Chapter 6: Dr. Livingston, I Presume… Peace Corps Tales

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 in book format.

When I have finished, I will publish the book digitally and in print.

My friend Morris Carpenter at home in Mississippi… some 45 years after he welcomed us to Liberia.

We made it to the right terminal on the right day and at the right time. In fact, our paranoia insisted we be four hours early. We watched lots of planes take off and land.

Finally, we found ourselves flying over a rough Atlantic. To quote Snoopy, “it was a dark and stormy night.” Lighting danced between the clouds as we struggled to deplete the airplane’s complimentary booze supply. We toasted each other, we toasted the fact we had made it, and we toasted Liberia.

“Good morning.” The pilot’s speaker driven voice woke me from my booze-induced sleep. Jo and I scrambled to look down and were met by a vast sea of green broken occasionally by small clearings filled with round huts. Tropical Africa!

There was brief stopover in Dakar; French-speaking Senegalese served warm coke and stale ginger snaps for breakfast. It’s the type of meal you really should forget but never do. Two hours later we dropped into Robert’s Field, Liberia’s International Airport. The stewardesses wrenched open the door admitting a sudden blast of heat and humidity. Roaming the streets of New York City in August had prepared us for the weather but not the view.

Striding across the tarmac to greet us was my old friend Morris Carpenter. He and I had been in student government together at Sierra College near Sacramento.

Morris was a year ahead of me and transferred to Chico State College at the end of my freshman year. We remained close friends via long, handwritten letters. During his senior year he joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Liberia. His letters from Africa were part of my inspiration for joining. Little did I dream that Jo Ann and I would end up in the same country.

All grins, we tumbled into each other. I couldn’t resist saying, “Dr. Livingston, I presume.”

Morris, as he put it, had been camped out on the Peace Corp’s Director’s desk in Monrovia for a month seeking a change in assignment when our arrival was announced. He quickly volunteered to pick us up. The Director, recognizing an opportunity for Morris-free time, had agreed even faster.

On our way into Monrovia, Morris filled us in on life in the Peace Corps as ‘it really was.’ One year of living in Liberia had coated his youthful idealism with a thin veneer of cynicism.

His first assignment had been as an elementary school teacher on Bushrod Island located next to Monrovia. That career came to a crashing halt. He caught the Principal squeezing hot pepper juice into a young girl’s eyes. Whippings were common in Liberian schools but the fiery liquid was over the edge. He grabbed the Principal’s arm.

“You are a ‘small’ woman,” he angrily accused her, which is a major insult in Liberia. As it turned out, the Principal was a cousin to one of Liberia’s ruling elite, which made her a ‘big’ woman. Morris was booted out of the school within 24 hours.

Peace Corps staff was sympathetic but powerless. They found Morris employment as a Public Administration Volunteer in the Liberia Department of Education where he spent a frustrating six months attempting to establish a modern filing system. It didn’t happen. The Department served mainly as an income producing opportunity for the relatives of prominent politicians. Finding files was not a required skill set.

“I couldn’t get past ABC.” Morris grumbled. He was much more successful at his night job: locating Monrovia’s best bars and bar maids. It was time to move on.

Morris requested a rural Up-country assignment. And he got it. Peace Corps found him a job teaching at an elementary school in the small village of Yopea. It was about as rural as Peace Corps assignments went in Liberia. Getting there involved driving 130 miles Upcountry on Liberia’s main dirt road and then following a small dirt track for 20 miles to the tiny village of twelve huts, a two-room school, and a Care kitchen.

He shared teaching responsibilities with the Principal. His job was to teach the fourth, fifth and six grades. Students came from surrounding farms as well as the village. Life was much quieter and more productive than it had been in Monrovia.

If it became too quiet, he escaped to Monrovia and its bright lights on his Honda Motorcycle. Morris told us he would have been happy to finish off his Peace Corps experience in Yopea. “I liked the Principal, enjoyed the kids and built a basketball court.”

He didn’t, however, like the Volunteer that Peace Corps assigned to work with him a few months later.  JCC was a fundamentalist from Tennessee who considered it his responsibility to convert the ‘heathen’ Liberians. This may have been appropriate behavior for a missionary but it was inappropriate for a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The dislike was mutual. JCC did not approve of Morris’s lifestyle. Adding fuel to the fire, Peace Corps required that the two share a house. The close proximity didn’t work. Morris wanted a divorce. “He was just too goofy.”

Morris hopped on his Honda and zipped in to Gbarnga to meet with Peace Corps’ Upcountry rep, Bob Cohen. “I want JCC out of my village,” Morris demanded. Bob told him that it was only a personality clash. “Go back to work.” Morris went back to Yopea all right, but he packed his bags and headed for Monrovia.

“Either find me a new assignment of send me home,” he told the Liberia Peace Corps Director.

And that’s where we came into the picture.

Morris dutifully dropped us off at Peace Corps headquarters in Monrovia to begin our in-country orientation and take care of miscellaneous bureaucratic chores. While Jo Ann and I had been playing at the World’s Fair, our fellow volunteers were sweltering through hours of meetings. Now it was our turn.