10,000 Tom-Toms by Jens Larsen, published by The Muelenberg Press, 1228 Spruce St., Philadelphia 7, Pa., 1952.
The setting of this story is Liberia of the past half century. It is a story that reveals how slowly and how hardly Christianity and civilization make progress among the natives in this African country.
The main character—perhaps I should say—the hero of this story is Kwoli, a youth of sixteen or seventeen years and a native of Peleta, Liberia, who has spent some time in a mission school in Freetown and has also worked for a trader there. Having purchased a cheap linen suit and carrying a bag of silver under his arm, he returns to Peleta, intent on purchasing a wife with his coins, and on becoming a teacher and a missionary to his own people.
The chief of Peleta, King Sumo, and the natives do not welcome his return. The chief reminds him that he has seriously offended the king by running away from home three years before so that he wouldn’t have to enter the Devil’s Bush. He commands Kwoli to be ready to enter the initiation school within a week. Since Kwoli was very much afraid to enter the Devil’s Bush, he was determined not to submit to initiation in it. Was not the Devil’s Bush a mysterious existence in the belly of the Superhuman Country Devil? Weren’t the scar marks on the backs of the boys who had been initiated, the marks of the Devil’s teeth?
Another important character in this story is John Bradley, a boundary surveyor, whom the Liberian government had engaged to establish the Franco-Liberian boundary line at places where it was in dispute. He lived in a clay house outside of Peleta. Kwoli begs the surveyor to employ him, thinking that in the service of this government official he would be safe from the hostility of the villagers and of their wish for him to enter the Devil’s Bush. When Kwoli tells the surveyor of his intentions to civilize and christianize his native people, the surveyor makes the pertinent remark that explains the title of the book, “Listen to those drums, my boy! Do you hear what they are saying: We’ll never change! We’ll never change! And ten thousand tom-toms are booming all over the jungle to the same chant.”
Kwoli answers, “Them drums they no say, We’ll never change! They say, We want to change.” The remainder of the story bears out the truth of Kwoli’s statement.
Before Kwoli is sent to the coast on an errand for the surveyor, he succeeds in seeing and conversing with Kebe, his childhood playmate, whom he wants to buy and marry. Contrary to the teaching he had received at the mission, Kwoli decides to buy a fetish that will help to bring about his marriage to Kebe. On his way to the coast, Kwoli is captured by the Chief Sumo’s subchiefs and sent to the Devil’s Bush. Here he is mercilessly tortured in a process of having the marks of the Devil’s teeth cut into the skin on his back. He is given a year’s training in the rudiments of tribal life; customs, morals, traditions, history, etiquette, language and beliefs. After his initiation, Kwoli’s name is changed to Lepol.
Upon completion of his term in the Devil’s Bush, Lepol asks the chief to help him marry Kebe. The chief refuses because his son wants to marry her. Kwoli returns to the quarters of surveyor Bradley and relates his heartbreaking experience. The surveyor cheers him up by telling him that he has had news from George Langdon, a missionary, who plans to open a school for boys in Peleta. Lepol is happy about the prospect of possible enrollment in this school. When the missionary arrives and the school project has been materialized, Lepol proves himself very adept at giving instruction to the native boys.
A few years later, Langdon and Bradley accompanied by Lepol and other helpers visit a neighboring district to unravel the mystery of a rumor that a light-colored girl who had supposedly been carried off by a leopard years before, still lived. The account of the Leopard Girl’s mysterious origin; of her efforts to free herself from the king of that district and from his witch doctor; of Lepol’s love for her; and of his success in freeing her from the clutches of the king is not only fascinating but is also intensely interesting because it is based upon an actual occurrence.
The chapter relating the story Kwoli’s father told upon his deathbed—that he was the human leopard who had captured the leopard girl at the time when he was a member of the Human Leopard Society—is particularly interesting. The following quotation is strikingly touching, “It’s a horrible story you’ve told me, father, and you’re guilty of a most terrible sin. But you have repented of your sins and you have confessed them to God and to me; therefore, I dare say that the blood of the man on the cross which was shed also for you will cleanse you from all your sins.”
When missionary Langdon later returned to Peleta and when he received a refusal from the headquarters of his church to send him an assistant missionary because the results produced in Liberia were not sufficiently satisfying to justify the church in continuing the work, he wrote a long letter in reply defending his humble but sure beginning in Peleta. Later surveyor Bradley, who has formerly discredited the work of the missionary, after having read Langdon’s defense, acknowledges his mistake and agrees to take charge of the mission school if Langdon should die before a successor arrives. He states his wish that Lepol may be his assistant.
The union of the Leopard Girl with her father, Professor Maurcie La Monte, and the latter’s approval of the marriage of his daughter to Lepol make a fitting end to this jungle story.
Concerning the author of this book, the publishers give the information that he “has been collecting data for this book ever since he and his wife went to Liberia as missionaries 32 years ago. After one year on the coast and four in the interior, they returned because of ill health. While in Liberia, Jens Larsen learned the secrets of the Devil Bush from his native Christian interpreter and helper. They were told to him after his promise that they would never be revealed while the interpreter lived, for fear that he might be murdered for divulging them. This promise was kept until the author learned of the native’s death. The material relating to the Human Leopard Society was largely gathered from printed court proceedings in Leone and French Guinea, and is authentic in every detail.”
This is an excellent book because it reveals the superstitious practices and conditions of jungle life that make missionary work so difficult. This information is woven into a missionary story and a romance to make a first-rate novel. From a Christian viewpoint, the reader would expect a little more definite gospel teaching. Moreover, a few statements make one wonder if the terms Christianity and civilization are not sometimes used synonymously. Needless to say, these terms should be carefully differentiated in a genuine Christian fiction. On the other hand, we can appreciate the fact that the two often go hand in hand in jungle missionary work.