“The Bush Devil Ate Sam” Is Now Published…

Facebook Bush Devil

The Bush Devil Ate Sam is now available on a number of sites worldwide as an eBook including Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo— plus several others you can find by visiting my author’s page. It will also soon be available as a print on demand book on several sites including Amazon and Barnes and Noble for those of you who prefer a printed version.

In the meantime, you can Email me at cvmekemson@gmail.com for printed and signed books. I have two versions, an original ‘beta’ copy with a few mistakes for $10 plus shipping, and a revised copy for $13 plus shipping. Tell me which book you would prefer and provide your address. We will mail it to you along with an invoice (as long as the books last).

Sam and I cut back weeds with machetes in front of our house in Gbarnga, Liberia. Our outhouse is off to the left.

Sam and I cut back weeds with machetes in front of our house in Gbarnga, Liberia. Our outhouse is off to the left.

Ready to eat monkey meat in Ganta, Liberia.

Monkey meat anyone?

The "Bush Devil" featured on the cover of my book was created by Freddy the Carver shown here. Freddy was a leper who lived in a leper colony in Ganta, Liberia circa 1965.

The “Bush Devil” featured on the cover of my book was created by Freddy the Carver shown here. Freddy was a leper who lived in a leper colony in Ganta, Liberia circa 1965.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, here is a brief summary of what it is about:

In 1965 I left 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, West Africa. When I arrived, descendants of freed slaves from America ruled the country with an iron grip while the tribal people were caught in a struggle between modern culture and ancient Africa.

I quickly discovered that being a Peace Corps Volunteer was anything but dull. Army ants invaded our house. Students strolled into class with cans of squirming termites for breakfast, and Sam, the young man who worked for me, calmly announced that the scars running down his chest were the teeth marks of the Poro Bush Devil.

On the teaching front, my seniors took top national honors in social studies, but the national government determined a student government I created to teach democracy was a threat to Liberia’s one party state. My students were to be arrested; I was told to pack my bags.

These and many other stories are included in The Bush Devil Ate Sam. If you enjoy my blog, I think you will like the book. I conclude with an epilogue that traces the history of Liberia since I served in the country including the recent Ebola crisis. The book is designed to capture both the humor and challenges of serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Half of the profits from this book will be donated to Friends of Liberia, a nonprofit organization that has been in existence since 1980 and is made up of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, people who have served on missions in Liberia, experts on international development, and Liberians. The goal of the organization is “to positively affect Liberia by supporting education, social, economic and humanitarian programs.”

To say that I am excited (or maybe relieved?) about finally publishing the book is a gigantic understatement. (Grin) I had no idea about how much work was involved. Now I get to jump into marketing. Woohoo. Last week, I held my first book signing in Sacramento, California (75 people attended). Today is my blog’s turn. A whole series of other activities are to follow. And of course, I get to start on my next book. It’s going to be on Burning Man.

One bit of fun news. I recently received an Email from Steven Spatz, the president of BookBaby. BookBaby is the largest distributer of eBooks in the US and I worked with the company in publishing my book. He wanted to feature The Bush Devil Ate Sam on his blog as a perspective on the range of books BookBaby produces. Go here to see what Steven had to say.

My thanks to each of you who purchase a book and a special thanks to those of you who helped me pick out the name of the book several months ago. One request, if you do the download from Amazon, please do the review. It impacts how Amazon places the book.

Book signing in Sacramento. I am off in the corner working.

Book signing in Sacramento. I am off in the corner working. (Photo by Wayne Cox, my nephew.)

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1966 where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1966 where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The Bush Devil Ate Sam… And Other Possible Book Titles: HELP!

Liberian bush devil photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Freddie the carver, a leper who lived in the up-country Liberian town of Ganta, carved this replica of the Bush Devil for me in 1965. In the 70s similar carvings would become known as Jimmy Carter dolls.

What leads people to choose a particular book is a question every author, agent and publisher asks. If my name were Stephen King or J.K. Rowling and I was writing my umpteenth best seller, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything except writing the book and raking in the dough. But being Curt Mekemson… let’s just say I have a few more challenges (grin).

I am now in the final stages of self-publishing a book on my Peace Corps experience in Africa. Making money isn’t the objective; I’m happily retired. But I do hope people will read the book. I realize that success will ultimately depend upon whether people like what I have written and tell their friends. But first I have to capture their attention.

