CENTENNIAL SECONDARY SCHOOL, MATTRU JONG
1955 – 2005
by Dr. Joseph F. Kposowa and Mrs. Nancy Hull-Ngele
When educators review the early efforts in formal education in Sierra Leone, the first thing that one recollects is the influence of missionaries and the Negroes who arrived from Nova Scotia in 1792. The influence of these two groups in establishing schools was followed by colonial administrators – the British.
According to the Triennial Survey of 1958, the first Western-type school was established in Freetown by six teachers who accompanied the Nova Scotians in 1792. This was followed by the Civil Establishment of Sierra Leone when the Parliament in London allocated 300 pounds sterling for six teachers. Thus, this was the first government aid assistance to education in the colony.
By the early 1800s, missionaries became very active in establishing schools in both the colony and the protectorate. The first two secondary schools in Sierra Leone were founded by the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.), an Anglican group in 1845 and, a new Sierra Leone Grammar School for boys. The other school was the Annie Walsh Memorial School founded in 1845 for girls. They established the institute of Fourah Bay to train individuals for teaching and the ministry. This facility later developed in Fourah Bay College which affiliated itself with Durham University in Britain in 1876 for degree level standards. It became the University of Sierra Leone in 1960.
While the C.M.S. was active in the colony, other missions undertook vigorous work in the protectorate. As the Appendix indicates, these missions established the same goals as the Anglican groups. For example, the United Brethren in Christ (from the U.S.) founded the Sherbro Mission in the South. Two English mission groups, United Free Methodists, and Wesleyan Methodists worked among the largest ethnic groups – the Mende.
In their zeal to spread Christianity, they also had the desire to found schools – so as to address the problems of national development in a more realistic manner.
The question arises; what brought about the establishment of Centennial Secondary School? Therefore, it behooves a former student to undertake a partial overview of education in this evolving nation (Sierra Leone) and likewise a former teacher, (Mrs. Nancy Hall-Ngele) to give some reflection on the first significant education ordinance instituted by the U.B.C. mission in Sierra Leone.
CENTENNIAL SECONDARY SCHOOL: AN EARLY HISTORY
Centennial Secondary School was actually born in the mind of Rev. Lloyd Eby (later Bishop Eby) and passed on to DeWitt Baker when he was a U.S. Navy Pilot based in Natal, Brazil in 1944. His bride, Evelyn had sent him a news clipping that five United Brethren Missionaries were somewhere in South America en route to Sierra Leone, West Africa. DeWitt Baker knew that Pan Am flew into Natal, so he was able to trace them through the Pan Am Office. He found them in the Hotel Grande across the street. Approaching his Huntington College friend Bernadine Hoffman from behind, he put his hand on her shoulder and startled her by saying, “Hi, Bernadine.” She was traveling with Oneta Sewell and Ema Funk, and they were joined the following day by Rev. and Mrs. Lloyd Eby. During the five or six weeks stopover because of war conditions in the Atlantic, Rev. Eby organized morning devotions for themselves and 35 other missionaries “stranded” there on the way to various mission fields. The young navy pilot DeWitt Baker would return in the morning after his night assignments, protecting American ships, and join them for devotions.
Rev. Eby approached young Lt. Baker, who had joined the service from a teaching career, about the possibility of going to Sierra Leone to start a secondary school. Surely the fact that they met thousands of miles away from home in these unusual circumstances is an amazing example of the Providence of God.
In 1949, DeWitt and Evelyn Baker would be approached officially by Dr. Eby and Dr. George Fleming, Secretary of United Brethren Missions, about the possibility of going to Sierra Leone to start a secondary school. That summer, DeWitt received his Master’s Degree from the University of Michigan with his thesis titled, “The History of Education in Sierra Leone, British West Africa.” By this time, the Bakers had two very young sons, and in early August of that year, they set off for Sierra Leone.
From Dr. E.D. Baker’s autobiography I quote, “I arrived eager to build the first UBA secondary school, but it was immediately apparent that additional primary schools had to be established in the Southern Province to supply the upper grades with students. To do that, I traveled to villages in the bush and worked with local pastors and chiefdom leaders to construct classrooms or upgrade existing schools. I was responsible for the staff, the construction and the Christian standards at the schools.”
