I heard John scream in terror. Kamera heard the scream and shouted, “Pa Waite, Pa Waite.” I was so shocked I almost fell out of the tree. I looked down to see Kamera, despite his lame leg, streak to the crib that was now covered by black ants and take a screaming John out.
Kamera dashed with John down to the water to wash off the ants. Montrose joined Kamera at the stream. Anna came running out followed by her women’s Bible class. She took one look at the crib that was by then a mass of shimmering black ants and began to scream as she dashed down to the stream. Kamera went to the shed and came back with a can of kerosene. He doused the crib and threw a match in it. It went up like a fireball. The ants that were not consumed by the fire ran in panic in all directions. All that was left was the burnt out hulk of the crib.
By this time I had slipped off to the Palace because I knew Kabu would testify that I had been with him the whole time.
At dinner, with John sleeping, Montrose lectured Anna on being careful where she left the baby. After all, he said, “We are in Africa.” Kamera, who was still nursing his bites, had been thanked for his quick thinking. I hoped this would be the last of the incident, and that the prayers I had said on my way back from Kabu’s house, asking that I would not be discovered, had been answered. The next afternoon I took the honey pot from its hiding place in the cottonwood tree and, after making sure Kamera was out of the kitchen, returned it to its shelf. Just as I prepared to slip out, there in doorway stood Kamera. I was too shocked to speak. Kamera slowly shook his head, and then pointed to the floor, “Pray,” he demanded, “May God forgive you.” I got down on my knees and prayed every prayer I knew. Kamera then made it clear that his silence on this issue was dependent on how good I was to John and my sisters.
Later that year, after the ant episode, I got a shock when my father, who had brought my sisters home from the missionary boarding school for vacation, said that the school would not let them return.
The field superintendent claimed that the Mission teachers threatened to quit if my sisters remained in the school, because the French civil servants had assumed my sisters, who were both light brown in color, were the illegitimate daughters of these white spinster school teachers and educated African men. Anna fired an angry protest letter to New York Headquarters but got no answer. Montrose and Anna, who were by then the lone colored Alliance missionaries in the field, understood that it was another attempt by the Field Mission Board to force them to go home, but Anna and Montrose outfoxed them. Anna was a trained teacher, so she sent for the Calvert’s correspondence program and began home schooling which, much to my consternation, included me.
In later years, I asked Montrose why the Alliance became so bigoted when they were serving in a black nation. He answered that in the early 1920’s colored missionaries were welcomed, but that the world-wide Depression of the late 1920’s and 1930’s resulted in a scarcity of jobs, which in turn tripped off rampant racism. The Alliance Mission merely reflected what was going on elsewhere. With the girls home, they couldn’t do enough for Baby John. I realized I wouldn’t get a second crack at him, so I left him alone.
I got a different view of my sisters now that we were in class together. I was able to watch them as they went about their lessons. They seemed so expert at it, but then they had been away at boarding school for two years and seemed to know everything. They boasted that they had seen trucks, cars and even a railroad train. They teased me and called me Mogo the village idiot because I had never been out of the village and wasn’t able to remember our mother. Ruth, the oldest, was two and a half years older than me. She was thin with dark round eyes, very serious and rarely laughed. But she was kind to me. Marie, on the other hand, one year younger than Ruth, was chunky, full of mischief and a constant tease. As a result, Ruth and I left Marie on her own.
Anna could see my heart wasn’t in school, so she warned me that everyone in America went to school and that if I didn’t study I would be very unhappy and everybody would laugh at me.
What I had in mind was to become a big man like my father. Marie laughed at me, and said, “That’s ridiculous.” Ruth said it would take many years of school before I could do that.
Well, I wasn’t prepared for years of schooling. Life in the village required no such preparation, and going to America didn’t sound real to me. However, I had for some time sensed a growing gap between the other village boys and myself. Kabu and I were the only boys who wore clothes. Kabu wore a pair of ragged shorts, while I had to wear a shirt and pants. The rest of the boys wore a short cotton shift or nothing at all. When I went to the village, I quickly shed my clothes and played in my underwear. When time had come for the boys in my age group to go to the bush, I didn’t even ask if I could go. I knew my parents saw the bush as the devil’s domain. Going to the bush was an expression used by the missionaries to describe the secret ceremony to start teaching boys to become men.