The Writer’s Guide to Self-Publishing (and every other book that purports to tell us go-it-alone writers how to) suggests that an enticing name, great cover, compelling back copy, and dynamite first few pages are what count. Of course, an endorsement by J.K. Rowling would help, but, as they say in the vernacular, that ain’t going to happen.

I’ve decided to ask for your advice. Several of the people who read this blog are authors and all of you are avid readers. So here’s the question. Which of the following titles would capture your eye and lead you to pick up the book? Why? (You can pick more than one.)

FYI, I’ve included the back-story behind each title. Depending on the title I choose, I will use a short, spiffed up version of the story in the introduction of the book.

Thanks for your participation!


1. The Dead Chicken Dance

And Other Peace Corps Africa Tales

Peace Corps training lacked its modern sophistication in the 1960s. Our group did its initial training at Cal State SF. We were then dropped off in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with paper sleeping bags for a wilderness camping experience. During the week, we faced a number of challenges such as rock climbing, bridge building, etc. A psychologist followed us around and took notes. It was serious business. Based on our responses, we could be sent home. One of the most memorable challenges was when our leader showed up the first night with a hatchet and a crate of live chickens. “Here’s dinner,” he announced with a laugh.  You can imagine how the kids from the big cities reacted. I was a country boy, however. I had killed, plucked, and gutted chickens. So I volunteered for the messy part. My chicken did a nice little dance when I cut off her head off. The city kids turned pale. They lost their appetites when I reached into Henny Penny and yanked out her still warm innards. It was a good thing; I got more to eat.

2. The Bush Devil Ate Sam

And Other Peace Africa Corps Tales

When my first wife, Jo Ann, and I arrived in Liberia we recruited a young man to help with our chores. In return, we provided meals and funds to cover school costs and other necessities. One day, Sam was working with me outside and took off his shirt. Jo noticed that he had a series of parallel scars marching down his chest. “How did you get those?” Jo had asked, partially out of concern but mainly out of curiosity. “I can’t tell you,” Sam had blurted out. “But,” he quickly added, “I can tell Mr. Mekemson.” Aha, I thought to myself, Sam and I belong to the same organization, the men’s club. Actually Sam belonged to a very exclusive men’s club, the highly secretive Poro Society that existed to keep tribal people in line and pass on tribal culture. The year before Sam had been to bush school where he had learned the Society’s secrets. At the end of the session, he had had a close encounter with the Bush Devil. It ate him. He was swallowed as a child and spit out as a man. The scarification marks represented the Devil’s teeth. The Bush Devil (so-named by Christian missionaries) is part politician, part cultural cop, part spiritual leader, and all secret.  Outsiders don’t get to see the Kpelle version. I was able to see one from another tribe, however. He looked like  someone had crossed a walking haystack with a voodoo nightmare.

Gbarnga photo of Curt Mekemson and Sam Kollie.

A photo of Sam and me cutting grass with machetes right around the time we noticed his scarification marks. Sam would later become a physician.

Liberian Bush Devil photo by Curtis Mekemson.

The Bush Devil I was allowed to see.

Another photo of the Liberian Bush Devil carved by Freddie.

Another photo of the Liberian Bush Devil carved by Freddie.

3. The Lightning Man Strikes Again

And Other Peace Corps Africa Tales

We left Mamadee with 50 dollars to buy a 50-gallon drum of kerosene while we went off to explore East Africa in a Volkswagen beetle. Mamadee was sitting on our doorstep when we returned but there was no kerosene and no 50 dollars. Someone had stolen the money. Mamadee’s father, who was a chief of the Kpelle tribe, wanted to assure us (and himself?) that Mamadee was innocent so he offered to subject Mamadee to a trial by lightning. The Lightning Man had a special power; he could make lighting strike people who had committed crimes. Somebody steals your cow or your spouse, ZAP! Even if Mamadee were guilty, we didn’t want him struck by lightning, or even singed for that matter. We passed on the offer. Another Volunteer took a different approach. He had spent half of his monthly income ($70) on buying a new radio. Somebody stole it the first day. He vowed that he would get his new toy back. So he had his students take him out in the jungle to hire the Lightning Man. That night there was a horrendous lightning storm. Ignoring for the moment that it was in the middle of the rainy season and there were always horrendous lightning storms, put yourself in the shoes of the person who had taken the radio and believed in the Lightning Man. Every lightning strike and every peal of thunder would have had his name on it. The next morning, the Volunteer went outside and there was his radio, sitting on the porch.

