In 1965, my first wife, Jo Ann, and I joined the Peace Corps, graduated from UC Berkeley, and flew off to the country of Liberia where we were assigned as elementary school teachers in the upcountry town of Gbarnga. My book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” relates our experiences at Berkeley and in Liberia.
January was the Liberian school equivalent of summer vacation and second year Peace Corps Volunteers took full advantage of it by chartering a jet airplane and flying off to East Africa. First year Volunteers were left behind and had to take on a ‘summer’ project.
I decided to write a second-grade reader while JoAnn worked with a blind student.
I had spent my first semester teaching a second-grade class where the children were expected to learn to read out of well-used 1950’s era California readers. It was hard for the kids to relate. The world of Dick and Jane in their big houses with white picket fences and white playmates in no way resembled the life of my kids in Gbarnga, as demonstrated by the photo above. As for Spot, he bore a striking resemblance to food.
I had plunged into my project: researching elementary school readers, gathering African folk tales, and putting together stories about the children that reflected their lives, not those of Dick and Jane. The country Peace Corps staff liked the book I submitted. They agreed to assign me an editor, an expert in elementary school education, and an illustrator. But it wasn’t to be. The government decided that my book on African Folk tales and Liberian children was somehow dangerous, a threat to its one-party state. Peace Corps told me to forget the book and not even bring it up in conversations. I might be kicked out of the country.
Fortunately, I had other things to occupy my mind. Jo and I had been assigned to teach at Gboveh High School our second semester and were moving across town. There were classes to prepare for and our ‘new’ house was in desperate need of a paint job. We had also assumed in loco parentis status. One of the second-year Peace Corps couples, Dick and Sandy Robb, had left four little female kittens to live with us while they flew off to East Africa. Our pay was to have the pick of the litter. Whoopee.
I had built our temporarily adopted cat family a three-story mansion out of cardboard. It was a maze of rooms, hanging toys, hallways and ramps. It even had a carpeted floor and a bathroom— a kitty litter box. The kittens would disappear inside and play for long periods. We could hear them banging around as they stalked each other and attacked the hanging toys.
In a creative moment inspired by the evening cocktail hour, we decided to use the house as an intelligence test to determine which kitten we would keep. First, we waited until the kittens were appropriately hungry, and then we brewed up their favorite meal, fish head stew. Here’s the recipe: Take several ripe fish heads and throw them in a pan of boiling water. When their eyes pop out, they’re done.
Next, we encouraged the kittens to sniff their gourmet dinner and showed them that the meal would be located just outside the ground floor door of their mansion. Now we were ready for the test. Each kitten would be placed inside the third story door and given a nudge. We would then close the door and time how long it took the kitten to reach the banquet. Our theory was that the kitten with the quickest time through the maze of hallways and ramps would be the brightest.
Grey Kitten # 1 was a pudgy little character that never missed a meal. My money was riding on her. She breezed through the maze in three minutes sharp and set the time to beat. There was a chance that the sound of her munching away on fish heads might inspire the other kittens on to even greater glory, however.
Grey Kitten #2 was one of those ‘whatever it is you want me to do I am going to do the opposite’ type cats. Not surprisingly, she strolled out of the door seven minutes later and ignored the food altogether. (Afterwards, we were to speculate that she was the most intelligent cat and blew the race because she had no intention of living with someone who made her go through a maze for dinner.)
Grey Kitten #3 was the lean and mean version. Scrawny might be a better description. She obviously needed dinner the most and proved her mettle by blazing through the house in two minutes. The contest was all but over.
Kitten # 4 was what pollsters normally classify as ‘other.’ To start with, she was yellow instead of grey. She was also loud. In honor of her operatic qualities, Jo had named her Brunhilda, after the Wagnerian opera star. By the time her turn came up, she was impatiently scratching the hand that was about to feed her and growling in a demonic way. I gladly shoved the little monster in the third story door and closed it. We heard a scrabbling on the other side as tiny claws dug into the cardboard floor. Her race down the first hall was punctuated by a loud crash on the other end. Brake problems.
Then she was up and running again, but it sounded like toward us. Had her crash disoriented her? Suddenly the third story door burst open and one highly focused yellow kitty went flying through the air. She made a perfect four-point landing and dashed to the dinner dish. Her time? Ten seconds.
And that is how Brunhilda came to be our cat. Our decision to keep her led us to turn her over and check out her brunhildahood a little more closely. Turns out she had a couple of furry little protuberances where there shouldn’t have been any. She was a he. In honor of Brunhilda’s demonic growl and generally obnoxious behavior, we renamed the kitten Rasputin after the nefarious Russian monk.
If you have enjoyed this story and the many other tales I share, you might also enjoy “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.” It’s available in both Kindle and paperback form here on Amazon. For other sources such as Apple, click on the book cover top right.
47 thoughts on “How Brunhilda the Cat Became Rasputin… A Tale from The Bush Devil Ate Sam”
I can’t believe the children were able to carry that on their heads! Love your description of how to tell when the fish is ready. It’s tpp bad the government felt your book was dangerous.I think it is so sad when they do things like that. No one should have to change their lifestyle if they are doing no harm just because other people don’t like it. Always love reading your posts!
