If Someone Steals your Dog, Spouse or Car, Who Do You Call: The Lightning Man

(This is one of a series of travel blogs I am doing on my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gbarnga, Liberia, West Africa to honor the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps.)

The dark side of tribal beliefs arrived at our house late one evening in the middle of a tropical downpour.

A very wet and frightened candidate for student body president, Mamadee Wattee, knocked on our door. The opposition had purchased ‘medicine’ from a Ju Ju Man (witch doctor in Tarzanese) to make him sick.

It was serious business; people were known to die in similar circumstances.

Had the opposition slandered Mamadee or stuffed the ballot box, I could have helped but countering black magic was way out of my league. I took the issue to the High School Principal and he dealt with it. Mamadee stayed well and won the election.

Later, he unintentionally introduced us to another tribal phenomenon, the Lightning Man.

I had left Mamadee with $50 to buy us a drum of kerosene while my wife and I were on vacation. When we returned home, Mamadee was sitting on our doorstep. Someone had stolen the money and he was obviously upset. Fifty dollars represented a small fortune to most tribal Liberians. (Given that we were paid $120 dollars a month for teaching, it was hardly spare change to us.)

Mamadee’s father, a chief of the Kpelle tribe, was even more upset and wanted to assure us that his son had nothing to do with the missing money. It was a matter of honor. He offered to hire a Lightning Man to prove Mamadee’s innocence.

The Lightning Man had a unique power; he could make lighting strike whoever was guilty of a crime. If someone stole your cow or your spouse, ZAP! Since we were in the tropics, there was lots of lightning. Whenever anyone was struck, people would shake their heads knowingly. One more bad guy had been cooked; justice had been served.

We didn’t believe Mamadee had taken the money and even if he had we certainly didn’t want him fried, or even singed. We passed on the offer.

Another Liberia Peace Corps Volunteer chose a different path. Here’s how the story was told to us. Tom had just purchased a $70 radio so he could listen to the BBC and keep up with the news. He enjoyed his new toy for a few days and it disappeared.

“I am going to get my radio back,” he announced and then hiked into the village where he quickly lined up some students to take him to the Lightning Man. Off they went, winding through the rainforest to the Lighting Man’s hut.

“I want you to make lighting strike whoever stole my radio,” Tom said, and then paid five dollars for the service. (Lightning Men have to eat too.)

Tom and his entourage then returned home. By this time, everyone in the village knew about the trip, including undoubtedly, the person who had stolen the radio.

That night, there was a tremendous thunder and lightning storm. Ignoring for the moment that it was in the middle of the rainy season and there were always tremendous thunder and lightning storms, put your self in the shoes of the thief who believed in the Lightning Man’s power. Each clap of thunder would have been shouting his name.

The next morning Tom got up, had breakfast and went out on his porch. There was the radio.

(In my next blog I will relate the story about how Do Your Part, my dog, invaded a mosque and barely escaped.)

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