This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of an oral history interview of Merle Steely (CN 290, T3) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. No spoken words have been omitted, except for any non-English phrases which could not be understood by the transcribers. Foreign terms that are not commonly understood appear in italics. In a very few cases, words were too unclear to be distinguished. If the transcriber was not completely sure of having gotten what the speaker said, "[?]" was inserted after the word or phrase in question. If the speech was inaudible or indistinguishable, "[unclear]" was inserted. Grunts and verbal hesitations such as "ah" or "um" were usually omitted. The transcribers have not attempted to phonetically replicate English dialects but have instead entered the standard English word the speaker was expressing. Readers should remember that this is a transcript of spoken English, which follows a different rhythm and rule than written English.
... Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence on the part of the speaker.
.... Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Words in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments by the transcriber.
This transcription was made by Timothy Harder and Janyce Nasgowitz and was completed in December 1995.
Collection 290, T3. Interview with Merle Steely by Kimberly Smith.
SMITH: This is an interview with Reverend Merle Steely by Kim Smith for the Missionary Sources Collection of Wheaton College. This interview took place at the Billy Graham Center Library on November 28, 1984, at 7:00 P.M.
SMITH: This interview is just gonna skip around a little over some of the questions and pick up some of the stuff we missed on the last interview. First question is, what would you have liked to have learned or experienced before you went on the mission field? Is there anything that you wished you would have known before you left?
STEELY: I wish [bumps microphone] that I had had a course in missions in school, or...or that I'd have read some missionary biographies. Any of those things would have been helpful. As it was, on my first vacation, holiday we call it on the mission field, I got to read Hudson Taylor's biography, and another missionary's and that was my first exposure to any of those things. So I...I lacked the normal preparation, I think, that others have and that is because I wasn't planning to be a missionary. I was planning for Bible teaching in this country, and then the radio station just opened up and dropped right in our lap and there we were right in the midst of it. And so we were directed into missions in an unusual way and without, really, previous planning.
SMITH: And what were your first impressions when you first entered Liberia, of the country itself?
STEELY: It was quite a shock to us to get off the ship there in Monrovia. And one of the first things, a man who met us there who was working for the SIM says, "I want ten dollars of your travel money." And next thing I know he passed that to one of the black officials, and that shocked us because the mission regulations says you don't do things like that. Well, we later discovered that in Liberia, even though missionaries were able in all their work in Nigeria to avoid it, there it was just required. You had to do it. So that was a...a shock right off. And then, on the way from Monrovia out to the site of the radio station, go by those little villages with the mud walls and the grass thatched roofs and people barefooted and people...some of the women wearing only leaves on a belt around their waist, and the...the children being carried on their backs. And the children ran around with no clothes on. Those things that first day we saw was a real introduction to us of where we were and what we were in the midst of.
SMITH: How did your impressions change when you...after you'd finished your mission.
STEELY: Well, aft...I guess there is getting acclimated to those things that, if you're going to work there and be effective, you have to adjust to it and not be shocked by those things that seem rather crude to us in our culture. So it's like a person that is going to be a nurse or a doctor has to be hardened somewhat to plain...pain. They must inflict pain on people for their good and they have to do it and they have to learn to be able to do that to do their job effectively. And I...and, in the same way, we have to adjust to those things that were shocking, to be able to relax in the midst of those things and be...carry on a conversation with the people and sort of become one with them if you're going to reach them effectively.
SMITH: How was your family affected? Did they have a dif...a more difficult time, or...?
STEELY: They...they'd have to adjust to many of the same things I did, but in a way I was out in to those things more in the villages and out on the farms, on their farms and villages, and so I was exposed to more of those things than the family. But the family got pretty much of what was there and the cultural differences.
STEELY: How did the people react to your presence?
SMITH: Both Liberia and Nigeria, they treated us with a great deal of respect because [unclear] in villages in Nigeria would be one of the richest persons they knew because the...the poverty of the people. I mean, twenty-eight cents a day [was] full wages for a man. And so the poverty the people had, we come along with leather shoes, and decent clothes, and eyeglasses. They had the impression that eyeglasses was something you wore to show your wealth. It wasn't something you wore because you needed them and so they all desired to get a hold of glasses. And they would wear...if they did...like those who would steal some and then sell them. People'd buy glasses that weren't at all designed for them. They'd still wear them because they felt this was great to wear glasses. And so just some of the cultural phenomena you had to experience.
SMITH: What was the general subsistence of the people? Were they mostly farmers or...?
STEELY: Yes. The people among whom we worked were ninety percent or more farmers. Some people are traders. Traders...a person who started in trading would start with a low round pan they'd carry on their head and the few things they'd have to sell, and later they'd branch out and get a little shop in the marketplace. And then eventually get a store of their own and on up. And those who did well would then eventually get some trucks to carry their goods and go right up the line and become rather wealthy from their trading. And so that would be something even a farmer would like to branch into if he could get a little extra money. Buy something and have his own little shop if he could, part of the time. Of course, a bicycle was a great treasure, to have a bicycle to ride on. And that was for transportation. It wasn't a toy for kids like it is in this country, just to ride a round on. But our pastors in the churches all...all had bicycles and that's the way they would get from place to place. And they wouldn't hesitate to go great distances on a bicycle. And so, oh, sometimes I've taken up to thirty miles in a day with them just to visit some churches.
SMITH: Was there in difference in the effect that the gospel had on...on poor people? Was it easier or more difficult for them to accept?
