Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story.
When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.
When we boarded the Pan Am jet at JFK, we abandoned the life we had known. Three-inch cockroaches, a rickety outhouse, and a hole-in-the-ground well came with the territory, as did boiling our water, reading by lantern, and eating chop.
And so what? We had kids to teach, collard greens to eat, and a zinc roof to keep out the rain. Serving as a married couple, we also had each other… our own little society. Plus we had Sam. He was bright, funny, and provided an introduction to the Kpelle culture. He also did many of the chores.
Life was almost too easy, too routine. We were good at self-entertainment; it is a primary survival skill for Peace Corps Volunteers, but we had jumped from racing down a multi-lane freeway to walking on a dirt path. The tumultuous year at Berkeley, marriage, Peace Corps training and Africa had happened bang, bang, bang. Now life was more like drip, drip, drip.
After two months we were climbing the walls like bug-a-bug. We needed a break. Relief came in the form of an invitation from our friend Morris Carpenter. He had escaped from Yopea and landed a job teaching sixth-graders in Ganta, 30 miles upcountry from us. Wellington Sirleaf, the Peace Corps driver, dropped off the note. Since there was neither phone nor mail service, Wellington was our once a week contact with the outside world.
I found it ironic that Morris and I lived closer together in Liberia than we had in California. Getting from Gbarnga to Ganta, however, was more challenging than getting from Diamond Springs to Auburn. We had two options: money bus or taxi.
The money bus was the more colorful choice. Think of taking a giant cargo van, cutting out windows, attaching a roof rack, and cramming it full of people, pigs, chickens, goats, bags of rice, fresh produce, luggage boxes and anything else a Liberian might need to survive on or sell.
These workhorses of the Liberian transportation system disdained schedules and stopped frequently. Minimal shocks, uncovered wood benches and bumpy dirt roads guaranteed butts were begging for mercy inside of 30 minutes. Packed conditions denied wiggle room to relieve an aching tailbone but might provide a kid or rooster for your lap. And there was always a chance of a breakdown accompanied by the fervent hope your driver would fix the problem in less than three hours.
We decided our daily life provided enough cross-cultural adventure and opted for the taxi. We packed a bag, left Sam in charge of buying a chicken, and walked into town to where the taxis gathered.
A dirty, grey, battered Peugeot was leaving for Ganta “small,” in a short time. “Ten dolla,” the driver informed us. “Five dolla,” we countered. Seven was the agreed price for the two of us. Then it was time to “wait small.” The driver wanted more passengers. After about an hour he gave up.
Any thoughts of a civilized trip in to Ganta were dispelled in the first five minutes. The driver drove like he saw a green mamba in his rearview mirror and the snake was gaining. While the law required us to be on the right side, dirt roads don’t have white lines. I doubt it mattered. When a car-eating pothole was located on our side of the road, we were on the other, even on a blind curve. It wasn’t a game of chicken; it was Russian roulette. Occasionally the driver would honk his horn.
Fortunately, the ride was relatively short. Our introduction to Ganta was a barrier backed up by an armed soldier.
“You pay,” the driver informed us. He had neglected to tell us there was a fee for entering the town. Turns out it was a bribe, or a dash as they call it in Africa. “Five dolla,” the soldier demanded as he looked at us menacingly. It made me angry but I took out two dollars and handed them to the driver. “Five dolla,” the soldier repeated. I shook my head no. The soldier glared at me again and then took the proffered money. Ever so slowly he opened the gate.
Dashes were a way of life in Liberia as they are in much of the world. It was a game we had to play, but we didn’t have to like it. “Asshole,” I mumbled as we drove off.
Ganta’s taxi stand included a mini-mart. Tribal women were sitting on the ground and selling a variety of items. One woman wearing a black and white wrap around lappa featured five metal basins filled with what appeared to be smoked animal parts. I looked more closely. A small, shrunken-head sized skull glared up at me with vacant eyes. A dozen or so other skulls looked elsewhere. Another basin contained legs; another split rib cages, and another long, curved tails. It was monkey meat. I looked more closely at the skulls.
“You buy?” the woman asked. “No thank you,” I replied a bit to hastily. Monkey brains were not on my list of preferred foods. She laughed.
A small boy appeared in front of me and shoved a boiled egg in my face. “Ten Cents.”
“I will give you ten cents to take us to Teacha Carpenter’s house,” I countered.
“Twenty.” “Fifteen.” “Okay.” We had struck a bargain.
Teacha Carpenter was waiting for us with a cold beer and laughed at our stories. He was a veteran PCV at the end of his term. We were green Volunteers at the beginning. Our traumas were everyday life to him. He had his own tales. An army of mice lived in his attic.
“I hear them doing parade drills every night. Back and forth, back and forth with the sergeant barking orders.” He hired Metternich the Cat to solve the problem. Each morning Metternich deposited two or three dead rodents for inspection. He was making a significant reduction in the mouse population. Besides all the mice he could eat, Metternich took his pay in chop.
Morris had planned a tour of the local leper colony for us. In particular, he wanted us to meet Freddie, a wood-carver he had befriended. Leprosy, Morris explained as we walked over to the colony, is hard to catch.
We were glad to hear there was little danger but still wary. Most of what we knew about the disease related to the old horror stories, the ones that led communities to ban lepers to remote locations. Losing body parts is scary. While leprosy might not be highly contagious, it was still contagious.
A neat row of cabins surrounded by banana, avocado and palm trees announced our arrival. It seemed that the lepers were well cared for and well fed.
Freddie reinforced my opinion. He had a lean-to studio and was dressed in a clean white T-shirt, jeans, and polished brown shoes. Chips were flying as he chopped away on a block with a curved head adze. The smell of freshly cut wood permeated the air. A scroungy brown and white dog was lying off to the side. It opened an eye, gave a partial wag, and went back to sleep.
I couldn’t stop myself from checking to see if Freddie had lost any limbs. Except for grey blotches on his hands, he appeared intact. A devil mask was displayed beside him. Other carvings were stacked against the wall.
Freddie grinned as we admired his carvings. It was obvious that he took pride in his work, that he had found a way to soften the fright his disease must cause.
I was developing a taste for African art. Its primitive subject matter jumped past my rational mind and captured my subconscious. I found one piece particularly appealing. Two large feet were connected to stumpy legs that disappeared into a shapeless robe that flared downward from the neck. There were no arms. A gigantic head with a mouthful of 28 teeth and a large nose topped off the neck. It was like a circus clown, both scary and humorous.
“It’s a Bush Devil,” Morris explained. The Bush Devil, so named by disapproving missionaries, was a powerful force within the tribal society. I happily broke out five dollars and bought the piece.
Back at Morris’s we ate four-pepper chop, drank more beer, told more tales and went to sleep with mice marching back and forth in the attic.