Liberian Road: White Man's Magic



THE first real setback to my Liberian road program was the wet season. It started in early May and by October had produced well over a hundred inches of rain. That means more than eight feet of water scouring the country in less than six months. Two of my temporary bridges washed out. I spent the Fourth of July in mud and pelting rain trying to bolster up a thirty-foot span on the trail between Harper and the Firestone plantation at Cavalla. My boys shivered and moaned, but they were willing to stay on the job as long as “Boss” would remain with them.

The rain was seldom steady. There would be a burst of sunshine, then a sudden, violent storm. Four inches might fall in two or three hours, to be followed by bright, clear weather for half a day. It was impossible to keep dry. I started out with rubber boots and oilskins, but they were too warm. I tried an umbrella, only to find what an excellent sieve a cheap parasol can be. Finally I gave up and just soaked. When I got so chilled that I could stand it no longer, I would go home, change clothes, gulp down a man-killing jolt of raw whiskey, and go back to work.

My men did not seem to mind the weather once I curtailed earth-moving and placed all the gangs hacking a right-of-way through the high bush. They would strip almost naked, get big fires roaring in the shelter of giant trees, and chop and sing, their black bodies glistening from the rain. I often felt a wild urge to join them.

During a lull, I made my way over to the Cavalla River, which fascinated me for several reasons. In the days of slave trading, ships used to slip over the bar at the mouth and come up with the tide as far as G’Bolobo to pick up black cargo. In the rains, strange things came down the river. The body of a Pygmy was caught in some Grebo fish traps. How this little black man had wandered two thousand miles from the Congo wall remain a mystery. A dead gorilla, partly eaten by crocodiles, was fished out by the Grebos at Taoke. Yet scientists and explorers maintain there are no gorillas in Liberia or on the Ivory Coast.

Oddest of the river’s presents, as far as I am concerned, was Tupo. A strapping black man, he came bobbing along on the crest of the flood in a tiny hollowed-out log that was more toy than canoe. He paddled ashore at G’Bolobo and showed up one morning where my crews were hacking through the high bush. His size and ability to swing a cutlass soon qualified him for a job. I do not believe Tupo had ever heard English spoken before. Only Wodo Williams, one of my headmen, seemed to understand him. I chose Wodo as teacher for the bushman, since he had been educated on the Gold Coast and spoke the king’s English.

Tupo worked diligently for six months. He was promoted from cutlass work to using a pick and shovel. He always drew my attention as I passed along the job, mainly because of his size and his face-splitting grin. One day I found him working alone on a section of borrow pit, not far from a culvert that needed attention. Since Wodo Williams was not in sight, I decided to try to make Tupo understand. I started in my own weird mixture of pidgin English, Grebo, and the few words of Tupo’s language that I knew. He straightened up and his grin reached his ears.

In perfect English he said, “Sir, shall I do it immediately or may I complete the task I am on?”

I went on along the road talking to myself. In six months a bush native had learned to speak my language better than I spoke it myself, and I had struggled for months over a few simple Grebo sounds.

Two days later I stopped beside Tupo again.

“Tupo,” I asked, “how many days docs it take to reach your country?”

The grin grew in size and he said, “Sir, shall I do it immediately or may I complete the task I am on?”

That was the only sentence Tupo knew, learned from Headman Williams, who used it frequently in addressing me or an overseer.


WHEN the dry season came again, I found my odd mixture of Bantu and Sudanese tribesmen well enough

trained to be left in care of Sampson Doe and his assistant overseers for a few days at a time. This gave me a chance to slip away occasionally. There was much I wanted to see, both places and people.

The Liberians cling to the coast of their country at seven chief centers: Robertsport, Monrovia, the capital city, Grand Bassa, River Cess, Sinoe, Grand Cess, and Harper. In general they avoid the interior. They wield their authority and collect taxes in the back country through district commissioners who are supported by units of the Liberian Frontier Force.

This military organization is composed of native troops with Liberian officers. Care is exercised not to station troops of any given tribe among their own people. Policing tribes which were once enemies of their own, they make effective and often brutal agents of the government. My clashes with the Frontier Force became frequent, especially on trips into the back country. I could not stomach some of the abuses they were able to practice because they were in uniform and represented the Republic of Liberia.