Dark clouds, roaring winds, crashing thunder and multiple lightning strikes are common during Liberia's rainy season. When ever someone was struck by lightning when we were there, the assumption was is that the Lightning Man had caused the strike and the person was obviously guilty of some wrong doing.

Dark clouds, roaring winds, crashing thunder and multiple lightning strikes are common during Liberia’s rainy season. When ever someone was struck by lightning, the assumption was is that the Lightning Man had caused the strike and the person was obviously guilty of some wrong doing.

Mamadee standing in front of his house. Later Mamadee would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

Mamadee standing in front of his house. Later Mamadee would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

4. How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup

And Other Peace Corps Africa Tales

Boy, the Bad Dog, lived at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s house across town with a female dog named Lolita. When Lolita had pups, she drove Boy off. He went looking for other Peace Corps Volunteers to live with and ended up at our house. Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me. But Boy had a problem: he didn’t like black people. He also regarded our cat as dinner. I encouraged him to live elsewhere. One day I came home from teaching and found a number of soldiers occupying our yard. I approached nervously; Liberian soldiers were scary. “What’s the problem?” I asked the sergeant.  “Your dog ate one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” he growled at me. The Superintendent was the boss of Bong County, the most powerful person in our neck of the jungle. “Which one?” I asked. “What does it matter which fowl the dog ate?” he snarled. “No, no,” I responded, “I meant which dog.” He pointed at Boy and I relaxed. “Why don’t you arrest him?” I suggested helpfully. “Not him!” the sergeant screamed. “You, you are coming with us.” The interview was not going the way he had expected. “The dog doesn’t belong to me and I am not going anywhere with you.” I replied and went into our house. The soldiers were not happy. They milled around in our yard for a half hour before marching off. It was a six-pack night for Jo and I.

At 4 AM the next morning we heard a loud bang, bang, bang. “What’s that,” Jo asked, frightened. “It sounds like someone pounding to get in,” I responded, grabbing our baseball bat and heading for the back door. I opened it just as the sergeant from the day before was preparing to strike it again with the butt of his weapon. “Your dog ate another one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowls,” he stated triumphantly. “This time you are coming with us.” The soldiers must have waited up all night for Boy. Maybe they threw the fowl over the fence. Here doggy. In addition to being scared, I was angry. “I told you yesterday that the dog belongs across town. Ask Mr. Bonal.” Mr. Bonal was the principal of the high school and lived next door. I slammed the door shut. It was like I had thrown a rock at a hornet’s nest. But Bonal was an important man in town and yanking a Peace Corps Volunteer out of his home was not something you did lightly. Eventually, the soldiers left. Jo and I waited nervously for strike three. Fortunately, the soldiers finally figured out that Boy belonged to a person who worked for the other Peace Corps Volunteer. The young man was hauled into court and fined. To pay the fine, he sold Boy to a village where the large dog became guest of honor at a tribal feast. Being a bad dog in Liberia can have serious consequences.

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Volunteer in 1965-67. The large building you see in the distance was the Superintendent's compound. The high school and the house where I lived was off to the right.

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Volunteer in 1965-67. The large building you see in the distance was the Superintendent’s headquarters. The high school and the house where I lived were off to the right of his compound.

The Tragedy of Liberia: Part II… The Civil Wars

Kpelle footbridge near Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

The devastation of the civil wars impacted the lives of everyone in Liberia. Those who could escaped. The luckiest made it out to the US or Europe. Tens of thousands ended up in refugee camps in the surrounding countries. Many simply disappeared into the Liberian rainforest, crossing over bridges like the one I am standing on, in desperate hope that the war wouldn’t follow.

At one a.m. on April 12, 1980– one year after the rice riots and ten days before the executions on the beach, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, Liberia’s highest ranked non-commissioned officer and a member of the Krahn Tribe, led a group of 16 soldiers into the Executive Mansion in a coup d’état and assassinated Tolbert.

The majority of Liberians considered Doe’s rise to power positive. For the first time, tribal Liberians, along with the more liberal, change oriented Americo-Liberians, would have a chance at governing. While Doe’s military-based, People’s Redemption Council would rule temporarily, he promised a return to constitutional government. Open elections would be held by 1985. Doe also took an anti-communist stand and offered Liberia as a staging area for American troops if necessary. The US was pleased; aid to Liberia was doubled.

