Picture of San Diego's North CountyThe Paper's masthead

Issue 04/07/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 13

Assignment - Liberia
by lyle e davis

Lots of interesting people here in North County.  Lots of interesting stories to tell.  We’ve barely scratched the surface.

Take, for example, a fella named Larry Flora.

Larry’s parents were Lutheran missionaries and accepted an assignment to go to Liberia, West Africa, of all places.  Larry, only two years old at the time, was not consulted on the matter.  He just tagged along with mom and dad and discovered a whole new world.  A world not without a certain amount of danger . . . and not without some strange history.

They traveled there by freighter to the shores of Monrovia, then by car to the end of the car road, and then by foot, or by hammock.  A hammock is a seating arrangement on a pole with two men on either end.  Sounds luxurious.  It wasn’t.  It was utilitarian.

It was 45 miles from the end of the car road, into a community called Zorzor (pronounced ZaZa).  That was home from 1938 to 1950.

The welcome was less than, shall we say, warm.  When they arrived in Zorzor, the witch doctor said, “they are strangers, kill them.”  

“But the people were afraid to kill us,”?said Flora, “because we had more powerful magic and medicine than they had.  We had  little round things about 8” long and we could push a button in it and shine a fire on the wall.  They had never seen such a thing.  You and I?know them as flashlights . . . to the people it was magic.”

Another piece of “magic” kept the natives in line.  “Whenever my dad left home, the men would ask them to request something for mother, dad would take a notepad and write on it - a banana, a shoe, an umbrella, whatever; the man would run a mile to my mother.  My mom would read the note and send back the requested item with the man to his original point.  Those notes were clearly magic; so they wound up being posted on the doors of the natives to keep the evil spirits from entering the home.”  The natives could neither read nor write - so the scribbling of a note from one person to another was simply “magic.”

“We also had a battery operated tape recorder; with that we could steal the spirits out of other people’s bodies and then play it back for them.  The natives would wonder at this.”

Larry was home schooled – thanks to a correspondence school – out of Baltimore, Md.  They are still in business today.  “They provided me with an extremely good education.  On our monthly papers that were sent in for grading, if I?scored less than 80% I had to do the whole test over.

The only white kids I?had to play with were my brothers and sisters but they were four to six years younger than me, so I?spent my time playing with the native kids.  I became fluent in the language (we were living with the Buzi tribe, that is also the name of their language) . . .the area is very mountainous, there are about 16 different tribes, each language is different – and as much alike as Chinese is to English.  We seldom would have anything to do with other villages.  The common language was French . . . I learned French, too.

Living in Liberia, Flora made it a point to learn the history and culture of his temporarily adopted land.  

This history goes back to the early years of America.  Back in 1822 there were a substantial number of escaped and/or freed slaves living in the northern colonies of the new republic of America.

The colonists felt they had to get rid of them, some because they didn’t want white girls dating the handsome black boys, others because they saw that the escaped and freed slaves were actually worse off than when they had been slaves; they could not make enough money to live on.  So, the colonists formed a coalition to send the blacks back to Africa.

They bought a boat named “The Elizabeth,” renamed it “The Mayflower” and in 1822 the first shipload, including 220 escaped slaves, men, women and children, and four white doctors, sailed across the Atlantic and landed on the shores of Liberia.  At that time it was just known as West Africa.

The Captain got off the boat and using sign language, used mirrors, trinkets, cheap beads, and bought the country from the natives living there, who had no concept of what they had done.  
Then the ship’s crew built a small stockade on the top of a knoll near the ocean, a fence around the stockade made of sticks and vines about 4’ high, a couple houses, also made of sticks with thatched roofs . . . and proceeded to unload their passengers.  

The Captain realized 220 black men, women and children now formed the community and they didn’t have one single weapon with which to defend themselves.  He couldn’t have that, so he unloaded the two 4’ long brass cannons on the gunwale of the ship, that he had only used to signal when he was coming into port.  He put them inside the fence of these ex-slaves; then the ship left.

The natives said, ‘those visitors are going to stay, kill them all.’  More than 1,000 men with swords and spears were in the process of attacking the compound to get rid of the strangers.  A couple men pounded all the powder they could get into the cannon, added two cannonballs in the end, but by that time, the attackers were so close they were afraid to light the fuse so they turned to run (the only place to run was into the ocean).