If I had stayed close to Harper, I might never have seen some of these things — floggings, confiscation of property, deliberate theft. I know certain Liberians did not want me to see them. It proved to me that the lot of a bush native is not pleasant. It is, however, fascinating to an American.

My interest in the interior was not entirely a personal one. Nowhere could I find a map that showed any details of southeastern Liberia. Coastal points and the boundary were always clearly indicated, but nothing more. So I began to travel with a compass, pedometer, and sketchbook. I could get around by canoe, surf boat, hammock carried by the natives, or on my own feet. Trips were often a combination of all these methods, always with emphasis on footwork. My starting point was generally some landmark indicated on the British Admiralty charts of the coast.

My favorite approach was to sail from Cape Palmas in a surf boat, go ashore near the chosen landmark, take a compass bearing, and plunge into the interior. I would travel as far as my time would allow, then circle and return to the coast or have my guides pick up a t rail that would intersect one of the chief routes to Harper. It was on the return by boat from one of my early trips that I came face to face with native magic.

For twenty hours we had wallowed in the swells off the mouth of the Cavalla waiting for a breeze to carry us toward the Cape. The Kroos pulled at their oars only enough to keep us from losing ground in the Tabou drift. I knew as well as they that it was impossible to row for any length of time against the current, so we merely held our own and waited for a breeze to fill the limp sail. We could not go ashore because of the surf. The boat would be lost, even if we managed to get through alive.

I thought of Fred Frey, dean of the group of traders in Harper, who once spent four days in a similar spot. Then he dived overboard and swam ashore while the Kroos, with the surf boat, rode the drift back to an Ivory Coast port.

Another six hours passed. Then one of our boys threw off his ragged jersey and dived over the side. It was a good mile to shore. We watched the first big comber grab him. Then I didn’t, see him again until, what seemed like hours later, he appeared, a small figure in the morning haze, walking along the beach.

“ What did he do that for?” I asked Walka, the grizzled headman.

“Boss, he go ashore for some pieces of tree. When he come back we make wind. Then the boat go.”

I was by then too experienced to voice my skepticism, though I had the gravest doubt that any person could ever come out to us against the hammering surf.

The boy made it, however. We moved in with the boat until only a scant fifty feet lay between us and the point where the swells lifted their heads into whitetopped breakers. There we dragged the swimmer aboard. He was winded and tired, but very proud of the few leaf-covered branches tied to his gee string. The boat boys cheered him loudly.

“Is one of these people a witch doctor?” I asked Walka.

“Yes, Boss. Gnumri be country doctor. He bring the wind.”

Gnumri, oldest of the Ivroo boatmen, carefully laid the branches on the floor of the boat. For minutes he crouched over t hem, mumbling some incantation of the jungle. One Kroo started drumming softly on the gunwale. Then the entire lot, including Walka, broke into a chant. As the chant grew in volume, Gnumri hunched over the side of the boat nearest the shore and tied the branches in place.

I looked at my watch. It was 11.00 A.M. By rights a land breeze should have been blowing at this hour, but the sail was as limp as a rag. I noticed that Walka, sitting very straight and solemn at the tiller, was holding the boat squarely up the rocky coast.

Crouched against the bottom of the surf boat, Gnumri was once more involved in his weird recital. The Kroos had pulled in their oars and were staring at the sail.

It fluttered. Then with a snap it filled. The boat heeled slightly. There was not a sound from the natives. I watched, fascinated, as our craft gained speed. A half hour later we were hitting eight knots against a four-knot drift. Whitecaps were kicking up. Our land breeze was fast becoming a gale.


THE physical hardships of life in Liberia consist chiefly of a hot, humid climate and the prevalence of malaria, dysentery, blackwater fever, leprosy, and other diseases. There is also an understandable lack of modern conveniences, and a limited social life too often devoid of white women. Most complaints, however, start and end with food. I did not see a motion picture for over two years, but that did not bother me nearly so much as doing without fresh milk and well-cooked pork chops for the same period.