Ultimately, however, Doe was unwilling to relinquish power. He returned to using tactics that Americo-Liberians had used for decades.  Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were curtailed. Dissidents and opposition leaders were thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. Doe and his military junta began accumulating wealth. “Same taxi, new driver” became a common motto of the opposition by 1984. With the approach of the 1985 elections, Doe moved to solidify his power and emasculate or eliminate any challenges. When students and faculty at the University of Liberia protested, he sent in the troops. Open elections became a farce. Violence and intimidation became the rule. When elections were finally held in 1985, Doe had his own people count the ballots. Nobody was surprised that the final tally showed that he had won by 50.9%. The only surprise was that the percentage wasn’t higher.

The US, unfortunately, turned a blind eye toward the political corruption and intimidation. Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State, Chester Cocker, reflected the administration’s position by declaring that the “election day went off very well… and was a rare achievement in Africa…” As was often the case during the Cold War, a leader’s position on Communism was much more important than his or her position on democracy.

To make matters worse, Doe surrounded himself with members of his own Krahn ethnic group and stirred up a toxic brew of tribal animosities. An armed invasion of Monrovia and assassination attempt by Thomas Quiwonkpa from Nimba County led to a brutal repression of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups by Doe’s Krahn led military. This, in turn, led to the next step of Liberia’s descent into dark chaos.

The perpetrator, Charles Taylor, was locked up in an American jail at the beginning of 1985. By the time Taylor’s reign of terror was over in Liberia in 2003, he would be the first sitting head of state since the Nuremberg trials to be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in an international court.

Charles Taylor’s father was Americo-Liberian and his mother a member of the Gola ethnic group. Like many Liberians, he obtained his college education in America. After attending Bentley College in Massachusetts, he returned to Liberia where he served as Director of the General Services Agency under Doe until he was accused of embezzling 900 thousand dollars in 1983 and fled to the US. Taylor was arrested and held in a Massachusetts jail at the request of the Liberian government. He managed to escape in 1985, probably with outside help. He would later claim that the CIA enabled his escape. Maybe, but the exile community of Americo-Liberians living in the US is another possibility. Many initially supported Taylor.

His escape led him to Libya where he received training and support under Muammar Gaddafi. By 1989 he was working out of the Cote d’Ivoire organizing a military force from Mano and Gio ethnic groups who were eager for revenge on Doe. Taylor’s objective was to exploit their tribal anger to attack and overthrow the government. One of his former commanders struck first.

In 1990, Prince Y. Johnson, a commander of Taylor’s from Nimba County, split off to pursue his own ambitions. Such disaffections of military commanders became common during Liberia’s long civil wars. These ‘warlords,’ operating on a regional basis, controlled subsections of Liberia. Johnson’s forces made it into Monrovia before Taylor. He seized Doe and then tortured him to death– an event that was captured on video and turned over to the press.

The twist and turns of what would happen between 1990 and 2003 are beyond the scope of this book, but what ensued was an almost constant, brutal civil war where various groups vied for power. The depth to which Liberia fell is best illustrated by the rise of General Butt Naked, Joshua Milton Blahyi. Blahyi earned his nickname in the early 90s by going into battle wearing nothing but shoes. Being naked, he believed, provided protection against bullets. He also believed that sacrificing children and practicing cannibalism were important to his success. Many of his soldiers were young boys who fought drugged and naked or wearing dresses. After he was “saved” and saw the light, Butt Naked claimed, “The Devil made me do it.” Today he is an evangelical minister in Monrovia.

With Prince Johnson occupying Monrovia, Charles Taylor used Gbarnga for his headquarters. A brokered peace by the United Nations in 1997 ended the first civil war and allowed Taylor to run for President of Liberia, which he won in a landslide. One of his more popular slogans was, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I’ll vote for him.” As President, he mounted a PR campaign in the US to re-engineer his image. Among the stranger aspects of the campaign was providing the Baptist preacher, Pat Robertson, with gold mining rights in Liberia. Robertson went to bat for Taylor, but it wasn’t enough.

Taylor’s efforts at re-engineering failed. Liberia was soon engulfed in a second civil war. Taylor’s participation in another civil war, next door in Sierra Leone, and active involvement in the blood diamond trade eventually led to his being tried and convicted at The Hague.  In 2003 he was forced to resign and in 2006 was arrested. In 2012 he was found guilty or war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Among the charges were terrorism, murder, rape, conscription of children, and enslavement.

