Liberian Road



AFRICA was different in 1937. That was before World War II brought men, tanks, guns, planes, and even USO shows to the Dark Continent. For some Africans this war meant chaos; for many others, chaos already existed. Certainly it existed in Liberia, where a few thousand descendants of those courageous freedmen who had founded the country were trying desperately to keep subjugated, for personal gain and to ensure their own continued existence, almost two million black people. The stage setting was a democracy — the Republic of Liberia, established in 1847. The curtain, which had never been raised except briefly by the League of Nations in 1930, was woven of protocol and diplomatic maneuvers.

There is a lot I do not know about Liberia. There was a great deal more that morning the S.S. Daru dropped her anchor a mile offshore and swung with the Tabou drift, a four-knot current which bears along the lower West African coast toward Nigeria. From the rusty deck I could see a low, green country spotted with palms and aproned by a thin strip of glistening beach that disappeared with each shattering rush of the surf. Far inland were hazy hills, but only the rocky dome of Cape Palmas broke the monotony of the coast. That famous bearing point was marked on Portuguese charts early in the fifteenth century, four hundred years before the town of Harper, second in importance in Liberia, had taken root around its base.

There it was. And atop that mass of rock, a bungalow with a faded red roof was to be my home for almost two years. At twenty-seven I was coming to Liberia to build roads and bridges for the combined advantage of the Liberian government and a large American-owned rubber plantation.

Two things take white men to West Africa — money and war. There was no war when I went. My own United States was just crawling out of the slough of depression. I had no idea that my original two years in this tropical, Negro-governed country would grow to four and then to six. But the cards were stacked that way. Among these people I was destined to find loyal friends and to make bitter enemies. I was to take part in the pseudo-civilized life of the Liberians along the coast and squat around fires in mud and thatch huts far in the hinterland. I was to see trial by ordeal, face an angry witch doctor’s juju, and suffer my share of malaria and dysentery.

Those things were coming later. The immediate problem was getting ashore through the breakers in a leaky surf boat. I made it with everything but my breakfast.

The bungalow was comfortable. It had been built by the Firestone Plantations Company as a resthouse, but was seldom used. My nearest neighbor, a young Swiss trader, Charlie Ramus, helped me fix it up. Ramus bought for export cocoa, coffee, palm oil and kernels, piassava, and whatever else might turn up. In return, he sold the Liberians readymade clothes and staple goods, and the natives such items as cloth, tobacco, and cooking utensils.

His houseboys promptly brought in their relatives, every one of whom, amazingly enough, was an accomplished steward or expert cook. I selected two and apparently picked the worst. Wodo’s idea of being a chef was to fill a frying pan almost full of Crisco and dump in whatever needed cooking. I stood two months of this; then Wodo and I parted company.

My next cook was Charlie, a wandering Bassa tribesman from northwestern Liberia, and Johnny Gio, a taciturn and moody black from the interior. These two faithful servants survived even my marriage and the introduction of a “Missy” into the household.

One of the first visitors to my ménage was an old Mandingo who made his living selling curios to the few white people along the Liberian coast. His tribe was notorious as traders — for hundreds of years in slaves, but now in ivory, skins, and gold trinkets. Ramus had warned me he would be around, but I was not prepared for the quiet dignity of the old fellow as he walked across my veranda, his gray beard at war with his black face, a dirty fez in one hand and a bulging cloth sack in the other. He bowed low, pulled up his dusty, blue burnoose to allow freedom of action, disclosing the droopy white drawers which I came to associate with all Mohammedan natives, and squatted on his heels.

“Boss,” he said, “I bring you plenty fine, fine things. For three moons I live for Timbuktu —”

I began questioning him about the land beyond the Niger. As he answered in the pidgin English of the coast, he spread out ivory and ebony carvings, bracelets, brass figures, small drums, crocodile bags, a leopard skin. After a while we settled down to bargaining for the few items I selected. To hold the price up, the old rascal dwelt on the hardships of his trip — how lions almost killed him near Lake Chad. I raised my offer a bit and the sale was closed.

While the Mandingo gathered up his curios, I walked to the edge of the veranda. From there I could see along twelve miles of beach to where heavy breakers marked the mouth of the Cavalla River — the boundary between Liberia and the French Ivory Coast.

By way of conversation I said, “There is a fine river. It is fine past the Niger.”

The trader shook his head.

“Boss, the Cavalla is a bad river for strange people. I fear it plenty.” He mumbled something to himself. Then a smile rippled through that scraggly beard and he dived into his pack. The thing he placed in my hand was a small, metal, birdlike figure.

“Boss, this be a river bird. You must carry him always. He be strong medicine.”

He went on to tell how it was made by Vai metalworkers in the back country of Liberia; how they mixed the still warm blood of a freshly slaughtered river bird with the brass; how the figure lay for a year and a day under the mud floor of a witch doctor’s hut.