STEELY: Fortunately, in the areas where we were, they weren't ostracized by being a believer. We weren't a pioneer missionary by any means. Others had gone before us, and some of the pioneer missionaries and the first Christians did have that trouble but, by the time we came, there was no particular problem. In fact, a lot of the chiefs in Nigeria where we were, were even Christians and so becoming a Christian could be to their advantage rather than to be a disadvantage. And so the believers didn't find it a particularly handicap. And then, of course, there's moral benefits. The people's lives would be cleaned up and they'd be changed when they became a Christian. And, of course, coming to the mission and getting medicine of the dispensary improved their health. And then they would learn some things would help them to adapt and change and improve their lifestyle and the possessions they had. So, all in all, it was for them a...an advantage physically and materially as well as the spiritual blessings.
SMITH: Before your people were ostracized when they accepted Christ?
STEELY: In the early days when the missionaries were there and in present day up in some of the French-speaking areas where our missionaries are working, the.... When a person becomes a believer...a man young man becomes a believer, then the other people say, "Okay, we won't let him marry any of our girls." He would...would go for years not even be able to find a wife unless finally some girls would get saved and then he'd have a chance to marry a Christian girl. So that problem is still current in those areas where it's a new church work. But the church had been going a number of years before we came to the areas where we were. Now, I did have some remote out-stations where I got out from our main station. We'd have our main station. Sometimes I'd reach out thirty miles in one direction and twenty-five miles another direction. So it'd cover quite an area, tribe of.... I think when we were in Zonkwa we had a tribe, about thirty-three thousand people, that we were trying to reach and we had twenty-eight pastors and twenty-eight churches in that area. And sometimes we would get out in the more remote areas farther away from the main station. And there's villages there that I've slept in at night when I was itinerating out where no other white man has ever been in that village. So we did get into some back country but even though it was remote, and other people hadn't been there, still the presence of the gospel for years not too far away had had influences there. It's interesting. In Kafanchan, a railroad town and a...a center there in the country, people would come and thieves would try to break into your house at night to steal. And when I'm way off there in those remote villages, you could leave anything you had lying about and nobody would ever touch it. So where they were more civilized we had crimes and problems that didn't exist out in the remote area.
SMITH: In those villages that you were the first white man to come in there, what was the people's reaction to you and the gospel?
STEELY: Well, I slept in a jungle hammock that I carried on my bicycle. I'd stretch it between two trees right outside the village. And one...one village I think of, Ungwar Yuli, where I stayed, the whole town came out at night to see me get into bed, into that strange contraption. A jungle hammock, of course, has raincoat-like material on the top so it turned the rain. It has mosquito netting on the sides so it'd protect you from snakes and from mosquito's and so on, other bugs, and so it was a...and it was very light. You could carry it on your bicycle along with your gun or your tools, whatever you were doing, whether you were doing a little hunting while you're itinerating or whether you were building schools, so it could be carried along. And the one place, the trees were so far apart the hammock flipped upside down with me when I got into it and here I was upside down in it. And they never...I mean, if that happened in this country, everybody would crack up laughing. They didn't realize anything had gone wrong and so I asked the pastor to flip me back over and I guess they thought that's the way this strange white man goes to bed.
SMITH: Did you ever have any run-ins with animals sleeping out in the jungle like that?
STEELY: No. One night we...coming down the road there was a vehicle stopped ahead of us and we came up behind it wondered what he was doing. Discovered it was a pride of lions there, one lion laying in the road and about four off twenty-five feet off into the grass at the side of the road. And then when that lion got out of the road, the other car went on, we went on. We went on about four miles from there and camped over night in some elephant tracks, set up our...I strung my hammock between two trees and had the car there and we camped. We had a little bit of misgivings being that close to where those lions were out prowling in the evening, but we never heard them or saw anything from them. But that's about the only real run-in we had. I was chased by an elephant one time. We had come out...heard that the elephants were in a certain area. We wanted to go see them and I took my whole family there. We got a look at them, and then the next day my two sons and I went back and got...with a guide and got closer in to them, and we got a little to close. One elephant didn't like it and he charged in our direction, but we had been instructed by those who had experience with elephants that when you just sort of annoy them that way when they're feeding, when he makes a charge he will only run a few feet and flap his ears, And if you take off and get out of there, well, that's it. He won't press the charge home. He's not angry, he's not wounded, not hurt, and you haven't threatened him. And that's what we experienced. He...he just made that little dash in our direction and we got out and that was the end of it.
SMITH: When you traveled from the different cities that you were stationed in, did you have to change the gospel any to fit the different cities?
STEELY: No. The...all the areas that we were in there had the one major trade language, and we learned that none of the missionaries would learn the local language of these little tribes. Like at Kafanchan, working out of there, I had seven different tribes that I was ministering to. And so there's no way you would learn those languages. It would take years to learn. They're rather difficult, those pagan languages. The Hausa language, the trade language which is spoken in all of northern Nigeria, I would say comparatively would be an easy language to learn, and some ways it reminded me a good deal of Greek in the structure. And so I didn't have that much trouble with it, except the tones, because my wife and I neither one can sing, carry a tune. We had no ink...musical ability, so the tonal part was a real problem to us. Other than that, we got along very well with it.
SMITH: Did the people have different attitudes.... Was it hard for them to accept authority figures, you know, when you were pastor and then when you were principal of the school or whatever?
STEELY: No. There is no problem there. The Africans show a great deal of respect for elders, for their...their older people, old man, old woman will receive respect. And then somebody who's in authority, the submission to them is.... The...the type of rebellion we experience in our young people here at home is just unknown among them, and so that was no problem.
SMITH: What about animistic belief?
STEELY: Well, that would have been strong before we came. The early missionaries would have run into it a lot. We run into remnants of it because everybody wasn't a Christian. But it was no real problem to us in the work that we had. Earlier people would have had some difficulties with it. It's there, but it's...it's going out. Pagans are...there are still plenty of pagans in...in...in Nigeria, but many pagans have turned and become Moslems and many more become Christians because both the Moslem religion and the Christian religion are much higher religion than their paganism. So they've made the change. And...and I would think that paganism would be less in number than the number of Moslems in the...Nigeria.