Fresh vegetables are almost unheard of in southeastern Liberia except for tomatoes and cucumbers, and these are never plentiful. Meat consists of an occasional piece of native beef, wild game, and what can be found by prospecting with a can opener. I ate antelope until I thought I was growing hoofs and horns. Perhaps once a month an English ship would drop mail at the Cape, and Charlie Ramus, who acted as shipping agent for several West African companies, would buy what fresh provisions he could get aboard and divide them among us. The meat from the ships was often high not only in price but in flavor. I once got a brace of dressed pheasants that seemed strong enough to have come ashore by themselves.

Wild animals are no particular problem. It is not wise to wander around in the bush alone since one may encounter a really hungry leopard or some ill-tempered bush cows. Normally, however, one is safer on a jungle path than crossing streets in downtown New York. The one thing which many Americans immediately associate with tropical Africa, we discount almost entirely — snakes. They are present in various sizes; but most, snakes are like most people — if you leave them alone, they won’t bother you.

If you do have trouble, call a native. He will find a snake man.

There are no more interesting natives in all Liberia than the members of the snake society. In contrast to the leopard clan, an outlawed group of murderers, this organization is admired and respected by blacks and whites alike. It appears to have no tribal barriers. A snake man might be a Grebo, Bassa, Kroo, Gio, Bussi, Mano, or any other of the many nationalities of the Liberian bush.

The basic purpose of the society seems to be protection from the bites of poisonous snakes. Lore passed down from generation to generation and from tribe to tribe has accumulated until a genuine society member can successfully treat any bite from a cobra’s to a viper’s. With this knowledge have come an understanding of the ways and habits of jungle snakes and complete freedom from fear.

I have never seen a snake man hesitate to handle a poisonous snake, even that deadly tree cobra, the green mamba. He has been conditioned for such an act over a period of months or years, and has in his possession powerful antidotes in case he is bitten. So excellent are these antidotes that medical missionaries tell all white travelers in the bush to find a snake man immediately if bitten by a poisonous reptile. Often this is their only hope of recovery.

Experienced jungle travelers and collectors always include a snake man in their safaris. A single snake man can catch, handle, and feed an amazing number of snakes. It is not a matter of chance with him. He knows where to look for them, how they must be captured, and what food will keep them alive.

Gizi was my favorite snake man. He was a big, dirty Bussi who had strayed into Grebo country and been permitted to stay because of the great brotherhood of the society. When he felt like it, he worked on the road. When he didn’t, he followed me around. I paid him the usual eighteen cents a day just as snake insurance.

I lent him to an animal collector who made a brief visit to the Cavalla River country. Gizi was in his glory. No snake was too big or mean for him to handle, and he dearly loved to put on a show.

His special charge was a matched pair of vicious horned vipers, short, powerful snakes as thick as a man’s lower leg. Gizi would play with them by the hour. When he was packing them for shipment, however, one of the pair sank both fangs deep in the fleshy part of his hand. Horned vipers are extremely poisonous.

Surprised by the attack, Gizi dropped the packing case on his foot. That night he hobbled up to my bungalow.

“Boss,” he complained, “today a snake bite me and I drop a case for my foot. My foot humbug me plenty. Boss, I beg you, you must tell the new white man to put more money by my pay. I not agree to handle cases. My foot be bad-oh.”

“How about the snake bite?” I demanded.

Gizi had forgotten all about that.


THE bush natives I found to be infinitely interesting. In dealing with whites they run the gamut from instant friendliness to obvious suspicion, depending on the tribe and the locale. One characteristic amused me a great deal. Bantu and Sudanese natives instinctively expect a white man to excel them in whatever he does. This does not apply to activities strictly within the sphere of native life. My efforts to beat out rhythm on a signal drum one day brought roars of laughter. It was not disrespectful. I was not expected to be able to drum correctly.

The two groups of natives in the Cape Palmas country with whom I had no standing were the Kroos and Fantis. When they were not working for some of the European traders, they fished. Since they didn’t work for me, and I wasn’t a trader, I did not rank high in the estimation of these hardy, egotistical coast natives.

On a trip by surf boat to Grand Cess with Schuerer, the youngest of the Swiss traders, I finally broke down Kroo reserve. It started when I told Willa, the boat headman, I would pay him double for the trip if I failed to catch more fish than he did. If I won the contest my passage was free.

