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.
Dinner popped into my mind on the taxi trip home from Ganta. After two months of eating Argentina’s finest canned beef, I found myself lusting after the neighbor’s chickens. My last instructions to Sam before leaving to visit Morris had been to buy us one for the stew pot. I had visions of arriving back home with the hen waiting for us in the refrigerator.
It was a pleasant, if short-lived, dream.
The chicken was roosting on our stove and appeared to like her new home. Generous piles of chicken poop decorated the kitchen. Sam and I had discussed my preferences before we left. Apparently the instructions had not been clear. I corrected the error.
“Here’s another dollar. Take this chicken out and have her killed, gutted and plucked.”
My chicken whacking days were over. Sam returned a couple of hours later with dinner and Jo Ann did her culinary thing. The final product met all of my mouth-watering expectations. When the bones had been picked clean I worked my way through the pile again. Chicken had never tasted better… before or since. But there was a close match.
The lyrics to a popular West African tune proclaimed, “Chicken and rice with palm butter is nice.” I agreed; it was my favorite chop. Palm butter has a unique sweet flavor and rich texture. Unfortunately, pounding palm nuts was clearly defined as women’s work, which Sam avoided at all costs. A stone wall divided male and female roles within the Kpelle culture. I threatened to trade Sam in on a house girl and he miraculously found a way to obtain the illusive product.
It was possible to eat well in Gbarnga, even on our $160 per month salaries. But there were times we longed for a convenient grocery store packed with rib eye steaks, fresh milk and ice cream. Or, even better, a restaurant where we could order such food.
The visit with Morris provided a break in our routine but Morris lived the same way we did. His chop was quite tasty, but it was still chop. Jo and I decided it was time for our first trip back to Monrovia. Once again we packed our bags and headed over to Gbarnga’s taxi stand.
This time the price was $15 for the two of us. The taxi was packed and I rode shotgun. My job was to put my thumb on the windshield whenever we met another vehicle. The theory was that this would keep the windshield from imploding if struck by a rock. Shatterproof glass hadn’t made it to Liberia.
Rainforest, villages and small towns whizzed by slowly. I felt like we were caught in a time warp. An occasional burned out hulk of a money bus or taxi decorated the roadside and reminded us of our mortality. We passed Phebe Hospital built and operated by Lutheran missionaries and then Cuttington College built and operated by Episcopal missionaries.
In the town of Suakoko, we dropped one passenger and picked up another. He was chewing on a dark, smoky leg of either dog or monkey meat. My stomach growled in appreciation. I was adjusting to Africa.
Tribal Liberians waited with Zen-like patience beside the road for their unscheduled money bus rides. Usually a faint trail led off into the bush to their villages. I wondered what they thought about while waiting. Did they ponder their reception in Monrovia as they descended on relatives who lived in tin shacks already overflowing with people?
At some point, the jungle gave way to rubber trees with bark slashed to drain the white sticky substance. We had entered the world’s largest rubber tree plantation. Owned by Firestone, it was known for the low wages it paid Liberian workers and the generous payoffs it made to government officials.
With Kakata came relief, a paved road. Several Americo-Liberians had large farms in the area. Their names were a who’s who of Liberia’s elite.
Morris had reveled in telling us a story about a scandalous murder that had happened in the town. The guy’s body had been dismembered. His head ended up in a toilet. The local Peace Corps Volunteer told anyone who would listen, “If you want to get a-head in life, come to Kakata.”
Eventually we made it to Monrovia and our taxi let us off at the Peace Corps hostel. I’d be bunking with the guys and Jo Ann would be bunking with the girls. I didn’t think much of sleeping with a group of snoring men but the price was right. Plus Abijoudi’s was waiting.
Abijoudi’s was a genuine supermarket; it was close to heaven. I am not sure what was more impressive: the air conditioning or the aisles crammed with goods. We wandered awestruck up and down the rows staring at the canned and frozen foods from around the world. And then we splurged. Jo Ann bought a frozen duck from Holland. Morris was coming to Gbarnga for a return visit. It would be the first meal she ever cooked for a guest.
Abijoudi’s was only one of Monrovia’s many temptations. Going to a movie was next on our list. The first James Bond thriller, “Dr. No,” had finally made it to Liberia. Our friends were raving about the film. An effort had been made in the fifties to turn Fleming’s novels into a TV series. The producers recruited an American actor for the Bond role and named him Jimmie. Can you imagine the line, “My name’s Bond, Jimmy Bond?” The series flopped.
We also discovered Oscar’s, an excellent French restaurant that perched on the edge of the Atlantic in a beautiful setting. Oscar stood by our table and personally cooked flaming steak Diane with cognac. Later, a volunteer would catch amoebic dysentery at the restaurant and Oscar’s was put on Peace Corps’ ban list. Jo and I never ate the salad, never got dysentery and never obeyed the ban. Oscar’s became a must do on our Monrovia trips.
After dinner we found a cozy bar tended by a big-busted German woman and Jo ordered a grasshopper: a frothy drink made with Crème de Menthe, Crème de Cacao and cream.
“A grasshopper,” the woman shouted across the crowded room. “What’s a hopper?” Everyone turned and stared at us as Jo Ann and I struggled to remember the ingredients. After that, Jo ordered more simple drinks.
Satiated and exhausted, we returned to the PC hostel. The next morning we caught a taxi back to Gbarnga and the quiet life.