SMITH: In the animistic beliefs, what was the god that the people worshipped most?
STEELY: Well, they had a name...like the Kaji people, they had a name for a great god creator who's out there, but he's so far away, so remote that they didn't spend their time worshipping him. They were more concerned about the lesser deities, demons, really. And their idols were used to appease the demons so the demon wouldn't harm them. So rather than spending time trying to worship the great god who was there, they were appeasing the little, lesser gods, the demons that were closer, who could trouble them and give them difficulty. So their sacrifices to their idols, the chickens and other things they offered, were to...to them, the demons, rather than to the great god that they had a word for and knew something about. But he was just too remote and too far away and...and they weren't really much concerned about him. And now, see, the relationship with the lesser deities wasn't one of love or respect. It was one of fear one of appeasing them to keep them from harming them more than trying to get them to do them something good. It was sort of a negative thing of keeping them from bringing evil for them and that was the main thought they had in mind.
SMITH: Did they bring that over into when they became Christians, fearing God?
STEELY: Well, then, of course, you...you do have some difficulty there in erasing that idea. But it is hard to know, really. I mean, outwardly they seem to understand and worship Christ and the Holy Spirit and the Father and...and realize this. But I always felt for most of them there was this lurking bondage somewhat still to those demons that were near and troublesome to them. Not too many of them really broke free to where they had no bondage at all. That's the impression I have from my experience with them.
SMITH: Would you say that's where most of the problem lay when a person became a Christian is...is overcoming that, or were there other deep superstitions and things that....?
STEELY: There...there are many superstitions that they have and many false ideas. Like I mentioned last time, the idea that the hunter could disappear, that the thief could go through the wall, and all those things that's been passed on to them. And they believe them. And you would be with students in secondary school, with all the science that they have in secondary school, they still hadn't broken away from that belief and they would argue with you. So we said, "Okay, each one of us teachers will give five pounds, make up your twenty-five pounds of money." You bring one of those men, let him come here to our school and disappear before us, and we'll give you the money. They never offered to ever find such a person and bring him there so we could see it happen. So they had some strange beliefs that they hung onto despite all of their training in school. By the way, their science and their mathematics, I would say on the whole in...in the secondary school.... And remember, I told you only the cream of the crop ever get to secondary school. We'd...we'd see...so the ones who have the science and the math in their secondary school would be superior to the science and the math we have here. They wouldn't be as good with their English, they wouldn't as good with history and geography, but in science and math our schools there were very strong and did an excellent job. And another thing about their education while I'm on it. Their education rested upon the exam at the end of their time of study, not on tests all along through the whole semester, the whole year, but on the one exam at the end. And then, to get in to a school, you have to pass an entrance exam to get in and the West African school certificate is established by the Cambridge University in England. And...and that standardized test came out and the students would have to pass it, and it was rough. And to see them come through in science and math the way they did was really amazing at the accomplishment, and the...what they had achieved.
SMITH: Did you have trouble getting land permits and stuff to build the schools?
STEELY: [In] Kafanchan I got permits from two different...for two different schools. New schools were built. And the high [unclear], would be the chief district head over a number of villages and towns, was a Christian and was one of our ECWA Christians, the church by the Sudan Interior Mission, the ECWA. And so I got the permits from him in twenty-four hours. You couldn't expect or ever even hope for anything better than that. Now at Zonkwa whereas getting school permits, it...it dragged out for several weeks, but they came through reasonably well. But, prior to that, there had been difficulty, and sometimes they could hold you up for years. But my personal experience, I got my permits in a reasonable time. Now later, when I was getting a permit for a church that we were building in Katsina, I did have a good deal of trouble there. But then I was dealing with a completely Moslem administration and getting a Christian church. And there was resentment of our being there and so they held it up, but eventually they did give it.
SMITH: How did you go about getting that from them?
STEELY: Well, you just pester them, just go back to the office, and go back again, go back again every week, and make inquiries and try to trace it, and try to get a hold of different people. And just sort of what Luke 18 says: the unjust judge, how this lady persisted and she got her results and that's about the only thing you could do. You certainly couldn't use any threats and you couldn't use any bribes. And so you just...you just have to sort of annoy them until they wanted to get rid of you.
SMITH: In the churches, did you have experience with counseling people and....
STEELY: Yes. I don't feel counseling is my calling at all, but I did have counseling opportunities, as many as I wanted. And when I could I'd shift it over to my wife, because I felt she was much better at counseling than myself. And so I'd pass that across to her when I could. But when it was necessary, I did engage in it, but I was never...it was one of my weaker types of ministry.
SMITH: What about disciplinary actions? Did you ever have to practice with those?
STEELY: Yes. In the schools, we had corporal punishment and we had a book we had to write in there. Of course, a white man would never administer it, the black teacher would, and so we had to use that. In the church, people would be put out and put under discipline. The African pastors were handling that, so I didn't have to get directly involved. I'd sit there on the council and listen to it and give my agreement to anything that was going to go on, but never had to get too much involved myself. And that, of course, is the way we wanted it. Because if it's the white man disciplining a black person there, even though he is wrong, you would...you'd find there is resentment and problems, so get it in the hands of the African pastors, let those leaders do it, and it would go a lot better. And there was a lot of church discipline that had to be done and discipline in the school.
SMITH: What were some of the situations that would have come up?
STEELY: Oh, the two most common things is taking a second or third wife and, of course, as Christians we didn't...wouldn't go for that. And then drinking and that was a heavy problem, both of those. Stealing could be a third problem. And a few times you would have disrespect, but disrespect would be very minor because of their culture. They showed it and it just didn't crop up.
SMITH: In the situation with the second or third wife, did the tribe ever get upset with that?