We left Harper while it was still dark, and felt our way out through the rocks. Then a strong breeze and rough sea caught us, so it was impossible to fish. Willa and I were both disappointed. We made remarkable time to Grand Cess. If Willa proved as good a fisherman as he was sailor, I was going to be out double passage money.

Three days later, ready to return to the Cape, it was a different story. There was a soft, steady breeze and the ocean was oily smooth. The long surf boat settled down to an easy four-knot speed, ideal for trolling.

I decided to use a Number Seven spoon, a piano-wire leader, and a hundred or so yards of hand line. Willa was rigging a large bare hook buried in a handful of bamboo fibers. I spit on my hook for good luck and tossed it out. A three-foot barracuda had it before Willa’s was in the water. Since there was no way of stopping the surf boat without coming around into the wind, I landed the sleek lighter on the run. I soon had two more, Willa hadn’t scored.

The headman pulled his tackle in. His gang of Kroo boys, eight of them, looked silently at their leader. The chant began slowly. Then came the usual drumming on the gunwales. Both increased in volume and tempo. The incantation built up to a crescendo at the height of which Willa threw his hook over the side. As it struck the green water, all sound died as though cut off with a knife.

I knew what was being done, but to show the expected white-man curiosity I said, “What was that?”

Willa bent his battered Kroo face with a grin. “We call the fish, Boss.”

I wondered if the magic would prove as strong as on the day Gnumri called up t he wind. If so, I was already whipped. It was obviously my move.

I said, “Then I must make some magic so that they will come to my hook.” I pulled my spoon in and spit on it three times.

When the Cape came into view, I had nine fish — over a hundred pounds. Willa had given up. He helped me land my last two, a big yellowtail and another barracuda.

“Boss,” he said, “your magic is too strong.”

He silently cut nine notches in the gunwale of the boat and made a mark to indicate my name.

“Willa,” I observed, “a white man’s magic is always strong. You must remember that.”

Then I gave him all the fish. The gift made his dark face glow with pleasure. Sold in Kroo Town, they could bring more than the passage money.

Sometime I shall write the Pflueger people about the magic they built into a Number Seven spoon.


THE Harper-G’Bolobo road was completed in May, 1939. Since it lay entirely within the boundaries of a political division of Liberia known as Maryland County, I turned it over to the government through the county superintendent, an administrator whose powers stem directly from the president.

It goes without saying that no undertaking such as this road could have been completed without assistance from at least a few Liberians. I received help from a group of sincere, honest people who would be a credit to any nation. Among them was the man who is now president of the Republic of Liberia. The tragedy of the country is that men and women of their caliber are so few that their efforts for progress and reform come to nothing in the face of the odds against them. They, and the hundreds of natives who worked willingly for almost two years, created southeastern Liberia’s first highway.

Having become accustomed to manual labor and to receiving a regular income, my workers naturally were concerned about their prospects after the completion of the road. Many of them had no desire to return to their hinterland homes. All wanted “books” showing that they had worked on the road.

I did what I could for them. Sampson Doe and I selected those we considered the best and most deserving laborers and put them at work building the spur to G’Bolobo. The balance I managed to transfer to Firestone rubber planters for bush-clearing and road maintenance. A few settled at Harper to work for the Liberians.

The three hundred men I kept were well-trained road builders. In spite of a harrowing rainy season, they did an excellent and speedy job on the G’Bolobo spur, which had to cross the widest part of the Cavalla rubber plantation. My chief task there was to keep them from fighting with the tappers. The plantation natives consider the tapping of rubber trees the most important job in the world. My road workers felt their task was more vital. Arguments broke out like measles. I got involved to the extent of having a battle with a European planter who handled about a thousand tappers. We cut it short after a mutual realization of how foolish it was. But with our respective laborers, that affair was a matter of “My father can lick your father” for weeks.

My orders to return to the United States arrived in October. I was glad to leave Cape Palmas because World War II, although only a few weeks old, was already complicating life in Africa. Rifts were occurring between my friends in Harper. Good old Renkin, a congenial German host and friend, became a ranting, flag-waving Nazi almost overnight. And he was not the only one to change.

I told Sampson Doe and my headman not to worry. They would work for me again.