MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 4

THE NORTHERN REGIONS


EIGHT MILES out of the frontier town of Bawku stands the first mission we saw in the Northern Regions of Ghana. We had come through lion and elephant country but nothing more wild than a few birds had disturbed us. The water-holes were empty, the land was parched and so were we under a burning sun. I was in a fit state to admire the taste of an African priest, Father Kizito : his walls were adorned with pictures of the snow-clad mountains of Switzerland ! I did not appreciate quite so much our meal of rice heavily dosed with pepper; a poor effort to tempt jaded appetites!

We paid a visit to the tiny chapel which was ravaged by white ants. The Superior told me that the only way to get rid of white ants is to see that they are invaded by red ones. The rest of the mission was as poor as the chapel: small thatched huts, scarcely furnished at all; but this was the missionaries' home. Missionaries love to pioneer, and I must say it is a moving experience to see it at first hand. This is how the Church first started, with practically nothing, at Bethlehem. The Fathers plan to move into the town of Bawku as soon as they can.

We pushed on to Bolgatanga, where we were assailed and nearly asphyxiated by an overpowering smell. Fish ! I was amazed for we were in the heart of a dry land. I learned that Bolgatanga is the distributing centre for tons of fish brought five hundred miles from Mopti on the banks of the Niger. The fish is only sun-dried and not completely cured so it begins to decompose in transit!

I said my Mass next morning in the little chapel of the African Sisters. There were five of them, as spotless as their chapel, which made me blush for my dusty shoes. Later, Father Asoedena, an African, took me round the mission with its primary and middle schools. He told me, in splendid English, that their greatest need was for a secondary school somewhere in the area: the nearest was Tamale, a hundred miles away. Some of the children used to be boarders here and lived in little huts, now deserted. The idea of a boarding school had to be abandoned owing to lack of funds. I was learning at first hand something we were to be told ad nauseam. There are two great obstacles to the conversion of Africa, lack of priests and lack of money: two simple grim facts. Not only the mission but the whole place bears too much the scars of poverty.

The priest took me to the fish market. He liked it—God bless him—because, he said, it is cheap food for the people and the market tax is a source of local revenue for the Council who have to make do with almost nothing. I began to feel depressed; so much distress, such a permanent stink—and then the ground so hot that it seemed to burn through my shoes. But Father Asoedena did not seem to mind, and he lives in it—always ! So do a lot of other people. The difference is, I suppose, that the priest is here by choice in order to help the poor in body and soul. I suddenly lost my depression. Father Asoedena was so courteous, modest and straightforward. He had been here only four months. Some friends in Europe had sent him the money to buy a motor cycle to help him cover his huge parish, but he had spent the gift on his poor schools for his children, as he put it.

"The schools had to be repaired and whitewashed," he told me. Now he has not a penny left. He just laughed this off, and guided me to another fish stall. "Poor people," he said, "if only there were more priests they would all be Christians." "How many of them are Christians?" I asked. "Four thousand; out of two hundred thousand—but we're getting along."

"Father, we must be getting along," said the Superior of Navrongo Mission who was to take me on my next stage of journey.

I did not want to leave Father Asoedena at all, and he seemed sorry to see us go. I told him that I would not forget him, and like the African Bishop he said: "Let us pray for each other."

Navrongo is only eighteen miles away and the lorry got us there, dusty and thirsty as usual. I felt ashamed of thinking of such trifles when Father Morin told me about the beginnings of this Mission of Navrongo. It was established fifty-two years ago. The White Fathers travelled to it on foot and on horseback. It took them three months! Now the parish priest is an African. He is 45 years of age and is the first priest of his people, just as his father was one of its first Christians.

The night was the hottest I have ever known. The Harmattan was blowing from the desert and there was something wrong with me. Next morning, a Sunday, when I got up the room seemed to be turning round, and a train or something seemed to be running wild in my stomach.

I began my Mass but sat down for a rest after the Epistle. My little server took this in his stride: probably a new ritual from Europe! I made a fresh start, got through the Gospel—and then retired to bed. I listened to the High Mass across the compound but got up later and made my way to the refectory at lunchtime. Someone cut a loaf of bread and out ran thousands of tiny ants. It did not help my stomach. Although a little weak, I was able to say Mass on the Monday and then see something of the works of the Church here.

I went first to the Catholic Teachers' Training College, which I shall always associate with beer. Not that I was given any to drink, but because the open-air theatre is built on it, so to speak. A lot of people in Navrongo obviously believe that beer is good for them. The Fathers were able to get 30,000 empty beer bottles without payment—except for the cost of transport, and these they embedded in cement to make tiers and tiers of seats. The bottles were like the builders' hollow blocks and saved the precious cement.

The students run their own mess. Every month they elect a committee which buys the food, hires the cooks, listens to complaints, and so on.