“Boss, you must buy him. The medicine is strong-oh.”

The old Mandingo was a good trader. In the end he collected five shillings from me for the good-luck piece.

Later that night, after the chanting of the Kroo children had ceased and the Cape was quiet except for the crash of the surf, I examined my charm more closely in the strong light of a gas lamp.

I had to grin. Stamped very plainly on the bottom was MADE IN JAPAN.


MY assignment looked easy — on paper. I was to locate, survey, and build an all-weather road from Harper to the Cavalla rubber plantation, the smaller of Firestone’s two developments in Liberia. From there a spur road was to join up the village of G’Bolobo on the Cavalla River. I was to design and construct the necessary bridges and install proper drainage facilities. This project, financed by the Firestone Plantations Company, was to be the first link in the Republic of Liberia’s proposed hinterland highway, and at the same time provide the rubber company means of getting its raw product to the coast for shipment. Eight hundred native laborers were to be hired for the enterprise.

Nothing was said about the 140 inches of rain which fall each year in Liberia, nor about the stretch of almost impenetrable jungle that lies across any route between the Cape and G’Bolobo. There was no reference to the procurement of right-of-way through the Liberian-owned coffee farms (a natural graft for Liberian lawyers), nor of how I was to round up eight hundred natives to do the job. A construction engineer is used to having such things glossed over.

The Harper-G’BoIobo road project started as a very small breeze. My staff was composed of Sampson Doe, a Kroo overseer whom I had borrowed from a friendly rubber planter, and a small boy to carry my water bottle. Equipment consisted of seventy used shovels, ten cutlasses, a few dull picks, a half-dozen battered wheelbarrows, and one engineering transit with the lens covered by fungus.

My first real problem was labor. Many of the Liberians among the three thousand people living in the vicinity of Harper were lawyers or government officials. Others were small merchants, farm owners, employees of European trading firms, or plain loafers. The percentage of lawyers and politicians seemed to be far in excess of a reasonable proportion. None of the Liberians were interested in manual labor, but several approached me with vague offers of being Director of Enterprises or Chief Road Constructor.

The natives in the neighborhood of Cape Palmas were for the most part Kroo and Fanti tribesmen. They made their living by fishing, handling cargo when a steamer lay in the open roadstead, and manning the surf boats used by the few European traders for what coastal trade there was. Of the others, renegades and outcasts from the hinterland tribes predominated. Most of them were so shiftless that even the Liberians could get nothing out of them.

Matadi was one of this group. He was also a cripple. Sampson Doe told me how he was injured. Matadi had been the problem child of the Grebo village of Yede Bareke — the town drunkard. Released from jail one morning, he stole two bottles of gin from a Syrian trader and ran off in the bush. The gin, a real luxury after his usual diet of distilled sugar-cane juice, lasted most of his walk to Yede Bareke. Near the outskirts of the village, Matadi decided to take a nap. Since there was no open place other than the trail itself, he lay down and promptly passed out.

Now near this spot was a series of swamps where pythons were often seen — huge ones perhaps twenty feet long. It was one of these that slid out of the bush right on top of the blissful drunkard. If Matadi had been smaller or the snake larger, the native would have left Liberia forever — and his relatives would have offered sacrifices for his spirit at the end of the year. According to Sampson Doe, when Matadi came to life his left leg was fast disappearing down the throat of the python.

His screams brought the whole population of Yede Bareke. The villagers killed the snake and freed his leg. It was badly mangled.

That was why, so Sampson Doe assured me, Matadi would never drink if I would overlook his injury and give him an easy job on the road.

A week later I found Matadi peacefully asleep in a wheelbarrow, an empty cane-juice calabash clutched in one hand.

My labor problem I tackled by the age-old method of recruiting. To the paramount chiefs of the hinterland I sent presents of tobacco and cloth. Each of my messengers carried word that I would pay the prevailing wage of ninepence (eighteen cents) a day to every native who would come to work on the Harper-G’Bolobo road. In addition, I promised to issue rice and fish to each worker. Some of these tribal leaders, pressed for tax money by the Liberian administration, offered to send the laborers if I would pay all wages directly to the chiefs themselves. Others were openly suspicious. Too often the men of their villages had been seized and compelled to work at varied tasks by the Liberian district commissioners. Pay was seldom if ever forthcoming from a commissioner, although he might possibly credit the labor against taxes.

Now a total stranger was asking for men. This stranger, for some reason which the chiefs could not understand, refused their requests that wages be paid directly to them. He insisted that each man who worked receive his pay personally. I think this was what finally won them over, plus the fact that I tried to visit as many of them as I could, especially those living near the Cavalla River. A visit from a white man is still considered an honor in the Liberian bush.