An old woman, named Madonna Newport, walked through the attacking horde, took the pipe out of her mouth and lit the fuse and walked back.  The natives has never seen a cannon; had never seen a sizzling fuse; standing around, talking, touching it, when the fuse hit the powder; the cannon exploded, 12 natives were killed, 20 seriously wounded and the entire rest of the attacking force threw their spears and swords on the ground and surrendered to the people who could make lightning and thunder.

The ex-American slaves christened their new country “Liberia,” because this was their home of Liberty.

Due to tropical diseases, in the first four months all four of the white doctors had died, as well as  all but eight or 10 of the black ex-slaves.  The colonists, however, kept sending ships of blacks back to Africa, even though they knew people were dying as fast as they arrived, the blacks readily accepted transport because they knew it was their country and their freedom.

Liberia was the only US colony formed in 1822 and in 1847, 25 years later, they asked the US to give them their freedom and since the US saw nothing of value there, they willingly gave them their freedom.  

Liberia patterned their government after that of the US, a Republic with a flag with one star for one country, 11 stripes for 11 famous people in the history of their country (and 11 states in that country at the same time).

The United States of America, who saw not much of value in Liberia, thus easily granted them independence, may have regretted that decision later.  Turns out Liberia is a very rich country.

After it became an independent Republic, the first black Republic in the world, they soon discovered they were a very wealthy nation.  The have the richest iron ore in the world, the largest producing rubber plantation in the world . . .producing more than the largest rubber plantation which is three times the size; becaue of the heat and overall climate . . . it can draw off much more rubber sap with no harm to the trees; also, due to heat and humidity, it is the best lumber producing country in the world.

The climate shows an average rainfull of 360 inches on the coast, 275 inches at the furthest point in the interior.  Temperatures range from 82 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, 365 nights per year, 92 to 96 degrees every day of the year – the lowest recorded temperatures was 79 degrees.  It is like living in a hot house with humidity never less than 95%.  The weather features six months of the year of continuous rain; during the other six months it evaporates the moisture in the air causing dense moisture in the air and fog. If you see the sun clearly five times  a year, it’s probably three more times than the year before.  You can literally watch the jungle grow due to the climate.

To illusrate how rapidly plants, bushes, trees grow . . . villages had an agreement to clear the path halfway to the next village; every four weeks or so a man walked down a trail with a 12’ pole, horizontal, waist high, the crew behind him would cut the jungle back so it would not touch the pole.  If they waited six weeks, the jungle would have filled in the trail so heavily you could not get through.
Larry and his family had to learn all about native education or lack thereof, and their religious beliefs and cultural traditions.  When they were there, the witch doctor was all powerful.  Larry tells the story:  “Every boy and girl, between ages of seven and 14 were taught the history of their tribes and all the fetishes of the evil spirits by which they had to live. Remember, they lived in the jungles, away from town.  This was the extent of their ‘education.’  

They had a belief, for example, that there was always an evil spirit walking behind you.  Let’s say someone decided the evil spirit walking behind me was a banana.  If the evil spirit touched me, I would die.

One day a man carried a banana stalk into the village and began to give the bananas away.  I didn’t want one.  Didn’t particularly like bananas.  The other kids decided that was because my evil spirit which was following me was a banana . . . so, kids being kids, began to throw banana skins at me.  One hits me.

My dad had to go to the witch doctor and beg him to lift the curse and put the evil spirit back into the banana.

The witch doctor says . . ‘well, you are the richest man in the tribe.  You have six cows, four goats, I want two cows, one goat, . . .” at which time my dad said, “No, never mind,  Larrry isn’t worth that much.”

Witch doctor can’t let dad and me leave because if I don’t die,  then the witch doctor loses power . . .so he negotiates.  (Witch doctors would often ensure that people would die, ordering one of his followers to capture, kill, and feed the victim to the jungle animals; all to retain his power).  

Turns out I?was worth two chickens.  The witch doctor restored the evil spirit back into the banana.  I?was safe and power continued to be held by the witch doctor.”

That missionary work in the jungle was a major challenge must be obvious.  But that was the assignment, to minister to the natives, to convert them to Christianity, to adapt to their culture in order to accomplish the assignment, no matter how many years it took.  Conversion was not without risk to the natives:

If you became a Christian, you were killed.

At that time, the annual income per native was $16 per year.  (It’s about $24 per year today.)  

One witch doctor converted to Christianity and threw about $400 worth of his medicines into the river.  The other witch doctors put pressure on the Chief to send that witch doctor to work on a road gang.  He was both beaten and worked almost to death.  When he was taken back home he died en route.

