Scruffy soldiers with guns pointed helter-skelter were scattered around my yard when I returned from teaching. “What’s up?” I asked in a shaky voice that was supposed to come out calm. Liberian soldiers were scary.
“Your dog ate one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” the sergeant growled. It was hardly what one would consider a major crime, but the Superintendent was the governor of Bong County. A power in Liberia. His compound was nearby and he was apparently quite fond of his fowl birds. But Boy the Bad Dog, the perpetrator of the crime, didn’t belong to me. And he regarded my cat Rasputin as dinner, a fact which neither Rasputin nor I approved.
“Why don’t you arrest him,” I suggested helpfully.
“Not him. You!” the sergeant roared. “You are coming with us.” The interview wasn’t going as planned.
“I am not going anywhere with you. He is not my dog,” I responded as I disappeared quickly into my house. Yanking a Peace Corps Volunteer out of his home for a dead, want-to-be chicken would have serious repercussions. Or at least I hoped that’s what the sergeant would think. He eventually left.
At 4:00 a.m., he was back, pounding on my door with the butt of his rifle. Jo and I woke up from a deep sleep with a start and sat up straight, frightened. I grabbed our baseball bat and headed for the back door. I yanked it open and there was the sergeant, his rifle poised for another strike.
“Your dog ate another one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” Sarge announced with glee at the thought of dragging me off into the dark night. I was beginning to seriously question my decision to join the Peace Corps.
Nonetheless, joining was one of the best decisions in my life. The way I was raised and educated, even my DNA, had pointed me in the direction of striking off into the unknown. But there was more. I was very much a ‘child of the sixties.’ Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the student revolution dramatically affected how I viewed the world. Being a student at UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement of 1964 provided me with a front-row, head-bashing opportunity for involvement in these issues. Looking back, I can see how the Berkeley experience, my wandering genes, and the influence of family, friends and teachers encouraged me to sign on the dotted line.
John Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961 as one of his first acts as President of the United States. His reasons were both idealistic and pragmatic. Yes, he wanted to help third-world countries combat the terrible poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy and conflict they faced, but he was also interested in winning hearts and minds for the West. Kennedy, like most other leaders of his generation, believed that we were in the midst of a worldwide conflict between capitalism and communism, democracy and totalitarianism, Christianity and Atheism. The Cold War was raging, and much of this war was being fought in third-world countries.
Today, after 60 years of existence, the agency reports that over a quarter of a million Americans have served in 142 countries worldwide with the mission “of developing partnerships with communities abroad to develop sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” I would add developing cross-cultural understanding and friendship. Of equal importance to whatever they accomplished overseas, the volunteers have brought home to America the skills and commitment that they developed through their Peace Corps experience.
My assignment was to serve as a teacher in Liberia, West Africa. The country has a unique history dating back to the early 19th Century when freed slaves from America were shipped back to Africa. Within 30 years, the freed slaves, or Americo-Liberians as they came to be known, had established themselves as the rulers of Africa’s first black republic. When I arrived in 1965, their descendants still controlled the political, military, justice, education and economic systems of Liberia— almost everything. William Shadrach Tubman, president of the country since 1944, had invited Peace Corps into Liberia to help the tribal Liberians prepare for a larger role in the nation’s future. Not all Americo-Liberians agreed with this goal, as I would learn.
The Bush Devil Ate Sam includes a number of stories about the adventures that I, along my first wife, Jo Ann, had in Africa, but it also contains background information on my decision to join the Peace Corps, and some thoughts on the tragic history of Liberia since the 60s. I will conclude with a look at the Peace Corps experience in Liberia today.
So please join me as I leave the chaotic world of UC Berkeley and the student revolution of the mid 60s to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in the even stranger world of Liberia. You will meet fascinating characters like Crazy Flumo, learn valuable new skills such as how to fight off an invasion of army ants, meet a judge who determines guilt with a red-hot machete, and discover why the government determined a second-grade reader I wrote and a student government I formed were threats to the power of Liberia’s one-party state. And that’s only the beginning…
But now, it is time to jump into the book and determine what role DNA played in leading me to leave a small, rural town in Northern California for the far-off jungles of West Africa.