NEXT BLOG: The incredibly difficult challenges of recovery.

The Tragedy of Liberia… Part I

Liberian Peace Corps photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A fading black and white photo shows children in Gbarnga, Liberia mugging for my camera in 1965. Life wasn’t easy– check out the head loads. But as adults these children would be thrown into Liberia’s Civil Wars, and life would get much worse. Many would not survive.

Earlier, I blogged about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa during the 60s. While life for tribal Liberians was tough at the time, is was about to get worse, tragically so. You can read about my two years in Liberia by going here and scrolling forward. Presently, I am reworking the posts into book format. In addition to having my book professionally edited, I have added several chapters. Hopefully the final product will reflect what I believe were two of the most interesting years of my life.

The book ends with my leaving Liberia, but I decided to add an epilogue that reflects what has happened in the country since. The Tragedy of Liberia, after editing, will become the epilogue. There are four parts in this series.–Curt

On April 22, 1980, thirteen Americo-Liberians were driven down to Monrovia’s Barclay Beach in a VW van, tied to telephone poles, and shot without blindfolds. One soldier was so drunk he couldn’t hit the man he had been assigned to kill. Afterwards, the bodies were stacked in a pile and sprayed with bullets before being tumbled into a mass grave. It marked the beginning of a tragedy that would see the death of over 200, 000 Liberians.

The international press was invited to witness the event. The names of those executed were a who’s who of Liberia’s history. Their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had ruled the country for period of time stretching back over 150 years.

The public executions were as savage as they were inexcusable. But they were also understandable, possibly even inevitable. Thirteen years earlier I had talked into the small hours of the morning at my home in Gbarnga with a representative from the US State Department about the future of Liberia. One of his first requests was that Sam, the young Kpelle man who worked for us, not be present.

Revolution of some kind, I had argued, was going to happen unless drastic changes were made in how Americo-Liberians ruled Liberia. Five percent of the population owned the majority of the nation’s wealth and controlled 100% of the political power. Tribal Liberians were widely exploited and treated as second-class citizens, or worse. Deep resentment was building; a time bomb was ticking. It would explode unless Americo-Liberians were willing to share economic and political power.

I was not optimistic. I related my experiences with setting up a student government at Gboveh High School and in writing a Liberian second grade reader. My goals had been moderate. I wanted my high school students to learn about democracy and my elementary students to increase their reading skills. I certainly was not involved in revolutionary activity. I was merely doing what Peace Corps Volunteers had been brought into the country to do: help educate and train Liberians for the future.

The drastic reaction of Americo-Liberians to my efforts reflected the deep paranoia that existed within the ruling class. The second grade reader, which featured folktales and stories about tribal children pursuing such common activities as playing soccer, was regarded as a revolutionary tract– not because it was anti-government, it wasn’t, but because it didn’t emphasize the Americo Liberian perspective. Even though Peace Corps staff had received initial approval from the Department of Education and arranged an editor, curriculum specialist and graphic artist to work with me, I was directed to abandon the project and never talk about it.

The response to the student government was even more dramatic. My students had decided it would be fun to create two parties to run against each other, like the Republicans and Democrats. Apparently this was a direct challenge to the True Whig Party, the foundation of Americo-Liberian power. Within days, word came down from Monrovia that my students were to be arrested and I was to be run out of the country unless the ‘political parties’ were eliminated immediately.

Americo-Liberians were not stupid, far from it. Many were highly educated and had attended some of the best universities in the world. They knew they were sitting on a powder keg. Change was coming and they could choose to embrace that change and help guide it, or they could resist and fight against it. They chose the latter course. Their power, their wealth, and their privilege were simply too much. They had controlled the tribal population since the inception of the country and believed they could continue to. People who challenged this assumption, even Americo-Liberians who believed that change was needed, were shut down, sometimes violently. Any change would be gradual, even glacial, and would only be allowed with acceptance of the status quo. It was a recipe for disaster.

Tribalism was another issue we discussed on that long ago night in July of 1967 as rain pounded down on our zinc roof, lightning lit up the sky, and thunder rolled across the jungle. When primary loyalty is to the tribe rather than the country, building a modern nation becomes much more difficult.  It may also have the impact of dehumanizing people, as I was to learn.

