Happy New Year!
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.
Late one evening in the middle of a tropical downpour, one of my high school students appeared on our doorstep very wet and very frightened. Mamadee Wattee was running for student body president and his opponent had purchased ‘medicine’ from a Juju man (witch doctor) to make him sick.
It was serious business; people were known to die in similar circumstances. Had the opposition slandered Mamadee or stuffed the ballot box I could have helped, but countering magic potions wasn’t taught at Berkeley. I took the issue to Mr. Bonal and he dealt with it. Mamadee stayed well and won the election.
The use of Juju medicine represents the darker side of tribal culture. Human body parts derived from ritual human sacrifice are reputed to be particularly effective in creating potions. On the lighter side, my students once obtained a less potent “medicine” and buried it under the goal post on the football (soccer) field with the belief that it would cause the other team to miss goals. Apparently it lacked power; the other team won.
Mamadee was also the reason behind our introduction to the Lightning Man. When Jo and I went on vacation to East Africa, we left Mamadee with $50 to buy us a drum of kerosene. When we returned there was neither kerosene nor $50 but Mamadee was waiting.
Someone had stolen the money and Mamadee was extremely upset. Fifty dollars represented several months’ income for a Kpelle farmer. Mamadee’s father, a chief of the tribe, was even more upset and wanted to assure us that his son had nothing to do with the missing fortune. It was a matter of honor. He offered to have Mamadee submit to the Lightning Man to prove his innocence.
The Lightning Man had a unique power; he could make lighting strike whoever was guilty of a crime. If someone stole your cow or your spouse, zap! Since we were in the tropics, there was lots of lightning. Whenever anyone was struck, people would shake their heads knowingly. Another bad guy had been cooked; justice had been served.
We didn’t believe Mamadee had taken the money and even if he had we certainly didn’t want him fried, or even singed. We passed on the offer. The Chief insisted on giving us $50 to replace the stolen money.
Another Liberian Peace Corps Volunteer in a similar situation chose a different path. Here’s how the story was told to us. The Volunteer had just purchased a brand new $70 radio so he could listen to the BBC and keep track of what was happening in the world. The money represented half of the Volunteer’s monthly income. He had his bright, shiny, new toy for two days when it disappeared.
“I am going to get my radio back,” he announced to anyone who would listen and walked into the village where he quickly gathered some of his students to take him to the Lightning Man. Off he and half the town went, winding through the rainforest to the Lighting Man’s hut. The Volunteer took out five dollars and gave it to the Lighting Man. (Lighting Men have to eat too.)
“I want you to make lighting strike whoever stole my radio,” he said.
The Volunteer and his substantial entourage then returned home. By this time, everyone in the village knew about the trip, including undoubtedly, the person who had stolen the radio.
That night, there was a tremendous thunder and lightning storm. Ignoring for the moment that it was in the middle of the rainy season and there were always tremendous thunder and lightning storms, place yourself in the shoes of the thief who believed in the Lightning Man’s power. Each clap of thunder would have been shouting his name.
In the morning the Volunteer got up, had breakfast and went out on his porch. There was his radio.
In my next blog I will report on a Sassywood trial of The Woman Who Wore No Underpants where poisonous leaves and a red-hot machete tip the scales of justice.