STEELY: Well, I suppose earlier it has a problem when Christians first came in. Now, I'm sure it was a problem then, but by our time the pagans knew that a Christian had only one wife, and so.... Well, the...the high [unclear], the district head that got us our land permit, had been one of our Christians but he took a second wife. The Moslems came along and got him to take a young girl in addition to his wife. He was a much older man than I was and this young girl was much younger. And so he was disciplined and put out of the church and then he got this promotion as the district head. And in that position, still he was friendly to us because we didn't...we missionaries didn't cause him any trouble and I was able to get the land permit. And then not too long after I got the land permits from him, I came to his house. He wasn't there, and I stayed one night in his house, hung my jungle hammock in his store room and slept there. And his daughter was one of my teachers I had, one of my thirty-two teachers I had in my schools. So I knew the family and he just didn't happen to be there the night I came in and stayed all night there. But shortly after that, the Christians got to him and he decided to repent and come back to the Lord and put away that second wife. She was a Moslem girl and he was a Christian. And so she got poison and poisoned him and he died. But, oh, this was a common thing to do, poison. And...but they couldn't prove anything and nothing was ever done to her. She went free. But his decision to come back to the Lord resulted in his death.
SMITH: And that's a common thing?
STEELY: Common to poison...for Moslems to poison someone who becomes a Christian, yes, or.... Yes, poisoning is a common thing out there to be done.
SMITH: Do they do other things?
STEELY: We never read...I only ran into one case of suicide out there. And we didn't run into ulcers and...and nervous breakdowns like we have here. People live a such a...so much lower key. Like, for instance, when I had a whole bunch of men building schools at different directions, I was supervising building, and I left to go to one of those places. Not ten minutes after I left in the early morning, this man came in. He wanted some supplies for a school where he was. I wasn't there. He sat down under a tree in the shade and waited until I came home just before dark, all day. And it didn't bother him, he wasn't stewing. I mean, people here get kind of upset if they miss their turn at a revolving door. But this man waited all day until I came, got the supplies he needed, went on back to his village to carry on with the building work. So they take things so much a lower key. And only one case of suicide that I had any experience of, that came to my knowledge while I was there. And not the ulcers, not the breakdowns. Life was just so much slower, even pace. And didn't have a lot of people that were over weight. That wasn't a problem because, with all the walking they'd have to do, and the hard work of farming, the people kept physically in much better shape. And, of course, the foods they eat had lots of fibers and things in it which was very
healthy and good for them. Like a medical problem.... There was a government hospital is Kafanchan where we were. People would walk six miles from a village to the west of us in [unclear, place name?], come right through Kafanchan, walk seven more miles to go to our mission dispensary rather than go to the government hospital because they got much better treatment at our dispensary than they would get in the government hospital. The nurse cared, and the Christian dispensers who worked under her cared. And they would have, of course, a gospel service when the people came there in the morning. Then the people who heard that service would be processed and, when more would come, then they'd have another service. So the preaching of the gospel went on and...and the dispensary...and the gospel being preached that way resulted in many people being won to the Lord. And one of the greatest outreaches for bringing people in was the dispensaries and the schools.
SMITH: Who would pay for the people? Was it free there?
STEELY: No. The medicines...they would have to pay for it. But things were very cheap. I mean, a penny or two for a lot of things, maybe a shilling or two at the most, so it was in keeping with their income and [knocking sound]....
SMITH: What was the government health care program like? Did they have any program set up?
STEELY: Well, they wouldn't have the devotedness and commitment to the work, like a missionary would have or like a native dispenser who's been trained as a believer would have. And for that reason.... I heard the Africans tell me many times they'd have to bribe the doctor to look at someone they'd take in who was sick. And bribe the nurses to get things done. And there...it's just...it's just a different quality of care altogether in the hospital from over...compared with our dispensary. And then Jos, one of the big capital cities in Nigeria, of the state, there's a number of hospitals there. But our mission hospital, Evangel Hospital, is just overrun with people because they would much rather come there than go to the government hospital, if they can. Another thing, while we are on medical, the Sudan Interior Mission had a eye hospital in Kano, Nigeria. The next eye hospital is in Cairo, Egypt, and the next one in the other direction is in Capetown [South Africa]. So we had the only one between, in the early days when I was there. Now, there's medical facilities in a number of places in Nigeria, eye facilities, but at one time the only one between Cairo and Capetown was our SIM eye hospital. So government people, foreign diplomats of all kind, everybody, would come to our eye hospital for any eye treatment and glasses in Nigeria and even from other neighboring colonies. They'd have to come across there.
SMITH: Didn't your daughter have some eye problems that were treated there?
STEELY: My daughter had three eye surgeries. We put glasses on her when she was thirteen years old. Dr. Gieser here at Wheaton put them on her and then he would come out to the hospital there in...in Kano and help, and others from the hospital in Kano would come here and work at the Wheaton Medical Clinic, so there was a good relationship there. And she had three eye surgeries while we were there to correct her eye problem. She still has one eye that's blind, she can't see. But the other eye has normal vision, so they...they were a real help to her.
SMITH: Were there very many economic difficulties there, such as great inflation, or famine, starvation, things like that?
STEELY: The only famine that I experienced in Nigeria was near the end of our twenty-five years out there and the famine did come down from the north and drove a lot of desert people. And so camels and the desert people were way down south in Nigeria, some phenomenon we'd never seen before. Inflation was not a real problem until the civil war came in 1966 and then it's just gone out of.... A chicken, they tell me.... Yesterday I was talking to one of the Nigerians. He tells me a chicken there now would cost eighteen dollars. When we were there, we'd get those chickens from two to four shillings. That would be twenty-eight to fifty-six cents, now eighteen dollars. A box of Corn Flakes, the last I heard, was nine dollars in Nigeria. Foreign canned goods is awfully hard to find and, when you do find it, it is exceedingly expensive. And so the inflation has...has really hurt the people badly in the past eight years.
