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.
Sam spent hours listening to our record player getting Charlie off the MTA and Tom Dooley hung. He lived between two cultures. Scars marched down his chest in two neat rows.
“How did you get those,” Jo asked with 10 percent concern and 90 percent curiosity.
“I can’t tell you,” Sam replied with obvious nervousness as Jo’s eyebrows rose. “But I can tell Mr. Mekemson.”
“Aha,” I thought, “Sam and I belong to the same organization, the Men’s Club!” Actually Sam belonged to a very exclusive men’s organization, the Poro Society, which I wasn’t allowed to belong to either. Its functions were to pass on tribal traditions, teach useful skills, and keep errant tribe members in line. Everything about the organization was hush-hush. Tribal members who revealed secrets could be banned and even executed.
Political power on the local level was closely tied to membership in the Poro Society. On the national level, President Tubman assumed leadership of all Poro Societies in Liberia.
Tribal women had a similar secret organization to the Poro Society called the Sande Society, which prepared young women for adulthood and marriage. A rather controversial aspect of the Sande initiation ceremony was female genital mutilation, i.e. cutting off the clitoris.
Sam got off easy.
He had been to Bush School the previous summer and learned how to be a good Kpelle man. Graduation to adulthood consisted of an all-consuming encounter with the Poro Society’s Bush Devil. It ate him. Sam went in as a child and was spit out as a man. The scarification marks had been left by the devil’s ‘teeth.’
It seemed like a tough way to achieve adulthood but at least it was fast and definitive. Maybe we should introduce the process to our kids and skip the teenage years. Think of all of the angst it would avoid.
Bush Devil was the missionary’s designation for a very important tribal figure who was part religious leader, part cultural cop and part political hack. Non-Kpelle types weren’t allowed to see him. When the Devil came to visit outlying villages he was preceded by a front man who ran circles around the local PCV’s house while blowing a whistle. The Volunteer was expected to go inside, shut the door, close the shutters and stay there. No peeking.
We did get to see a Grebo Devil once. The Grebo Tribe was a little less secretive or at least more mercenary. Some Volunteers had hired the local Devil for an African style Haight-Ashbury Party. It was, after all, 1967, the “summer of love” in San Francisco and the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”
The Devil was all decked out in his regalia. Description-wise, I would say his persona was somewhere between a Voodoo nightmare and walking haystack. Grebo men scurried in front of him with brooms, clearing his path and grunting a lot.
We stayed out of the way and took pictures.
Another area where Sam showed his tribal side was in his fear of the newly dead. As I mentioned earlier, a person’s spirit was considered particularly powerful and dangerous right after he or she died. Later it would move away into the bush and fade. But first the spirit had to be tamed with appropriate mourning, an all night bash.
One didn’t take chances. When Sam worked late for us after someone had died, he would borrow a knife and a flashlight in case he had to fight off the malevolent ghost on his way home. I grew up next to a graveyard and was sympathetic with his concern.
In my next blog I will introduce the Lightning Man, a figure so powerful he could make lightning strike people.