Chapter 27: Trial by Poisonous Leaves and a Red Hot Machete

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.


This was the Eleventh Grade class at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga in 1967. Amani Page is second from left on the bottom row.

This was the Eleventh Grade class at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga in 1967. Amani Page is second from left on the bottom row. Jo Ann is on the right.

While the Lighting Man provided a hit or miss opportunity for taking out bad guys, a more formal means of determining guilt and innocence was achieved by asking the tribal judge or Sassywood Man to resolve the issue. This tribal official obtained his name through use of poisonous leaves from the Sassywood tree. The accused person was invited to chew a few. If he died, he was guilty. No DAs, lawyers or juries were needed.

Since modern society frowned upon trial by survival, the Sassywood Man had been forced to come up with a new way of determining guilt. As it turned out, the father of one of my students, Amani Page, was the local tribal judge and Jo and I were privileged to witness an actual trial.

It all started with Amani showing up at our house at two in the afternoon on a Saturday in the middle of the dry season. His father was about to start a trial. Would we like to see it? There was no hesitation on our part even though it meant like ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ we had to forgo our afternoon siesta and go out in the tropical sun.

As we headed west across town through the stifling heat, Amani provided background on the case. The plaintiff’s wife had come home in the evening after a hard day of selling oranges at the market and told her husband that three men had accused her of not wearing underpants. This was serious slander suggestive of loose behavior and the husband had filed charges through Liberia’s western-type court system.

But there was a potential problem: what if the men knew something about his wife’s behavior he didn’t? Perhaps his wife was lying to him. If he lost the suit, he would have to pay all of the court costs plus he would be subject to countersuit. He decided to hedge his bet by taking his wife to the Sassywood Man first. If he found his wife was lying, the husband would drop the charges and probably divorce her.

We arrived at court before the husband and wife and were rewarded with front row dirt seats. Jo and I had already asked Amani what the appropriate title for his father was and Amani had told us to call him Old Man, a term of respect. So we did. Old Man didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Kpelle but there was much smiling and finger snapping. We were delighted to meet him and he was equally delighted to meet his son’s teachers.

After the greetings were complete, we got down to the important business of preparing for the trial. The first thing Old Man did was to ignite a roaring bonfire, just the thing for a hot afternoon. About this time the husband arrived sans wife.

“Where’s your wife,” Old Man asked as Amani translated.

“She is being brought by her family,” the husband replied.

‘Being brought,’ it turned out, was a conservative description of the process. She was being dragged and appeared ready to bolt at the first opportunity, which she did. The woman was half gazelle; my greyhound of childhood days couldn’t have caught her as she leapt off down the trail. For everyone involved, it looked like a clear case of guilt. But the trial was still going to be held. I asked Amani if it was being carried on for our benefit but he explained it was legitimate for the husband to sit in for the wife.

Old Man disappeared into his hut and came out with a wicked looking machete, a can of ‘medicine’ or magical objects, a pot of mystery liquid and a pot of water. He promptly shoved the machete’s blade into the fire. Next, he dumped his can of magic objects on the ground. Included were two rolls of Sassywood leaves and several small stones of various colors and shapes.

“Uh-oh,” I thought to myself. “Are we about to witness something here with the Sassywood leaves that we would just as soon not see?”

But Old Man had a use for them other than ingestion. He asked the husband to sit down on the ground opposite him and place one roll of the leaves under his right foot. He placed the other roll under his. Both men wore shorts and had bare feet. It appeared we were to witness a trial by osmosis.

Next he arranged his magic objects and proceeded to mumble over them like a priest preparing for Communion. Once the appropriate spirits had been called, it was time for mystery liquid. A generous amount was rubbed on each Sassywood leg. We were ready for the truth.

“If the knife is cold, the woman is lying,” Old Man declared dramatically as he pulled the glowing machete from the fire.

Old Man took the “knife” and rubbed it down his leg. It sounded like a hot grill cozying up to a T-bone steak. But Old Man grinned. The knife was cold.

The husband was next. His leg appeared much less optimistic about the process. It was, in fact, preparing to follow his wife’s legs lickety-split down the hill. A firm glare from Old Man made the leg behave. The machete sizzled its way down the shinbone and a look of surprise filled the husband’s eyes. The knife was cold; the woman was lying.

We had to be absolutely sure, however, so Old Man shoved the machete back in the fire. This time he rubbed water up and down his and the husband’s legs instead of mystery fluid. He then rearranged his magic rocks and commenced mumbling over them again. After about fifteen minutes he was ready for the final phase of the trial. He yanked the machete from the fire a second time.

“If the knife is hot, the woman is lying,” he instructed as he reversed the directions.

“Ow!” he yelled and jumped back as the machete barely touched his leg! The knife was definitely, absolutely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, hot.

This time Old Man couldn’t even get near the husband’s leg since the husband had jumped up from his sitting position and was strategically located ten feet away. The jury had returned its verdict; his wife was lying and he would drop the charges. He didn’t need his leg torched to prove the point.

All of these elements of tribal culture were fascinating to me. There were aspects of what the Kpelle believed such as the spirit in the cottonwood tree that I could almost believe myself. I like the pantheistic concept of spirits existing in plants, animals and places as well as people. It implies an element of sacredness, interconnectivity and respect for the world around us that was lost ever so long ago when we decided that humankind was the hottest stuff in creation.

There also was a lot I didn’t believe in but could recognize had value. The Lightning Man, Sassywood Man and the Bush Devil played important roles in maintaining order within the tribal society. They served as policeman, judge and priest.

Think of the power of the Lighting Man as a deterrent to crime. It’s almost biblical. Given our scientific knowledge of how lightning works, it’s easy to be amused by the concept of lightning striking bad guys. But is our system all that different? After all, we believe lawyers stand for justice. I know, I know… cheap shot, but if you stop and think about it, our society requires almost as much faith to operate as the Kpelle’s.

The use of Juju to make people become sick or die was something else, both dark and dangerous. Left unchecked these practices can and did lead to dire consequences. Some of the more macabre aspects of the violence that has haunted Liberia may be traced to similar abuse of the ‘dark arts.’

6 comments on “Chapter 27: Trial by Poisonous Leaves and a Red Hot Machete

  1. Uh -oh.. My dad nicknamed me “SassieMae” as a child.. think I’m any relation to Sassywood
    Your stories are so entertaining.. what a wonderful adventure this was for you..

    • Me too. There is definitely a dark side to some tribal practices, made even more so by unstable times. We can be thankful that we have the constitutional and legal protection we have, regardless of the flaws.

      Water boarding reminded me of how precious our system is, and how easily it is abused. –Curt

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