All Peace Corps Volunteers have stories to tell about their first days on assignment: some funny, some sad and some even scary.
In Armies of the Night under Bone Stories I described how my new wife of three months, Jo Ann, and I survived our first night in Gbarnga, Liberia without water, light or food while being besieged by cockroaches, termites, crab size spiders and pounding drums.
A new day did manage to happen, however. Jo and I promised we would make it a good one. Her job was to mount a ferocious counter offensive on the bug-a-bugs (termites) and cockroaches that had seized our house. Sam, the young man who hoped to work for us, arrived early to help.
My job was to walk the quarter-mile to town, buy five gallons of kerosene, find the most toxic bug spray known to humankind, scavenge anything available that resembled food and stock up on booze in case my other efforts failed.
Since this was my first trip into Gbarnga, I was on display and more than a little nervous. It seemed like half of the town was out and their primary purpose was to stare at me. I smiled and waved a lot, like a princess on parade. They smiled and waved back.
Things were going well.
I quickly reached the main street. Open-air shops lined the dirt road on both sides. At first, they looked the same: white washed walls, red tin roofs, dark interiors, and faces staring out from inside.
Then I begin noticing differences. Several were fronted with crumbling cement steps that had long since given up any hope of connecting to the eroded street. One featured a crocodile skin nailed to the front post, its tail dragging in the dirt. Another had brightly colored shirts and shorts strung up like Christmas ornaments.
Two or three were obviously makeshift bars, no more than holes in the wall. An ancient Liberian ‘Ma’ came staggering out of one with a half-pint gin bottle clutched in her hand. She noticed me, hoisted her bottle in a toast and took a swig.
A few shops were larger and resembled country stores filled with the minutia of daily life. Most were owned by Lebanese. At the time, they made up a substantial part of Liberia’s middle class. I was headed for one that Sam told me sold kerosene.
A group of men stood idly in front of the store. Had folks known I was coming, I would have sworn it was a reception committee. It’s show time went reverberating around my skull. I smiled my best Peace Corps smile. One of the men stepped forward to greet me. He was barefoot and wore a tattered shirt, tattered shorts and a big grin. His hand shot out
This is it I thought, my first official Liberian handshake. We had started practicing at SF State. The shake begins as a normal handshake but ends with you snapping each other’s fingers. An audible snap signifies success. It isn’t easy at first. If the person is really happy to see you he may go through the process two or three times.
(About the time the snap becomes second nature, it’s time to go home. Then you have to unlearn the process. Your American friends look at you strangely when you snap their fingers. At least my conservative Republican father-in-law did. But back to Africa.)
We shook. Our hands parted. Snap! It worked. All of the men beamed and I beamed back. Their official greeter grabbed my hand again. Snap! Another success and more beaming. And again. And again
Nobody had mentioned four snaps to me and this time the guy wouldn’t let go. The men were laughing out loud now. My hundred-watt smile became a forty-watt grimace as I politely tried to retrieve my hand. No luck. I steeled myself, gave up any pretense of being polite and yanked. My hand pulled free and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The sigh lasted as long as it took the guy to drop to the ground and wrap his arms around my knees. By now the audience were all but rolling the street. I had become prime time entertainment and was beginning to understand what George Custer must have felt like.
I might still be there if the cavalry hadn’t arrived. It came in the form of a handsome Liberian man in a well-tailored suit who appeared on the scene and gave Flumo a healthy kick in the butt. Flumo let go.
“Hi, I am Daniel Goe, Vice Principal at Gboveh High School. Welcome to Gbarnga.” he introduced himself.
We shook hands in the old-fashioned way as Daniel explained that the man who had his arms wrapped around me was known throughout the Country as Crazy Flumo. I wasn’t the only person to receive his attention.
Once, Daniel told me, Flumo had thrown himself down in front of Vice President Tolbert’s car and wouldn’t move until the VP climbed out and gave him five dollars. New PCVs were a special target. I later learned that a tall Texan Volunteer had actually walked several yards down the main street of Gbarnga with Flumo tenaciously attached to one leg. I’d gotten off easy.
Fortunately, my adventures for the day were over. I bought my kerosene, found a bug poison so potent it was outlawed it in the US and discovered such fine culinary treats as canned beef from Argentina.
Jo Ann and Sam beat back the bug-a-bug and managed to arrive at an uneasy truce with the cockroaches. The nasty beasts would limit their forays until after we had gone to bed and stay out of our bedroom. In return we would only kill those we could reasonably stomp without tearing our house down.
Anyway there we were, one happy little family, cockroaches and all. That’s when Captain Die arrived on our doorstep.
Captain Die was a well digger rumored to have spent far too much time in dark holes. He had dug the well at our house for the original occupants, two female Volunteers. Afterwards, he began stopping by to visit the women and bum cigarettes. He had a rather unique way of introducing himself.
“Hello, my name is Captain Die. My name is Captain Die because I am going to die someday. This is my dog, Rover. Roll over Rover. Give me a cigarette.” Rover, who was a big ugly dog of indeterminate parenthood, dutifully rolled over
It made quite an impression. We explained to Captain Die that neither of us smoked but invited him in to share some ice tea we had just brewed. We gave the Captain a glass and he took a huge swallow.
I have no idea what he thought he was getting but it wasn’t Lipton’s. He must have thought we were trying to poison him. A look of terror crossed his face and he spit the ice tea out in a forceful spray that covered half the kitchen and us. Dripping wet, we found ourselves caught between concern, laughter and dismay. The Captain, in disgust, marched out of our house in military fashion with Rover close behind.
In addition to having found our predecessors an excellent supply of tobacco, Captain Die was quite taken with one of them. The story was told to us how he appeared at the door when Maryanne’s parents were visiting from the States. Captain Die was a man on a mission. He was going to request Maryanne’s hand in marriage.
I’ve always imagined the scene as follows.
Maryanne’s parents are sitting in the living room on the Salvation Army chairs and making a game attempt at hiding the culture shock they are undoubtedly feeling when this big black man and his ugly dog appear at the screen door.
Marianne jumps up and says, “Oh Mom and Dad, I would like you to meet my friend, Captain Die.” Mom and Dad, brainwashed by Emily Post and wishing to appear nonchalant, quickly stand up with strained smiles on their faces.
Captain Die grabs Dad’s hand and tries to snap his finger at the same time proclaiming, “Hello, my name is Captain Die. My name is Captain Die because I am going to die some day. This is my dog Rover. Roll over Rover. Give me your daughter.”
No one told me how Marianne’s parents responded to the good Captain’s offer so I will leave the ending up to the reader’s imagination. I can report that Maryanne was not whisked out of the country by her mom and dad.
(Today completes my daily tales of my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gbarnga, Liberia. This week I have been utilizing my travel blog to honor the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. There are more stories of Africa, however, and I will continue to work them in as the year goes by.)