If a native became a Christian, he  committed sucide because the witch doctors arranged for his killing, by poison, by ‘accident,’ etc.  When the entire village became Christian, he couldn’t kill them all.

Today, witch doctors no longer possess that power.

We taught natives to read and write in their own language.  The average person who spoke the language fluently could learn to read/write in about 9 weeks.  

This Chief came to my father (there were three families/clans within village) Kezley (the chief of one clan) came to my dad and said, “Teach me to read and write.”  

Dad said, “Why?  You hate the white man; you hate the missionary; when three of your wives got so close to our church on Sunday morning they could hear our singing, you beat them to death; when two of your boys came to our school, you beat them till they were crippled for life and you killed their fathers.  

When one of your men had a pain in his side that your medicine man could not cure; he came to our white man’s hospital and while the doctor was removing his appendix, you dragged him off the operating table and when he died you fed him to the wild animals.  

Why do you want me to teach you to read and write.”  

The Chief answered, “because I’m a Chief; in that other clan there is a young boy who does not even have a name but he can read and write; I can’t have that.  I must be superior to everyone in every way.  In three weeks, not nine, he mastered reading and writing; in four weeks he read everything we had written in his language.  “See Dick and Jane, see them run,” The Psalms, and the Four Gospels.  

When their language was put into writing, the natives became Christian, then, with villages all becoming  Christians, the witch doctors lost their strength and disappeared.  Natives would not tolerate it any longer.”

My dad and I went to see the Chief one day; he was telling the stories and reading the stories about the son of God who was healing people.  He said to my dad, “can I send my people to your white man’s hospital?”  

We had a problem.  

1200 people in the clan, dysentery, malaria, one nurse in the dispensary.  We  brought in another doctor and nurse; in three months we successfully ministered to every one of his clan.  The life expectancy at that time was age 29 because of tropical diseases.  

Later, the Chief asked my dad if it was okay for my children to come to your school.  We had one teacher and one building.  We added six more buildings and six more teachers.  We had ministered to orphanages and from those we recruited teachers.  They were Christians and they answered our need as teachers.

In about a year’s time . . . my dad was able to baptize into Christianity the entire clan, 1200 people.  In the first 100 years of Liberia, we had only converted 99 (5 missionary stations) – but once they could read the scriptures themselves . . . and experience the healing powers of our medical people and the education of our schools, in one year, 1200.

In 1944 the US had given Liberia $2.5 million to build roads and bridges.  Instead, the government used it to put one block of pavement in front of the president’s mansion and two new cars in the home of every Americo Liberan government employee, of which there were approximately 350,000.
In 1947 when they had been a country for 100 years, historians came over to see how well developed this country was; they wrote a scathing report.  There were no roads, no bridges, very little of anything.  

In 1946 Liberia averaged 1-2 ships per month in port.  Cargo had to be hand paddled to the big ships.  The US?finally did something right in foreign affairs.  The  US said they will build a seaport, Libera would dedicate the land as US soil, then we would build the port and manage the port until we had been repaid the cost of building the port, plus 100% of the cost of bulding roads, bridges, etc. plus 8%.

In the mid 1970’s, the US gave the seaport back to Liberia.  They reclaimed the $2.5 million used frivously, the $29-30 million to build the seaport – the seaport could house seven vessels at one time . . . within a month after the port was built there was an average of five vessels per week coming into Liberia, which they needed to export their wealth to make their money.
Instead of flying out cargo, or trucking across border, now they could ship it out by ocean-going vessels.

Indeed, we finally did something right in foreign affairs.

A Civil War broke out in 1992. One tribe got a lot of their people into the Army; they staged a coup and killed the president and about 40 other officers of the country and then said to what was left of the Liberian government, ‘we are not educated, not capable of running a country; all we want is a share of the wealth; build our plants, hospitals, schools, and you can have your country back.’  That’s pretty much what happened.

In 1999, two tribes decided to form a  civil war and win their freedom; they got tribes from across West Africa . . . marching on Monrovia, with machine guns and a volume of soldiers, that outnumbered the government military by 10 to 1.

On December 25, 1999, they decided, ‘let’s make a statement so they know we mean business.’  They marched into St. Stephens Lutheran Church and massacred about 600 people at worship.
0The US and UN said, “that’s not a civil war, that’s a pure massacre.’

Within hours, military units were parachuted into Monrovia with an adequate force, and with far more powerful weapons to keep these two tribes out of the city.  