The mission hospital is a series of long bungalows, each one making a fine ward. There is, however, very little shade and one felt sorry for the patients in the terrific heat. I met two nurses, one from Brighton, the other from Belfast. They had volunteered a period of service to the missions. Both were ward sisters, and they were lavish in their praise of the African nuns and nurses who assist them. I noticed a three-months-old child like a skeleton. "Only undernourished," said the nurse. Looking round I saw that he was only one of many.

The hospital is run by the White Sisters, one of them told me that in January and February they get two hundred and fifty outpatients a day, and that it is impossible to keep the numbers of those admitted to hospital down to the number of beds. Between the bedsteads patients were lying on mattresses on the floor.

"It is better than sending them away!" she said. The Ghana Government pays the Doctor and Nurses and gives generous grants to the hospital which is open to all, irrespective of religion.

The White Sisters are also in the schools and sewing workshops, and I was reminded of Cardinal Hinsley's words: "I can tell, miles before reaching a mission, whether there are nuns there or not: so great is their influence upon the life of the people, especially on the women". Certainly no one could attend these establishments of the White Sisters without being profoundly influenced for good.

It was the last day of April and soon the rains would come. The Harmattan continued to blow and my sheets at night felt hot to the touch: but I was better. Lying awake I watched the mason flies. They look like huge black wasps, as they set to work building mud nests, a small half-sphere with an opening in the centre. Then they sting a caterpillar, bring it alive to the nest and seal it in with the eggs. The grubs hatch out and live on the caterpillar till they are big enough to break through the mud wall of the nest. If only we could build mission stations as easily! This one had been up for fifty years, and it was only mud and cow-dung in the first place. There were storms all around us, but no rain so far. We could certainly have done with it, but I wondered if a good rain storm might not have washed the church away altogether. However, like the missionaries, these mud buildings are tougher than they look.

There is a "good old witch-doctor" here at Navrongo. Frequently he used to prophesy that somebody was in some great danger from which he—the g.o.w.d. —would save him for the small price of a goat. He received a lot of goats. When he was sixty years old he fell ill. But he, who could, "cure all diseases", could not cure himself. He was advised to go to the mission and get some White Father's juju, which he did and was cured. But there he learned that he must give up all his own jujus. He did that too and became a Christian and so did everyone in his compound. He was now eighty, ill again, and had received the Last Sacraments just before my visit.

Paganism is fighting hard to hold its evil citadels around here and in the name of its "religion", murder is not barred. The witch-doctors, for instance, will declare that a certain person is a "soul-eater": that is, one who devours the souls of people who die. In consequence the people are terrified of these soul-eaters who, they fear, will in some mysterious way eat their souls and kill them. And so they try to capture a soul-eater and put him to death. This used to be done by binding him tightly with dry ropes. Then they poured water over him so that the ropes tighten and crushed the victim to death. This crushing by ropes is closely connected with the superstition of the "invisible strings". These strings, put across the paths, are supposed to kill a person who breaks them, but in fact the victim usually dies of poison.

Yet I wonder whether these pagan beliefs are so firmly held today? One old man came running to the mission begging the priests to go and baptise his dying son.

"But, you're not a Christian yourself!"

"No, I can't live up to your religion," he replied, "but it's good."

Mission work is made more difficult at Navrongo by the variety of languages. In Navrongo itself, there are two languages, but in the district no less than seven are spoken. The African Father Alexis Abatey can hear confessions in all seven! He is the parish priest and is much loved and trusted by the people.

I went to Walwale, a few miles from Navrongo, to see Brother John Ryan. He was building a new mission. He pointed out the cook to me and said: "He has an enterprising son called Dodo, and Dodo will be either a rich man or a jailbird: he used to come to the mission while his dad was working, and he was left to his own resources.

One day, Father Superior unexpectedly needed his bicycle in a hurry, but could not find it. That evening it was back in its proper place. Intrigued, he checked upon it next day, and the same thing happened. It turned out that Dodo was taking it down to the market place to hire it out by the hour. A very promising boy! "

After a short visit we pushed on to Tamale, and arrived late at night to learn that the Bishop was in Timbuktu ! But Father Joe Haigh was at the mission. He told me about the new mission he was starting at Yendi which is, after Tamale, perhaps the largest centre in the Northern Regions. It was in Togoland till this became part of Ghana with Independence and was then incorporated in the Tamale Diocese. It is certainly time that it had a mission of its own, especially as the Yaa-Naa, the chief of the area, lives there. There are as yet few Christians at Yendi, but good prospects for the future.

This diocese, although on the Gold Coast for so long, has no gold, and hardly any copper. Even the candlesticks in the pro-cathedral were merely tin––cigarette tins! A new church to serve as the cathedral is very badly needed, and the foundation stone for one was laid in 1947. There is still only a foundation stone. The hope of building a cathedral and also building and running a proper school proved illusory, and what money there was went to the various schools all over the diocese.

