(The Peace Corps turns 50 on Tuesday, March 1. In this series of travel blogs, I honor its Anniversary by relating my own experience a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gbarnga Liberia, West Africa starting in the summer of 1965.)
John Bonal, the High School Principal, lived in a cement-block house next to ours. He was a ‘Big Man’ in town by Gbarnga standards. Being successful in Liberia meant that your relatives came over and lived with you. It was the ultimate share-the-wealth-social-welfare program.
Part of John’s extended family included three dogs creatively named Puppy Doodle, Brownie Girl and Do Your Part. They came over to watch us white washing our new house and decided to stay. We fed them.
If I have my genealogy correct, Brownie Girl was Do your Part’s mom who in turn was Puppy Doodle’s mother. This three-generation family dug foxholes around the outside of our house and quickly established that they were our pets. Other dogs need not apply.
The Bonals were more than happy to have us take over feeding responsibilities and Rasputin was pleased to have someone new to terrorize. So everyone was happy.
Do Your Part took things a step further and adopted me. She was a charming little Basenji with impeccable manners. Everywhere I went, she went, including school. Normally this amused my students. I would walk into the class with DYP a respectful three feet behind. She would immediately arrange herself under my desk and quietly remain there until I left the classroom.
This worked fine until she had puppies. They started following her as soon as they could walk the 100 yards to the school.
I would arrive in my classroom followed by DYP who in turn was followed by four puppies. It was quite the parade. Unfortunately, the puppies lacked Do Your Part’s decorum and considered the classroom a playpen. The students decided it was not an appropriate learning environment and I agreed.
DYP and company had to go. It was not a happy parting.
“Take your puppies and go,” I ordered firmly. Do Your Part looked at me in disbelief.
“Out!” I said.
Sad eyes stared back accusingly. But I held firm. She didn’t let it get her down, however. As soon as the puppies had departed she was back in class. One time her insistence on following me had more drastic consequences.
Gbarnga had a sizeable population of Mandingoes, most of whom were Muslims. They had been gradually sifting into Liberia from across the Guinea border. Originally the Americo-Liberians had blocked their entrance to the country, fearing they might pose a threat to their power.
President Tubman’s open door policy changed that and by the time we had arrived their numbers had reached the point where they decided to build a mosque in town. I’d wander over on occasion to check their progress. The mosque was an impressive edifice by Gbarnga standards, easily five times larger than any other structure on the main road.
At last the day came for the mosque’s grand opening. Having watched it being built, I decided to attend the festivities. I put on a tie, grabbed our two cameras and headed out the door.
Do Your Part was waiting, as she always was, ready to go along. This was not a Do Your Part type of celebration, however. Muslims aren’t particularly fond of dogs and consider them unclean.
I figured this meant they didn’t want any dogs, even polite dogs, attending their holy ceremony. I suggested to Do Your Part she stay home. Fat chance. I walked 100 yards and glanced back over my shoulder. There was DYP, slinking along behind. I knew there was no way I would make it to the ceremony without a little brown dog lurking in the background.
Do Your Part would have to be left in our house. The action was drastic; the only time we let her in was to eat dead insects in the evening. She would come in just before we went to bed and wander around crunching down sausage bugs. It eliminated sweeping. She had never been locked inside.
Since my ex-wife Jo Ann was reading to a blind friend and Sam was off for the day, I couldn’t even leave DYP with company. I reluctantly shoved her inside and marched off to the sounds of doggy protest
It seemed to work. I reached the mosque just as the outside ceremonies were concluding and people were preparing to move inside. Dignitaries were everywhere. It was my intention to hang out on the periphery and remain inconspicuous.
This is hard when you are the only white person in the crowd and you have two cameras hanging around your neck. It took about thirty seconds for a tall, official looking man in a white robe to arrive and express in broken English how pleased he was that the international press from Monrovia had decided to cover the event.
While I struggled to inform him that I was only a local Peace Corps Volunteer, he ushered me into the mosque to a seat of honor. I looked around nervously. The podium was about 10 feet away and I was in the front row.
A hush descended on the crowd as an obviously important dignitary approached the podium. Liberia’s top Muslim Cleric had come to town to officiate at the opening ceremony. He gave me his best media smile and I dutifully took his picture.
Unexpectedly, there was a disturbance at the back of the mosque. Several men were trying to capture a little brown dog that was deftly eluding them and was making a beeline for me.
Do Your Part had managed to escape from the house. Now she was escaping from half the Nation of Islam. In seconds that seemed like hours she was in front of me, wagging and prancing around like she hadn’t seen me in six months. Hot on her tail were three huge Mandingo men.
“Is this your dog?” their leader managed to stammer out in barely repressed fury as he gave DYP a tentative boot in the butt. Fortunately she figured out that the situation was a little tense and decided there were other parts of town she wanted to see.
I was amazed at her ability to avoid lunging people. I dearly wished I could have escaped with her. It wasn’t to be. It was my job to stay behind and be glared at. I was so embarrassed I don’t remember a single part of the ceremony.
Later when I arrived home, Do Your Part was outside the house, all wiggles and waggles, obviously no worse for her adventure. Jo Ann greeted me.
“It was the strangest thing when I got home,” she said. “Do Your Part was inside and frantic to get out. When I let her loose she took off like our house was on fire. I wonder if Sam let her in by mistake.” So much for my planning…