I was in the crowd of villagers who saw my companions off to the bush along with several Big Men of the village who would give them instruction. A month later they returned wrapped in leather smocks, their faces painted with yellow streaks, and for the first time looking sober and straight ahead with an air of importance, as they marched in formation back into the village.
I knew that it was only a matter of time before these boys would begin to apprentice at the work they would perform for the rest of their lives. Kabu had already started by attending the Palaver Hut with his father. The blacksmith’s son had begun working the bellows for his father and would sometimes allow me to help him. Soon my friends began to question me sharply, asking when I would take my training. Anna explained to me that school was my training ground. This told me nothing. All I could do is read books and do sums, while the blacksmith’s son worked the billows of the forge, the farmers’ sons learned to plant and the seasons of the year. The boys began to poke fun at me because I had no training that they could see.
I went to Montrose and asked when I was going to start my apprenticeship. To my shock he responded, “You’re not going to be a missionary, it’s too hard a life. You’re going to be a governor and make the railroad run to Falaba.” I thought he was kidding me. He talked to God and I wanted to learn how to do that. While it was true I had never heard God answer him, I figured somehow God had communicated with him because Montrose seemed satisfied after his prayers. Now here I was heir to all this power, and he was telling me I couldn’t have it.
Seeing my look of disbelief, he slowly explained that being a missionary was much harder than it looked. He didn’t say this in a mean way, rather it sounded as if he were looking out for my best interests. He went on to say, “When you get to America, you’ll see how much more advanced they are there. These Africans have been condemned by sin and ignorance to live without advancement. It will be up to you to go to school and become a governor, then come back and help our African brothers.” I knew there was a governor in the capital, but I had no idea what he did. I knew he was powerful, since he ruled over all the African Chiefs, including Kabu’s father, so I thought this would be a good thing to be.
But after thinking about the matter, I concluded it would take too long to become a governor and decided to take matters into my own hands. After all, I was the missionary’s son. So I decided I would hold a prayer meeting and really impress my friends by talking to God and getting a few presents for them as a proof of my power.
I invited all the boys into an abandoned hut and told them that through God I had the power to grant them anything they wanted. Most of them didn’t believe me, but for fear of missing out on a good thing they all came. I told them to shout out what they wanted. Some called out for food, others for bicycles, one for a car although he had never seen one. I told them to close their eyes, and then I began to pray at the top of my lungs. We went on for a few minutes until I heard some snickering. I opened my eyes to see the many gifts, but all there was a bare floor. My playmates whooped with laughter. I was mortified.
When I told my father of my failure, he smiled and said, “You can’t ask for miracles for yourselves. It must be for someone in need.” He went on to explain that when he prays, it’s for the African, not for himself. That didn’t make any sense to me. Why would I ask for someone else when they could ask for themselves?
Ruth and Marie suggested that maybe I didn’t have the ‘calling.’ Whether I did or not, I wasn’t going to waste any more time in trying to impress the village boys. Instead, I began taking an interest in my books and spending more time reading, much to Anna’s delight. She would discuss what I read and explain the background of a story or article. I began reading my father’s Time magazine and became more curious about the outside world, wondering what America was like.
Born in Sierra Leone West Africa, Bob came to the United States with his missionary parents when he was eight years old. He attended school and college in Cleveland Ohio. He then pursued a career in business after earning an MBA. This career took him back to Africa, and then to many countries around the world. While working for ITT Corp he rose to become a Corporate Vice President.
After retirement Bob taught management and marketing at City University of New York and Ramapo College, and at the same time attended New York University’s writing program.
His first book, “Daddy Big Bucks,” tells the story of a wily black shoe shine man who turns out to be a millionaire. Bob’s second book, Haunted by Africa, is a memoir of his relationship with his father and with his son, a reflection of how he was able to forgive and then be forgiven.
Bob’s current work-in-progress is, “Black Sugar: How Sugar started and Sustained the Slave System for Four Centuries.”