Father Paul Haskew
was in charge of the secondary school here. His brother, Kenelm, is the Vicar General and told me all about the diocese.

Tamale is a stronghold of Islam, and practically no conversions are made amongst the local people, the Dagombas. Only two of their men have been baptised in the last ten years and these two cannot find wives amongst their own people. It is said that the women are more Moslem than their menfolk. The Dagombas do not send their children to school either; they employ them as soon as possible on their farms. There are, however, a thousand people at Mass every Sunday, but these are people who have migrated into Tamale and it is their children who fill the school, where I saw Father Walters from Bristol teaching arithmetic.

The Mission is in a noisy neighbourhood, and I said my Mass to the radio accompaniment of Scottish bagpipes, jazz, and finally a News Bulletin in English.

After breakfast, I drove a few miles out to the senior seminary of St. Victor, where I witnessed what was a daily operation, the painful spectacle of old, 40-gallon petrol drums filled with water and being rolled half a mile to the mission. One can imagine what would happen if there was a fire: in fact there was one as recently as 1953. Father Tryers told me the tale, perhaps with his tongue in his cheek, though he did not sound amused. He rushed to the fire station and was kept waiting half-an-hour until the right man was found. Then he was told to fill in a form! Finally, he came away with thirty policemen in helmets and armed with batons.

"What good were the batons ? "

"Oh! They hadn't come to put out the fire but to keep people away from it ! "

The seminary and everything in it was burnt to the ground. We went to the new small building for lunch, and found Father Connolly, Superior of the seminary, with his six students for the priesthood. It was homely and cheerful. In the evening we set off for Damongo, thirty miles away, where a new mission was growing up.

There was no church at Damongo, and while Father Herrity went to the convent next morning to say Mass I said mine in the refectory on a portable altar. After breakfast we went to the hospital. The Superior was in the operating theatre, but I saw one of the Sisters of St. Anne. They came out here from Wimbledon in 1955.

The Sister said : " We had not received any postulants at home for some time, and so we decided to work in the missions and trust God to give us a special blessing." He did ; they now have several postulants.

The Sisters had with them an African qualified nurse and three girls preparing to go to a nurses' training centre. At Damongo is the only TB ward at present in the whole of the Northern Regions of Ghana! Naturally, they cannot receive all the patients who apply to come, but those who do come respond well to treatment.

" What would you like here more than anything else ? " I asked.

"Some conversions amongst the local people, the Gonja," said Sister. "They're such nice, friendly people, but they're under the influence of Islam and we don't seem able to get at them."

"Have you any other disappointments ? " She laughed and pleased me when she said: "Yes, indeed, I've been in Africa several months already, and I've not seen a lion ! "

Father Herrity drove us through his parish. I thought we were off for a little trip round a village or two, near at hand, but his parish is one hundred miles from end to end. He stopped at a place called Larabanga to see the local Moslem leader or Malam. Larabanga means El Arabi Bang—The Arab Book. The Koran here in the mosque is said to date from the thirteenth century.

We met two African nuns with two girls. The girls were carrying basins of yams on their heads. We gave them a lift. I casually tried to lift one of the basins of yams from off the head of one of them, and received the surprise of my life. It certainly weighed forty pounds!

We called at the novitiate of a Congregation of African Brothers. This Congregation, named after St. Joseph the Worker, began in 1953. There were now five novices, twelve postulants and fifty-five aspirants being trained. The first Brothers would be professed in a year's time. Training is thorough and covers a long period. The newcomer remains for three years an aspirant, and three years as a postulant before beginning his two years of novitiate.

Nearby was a catechists' school. An African priest was in charge of twenty-seven married men who follow a three-year course. This Father Bayo should be a Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was given £30. With that he had to put up groups of African huts and a couple of classrooms, and feed seventy-five people, not including the cooks. He was told that with the £30 he would have to build and to manage one month. That was three months ago and he was still "managing".

In the evening we reached an outstation called Daffiama to surprise Father Briody from Scotland. I, apparently, was the last person he expected to see in Ghana, and he said so in his usual picturesque language which I am sure he would like to be kept secret. He came back to the main mission with us where the kind White Sisters made us a present of three bottles of cold drinking water—and so we not only talked but drank late into the night.

We had a delightful morning next day at the Mother House and novitiate of the African Sisters of Ghana. It is run by the White Sisters of whom I saw four. Forty professed African Sisters were working in five missions here. The African Congregation had a romantic beginning. One day at Navrongo, a group of girls came to the White Sisters to say: "We want to be Sisters like you." That was twenty-five years ago and this holy prosperous novitiate at Daffiama was the result.

I saw them "ironing" clothes without a flat-iron. You just smooth out the material with the flat of your hand and then lay it on a bench on which you put another bench. All you have to remember is that you must not do your ironing when people want to sit down. There is little wood for fires in this area.

At noon we left Daffiama to go to the great Dagari mission of Jirapa.


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