“Pa Carlson told me there were about 25 UBA churches and seven UBA schools.” Mr. Baker worked tirelessly their first three-year term to build up the primary schools and help establish new ones. The family was plagued with malaria, dysentery, and many painful boils as they lived and worked first in Bonthe at Minnie Mull, then in Mattru, with the family divided between the two form months, and then reviving Danville Boarding School in Gbangbaia. At that time, transportation between Gbangbaia and Mattru was a choice of bush path or river, taking a launch to Bonthe and another from Bonthe to Gbangbaia. roads were so rough between Mattru and Bumpe, Bumpe and Freetown that most trips included, at least, one flat tire, sometimes a broken spring or tie rod. The 180-mile trip from Mattru to Freetown also included crossing three rivers by ferry.
“In mid-February, we discovered that the Chevy pickup had a broken frame, so I carefully drove it to Freetown to have the frame and muffler welded. Since the repair would take a week, I went by train to Mano and by lorry back to Mattru.”
“I consulted with the Education Officer in Bo about leasing the plot for the secondary school at Mattru, an important step to complete. I also appeared in court and was fined for driving an overloaded pickup.”
“When I returned for the pickup in Freetown, the UBA District Commissioners met with the missionaries, Education Officers, and government officials to plan the future of education in Sierra Leone. Earl Ensminger and I talked until late in the night, making plans for the new secondary school and evaluating the need for additional primary schools in our District…”
“The District Commissioner advised that we wait to survey the Mattru site until further agreements were reached with the government, but while we waited, the Provincial Education Officer came for tea and to talk about plans for the school. Mr. Scott, the national Education Officer, looked over the site, and he and I spent two hours dreaming about the school’s future. Building that school was an important undertaking for everyone.” Mr. Baker continued visiting and supervising primary schools, bringing them supplies and encouragement.
“Approval for the construction of the secondary school at Mattru was finally given and joyfully received! We had earlier resolved that the school would be named Centennial Secondary School, (CSS) in commemoration of 100 years of UBA missions in Sierra Leone, and we began construction immediately. As the first few boards were planed, zing! Two blades spun off the rotating planner. Thank the Lord, no one was hurt. On the day that (baby) Joyce cut her first tooth, April 12, we began hauling sand, stone, and cement for the foundation of the first building and for making cement blocks.
“I showed the Director of Education our plans for CSS. He verbally approved most of them. The project was moving slowly but in the right direction.
“After the builders at Mattru made 785 blocks for the school, I bought 200 more bags of cement. All the cement mixing was done by hand by two shifts of men who molded the blocks. One shift made 100 blocks, then the second shift did the same…On May 28, Lawyer Albert Margai, the Minister of Education, came to view the CSS site…
“The District Commissioner asked me to appear in court to discuss the lease of the CSS site with the Native Authority. The Authority informed us that the annual fee to lease the land would be L10, 10 (ten pounds, ten) shillings. From that meeting, I went to Mano to check on the purchase of iron railroad track, to be used in the pillars that support the roof, and eight double and fourteen single steel doors for the school.” Missionary Earl Ensminger was the draftsman who drew the blueprints for all the buildings.
“On October 26, Albert Margai and Paramount Chief Kposowa of Bumpe came to see the progress at CSS…When the guests were gone, I measured out one plot for the administration/library building that would be 99 feet long and others for the boys’ dormitory and two staff houses…
“A crew of men began work on the water supply system for CSS. First the poured cement for a water tank – 16 feet long, 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep – located on a low hill at the back of the compound. We planned to pump water from the stream 800 feet behind the compound to the tank, and from the tank, water would flow down to all the buildings. Three hundred bags of cement were required to complete this project..”
Mr. Baker tells of the arrival of Rita Wild October 31, 1954. She would be the Assistant Principal for several years. The two of them started interviewing students for entrance in January. Rita also journeyed to Moyamba to visit Harford School for Girls. She asked many questions of the kind missionaries and national staff members, even sitting down with cooks and recording amounts of palm oil, rice and other ingredients they used, and the number of students they served.
Centennial Secondary School was dedicated in its very unfinished form on January 7, 1955, during Annual Conference. Paramount Chiefs, local political and government officials, provincial and national personnel, national education officers, District Commissioners, business representatives and the media were all invited. The Honorable Albert M. Margai, Minister of Education was introduced as the speaker for the occasion, and in his introduction, Mr. Baker pointed out that all the buildings completed or under construction had been financed by funds from the UBA Mission, none from the national government. Mr. Margai quickly responded that funds from the government would soon come, and a grant of L4,000.00 did arrive five days later. “I certainly praised the Lord for the successful celebration,” Mr. Baker wrote, “and with the money, I paid the bills. The government funding indicated government approval of the first coeducational, secondary boarding school in Sierra Leone. It awarded further grants of L6,000, L8,000 and L12,000 as the building program vigorously continued until 15 buildings were completed.”