SMITH: What was it like when the desert people came down? Did that cause the rest of Nigeria to suffer problems, getting food....?
STEELY: Well, the shortage that brought them down was also hard upon the people in the far north. The rain season, if the rain is late as it was then, then their guinea corn and millet cannot make and then they really are in trouble cause that's their two staples up in that part of the country. And the desert people coming down were just that many more mouths to feed on what food there was. So the price on food went way up. And, of course, when we have schools we have to buy food for the students, buy bags, a whole truck load of grain, and bring it in there and store it in the store rooms. Have to have some big, very good store rooms at these schools, at the Bible colleges, in the secondary school, in the teachers training colleges. And so the amount of money spent for...for the food went way up with the inflation and really put a burden on the people then, because you have to raise the school fees that the students have to pay. Since there's no government education in the mission run school, the children have to pay a fee, and it's prorated per grade, the higher the grade the more you pay.
SMITH: And the parents would earn the money for this fee by agricultural type work?
STEELY: Right. The parents were usually farmers and they'd have to make enough from their farm to pay the fee for their children.
SMITH: What about the price for regular school materials, like books and things like that? Was that high?
STEELY: Very reasonable. An exercise book would be three pence. That would be about five or six cents for an exercise book for them to write in like a tablet we'd use here. And so that was exceedingly reasonable. And a ballpoint pen, you'd get that for less than a shilling, so it would be about a dime. So those things coming out of Europe down there wh.... When I was in the schools...I'm sure the price is way up on them now, but they were reasonable for the people. The [unclear] produce that they grew themselves was very reasonable. You could go and get all you could eat for ten cents at a village, that way just eating native foods, sweet potatoes, cocoa, yams, or whatever was there available. Might not be what you might like the best, but certainly enough of healthy food to sustain you when you're out in the villages that way.
SMITH: Did you eat that kind of food when you were living in your own home or did you import?
STEELY: Yes, yes. No, we didn't depend on imported good...in Liberia we had to because there was no agriculture there. Two hundred and thirty-four inches of rainfall the first year we were in Liberia by the radio station and so your soil was very bad. I tried my best to grow a garden and I couldn't manage it. And some missionaries were transferred from Nigeria to Liberia to help out, some older missionaries. And they'd grown gardens all their life out there in Africa and they found we weren't growing, they sort of scolded us, and tried themselves, and they didn't have any more success than I had. And so the...the...the agriculture just wasn't there with all that rainfall, all the jungle. But in Li...Nigeria we were in the savannah, the open grassland, sparsely scattered trees, and there we could grow decent agriculture. Well, we tried to live off the produce of the land, and there was a good.... We were fortunate that in Kagoro-Kafanchan area that they could grow Irish [?] potatoes there. That's something that you could grow very rarely in the tropic, but we were in the area were they were grown and so we would get them for a very reasonable price. And then sweet potatoes, of course, were available, and the yams, and the guinea corn. And...and so we had...and tomatoes we could grow, so we had a... And then when I had my own garden, I'd grow most of the things we grow here. So we canned a lot. We had a tin canner we took out and you'd can with those tin cans. And you'd open one end and then you'd flange it and use the same can again and again, and make them last. That was handier than glass jars and less breakage, so we did a lot of canning of food when it was available and having it at other times. Even the guinea foul that I shot and partridge, we'd can that and have that for the season when you couldn't go out after....
SMITH: When in Liberia, the people didn't do much agriculture. What was their main subsistence?
STEELY: They did what they could in agriculture and then there's a lot of sawyers sawing lumber. We had jungle there, a lot of trees. A lot of men made their living that way. Some are hunters, make their living that way, and then traders. And...but in Nigeria we had a...a real decent agriculture basis. Back in the interior of Liberia, then you had a lot of farming and people could grow things, but along the coast there where a lot of salt breezes and so on. They didn't have much.
SMITH: What was the reaction when the desert people moved into Nigeria? Was there any hostility going there?
STEELY: No. Those...in Nigeria you have your settled people of the tribes, like we were among the Kaji tribe, the Kagoro tribe, and then you have the Fulani cattle people. The Fulani are nomads who had wandered around and had conquered northern part of Nigeria back before and brought in the Moslem religion. The Fulanis were Moslems. They brought that in. And the...then the Fulani chief would rule over a big area. The emir would rule over a huge area, and a lot of other people under him, so there'd be a lot of pagan villages with pagan chiefs under this Moslem emir who ruled over them. And then the Fulani people, there were two. There was the cattle people who wandered about as nomads with their cattle. And then there was the settled Fulani who lived in the town, who was the chiefs in...in places of government. And the Fulanis had their own king, their own heads over them, and moved right through an area where a tribe was with its own king. So it's sort of a wheel within a wheel and there is no conflict. They just got along very well without any problems. They'd adjusted to it. So when the desert people came down, they were more like...like the Fulanis who were nomads roaming around and they just absorbed in there and didn't give any difficulty. They were...a lot of the desert people were Turegs, and then there were some other tribes as well that came down.
SMITH: Are their cultures not very different then?
STEELY: Well, the Turegs would be much more similar to the Fulani than to the indigenous former pagan, now Christian, or still pagan people in...in the areas of Nigeria where we were stationed most of our time. So it wouldn't present any problems with thir...they didn't mix, they just sort of moved through the area where they were. And they wouldn't intermarry, they wouldn't mix in any way. And....
SMITH: Were they more Arabic?
STEELY: Yes, the Fulani people would speak Arabic and if they read, able to read, it would be Arabic or, if they read in Hausa, it would be the Algeria script, which was Hausa written in Arabic characters. It looks like Arabic but it was Hausa. You could also write Hausa in English characters, our English alphabet, and you'd see both.
SMITH: Switching gears a little bit, getting to the government side. What were the reactions to independence in 1960?
