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“Courage of their Conviction” Book Review

By Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh                                    Courage of their Conviction Jeremiah T. Kugmeh


“Courage of their Conviction”

– Book Review

I know a lot about Doodwicken Orphanage Mission; or I think I know something about the mission, because I was a student there in the early 1970s.

I know the strict rules, the strict religious teachings and inconsistencies we had to live with each and everyday. And I also know something about the tough education standards set by mission founder, Lillian Swanson, which attracted students from across the region and country to study there.

In 1972, my late father uprooted my little brother and me from our home in New Kru Town, Monrovia to live in Doodwicken, Sinoe County where the mission was located.

Even though we were far from being orphans, my father, like most fathers and mothers at the time heard that Doodwicken provided excellent education, and decided to pay the fees to send their kid or kids to Doodwicken Orphanage Mission to get decent education.

So when I read “Courage of their Conviction” I was taken aback to those lonely days of religious teachings and school, of course, which influenced the way I see organized religion today.

Anyway, that’s another story for another day.

In his new book, “Courage of their Conviction,” former “mission boy” Jeremiah T. Kugmeh (as he referred to himself and others) gives a fascinating and detailed account of growing up poor and a troubled kid in Drapoh, Sinoe County before finding Doodwicken Orphanage Mission for school and religion in 1964.

“Accordingly, without looking back, I joined the rest of the youth and we decide to walk away from our people, our friends, our tribal gods and affiliations and culture to make permanent settlement into a life that offered hope.”

Even though education was the convincing reason why Mr. Kugmeh decided to leave behind his parents, friends, relatives and others, other reasons were the obvious lack of clinics and playgrounds, which he seemed to have blamed on “the gods of our fathers.”

That burning desire to unshackle his undeveloped mind through education and religion to help his people had a profound effect on the teenager, who was now a traumatized kid trying to make sense of Lillian Swanson’s strict rules and the behavior of his new family of boys – those ‘mission boys.’

“Half way under my cover every night, I thought about our journey from Drapoh to Doodwicken. I traced our steps in case I change my mind and decided to return. I remembered the food back home. I remembered my straw filled mattress and the quiet time alone with no threat of my privacy being invaded.”

“Every night, I counted myself to sleep. The mission looks very beautiful but the behavior of some of the orphanage children was so horrible and discouraging. I did not think I could subscribe to this inhumane treatment for long. The third night my mind wondered until it reaches in our kitchen in Drapoh,” he writes.

Mr. Kugmeh’s parents had the most influence on him in terms of nurturing him, nurturing his future and supporting his dreams. Mr. Kugmeh’s friends also influenced him in the most cruel and despicable ways when their impulsive and unbelievable wickedness led them to cut off the penis of a six-year old child whom they thought they were circumcising, which led tribal leaders in Drapoh to punish each kid with 50 lashes on their bare backs, coupled with the pouring of peppers in their nostrils and eyes.

“The little boy sits there waiting for the unexpected trauma to occur and staring at our faces, one by one, as the debate to decide his fate continues. The boy is still waiting to experience what could be the most excruciating painful experience of his life on earth.”

Mr. Kugmeh also writes:

“Finally, the foreskin to the tip of the boy’s penis is hauled again for the second or third time to sufficient length. The type of cutlass (machete, my word) we used is called the bare bottom. Each of us received fifty lashes on our back and hot pepper pour into our noses and eyes.”

Mr. Kugmeh spent a whole lot of time writing about “the gods of our father” and “witches” in the society, which he blames for the lack of development in Drapoh.

“The gods of our fathers have not built any school exclusive of the traditional schools that perpetuated the culture; promote chaos, and sundry of ungodly practices.”

I once wrote on Dennis Jah’s Doodwicken Online what I thought perhaps was discrimination or preferential treatment given to one of the students of mixed race living on the mission at the time.

The fellow in question is Fredrick Shawkie, (non-orphan at the time) whose father was a Lebanese, and mother, native Liberian. Boys and girls (blacks) lived on the dormitory, were assigned our daily work assignments, cooked our own meals and ate together at our own table.

Fredrick Shawkie lived in the same house with the white missionaries (all older ladies) and ate at the same table with them, and was never given any work assignment.

I realized later in life as a grown up the unfairness, preferential treatment and the racial aspect in the arrangement that separated Fredrick Shawkie from the rest of the mission students.