My wife and I were walking home from Massaquoi Elementary School at the beginning of our two-year stint when we found one of our students lying on the ground, obviously very sick. His classmates were walking around him, like he wasn’t there. Jo Ann was furious.

“Why aren’t you stopping to help?” she had demanded.

“He’s not from our tribe,” was the answer.  It was a matter-of-fact type statement. The point that he was a fellow human being was secondary.

The problems of tribalism are not insurmountable. I felt my high school students had moved beyond the deeper currents of tribalism. Or I hoped they had. They were proud to be Liberians. Tribal differences were noted with a sense of humor rather than passion. Education, it seemed, could overcome the harmful elements of tribalism.

I expressed one final concern with the State Department official; actually, it was more of a nagging worry. The dark side of juju, or tribal sorcery, lurked beneath the surface in Liberia. Newspapers occasionally included stories about people who had been killed and cut up for their body parts, which were then used in rituals to increase the power of the killer.  People were also made sick, or poisoned. When Mamadee Wattee, one of the candidates for student body president, came to my house late one night out of fear that the opposition had obtained juju to make him ill, I took his concern seriously. Every culture has its dark side. Think about the Salem witch trials. Kept in check, such practices have minimal impact. But what if the normal laws and customs of traditional and modern society break down?  Would the use of ‘magic’ become more prevalent? And what would be the result?

In 1971, four years after I left Liberia, William Shadrach Tubman, President of the country since 1944, died in a London Hospital. His Vice President, William Tolbert, assumed the reins of power. Tubman had been a master politician with strong connections to both the Americo-Liberians and tribal leadership. Tolbert lacked Tubman’s charisma and leadership abilities.

He did, however, move forward with Tubman’s unification program. Some of the more odious Americo-Liberian customs, such as the celebration of Matilda Newport’s birthday (her claim to fame was mowing down tribal Liberians with a canon), were downgraded or eliminated. The University of Liberia was expanded and improved to provide more tribal youth with an opportunity for higher education. Roads were added throughout the tribal areas. Tolbert also continued, Tubman’s open door economic policy. In a move that ruffled feathers in the United States, he even invited Communist countries to invest in Liberia. The US had long considered Liberia as its African beachhead in the fight against Communism.

In the end, Tolbert’s efforts benefitted the Americo-Liberians much more than they did the tribal population. Extra money invested in the country ended up in the pockets of Americo-Liberians. Roads to interior opened up vast new tracts of land for Americo-Liberian farms. They also provided a way for the government to more effectively tax tribal people.

No one profited more from Tolbert’s actions than his own family. Twenty-two of his relatives held high positions in the Liberian Government and/or on boards of major corporations doing business in Liberia. Wealth accumulated rapidly. The small Liberian community of Bensonville located outside of Monrovia was renamed Bentol in honor of Tolbert and became a family enclave complete with mansion-lined streets, a private zoo and a private lake. The town’s extreme wealth provided stark contrast to Monrovia’s hopeless poverty.

In April of 1979, Tolbert made a fatal error. He arbitrarily increased the price of rice by 50%. Rice was the primary staple of the Liberian diet. The increase meant that urban Liberians would now be spending over one-third of their average monthly income of $80 on rice. Students from the University of Liberia and other dissidents called for a major protest. Police ended up killing a number of the protesters and riots ensued. Tolbert restored order by bringing in troops from Guinea. He shut down the University, rounded up dissidents, and charged a number of them with treason. It was the beginning of the end for Tolbert, and for exclusive rule by Americo-Liberians.

NEXT BLOG: The story of Liberia’s civil wars.

An Introduction to The Bush Devil Ate Sam… and other Peace Corps Tales

Mandingo mosque in Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

I watched as this mosque was built in Gbarnga, Liberia in 1966 and then showed up for the opening ceremony– the only non-African present. I was sitting up front with the dignitaries when Do Your Part the Dog came whipping through the door and made a beeline for me, almost causing a riot.

(I’ve been working hard on a book about my Peace Corps adventures in West Africa. It is actually getting close to being published as an Ebook– with close meaning some time in the next three months (grin). I’ve  posted a number of my draft chapters on this blog over the past year. They are listed under Africa Peace Corps Tales in the sidebar. Today I will post a draft featuring part of the book’s introduction. It is designed to give readers a taste of what is included in the book.)

