Our job as teachers was to help bring Liberia’s tribal population into the twentieth century.
It was something of a first for the Country considering Americo-Liberians had worked hard for over a century to keep the tribal population in the darkest of the Dark Continent. Americo-Liberians were the descendents of freed slaves who had returned to Africa in the 1800s. They had promptly established themselves as the ruling elite.
It was a position they wished to maintain.
The times ‘they were a changing’ though. Independence was sweeping through Africa as one country after another threw off its colonial chains. Liberia’s tribal peoples were aware of what was happening in the world around them and the natives were getting restless.
The challenge to William Shadrach Tubman, who had been President since 1943, was to convince the tribal people they were getting a good deal, hold together a disparate people, make a show of it internationally, and still protect the privileges of the Americo-Liberians. Achieving the latter while moving forward on the first three was close to impossible.
It required an incredible balancing act at which Tubman was a master. The recipe for success involved one part substance, five parts fancy footwork and ten parts paranoia. The paranoia evolved from the fear that the tribal Liberians would take the process seriously and demand an equivalent portion or, God forbid, all of the goodies. Or possibly the nation would shatter apart.
As long as we behaved ourselves, we were part of the substance. The Liberian government made it quite clear that there would be grave consequences for anyone caught challenging the supremacy of the True Whig Party. For Liberians, the grave consequences could literally mean a hole in the ground. For us, it was a one-way ticket out of the country.
Don’t bother with stopping at Go or collecting $120 (our monthly salary).
One of our fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Gbarnga, Phil Weisberg, actually tested the government’s resolve just prior to our arrival. Phil was a tall, gangly PCV who always looked like he had recently lost something of profound value.
He became upset whenever President Tubman or Vice President Tolbert came to Gbarnga and all of the school children in town were required to stand beside the road and cheer.
It didn’t matter if the luminary was one or two hours late, which he often was, or if it was pouring down rain, which it did half of the time, or if the sun was boiling hot, which it did the other half; the kids were expected to be there.
Teachers were required to go along. While most of the Volunteers managed to find something else to do, Phil’s personality was such that if his kids had to suffer he was going to be right out there suffering with them.
One day he found himself waiting an hour in the hot sun for the President’s wife and decided to protest. He did so by penning a sign that said in the best Liberian English, “MRS. TUBMAN, YOU ARE TOO LATE!”
Two hours later when her motorcade came tooling in to Gbarnga, Phil held up his sign and waved it about. Minutes later he found himself arrested and thrown into jail. This was not a piddling little kick your ass out of the country offense. One didn’t mess with the President’s wife.
Luckily Phil had the power of the American government behind him. Diplomatic maneuvering plus a personally written apology earned him a get out of jail free card. He was even allowed to stay in the country and finish up his term, provided of course he behaved.
I understood why Phil got in trouble. Waving a sign around criticizing the Presidents wife was not how to win friends and influence people among the Americo-Liberians. We all knew that the government was paranoid. Just how paranoid, I was to soon find out.
Peace Corps teachers were required to undertake a project during their first school vacation in Liberia. Given my experience at the elementary school, I decided do away with Dick, Jane and Spot and write a second grade reader. Why shouldn’t Liberian children have their own readers that reflected their own culture? Peace Corps agreed.
I jumped in. There were teaching guides to review, people to interview, folk tales to gather, and stories to write, rewrite and finish in one syllable English.
Eventually I finished the reader and shipped it off to Monrovia. Peace Corps was excited about the book and assigned an editor and illustrator to work with me. I would soon be a published author. Not. WAWA (a term coined by experienced African hands that stood for West Africa Wins Again) struck.
The book wouldn’t be published at all.
I had made the mistake of assuming the government would support a reader that featured Liberian children and African Folk Tales instead of Dick, Jane and Spot. What I had failed to understand was just how paranoid the Americo-Liberians were about maintaining power.
Apparently the book was a highly subversive tract and I was a dangerous radical. Liberian children would learn about their native heritage and rebel. Another misstep and I would be booted out of the country… or worse.
My next criminal activity was to organize a student government at Gboveh High School where I was taught African and World History. I decided the exercise would help our students prepare for the future and give them skills they would need in helping to govern their country.
Everyone, including students, teachers and Mr. Bonal, agreed. We pulled together interested students, worked through developing by-laws and set up elections.
Then the kids decided they would organize and run for office on party tickets. Why not? It sounded like fun. To provide identification for each ticket, they adopted names. It never entered my mind that this gesture would strike terror in the hearts of Americo-Liberians.
Within 24 hours we had been accused by the Superintendent (governor) of Bong County of setting up competing political parties to the Government’s True Whig Party. Student leaders were told to cease and desist or they would be arrested and thrown in jail.
I was told indirectly that I should start packing my bags.
So we eliminated the tickets and names. We were then allowed to proceed but I have no doubt we were closely monitored. I couldn’t help but wonder which of my students or fellow faculty members reported regularly to the Superintendent on my treasonable behavior.