The river furnished the easiest means of transport. In a dugout canoe, with six or eight husky Grebos paddling, I could make thirty miles a day upstream. Coming down with the current, my paddlers sometimes boosted that to fifty. I got a chance to fish a little and shoot a few crocodiles.

On my second trip up the Cavalla I met Boymah. He was a Webbo tribesman. His hut and small cassava farm stood on the edge of the river just above G’Bolobo. The life of Boymah seemed complete, except that I noticed he had no wife — no steady woman.

I came to know Boymah well. He sold excellent bananas and delicious Tabou pineapples. One day, as I stopped at his place, he told me that for two moons he would be gone — that he was going to Kron country to buy a wife.

“But the Krons,” I said, drawing on my fast accumulating knowledge, “are not friendly to the Webbos. Why do you not take a woman from your own people?”

“None here please me, Boss,” he explained. “Once, in Kron country, I saw a young girl at Binda who pleased me much. I will go now and buy her.”

He was gone two months or more and returned alone. When I stopped to get some pineapples he greeted me warmly, but I could see that he was travel-worn and unhappy.

“Where is your woman, Boymah?” I asked.

“Boss, I did not have enough money. Her people asked twelve pounds. I had ten. I must earn two more. Then I will go back for her.”

“Did you leave the money?”

“Yes, the woman is mine, but she cannot leave her country until all the money is paid.”

On my next stop Boymah was gone again. I guessed that he was once more in Kron country after his woman. He never returned. I heard he had been killed by Liberian Frontier Force soldiers while resisting arrest.

His brother, at the little cassava farm on the river, told me the story. He said, “When Boymah returned to Kron country with the two pounds for his woman, he found her dead. Her people would not give back the ten pounds. They said she was Boymah’s woman because he had paid for her. Boymah took his cutlass and chopped the mother and father until they died.”

I knew the background of the story. It has happened too often in the jungle. The Kron girl was poisoned by her own people. They had accepted ten pounds for her. By tribal law she belonged to the Webbo native. It would take much cassava and rice and meat to feed her until Boymah returned. And he might never come back. So they killed her. Who was to prove that she died of poison?


OF SOME three hundred white people in the whole of Liberia, sixteen lived in Harper. Three of these were American missionaries. The rest were German, Swiss, Dutch, and Danish traders. It wasn’t long before I discovered that these traders were much more sociable than my countrymen, the missionaries. They were slow to admit me to their circle; but once they decided I was a fairly decent sort, I was fully accepted. Many of them were old-timers in Liberia. Fred Frey, the dean of the group, had come from Switzerland in 1912. He knew the ways of the Liberians and the natives more thoroughly than any other white man I have ever met.

All these men were generous with their help and advice. They taught me how to make life endurable and often pleasant in a tropical, fever-ridden country. They guided me through snarls with the Liberians, and nursed me when I went down with malaria. They had been through the mill and had survived in a country where not only was nature against them, but where every man-made law was designed to give them few rights and no privileges. I was just starting out on a tough grind and they all knew it.

I soon realized that probably no sharper, shrewder group of traders existed in Africa. Business was business and no holds were barred. They cut one another’s throats from nine until five each day, with two hours out for lunch, and gathered at sundown to drink and laugh at what they had done. Let the Syrian traders start bucking them, however, and they became a tight little band — four rival firms suddenly were one powerful organization.

Muus, a likable Dane, was a connoisseur of wines. As my first Christmas in Liberia approached, he promised to provide me with a case of champagne. Excellent vintages of Moet and other brands could be bought very reasonably in Tabou, the nearest French Ivory Coast town boasting European inhabitants. Liberian import duties raised the prices considerably, but not enough to keep one from enjoying the holiday season.

Shortly before the middle of December, Muus dispatched a canoe with two Kroo paddlers to make the trip by sea to Tabou. The Gulf of Guinea was calm and the Kroos made good time. Muus was well known and his order was quickly filled by a Frenchman there. The two natives loaded their dugout and headed back up the coast toward Cape Palmas. Off the mouth of the Gavalla River they decided to go ashore for a rest, and to visit some women they knew in the village of Blieron. Because they had made a fast trip to Tabou, they could loaf a day or so without Muus’s knowing of it. The fact that they had to cross one of the most dangerous river bars in West Africa was of no concern.

A breaker rolled the canoe, and the cases of champagne disappeared. The Kroos made shore safely — horrified at the loss of their cargo. Muus, keenly aware of the irresponsibility of the natives, had held up past wages of the two men pending safe delivery of the champagne. The Kroos knew they would lose not only their pay, but a promised bonus as well.

They went into Blieron and spent a night dancing and buying cane juice for the villagers. By morning they had succeeded in getting a few Grebos to agree to help hunt the missing wine. The bar was fairly calm. A few hours’ search, plus expert diving, resulted in recovery of the cases. The Kroos left for Harper in a hurry.