STEELY: All right. We had the experience of Congo and some of the other countries becoming independent before we did and some of the excesses that took place in those countries [clears throat] were known, and the disastrous results that would come from anarchy. Just deciding, like in Congo I understand that one Congolese man came to a missionaries house with two empty suitcases and says, "Now at midnight tonight we get our independence. I want my independence." He wanted to fill two suitcases with their property and take it away. He thought that's what the independence meant. And you had problems like that, and even more severe than that in the Congo. Those things had been known, and no government wants anarchy, and so there were safeguards taken. And in Nigeria I do not know of any cases...any problems with that, so the transfer from British dominion to local Nigerian rule was a peaceful one. There was fireworks and things like that to treat...to show the people in different areas. And Kafanchan had a big display for...in our area and a lot of people would go to see it. But there was no real problem. And then people began to realize after independence that government carried on just the same before. You still had the district officer over there, you still had the courts, you still have the two policeman, the Dandoki and the Dansanda, the two police forces were there. And things went on pretty much the way...there wasn't that much of a noticeable change, while in some of the other countries it was altogether different.
SMITH: In 1966, when there was the political upheaval, was...what was the change there? Was there a big difference in the way people reacted to the gospel and all that different?
STEELY: I've mentioned the Sardauna of Sokoto, Tofeh Balowah [?], who was the premier of the north and [pauses].... No. Sardauna of Sokoto, Amadu Bello. Tofeh Balowah [?] was the prime minister of the whole country and he was really Amadu Bello's...one of his men, he was under his thumb. So Amadu Bello was the real power in Nigeria and the Tiv people had never been conquered by the Fulanis back in the past, while northern Nigeria had. They were below the Benue River, south of the Benue, and so a Tiv man is not apt to know Hausa, while all the people from among the pagan tribes and the Christian people where we were would speak Hausa, because they had been conquered by the Fulani in the past. And so the...the Sardauna was putting pressure on and brought the army and the police in, and was really putting the Tivs down. The Tivs were resisting, many people were killed, many were thrown into prison, they were brought up to Kaduna and put into prison there. And he pretty well wiped out the resistance and...and the indescendancy [?] over them. Then there was trouble breaking out in...in the northern or the western part of northern Nigeria, the Yoruba part, which is below the Niger River. The Benue comes in from the east and there is a section of the north which, below the Benue River, on the south of it, and there's a section of the north that's below the Niger River...River over in the western part, and that was Yoruba area. That area had been conquered by the Fulani and the Moslem religion was dominant, and the chiefs in that area were all Moslem. There's no Christian chiefs and no pagan chiefs. And...but there was some political difficulty and so the Sardauna was using the army and police, starting to use it, to dominate those people as he had the Tiv people. And that's when the military began to get...people in the military began to get upset, because he was gaining such power, and prestige, and authority, beyond his legal authority, just by the power that he had, that the military decided on...around, I think it was the 15th of January 1966 that the...they would kill him that night. You have very little going on out there in the way of a cultural thing. One lady with the USAID [United States Agency for International Development] came and put on two plays, The Fantastics and The Gondoliers, and drew actors from among the Africans, from the British people, American people, Swedish, whoever, foreign people that was there who could act. And she put on two very good productions. And so when she had a production, everybody who was anybody there of any standing would be there, and pay the money, and get in to see it, because there was very little in a cultural way. Well, there's a British amateur pianist who came out, was there that night playing in the big hotel. I looked around and everybody who is anybody in government, in missions, in...in foreign governments, diplomatic staff were all there listening to this man play and while this was going on the military was out of a hillside just north of the city of Kaduna and they were laying their plot to kill the Sardauna that very night. So we went home after this man had been playing the piano for us and we were awakened by the shots in the middle of the night when the Sardauna was killed. And I mentioned how quiet it was the next morning. Daylight came, there was just no traffic on the street, everything was hushed, sort of an eery feeling. We sent our boy to find out. We found out that he had been killed. And then we realized that this that took place in Kaduna, also it was tried in Kano, in Lagos, in Ibadan, and the most successful of all was there in Kaduna where we were. So we were right in the very center of where the rebellion succeeded. Some of the areas, it was another failure, but in our area it was successful. So now the military government had to take over, and the Sardauna was gone. And I had a weekly radio program and a weekly television program at that time and, when the coup took place, I would go in to the television studio and a man with a sub-machine gun across his lap would sit right in there beside me while I preached, both for radio and TV. So it gives you funny feeling, almost preaching at gunpoint. But I felt a great deal more freedom after the Sardauna was gone than I did while he was there, because he was such a religious fanatic and so dominant in his religion and putting pressure on Christians. The head of the Baptist mission lived beside me there in Kaduna, and he and I would go hunting together, north of the city of Kaduna, about five miles out in the country. We'd park our car at a Baptist church. The church had been closed while the Sardauna was there. Pressure was put on through him down through the chief and they closed the church. Soon as he was killed, less than a month after he was killed, that church was open and no more pressure and no more problem. And I know I felt I had a great deal more liberty to preach after he was gone, after the military government was in, than I did before. I had to be so careful before so as to not cause any offense in anything that I would say, and you just felt more relaxed after that.
SMITH: What kind of things would you say that they would get very upset about?
STEELY: Well, you try to preach a positive gospel. You don't want to ever point out any other group and in any way discount them, say anything against them. Certainly you wouldn't want to say anything against the Moslem. So it's just preach the positive truth. But then, when you're reading through the Scripture, the Scripture speaks of Egypt, and of Israel, and of things like that. Like when we went to Jordan on one of our furloughs and was coming home, stopped in Jordan. They said, "Now, don't ever give out a tract on the street corner in Jordan anywhere. Don't ever start talking to people, get a little group [?] built up, and say anything about Christ, or in any way preach the gospel on a public street corner, even to a handful of people." And so...and then, too, the mi...the military situation in Nigeria, the Egyptian pilots and MIG planes from the Russians were brought down and put...made at the disposal of the...of the federal government in Nigeria, so if you read some Scripture which was...where the Lord is denouncing Egypt with something to come, well, you'd be in trouble. So you'd just have to...there was just a lot of Scripture you wouldn't dare read over the air and have to watch anything you would say with reference to modern countries that have the same name as those ancient countries.
SMITH: What were the results after the secessionists moved in 1967 and the east became Republic of Biafra?
STEELY: Yes. The east did break away and the north and the west went together and then the civil war ensued because when...after they broke.... I...I...I was home on furlough when that happened, so I don't remember what triggered the first fighting. They were talking for a while, they were still talking, and the leaders were getting together talking from the east and from the north and from the west when I came home. So I don't remember just what triggered the...the fighting to start. But the Ibos did well at first. They were more aggressive and moved out and did well. And then the north had far more people, they had more resources, and they had the backing of most of the world. And so they moved in and just crushed the Ibos people, smaller and smaller area, until got them down to about three cities is all they had left, and the area in between. And then they starved the people very badly. The people of Biafra were starving. And a...a lot of people had sympathy for Biafra and were sending in supplies from an island off...south of Nigeria, belonged to Spain. They'd fly the supplies in to the Ibos and kept them going until, I think, 1970, when the war finally ended. So it must have run for about four years, and the inability of the north to crush them is something that we marvel at yet, because they certainly had the equipment and the men. But just for some reason they never did succeed in doing it.
SMITH: Did you go home on furlough at this time because you felt the pressure building or...?
STEELY: No, no. We went home because our regular term came and then we went back, well, the civil war was still on. And when I went back, I was changing from one place to another, changing from a more rural setting into a town. I knew I was going to have bottled gas and so I was overweight in my suitcase. So I had a wrench and a few screwdrivers sort of taped together, and carried them in my suit coat pocket, because they didn't weigh me. They just weighed my suitcases. And when we came back, we were searched and this man hit that, and he thought he had found a gun in my pocket and, boy, we had a little fireworks there for a little bit until he found it was just a wrench and, then he...he stopped. But, I mean, I was searched many times at gunpoint by the military, going to the studio, going to military headquarters to get a pass. I had a most interesting pass when we were there in Kaduna during the coup and following. The pass said, "Rev. Steely has a right to be wherever he is," and so with that I would be at the...the TV studio, at the radio studio, to government college, to the police college, to the federal training center, carrying on my work in so many places. And they didn't want to list all those places, so they just gave me that blanket pass. And...an eerie feeling is to be out at night, the curfew is on, nobody is to be on the street unless you have a pass. And so we'd drive the streets of this city, formerly been jammed with people and lights at night, and now it's dark and you'd be the only vehicle out on the street unless you meet a military vehicle. So it'd give you an eerie feeling. My wife just didn't like to go out at night at all. She also had a pass for herself saying the same thing as mine did.
SMITH: So you weren't allowed to carry a gun anymore, then? Didn't you carry a gun once?
STEELY: No. I had to turn my gun in after the coup, but after four or five months they called me and said I could come and get it. So I got my gun back again and continued hunting. I made friends with this police inspector and so a lot of times I'd go hunting with him. So you come up to the barricade on the road and you got a police inspector, they give you no trouble at all. If you didn't have, well, they'd look at your papers. And they always passed me, because I had a gun, proper papers, so there was no difficulty. But it was much better with him along.
SMITH: Was there a lot of problems with gangs and things like that at that time?
STEELY: Down the western region, there was those thugs, outlaws that came and robbed people. They'd go out on the road and rob at night. But in the north I never did hear of them. I don't remember of any being.... And then when we got down near the Baptist Seminary, the last part, well, we were warned. The mission sent out rules, "Do not be out on the road at night," because those fellows were out and they had killed people as well as robbing them. And one time we were out and it was going to get dark before we got home, we knew. I had my guns with me, of course, and I...I met a police barricade there and they found out I had guns. They said, "Well, what are you doing, having these guns stacked away here. Get them out on top where you can use them. If these guys stop you, shoot them." Of course, I had no intention of doing that. I don't...just because the local police there said that, I didn't think it was a safe thing to do. We didn't want any part of it, but that was their instructions, and I was rather surprised at it. But they had a real hatred for those robbers and so I guess they would have been glad to see them gotten rid of. I...we had some instance of the robberies on the roads occurring within twenty miles of the seminary. So it was a real problem.
SMITH: What was the...all this fighting and stuff going on, was there any effect on the...preaching the gospel then? Did the people...?
STEELY: Oh, the civil war opened the east to the gospel tremendously. The Sudan Interior Mission had never been working in the east. We'd all been working in the north and...and in the west, among the Yorubas and the Hausas. But with the civil war, we got into the east and following the civil war, we really got into it heavy, and so we have a strong work going there now. And one of the students here on campus here at Wheaton now is one of the eastern persons who was won for the Lord during that time. He's Uchey...Godswill Uchey Simon who's here is an Ibo. And so our work was greatly helped as an aftermath of the civil war. Now, when the Ibo people were up in the north and the...the [unclear] started, the northern people turned against the Ibos and the Yorubas also turned against the Ibos, and they beat and killed a lot of Ibo men. They didn't harm the women or children. So the Ibos would flee back to the east. And up in Kano, even the military turned their guns on the Ibos and shot and killed quite a few and wounded others. And finally the police had to step in, and get the military out of it, and take what Ibos were left that hadn't been killed, put them on a train, and send them back to the eastern region. And they came through Kaduna, and they were delayed there for a day of two, and they had no food. And so Shell Oil paid for the food, and one of the ladies in one of the churches made arrangements for the bakery, and then we were the ones scheduled to help them out. So we took our VW bus, pulled the seats out, laid sheets down, went to the bakery and picked up eight hundred and some loaves of bread from the bakery real early in the morning. I took it down to the train station and passed it out to those Ibo people on the train to give them some food to eat. So we did the best we could to help them out on their returning back to their part of the country. And then the northern people who were down in the east were being shipped back to the north. So they were getting the people back on their own land. That was just before the civil war actually broke out, but the riots were going on. And it's...it's strange. The people...the Ibo...Ibo people were very sharp. Very often your head man, your head carpenter, your head mason, or the man heading up the electricity program, or the men heading up the railroad, driving and supervising the trains would all be Ibos and other people under them would be the other tribes. And when these riots broke out, these people would take clubs or cutlasses and just kill the man they'd been working with. And many of our missionaries saw people beaten and killed right in front of their eyes and it.... Thousands and thousands of them were killed throughout the country. In Kaduna, the head man in the military was an Ibo, and one of the northern or Moslem men came in and pulled his pistol and shot the Ibo man right there in the office. And then that man took over as the head and then Captain Sontong [?] was adjutant, the second in command to him. Captain Sontong [?] was a man that...I performed a wedding ceremony for him. He married the chief of Kagoro's daughter, one of our fine Christian people. And so I performed a ceremony for them because the Ibo chaplain had had to flee, wasn't there, no preacher, so I went to the military and performed the service for this man who was number two in the army there at Kaduna.
SMITH: Was it just that the Ibo's were so intelligent and getting into the government that made people so hostile towards them, or...?
STEELY: Yes. See, they would come out of their region, come up the other region and they'd be in key places and getting more money. People envied them and resented them. And the Ibos were very haughty. They didn't mind if they killed the Sardauna, saying to the Moslem, "We killed your god." And so they asked for a lot of the trouble they got with their haughtiness. But they're very capable people. And on technical matters, they seem to master those things better than any others in Nigeria. So they were in key places on so many things, and so when they were expelled, why the trains were just almost shut down, and it was a real job to get the railroad operating, to keep the post office operating, to keep the electric company going to furnish the electricity. Those things really took a terrible blow when the Ibos left.
SMITH: Wasn't there some trouble with getting a drum shipped in to Lagos harbor? I remember reading...one of your letters was speaking of this.
STEELY: Well, during the civil war...then after the civil war, there was a terrible tie up of shipping at Lagos. And there was some...over a hundred ships standing off out there. See, Lagos doesn't have very much in the way of wharves, or the actual wharves and...and docking area's Apapa, not in Lagos. And it's...it's right there together. It's just a suburb of Lagos. And so these ships would have to wait their turn to come in and unload. And then Nigeria had started a building program--roads and other buildings after the civil war was over, and needed a lot of cement. So there was just dozens and dozens of ships with cement sitting there out in the harbor. So it made it awful hard for anything to come in and go out of Nigeria because of the blockage of...of...of these ships waiting to unload. And they could wait there for weeks and weeks to get their turn to come in and unload their goods. And so, yes, we did have a tremendous delay in getting our drums in one of those times we went back.
SMITH: What were the...when you took your different furloughs, what did you..did you study on each of your furloughs, or...?
STEELY: The first furlough I completed my masters, came back to Wheaton College and completed my masters, and then went on deputation work among our churches. And then we got our support full again, was ready to go back, but the mission wanted to use me in teaching and their schools start in January, where ours start here in September, the school year. And so they didn't want me to go back until January, so I had a few months on my hand, so I took an interim pastorate of a church down in Nebraska. On the other furloughs, I did deputation work pretty much all the way through. I think about the fourth furlough, then, I went back to Trinity Seminary and picked up a little more schooling. But most of them, deputation work, and do a little work, painting or something on the side, to get money to help buy outfit and to make a living, because a mission allowance which was adequate for Nigeria was totally inadequate for here in the homeland, because things cost so much more here. You couldn't go buy a chicken here for fifty-six cents and so it was necessary to supplement out income with working.
SMITH: Did you get a lot of support from different churches and things like that?
STEELY: Yes. They would tell us ideally you're to have support from one, at the most four churches, but our support came in from something like eight-eight sources in fourteen different states. So when we went deputation work we...it would take us solid traveling two or three months just to get around just night after night at different churches. Like down in Missouri, we could give a service every night of the week. But most of the other states, you...you can rarely ever get a Monday or Friday. You get Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and Saturday or Sunday, or not much in the way of Saturday. And so you had to book this all out and ask before you came home, write back to the churches and line them up so we'd have it. We could start here at Wheaton, swing down through Missouri into Oklahoma, across Kansas, Nebraska, up through South Dakota, across Minnesota, into Wisconsin, and then back down to Wheaton again. We made Wheaton our headquarters most of our furloughs. I think only one that we spent in Nebraska. The rest of the time we were here in Wheaton. And we'd have to have that itinerary all lined up and...and th...each one confirmed before we'd ever get home to start.
SMITH: What made you decide to quit being a missionary and come back to the United States?
STEELY: All right. We had put in twenty-five years and that was enough for retirement. And then some problems with...some of our children were having when they got back here, and the one we were bringing home, in...in adjusting to our culture here. And then reaction from the boarding school, Kent Academy, where they went produced some real serious problems for each one of our children, as well as for many other children. Of those, the situation that produced the problem for them has been corrected. It came out...my son gave a talk in the church, Pleasant Hill Church, here at Wheaton when he was here, a student at Wheaton College. I think he wrote us something like a twenty-five page letter and just really opened up and let us know things we didn't even dream. And so we took that letter to the authorities there, and they got into it, and some changes were made in the school system, so the thing that had produced the problem with so many children and made them bitter turned them off were corrected. So our younger children never got the same problems that our old....
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