When we returned from East Africa, a shift had taken place; Jo Ann and I had become grizzled, respected veterans. Peace Corps V had left the Country and Peace Corps VIII had come in. With a year and a half under our belts, we were the folks to go to for sage advice. We were even entitled to reminisce about the old days. I was, after all, 24 years old.
Cuttington College sent student teachers to learn from me while the fame of Jo’s choir continued to increase. My seniors took top honors in the national social studies test… competing against the best public and missionary high schools in the country.
What seemed most surprising to us was that Peace Corps requested we spend our last six months touring the country and working in different schools as master teachers. We quickly declined. Our skill level may have fooled Peace Corps but not us. We thought it best to keep our little secret. We also had several projects going at the school we wanted to complete.
Jo and I, along with other selected PCVs, were also asked to help develop a manual for future Volunteers coming into the country. I chaired the section on Liberian culture. According to staff, my experience in doing research for the second grade reader qualified me for the task. (Grin) I had my doubts but took the job seriously. I was fortunate to have several Volunteers working with me who came from different sections of the country and added depth about their regions and tribes.
Apparently our effort caught the attention of the American Embassy in Monrovia. A State Department official was sent to interview me about my views on tribal culture and Liberian politics. At least I hoped he was from the State Department. Embassies also housed CIA agents and a careful line was drawn between the Peace Corps and the CIA. Our mission was based upon trust and that trust could be severely damaged if it was found we worked with the CIA. Whatever my visitor’s affiliation, he came bearing a six-pack of Heineken. We talked way into the night drinking his Heineken and then doing serious damage to my supply of Club Beer.
I shared three concerns. The first was about tribalism. The government’s efforts to put the nation first and tribes second had barely scratched the surface. The influence of tribal identification had been dramatically driven home to Jo and me during our first months in the country. One day we were walking home from the elementary school and found a very sick child sprawled out on the road. Rather than stopping to help, our students were detouring around him. They hardly seemed to notice that he was there. Jo Ann ripped into them. I had never seen her so angry.
“Why aren’t you helping this sick child?” she demanded. The question seemed to confuse them.
“He’s not Kpelle,” was the response. Why should they help him? He was from another tribe. He was less than human. My sense was that the vast majority of tribal people put their tribe first, other tribes second, and the country a very distant third in terms of identity and loyalty. There was very little glue to hold the nation together.
Second, I had been deeply disturbed by the effort to make Mamadee Wattee sick during the student body election. Our students were highly educated from a tribal perspective and becoming president of the student body was hardly a great prize. And yet, here they were willing to use ‘dark magic’ with the potential of killing a friend. It was all out of proportion, a form of insanity that might cause great damage if not held in check.
Finally, I believed that Liberia was headed for a revolution unless dramatic changes were made in the relationship between Americo-Liberians and the tribal populations. President Tubman talked about bringing more tribal people into the government but it was a tortuously slow process. Americo-Liberians were clinging desperately to their power and prestige. The paranoia that I had personally experienced was a prime example of that desperation. On one level, I could understand the government’s reaction to the student body elections. But the reaction to the second grade reader I had written was ridiculously stupid. At some point tribal Liberians would run out of patience and all hell would break loose. I was not optimistic that Americo-Liberians would ever willingly share power.
But the future of Liberia was not in my hands. Jo and I had done what we could as Peace Corps Volunteers though our positions as teachers and efforts in the community. We had gained tremendously from our experience in Gbarnga and hoped our students had as well.
Time flew and the reality of going home could no longer be ignored. Our last days came and we said our goodbyes to friends, the school, our house and the countryside. We found a good Peace Corps Volunteer home for Rasputin and packed up our African treasures. Sam had already left to attend Liberia’s top boarding school and we were helping pay costs. A school assembly loaded us down with gifts and good wishes. It was sad to be leaving, but bearable. New adventures waited.
On the last morning I arose early to go outside and to have my last cup of coffee while sitting on our old jeep seat couch. A Doo-Doo bird plaintively issued his comment on the world, “doo, doo, doo” and I found myself agreeing. The sun hit the rain forest and then the school. The first students were making their way up the hill. They waved.
Do Your Part came trotting over. Do Your Part who was my dog but wasn’t. Do Your Part who followed me wherever I went. Do Your Part who had exquisite manners and never jumped up on me, climbed onto my lap and looked into my eyes. She was shivering; she knew I was leaving and her knowing made it real. It almost broke my heart. I said my final goodbye.
This ends my series of blogs on my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. I hope you have enjoyed the stories. Presently I am working with an editor to get the blogs ready for self-publishing this spring. There will be both electronic and printed versions. I am also adding several chapters. After my experience as a Volunteer, I worked as Peace Corps staff in the Southern United States and the West for three years. There are many more stories to tell. I also want to address the devastating war that took place in Liberia. I will finish by looking at Liberia, and Peace Corps Liberia, today.
NEXT: Join me on Tuesday when I begin a photographic exploration of the Mediterranean Sea. Just prior to Christmas, my wife Peggy and I spent a month traveling from Turkey to Portugal while stopping off in such great places as Ephesus, Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Venice, Naples/Pompeii, Rome, Florence, Barcelona, Cannes, Lisbon and the Azores. I will begin with one of my top favorites: Santorini.