In the long run, much of the tragedy of Liberia was tied into the government’s desire to maintain power and wealth among the America Liberians. (Excessive tribalism also played a role.) It didn’t have to be that way.
Isn’t it amazing what the kids could carry with head loading! Thanks, RG. 🙂 –Curt
It is! Imagine that happening where we live? Ha! Call in Children’s Aid. Outrage coming from everywhere yet everyday life there. Not saying it is a bad thing.
Hundreds of thousands died as a result, RG. And instead of learning how to read in school, children were used as soldiers. –Curt
Oh. Now that is just awful! 😦
Tragic.. the country still hasn’t recovered.
I think it is time for me to invest in a kindle! 🙂
🙂 🙂 🙂
My mom wants to read your book first so I will have to order it from Amazon. She likes paper pages. Will order it next week. Can’t wait!
Thanks, RG. Hope you enjoy it! –Curt
will do a post when I get it. As soon as I told my Mom about it, she asked me to get it. She can read books in a matter of days, unlike me. I take forever because I never have the time anymore. I can’t wait!
It’s a quick read, RG. 🙂
Ordered it the other day. 🙂
I’d forgotten about the rhinoceros beetles. Almost as big as the roaches 🙂 (from Mary, Kakata, PC 9)
Did the kids in Kakata tie strings on the rhinoceros beetles’ horns and fly them Mary? And were you ever outside at night with a flash light and been dive-bombed by one. You could hear them coming! And they hurt when they hit you. 🙂 Fun to hear from a fellow Liberia PCV. Thanks! –Curt
Love the photo!
I wish I had more photos, Mary. We had a small Brownie Camera and it wasn’t easy to get film. In this day and age of digital cameras, I would have had hundreds of photos of our Peace Corps experience. I’m really glad we have the ones we do, however. Thanks. –Curt
Of the children
My mother used to call herself Brunhilda. The name has always tickled me.
I suspect that there is a story behind that, Peggy… –Curt
As the adoptive mom to many generations of kittens over the last several decades I could not only completely relate, but just loved this story describing the different kitten personalities and your selection process. I am not sure I would have personally selected the boisterous one crashing through walls, but I suppose you had ultimately set the criteria of speed equaling smarts and therefore winning. I think I would have chosen the rebellious 7 minuter as seemed she would be the most independant.
Am sending your delightfully written story to my sister who is foster mom to about 25 stray cats in Israel and adoptive mom of 5 cats to my sons who each have their own extensive archives of kitten memories and to my parents who taught me to love animals in the first place. We grew up with dogs and cats and kittens and puppies.
Glad you enjoyed the story, Peta. Thanks. Fun to see that you are forwarded it to your children.
Hindsight led us to think that the independent kitty might have been the smartest, but Rasputin grew up to be one fine tomcat and provide us with lots of entertainment. Thanks for you comments! –Curt
Hilarious! (and laughing). The prize goes to the one with balls! 😀
Rasputin was 100% character. His personality became even more outrageous as he grew into to a teenager and then tomcat, Gunta. There are more stories… –Curt
Looking forward to them.
Those kids must have strong necks.
When you said “yellow cat” I figured it must have been an orange tabby which are nearly always male, so I was a little confused until your conclusion. Whatever the sex, I suspect he was fun…
You know your cats, Dave! He grew up to be a handsome tomcat. –Curt
The kitten selection made me laugh and admire the creativity. Too bad your reader wasn’t embraced. Seems like it would have been so appropriate for the children.
Had I been a little more political, for example by dedicating it to the President and praising the True Whig Party, it might have flown, Sue. At least it would have been much harder to dismiss. But I was young and a bit naive. The government got even more upset when I established a student government at the high school. It was going to kick me out of the country and throw my students in jail! –Curt
Oh my goodness Curt. Really no one has had a larger range of life adventure than you!
You seem to be doing a pretty good job, Sue.
Haha just a shadow of your shenanigans!
Well this was good for a chuckle. WTG Rasputin!
He did get the last laugh… and his share of fish heads. 🙂 –Curt
Was Walter Barron in Gbarnga while you were there?
Don’t think so, Larry. Was he Peace Corps?
Yes he was. When I arrived in 1968 he was already there.
He might have come in with the group that replaced us in 1967, Larry. What was his assignment? What was yours? –Curt
Both teachers. I was in Zebay about 10 miles down the road.
Not familiar with Zebay. I had a friend who was briefly assigned to Yople.
I made a mistake. I was there from 1966-68 and he was already there.
Wow, I should have known him. And you, for that matter. –Curt
Well, it has been 50 years. Zebay is beyond Palala maybe 5 miles. Walter lived with a Liberian woman named Muzu. He was older than most of us, maybe in his forties then.
Close to where my friend Morris taught.
I didn’t realize that you had been a 2nd grade teacher! Not easy, is it? But so fun. This post made me smile, but many of your stories make me smile! You’ve lived a great life!
The second grade was my introduction to just how hard teachers work, Rusha! And thanks. –Curt