These two tribes went to all other 14 tribes in the country  and said . . . “join us.  You don’t have to carry weapons, just march with us.”  

The other tribes said, ‘no, we’re Christian.’  
The two renegade tribes then spent five years taking whatever they wanted and killing anyone who stood in their way;  any white person, any doctor, attorney, any educated person.  In five years they killed an estimated 1 million people.  In 2006 the US intervened; a peace treaty signed; in 2007, Eleanor Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of the country and peace was restored.  Rebuidling has been very slow . . and as of this date . . . 82% of the working population is unemployed.

The corruption continues to be rampant.  Anyone who comes into the country with any money or other assets is soon relieved of it.  If you are white, you are a second class citizen.  The blacks, recalling their ill and abusive treatment during the early years of the US, are giving ‘payback.’

In spite of this, Flora wants to go back to Liberia in July of 2012.  He wants to take his wife, Bonnie, with him, to see the country in which he grew up, to visit the jungle village community . . . and to experience the high heat and humidity he had to live through for his adolescent years.

They also want to meet, for the first time, Zoulaika, a 12-year-old girl they adopted from Compassion International.  She lives in Burkina Faso, two countries east of Liberia.  She was born on June 12, 2000.  

Larry and Bonnie heard a presentation Compassion International made at their church, Community Lutheran, of Oceanside, and heard the plea for help.  Compassion International spends 92% of their income to help support the children and families within their network.  Larry and Bonnie were touched and inspired by the presentation and thus ‘adopted’ Zoulaika.

Larry still remembers some of his language training.  “Between 1999 and 2006, more than a million people in Libera were killed; more than a million and half were displaced.  Six years ago, 3,600 refugees of 6,000 in the East Bay areas had come to Pittsburgh, Ca. due to Civil War.  There was a lady from my town; she was amazed I could talk to her in her native dialect”

After returning to America, Larry would attend Midland College in Fremont, Nebraska, where he earned a BA in Sociology.  He met Bonnie two weeks before college began, on his way to school, when he was going out for football; “she lived next door to a favorite aunt who I was visiting.  It took about three months before she stopped dating an old boyfriend . . . during college I did date her (after I chased her around on my bicycle while she was singing in her choir.  I found out later in life that Bonnie was embarrassed that ‘this kid would chase her all over the state of Nebraska on a bicycle while she sang in an a capella touring choir.’  Bonnie, sill sings in the choir today as a lead soprano.

All that bicycling pursuit paid off, however.  In 1958, Larry Dale Flora married Bonnie Bartels in Gurley, Nebraska, a town of about 200 souls.  They would go on to have four children, two sons, two daughters.

Following college in Nebraska, Larry went on to Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, in Berkeley, CA. where he earned his Master’s Degree in Divinity.

He didn’t really want to go into the ministry but his dad had decreed that, ‘the eldest son must become a pastor.’  To honor his father, he did so - but his heart wasn’t in it.  “I?was good at pastoring.  I more than quadrupled the congregation . . .but it just was not my calling.  I enjoyed sales, went into sales and sold ever since; I’m still active in the church, it’s part of my life. I’m Chairman of the Board of Deacons - . . sing in the choir . . am involved in evangelism, I will preach a sermon when the pastor can’t be there . . .”

Today, besides planning on his 2012 trip back to Liberia, Larry plays Contract Bridge three times a week, and, as he says, “just enjoy my retirement.”

Proud possessor of a flowing white beard, Larry also has played Santa Claus for the past seven years.  He also has written a book, “Cops, Jungles and Santa Claus,” available from Amazon.com for $10.47.

He does give presenations to churches, school, civic and service clubs, about Liberia.  Recently, he spoke to the Hidden Valley Kiwanis Club of Escondido.  The audience loved his presentation.  He brings many artifacts and mementos from Liberia that his audience can see and touch  One of the mementos he brings is the skin of a 31 foot python.  Impressive when rolled out on the floor to its full length.    “It was a Python, somewhat similar to the anaconda in South America, but an African snake.  I have no idea what kind of python it was.  When alive, it was about 31 feet long.  When it was shot, there was no way of knowing whether or not it had been killed ... about 25 men, pulled it out of the tree, cut it  into three sections, tied them to 9-10 foot limbs and carried the still wiggling snake into the village ... It took seven to eight men to carry each section.”

Larry and Donna live in San Marcos.  If interested in booking Larry for a presentation, call 760.298.3810 or email at: