“20th May sailed for Portuguese Guinea alone.” That was the entry in Bessie Fricker’s diary in 1940. How did a single lady set off alone to bring the word of God to Portuguese Guinea?
In 1932 Norman Grubb, the director of WEC received a vision from the Lord for the unevangelized areas of West Africa. On the wall of the prayer room he hung a large map focusing on nine countries of West Africa, including Portuguese Guinea or Guinea-Bissau, as it is called today. Each day the group in the mission headquarters in London, England asked God to call pioneers to take the word of God to those countries. Members of the mission shared the challenge of West Africa in various churches. That is how the Lord spoke to Bessie Fricker about the people of Portuguese Guinea.
In 1884 a Protestant mission had asked the Portuguese government for permission to work in Guinea, but they refused. “We already have enough priests for the spiritual needs of the people,” was the reply. From the government’s point of view nothing had changed, but Christians had begun to pray and God was calling workers.
Bessie was born into a poor family in London, England. She left school after a minimal education and went to work as a waitress to help with the family finances. Her parents were not Christians, but Bessie used to go to a mission hall near their home. She went because they often gave away food or clothes. After four years she received Jesus as her Saviour. She was nineteen.
From the very beginning she wanted to be a missionary. God was challenging her about going to Africa, but how could she? Her family relied upon her wages. Her fiancé, although a Christian, had no interest in the mission field. Bessie did not have much schooling. How could she go to Bible School? How could she learn a foreign language? The Lord solved each problem. She broke off her engagement, the Bible School accepted her, and the teachers coached her so that she even gained top marks in the Hebrew exam. Her mother, even though she had no interest in the Gospel, made no objection.
Bessie wanted to go where the Gospel had not been preached before. Easter 1936 the Lord called her to Portuguese Guinea, and the leaders of the mission agreed. So Bessie was herself part of God’s answer to the prayers for workers for the nine lands of West Africa. In July 1936 she arrived in Angola to begin learning Portuguese and to adjust to life in Africa.
They were a team of three, two men and Bessie. All three of them moved to the Cape Verde Islands and in June 1939 the two men, Cliff Gaye and Bill Griffiths, set off for Portuguese Guinea, ahead of Bessie. Bessie, being a single lady, had to wait behind in Praia, very discouraged. Leslie Brierley, who was working in Senegal, met the other two in Guinea and they surveyed the land. There were lots of problems: the law said they would have to build to exacting European standards and they did not have enough money, even for a simple building. Also, the Second World War had begun and they felt that they should return to England and enlist. The two of them left Portuguese Guinea and returned to the Cape Verde Islands. Leslie could see a land wide open for the word of God, but it was the other two men who were going to work there. He had to return to his own work in Senegal.
Waiting! Waiting! Always waiting! Bessie felt very frustrated. It was not easy but the Lord had a lot to teach her. Life in Praia was not quite like life in the mission station in the bush in Cabinda, Angola. She needed to learn how to dress and how to behave towards government officials. Important lessons for a future mission director!
Bessie followed her colleagues’ progress in prayer as she heard the reports of their time in Guinea. She prayed, cried out to the Lord, and fasted so that the evangelism of Portuguese Guinea would go ahead, but the men insisted they were returning to England. What was Bessie to do? The leader of their little team was her fiancé. Bessie could go back with them or she could stay with the vision the Lord had given her to go to Portuguese Guinea. With a sad heart she exchanged her engagement ring for the official mission stamp. Bessie was the only remaining member of the team and she was director of the mission!
Dona Libania had been converted through Bessie in Praia. She had already worked in Bissau as a seamstress and was ready to go to Portuguese Guinea with Bessie, but she could not go before the end of June. It was advisable to travel before the heavy rains, so that is why Bessie was sailing on her own on May 20, 1940.
With the Lord’s help
Bessie arrived in Guinea on her own, but truly the Lord had gone before her. Everywhere she went, she found people to help her. Even on the boat to Bolama, she met a judge who she had known in Angola. As soon as she arrived in Bolama, the capital at that time, she recognized a man and his sister, whom she had met on the journey to Angola. The director of the Cable and Wireless Company, who had helped her colleagues in 1939, was still there and he helped her disembark, get a visa, go to the bank and complete all the other essential official business. Then, when she went to the hotel, there was no room. It was absolutely full! But God had not forgotten her. A Christian from Praia, who was going to Bissau, lent her his room. The next morning she had to go to the district commissioner. He allowed her to stay in the country and even gave her permission to travel.
Bessie went to Bissau, the commercial capital, to wait for Dona Libania. Bessie rented a two-room house near the cathedral. There they had their first meeting. Ten young ladies arrived, dressed at the height of fashion; they did not stop chattering the whole time and never came back. But gradually the Lord began to work. Guilhermina Barbosa (Mimi) was the first convert. Through her changed life her two sons were converted as well as a friend, Armando Santos, who worked for Casa Gouviea. Sixteen were converted and often up to thirty squeezed into the small living room.
In October 1941 Bessie received some visitors. Her colleagues who worked in Senegal had to leave because of the Second World War. Bessie was delighted to entertain David and Margaret Barron and Leslie Brierley, but they could not stay in Guinea because the Portuguese government would not give them visas. Disappointed, Bessie watched them sail away. Dona Libania also had to return to Cape Verde because she had had a heart attack. Another couple preparing to come was delayed yet again. All this and an attack of malaria was too much for Bessie. She knew that she would have to leave Guinea for a while, but she was determined to come back. She went to the governor and asked him for an exit visa that would allow her to return. He was so delighted to see her leave that he agreed to whatever she asked, but, in fact, he vowed that she would never return.
So, after just eighteen months, Bessie had to leave that little group of sixteen young believers in the hand of God.
Leslie Brierley came from the north of England. He left school early and then took a course in mechanics and electrical engineering. He was converted at fourteen in a mission hall. At eighteen he knew that the Lord was calling him to work in Africa, but Bible Schools would only accept people age twenty-one or older. While working he took a Bible correspondence course. Then, in 1931, he heard of a new Bible Institute which would accept him, despite his youth. When he had completed that course, he prepared to go to the Gambia, but before he arrived, that mission had combined with WEC and they were sent to the Casamance in Senegal. He worked there for five years. As soon as he heard that his two colleagues had arrived in Guinea he went to visit them. The survey he did then was the basis for his prayers and plan of work in the future. With the fall of France in the Second World War, the French government expelled all the British from their colonies. So they had fifteen days to pack up and leave. They arrived in Bissau, but their hopes of working there were also quashed. The Portuguese government only allowed them to stay for twenty-four hours. David and Margaret Barron sailed for England, but Leslie went to Sierra Leone and entered government service there. Twice war had prevented him from being a missionary.
When Bessie left Bissau, she did not go to England but sailed to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Five months later she and Leslie were married. In December 1942 they arrived in England. Bessie was still very weak, she was also expecting a baby, but they had one goal: they were going to return to Portuguese Guinea.
They return together
Bessie could never forget Portuguese Guinea. The Lord had also given Leslie the same vision. In meetings throughout England they talked about the little group of believers that Bessie had left behind in Bissau. They asked people to pray for them and also to pray that the Lord would make it possible for them to return. They applied for visas at four different embassies, without success. It seemed impossible to get a visa for Portuguese Guinea.
David and Margaret Barron had already returned to Kounkane in Senegal, so Leslie and Bessie decided to go there and apply for a visa yet again. In November 1944 they arrived in Senegal, but their request for a visa was again turned down. There seemed to be no way to get a visa for Portuguese Guinea!
Leslie felt very frustrated by his lack of Portuguese. If he had spoken the language he would have tried crossing the border and asking for a visa in Bissau itself. By May Bessie said that she was prepared to leave their small son, Norman, with Margaret Barron and go on her own to try requesting a visa in Bissau. She already had the official papers from her previous stay in Guinea.
The French government official gave her the papers she needed to cross the border and even gave her a lift to Pirada. There Bessie waited five days for transport to Bafata. She was almost ready to return to Kounkane. What would happen if she was seen there in Pirada without papers? If they expelled her, she would never be allowed to enter Guinea again. She was so tired of waiting, she even thought about borrowing a horse to ride to Bafata, but eventually a lorry arrived.
Bessie explained to the district commissioner in Bafata that she had already spent six years in Portuguese territory and that she had left some belongings in Bissau. He allowed her to go on to Bissau. Bessie arrived on a Friday afternoon. The Christians were overjoyed to see her. She could only go to request a visa from the governor on Monday morning. On Sunday they prayed and fasted. On that very Sunday, the catholic bishop, who had always been very hostile, sailed for Lisbon.
On Monday morning Bessie had an appointment with the new governor, Sarmento Rodrigues, who was very open and agreed to send her request for three visas to Lisbon. The former governor, who had vowed to refuse her entry, had been transferred. Bessie then asked if she could stay in Bissau, while waiting for the reply. Rodrigues was surprised but agreed. So now Bessie had several weeks in which to visit, encourage, and teach the Christians. Eventually a telegram arrived from Lisbon : “Visas granted for three British citizens.”
Meanwhile in Senegal, Leslie had not been idle. The prayers of his baby son, Norman, challenged him each evening. “Daddy, please send Mummy with shoes, sweets, and the visas all in a big lorry.” Leslie began to pack, so that they would be ready when Bessie arrived. The Lord had promised him the visas, a house for a mission headquarters, and had given him a plan of action for the work.