As the Bakers thought about returning to the States in 1956, they knew that a capable and versatile person would be needed to continue construction, teach science, and fill the role of Principal during the year they were away. They or the Mission Secretary, Dr. George Fleming thought of Mr. Herbert Cook of California. He had a Master’s Degree from UCLA, experience in high school teaching and administration, construction, and was currently teaching science at Los Angeles City College. He was well qualified and quite willing to serve in Sierra Leone. He was able to obtain a leave of absence from his teaching assignment, and he and his wife Lucile and their daughter Virgilia made plans to go to West Africa the following year.
December 1, 1955, was a very sad day for the Baker family and several other Mattru families. There was a primary school picnic on the island of Pipoh. Ronnie and Norman Baker and Colleen Sundstrom were invited to join their African friends on this excursion by motor launch from Mattru. On the return trip from the picnic, the top deck collapsed, throwing several people into the water and choking little Norman Baker, who was leaning over the partition looking at the diesel engine. Teacher Solomon George could not swim, but he was clinging to a piece of wood in the water. When Colleen Sundstrom called out to him for help, he pushed the floating toward her to save her life, but he drowned. James Sankoh and the Williams twins John and Jonny also drowned. It was a day of wailing in Mattru. All of the people who died in that accident have their names, along with the names of Samuel Cole and Kai Ngoni, two CSS students who were also drowning victims, on a bronze plaque in the Greater Love Chapel, built later in the center of the campus, opposite the Administration Building. Samuel Cole died trying to rescue Kai, just as one of the Williams twins died trying to save his brother, and as Mr. George died, giving a life-saving piece of wood to Colleen Sundstrom, thus the name of the Chapel.
Mr. Baker wrote, “what a year 1955 had been. In January, CSS had been dedicated, completing the vision given to Dr. Eby 11 years earlier. We had enrolled the prescribed number of students and completed as a successful year. Then on the very last day of the school year, an accident took our little missionary son, Norman, into glory.
“The end of 1955 was a very difficult time for us, yet we believed that the Lord would use us to do His work in Sierra Leone. Our grief remained, but we were able to accept Norman’s death because we believed our Lord would work out His plan through our lives. We continued to stand upon Romans 8:28. His will be done.”
The following June, Herbert Cook arrived in Sierra Leone by air, ahead of his wife and daughter who would follow by ship. He needed to spend some time with DeWitt Baker to learn his role at CSS. “Herb was an excellent plumber, and he went right to work on plumbing problems at the school.”
Mr. Cook’s greatest contribution to Centennial School was to prepare the enormous amount of paperwork needed for CSS to develop from a Junior Secondary School to a Full Secondary School. When Mr. Baker returned, he praised Mr. Cook’s accomplishment in helping the school to be accepted by government authorities for Full Secondary status.
During the year Herbert Cook was at Centennial, his father, Rev. Leon cook, a North Michigan pastor, passed away unexpectedly, bringing grief to the Cooks while they were thousands of miles away from their family.
In January of 1957, Nancy Hull, left New York Harbor on a freight ship, The Onitsha, for Sierra Leone, arriving in early February in Freetown Harbor. After two or three days in Freetown, I was taken up the country to Mattru by Emmett and Shirley Cox, and we arrived, covered with red dust from the journey. After a year and a half at CSS, I left CSS to go to Bonthe to fill in as Matron at Minnie Mull while Bethel Mote was in the U.S. for a year. I loved Centennial, and hated to leave, but since I had elementary teaching in my background, I reluctantly volunteered to fill that need. When Bethel returned, Olive Weaver, Headmistress at Minnie Mull, left for a year, so I was asked to teach Class V and be Headmistress for a school term until it was time for me to leave for the U.S. After seven months at home, following my first three years in Sierra Leone, I returned to Centennial, where I taught a total of ten years.
By Nancy Hull Ngele
I have drawn heavily from Dr. E.D. Baker’s Autobiography, Pilot, Principal, President, some from Mr. Herbert R. Cook’s book, One Man’s Walk with God, and some from my own memory.