Mr. Kugmeh, to his credit, observed and wrote about the different treatment Fredrick Shawkie received on the mission. Correction: Fredrick Shawkie’s father was a Lebanese, his mother Liberian. Mr. Kugmeh got this one wrong. He writes:

“A colored boy has a white father and black mother. He lived with the white American ladies and he was treated supremely. On the contrary, if this boy was among white kids, he would be treated as a black child. It was sad indeed. Therefore, he lived with the missionaries and refrains from any work and is not compare to attend church services.”

“Ma” Lillian Swanson who founded Doodwicken Orphanage Mission was known for her steely personality and unrestrained courage and ambition, and could have easily being referred to as “iron lady” before the phrase became famous in Liberia in latter years.

Mr. Kugmeh was good at revealing to his readers why “Ma” Swanson decided to move her mission to Doodwicken.

According to Mr. Kugmeh, it all started when “Ma” Swanson who was ‘sharing resources’ on Jarpuken Mission with another missionary, “Ma” Ramsey, fell out when the mission kids of both ladies couldn’t agree on which kid should draw water first from the stream.

“Suddenly, the spirit of confusion sets in causing them to separate for life unto death. There was never any reconciliation meeting or conference intended to bring the two missionaries together.”

Mr. Kugmeh writes again.

“One of the outstanding Chiefs from Lower Jeadepo, Solomon Jarboe, extended an invitation to Lillian Swanson to move her mission from Jarpuken to Doodwicken in the wake of the disagreement.”

Jeremiah T. Kugmeh breathed Doodwicken Mission and always loved his life as a “mission boy,” even though he despised the one-sided relationship between the missionaries and the locals, and also did not like the unfair ways the missionaries treated the beloved Pastor Johnny Torbor, who was never invited to visit or trained in the United States.

“Despite all of his efforts and excellent services, Pastor Johnny Torbor, regretfully never has invited to visit the United States. Pastor Johnny Torbor was never given a vacation, and was not offered training to upgrade his pastoral skills,” Mr. Kugmeh writes.

Jeremiah Kugmeh life came tumbling down in 1970 when he was suddenly expelled from the mission, for ‘ungodly acts’ he said he never committed. The expulsion was unexpected and had a traumatic effect on his life.

According to Mr. Kugmeh, during a long church service, he left his seat to urinate outside of the church. Remember, the church, as it is with most churches and homes in rural Liberia and in some parts of Liberia lacked inside toilets.

As he proceeded to serve “nature,” he encountered a “mission girl,” Matilda Dennis, outdoors who was also there serving ‘nature.’ Since the mission frowned on the mixing of the genders, he got in trouble and was expelled, but Matilda was never expelled.

“I carried hatred in my heart for her for years. I left the church, remained awake all that night thinking of my new life outside the mission. God being my witness, there was no plan of any immoral acts between us; I decided to let God fix the situation.”

Since Mr. Kugmeh relied so much on the mission for his survival, life outside of Doodwicken mission was hard at first and comical, to say the least.

After his expulsion from the mission, which shattered his hope for the future, Mr. Kugmeh traveled to the big city, the nation’s capital, Monrovia and found a job in a funeral home. Mr. Kugmeh tells a funny and scary story about the time the dead person who was about to be embalmed woke up from the casket and walked away from the funeral home.

Mr. Kugmeh’s next life took him to the Kakata Rural Teacher’s Training Institute (KRTTI), at the urging of his cousin, William Draper. He met his classmate and current wife, Pauline there, whom he has been married to for 32 years.

Jeremiah T. Kugmeh is a good storyteller, or could be a good storyteller who can go from the funny to the most ridiculous story to make his point about the powers of witchcrafts and the “gods of his ancestors.”

This is unnecessary, because it takes a whole lot away from the focus of his book’s theme, “Courage of their Conviction.”

Kudos, however, must be given to Mr. Kugmeh for taking up the challenge of writing a book about Doodwicken Mission and his experience there. He certainly has done what some of us who claimed to be ‘writers’ have never done – that is to write a book.

However, Mr. Kugmeh could have done a better job of not repeating the same storylines about the “gods of his ancestors” and the incredible power of witchcraft.

Mr. Kugmeh could have rephrased his ideas to impact his readers and not confused them.

Mr. Kugmeh could have also done a better job of editing the book, which is full of grammatical errors.

A bold effort!

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