Forty-one days later, when Bessie crossed the border in a large lorry with the visas, she found Leslie and Norman all packed up and ready to go to Portuguese Guinea the next day, July 6, 1945.
As the capital was in the process of being moved from Bolama to Bissau accommodation was virtually impossible to find. Nevertheless, within two days they had the promise of a three-room house, with one room suitable for meetings. They could start the plan of action that the Lord had given Leslie - first to start work in Bissau, then Bolama, the Bijagos Islands and the land of the Balantas.
A New Start
What of that small group that Bessie had left in 1941? They had continued to meet in the house that Bessie had rented until 1943, when the Portuguese authorities banned them from holding services there because Senhor Armando Santos was not officially recognized as their leader. But the group continued to meet on a Sunday, some in Mimi’s house, others with João Vaz in the Bairro.
The first Sunday after the Brierley’s arrival in Bissau, twenty people gathered. Each believer testified as to how the Lord had kept them over the years. Others were converted. Mimi brought along four or five women to that first meeting. Two were converted a few days later. They had waited for three years for Bessie to return to accept Jesus. Dona Juliana and Dona Jota became great workers for the Lord. It was not long before there were thirteen new converts. Leslie formed a committee to help organize things.
Leslie and Bessie were on their own, busy with the work of encouraging and teaching this little group of believers. People were ready to come and join them, but it was impossible to get visas until Edith Moules,”Ma Moli,” came for a visit. Through her work and influence the door was eventually opened for new workers to come to Portuguese Guinea.
“I will build my church…“
Acts 1 v 8 says: “… You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Leslie Brierley always had his eyes fixed on the places away from the main towns, where people had yet to hear about Jesus. No one knew for sure how long Guinea would be open to the preaching of God’s Word. Leslie had two goals: to give the church a vision for evangelism and to teach the Christians there so that the church would grow even if the missionaries had to leave the country.
Leslie prepared the Christians to take responsibility in the church. On Monday evenings they held the “Fisherman’s class.” The believers were taught to give a lesson either in the open air or for Sunday School. On Saturday evening the lesson was repeated for practice and then on the Sunday they would preach that same lesson. Five stories with visual aids were taught in the churches.
The house in the centre of Bissau which served as the mission headquarters was becoming too small. Leslie and Bessie began to hunt for larger quarters. In 1950 they bought a house in Bissau Novo. The work spread into a new district of Bissau, which was far out in the bush at the time. The move was not without problems as some of the believers now lived a long way away from the mission, but it did give the church space to expand. Later meetings were also held in Gambiafada, Bandim and Chão de Papel.
Of course there were problems and difficulties but they only made Leslie Brierley work all the harder at teaching and preparing national evangelists and presbyters. A church that is going to endure persecution needs well discipled leaders.
Leslie Brierley always had his eyes open to spot and teach potential leaders. The first Bible School opened in 1950 in Bissau Novo with six students, but very soon there was a fire in the building and it burned down. As there was nowhere else for them to study, the school had to close.
The Bijagos Islands
In Leslie’s vision for the work–to begin in Bissau, then move on to Bolama, the Bijagos Islands, and Balanta country,–Leslie never forgot the Bijagos Islands. One day Mimi went to Bubaque for her health. She managed to rent a house, and began holding some meetings. Leslie went to Bubaque with a district officer in 1946. Twenty people came to the meeting, and the district commissioner and a teacher were very interested. But it was only when reinforcements began to arrive in 1949 that missionaries could be placed on the islands.
Ministry among the Muslims and Bessie’s Death
Leslie and Bessie never forgot the south of the country. In 1946 they used their new car to visit Catio. In 1950 Leslie arrived in the land of the Nalus. A chief there was very open and showed real interest in the Word of God. In 1958 Michael Tarrant spent three days there. By that time there were no longer any idols or idol altars. Each village had its own Muslim missionary and mosques were being built everywhere. All the Nalus had become Muslims. Had the Brierleys arrived too late to find open hearts?
In 1969 Bessie was killed in a car accident in England. In her memory Leslie asked the Lord for a new advance among the Muslim peoples of Guinea-Bissau. In 1971 that became an official goal of the mission and, in 1976, David Smith and his family moved to Bafata. Ever since there has been a fierce battle to keep a testimony among the Muslim peoples in Guinea-Bissau.
This article is reprinted, with permission, from Light Shines in the Darkness, The History of the Church in Guinea-Bissau (1940-1974) (Bubaque, Guinea-Bissau: Missão Evangélica, 1996). All rights reserved.