Muus, of course, got the story from the natives after he found sand in the packing cases. Since no bottles were broken, the men were not penalized and received the promised bonus. I heard about it from Cook Charlie when some champagne was delivered to my bungalow. That, rascal was always up on local gossip.

Later, when I saw Muus, I mentioned the incident and said, “Well, we’re lucky we didn’t have a dry Christmas.”

The Dane, a dapper, polished chap, smiled. “Mr. Hogue, that wine is for next Christmas. Because I anticipate such accidents, I buy my champagne one year ahead.”


AS THE number of road workers slowly increased, other difficulties arose. Within three months I was running low on tools. From that time until just before the completion of the project, I was always short. There are substitutes, but it is heartbreaking for an engineer, accustomed to modern construction equipment, to order a man to dig earth with a pointed stick and carry it to a fill in an old gasoline tin or a bamboo basket.

But I never fully realized the meaning of trouble until I finally succeeded in creating a labor force of nearly eight hundred African natives. I had to provide houses for them and their families, issue rice and fish, see that they received medical attention, pay them, keep them from killing one another in a revival of one of the old tribal wars of the bush, teach them to work, and defend them from preying Liberians. Some of my men had been cannibals on the upper Cavalla; others were proud bush warriors who had never before engaged in manual labor. I had my hands full.

Many of the difficulties stemmed from the Liberians — people who might normally be expected to assist in creating a public utility. Instead, their interest was centered chiefly on ways and means of getting money out of the road project. I do not believe that, any group in the world loves litigation more than they.

By starting the Ilarper-G’BoIobo road, I created a bonanza for Liberians who were looking for easy money. I had rounded up and formed a wageearning group of some hundreds of natives, automatically making the same number of prospective clients for legal services. The justices of the peace were the worst cross I had to bear. A fight between two of my laborers over a shovel would end up in one of their courts with twenty or thirty more of my men summoned as witnesses. Both were usually fined and the money went into the pocket of the lucky J.P. The loss in man-hours was appalling.

The straw which broke my back was to have seventy new recruits from the hinterland wander into Harper to see the sights. I had ordered them to stay at one of the labor camps, but being Tchien tribesmen and having never seen the ocean, the temptation was too strong for them. I discovered where they were when a policeman brought me a message that all seventy were in jail charged with indecent exposure. They would not be released until I paid the total fine. Now I admit these natives didn’t have much in the way of clothes, but they certainly were as well clad as the local Kroo fishermen. It was a simple shakedown. The Liberian police magistrate figured I would pay up in order to get the men back on the road project.

From that point on, I made my own laws. The first was that any man working for me who became involved in a court action was promptly fired. As soon as his income was cut off, lawsuits against him evaporated. I ruled that none of my labor force could sue another without my express approval. With the help of a decent, outstanding Liberian politician, I forced through a local ruling that men from the road project could be summoned to court only after working hours — also subject to my approval. I managed to get the commission of one extremely persistent justice of the peace revoked, and threatened one very nasty lawyer with a beating if he didn’t leave me and my men alone. But I was trespassing on sacred right. My popularity with the Liberians went into swift decline.

I received little or no help from my workers. The more sophisticated ones, such as Brown, my clerk, and the only Liberian working for me, enjoyed lawsuits as much as anyone else in the country. I do not know how many court palavers he had been involved in. His agreement with me, however, was that his services would terminate the minute he was involved in fresh legal action. It was like keeping a youngster out of the cookie jar.

Brown was an odd chap, lean and hungry-looking, who never failed to sign any document for me without adding E.O.E. I was familiar with the English custom of placing these letters, meaning “Errors and Omissions Excepted,” on bills, but I could not understand why they should be constantly appearing on my records. I asked the clerk one day if E.O.E. happened to designate his college degree.

“No, sir,” Brown explained. “That means Errors and Omissions Expected.”

Brown, of course, would not walk into a lawsuit blind, but a bush native like Podie Number Two, one of my squat, ugly canoe boys, was putty in the hands of a shyster. Podie’s I.Q. would have undoubtedly embarrassed even an examining psychologist. One of our first difficulties arose over a number of cases of material that had to be moved across a swamp by canoe. I told him to count the cases he moved during the day and tell me the number after work.

“Boss,” he said, “I no be fit count cases.”

I was learning fast even if Podie wasn’t.

“All right,” I remarked. “Every time you take a case across the water, you put a small, small rock in your canoe. When you knock off, you tell me how many rocks live for the canoe.”

Podie Number Two readily agreed. At dusk he showed up at the hut I was using for an office.

“Boss, it be nineteen rocks live for canoe.”

This hulking native could not count cases because they were something strange to him. Rocks he knew — so he could count them without difficulty.

Everything considered, you can go crazy very easily in Liberia.

(To be concluded)