The soldier pounding on our door with the butt of his rifle in the middle of an African night made me seriously question my decision to join the Peace Corps. When he demanded that I go off with him into the dark, my questioning became epic. People had been beaten and even killed under such circumstances. I told him to screw off.  The sergeant was not pleased.

My decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer was one of the best decisions in my life, however. The way I was raised and educated, even my DNA, had pointed me in the direction of volunteering and striking off for parts unknown. But there was more.

I am very much a “child of the 60s.” Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and student activism dramatically effected how I viewed the world. Being a student at UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement in 1965 intensified my involvement in these issues. Looking back, I can see how the Berkeley experience, my ‘wandering’ genes, and the influence of family, friends and teachers combined to encourage my decision to join the Peace Corps.

In 2007 I was working on my memoirs. I had retired from my career as an environmentalist and public health advocate, needed a new challenge, and loved to write. Conventional wisdom and a thousand books on writing dictated I should write about what I knew best. Having finished the first draft, I bravely decided to share the manuscript with the book club my wife Peggy and I had belonged to for 17 years, the BSBC out of Sacramento, California. We had a fun night and the book club was kind. It can be feisty.

At the end of the evening, John Robbins, an iconoclastic professor and physician with the University of California Medical School at Davis, suggested that I pull out the section I had written about my Peace Corps experience and turn it into a book on its own. His suggestion led me to consider the idea. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Peace Corps in 2011 clinched the deal.

Dr. John Robbins of the University of California  Medical School of Davis.

John Robbins has a discussion with his cat at his home in Sacramento, California.

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. The mindset of Kennedy, and most other leaders of his generation, was that we were in the midst of a worldwide conflict between capitalism and communism, totalitarianism and democracy, and Christianity and Atheism. The Cold War was raging and much of this war was being fought in third world countries.

While few Peace Corps Volunteers would list “making friends for America” as their reason for joining the organization, it more or less comes with the territory of being from the United States and working intensely in another country to help people improve their lives. In this sense, the Peace Corps is one of the most effective foreign aid programs ever created by the US. It is certainly one of the least expensive– especially when the work Volunteers do overseas and the skills and commitment they bring back home are considered. A recent Peace Corps budget justification noted that the total cost of running the Peace Corps for the past 50 years could be covered with what the US spends on the military every six days.

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– i.e. almost everything. William Shadrach Tubman, President of the country since 1944, had invited Peace Corps into Liberia to help tribal Liberians, who made up 95% of the population, 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” is a the story of adventures that I, along my ex-wife, Jo Ann, had in Africa, but it also includes, background on my decision to join the Peace Corps and some thoughts on the tragic history of Liberia since the 60s.

I begin with a brief look at the influence of my family’s restless nature and discover that I was right to be worried about the soldier knocking on our door: wandering can be hazardous to your health. William Mekemson has his head chopped of by tomahawks during the Blackhawk War and George Marshall, my mother’s great grandfather, is killed for his gold after striking it rich during California’s gold rush.

Following in the footsteps of my ancestors, I wander off to UC Berkeley where police occupy the campus, liberally use nightsticks, and drag students down stairs. A roommate tells the FBI I am a Red, a Communist– and I not even pink. But this is a time when innuendo is more important than facts and J. Edgar Hoover believes there is a Russian agent hiding behind every tree on campus. I figure my chances of making it into the Peace Corps are ruined. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, likes people who challenge the status quo, however, and I soon find myself in the Sierra Nevada Mountains decapitating a chicken as part of my training.

In Liberia I am thrown into a second grade class of 7-22 year olds where children who barely speak English are taught reading out of aging California textbooks featuring middle-class white kids and Spot, a pet that resembles dinner. Peace Corps encourages me to write a Liberian second grade reader using Liberian children and African folk tales, which I do. Americo-Liberians in the Department of Education determine the book is subversive. It’s torpedoed and I am told to never mention the project.

The high school principal recruits me to teach social studies to 10th, 11th and 12th graders and Jo Ann to teach French and English. Somewhat to my surprise, I discover I enjoy teaching and may even be good at it. Things run smoothly until the Liberian government determines that the student government I create to teach my students about democracy is a direct challenge to the country’s one party state. I am told to pack my bags. My students are told they will be arrested.

Our tenth and eleventh grade classes and Jo Ann at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga, Liberia (1967)

Our tenth and eleventh grade classes and Jo Ann at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga, Liberia (1967)

On the home front I repulse an invasion of army ants, breed rhinoceros beetles, and watch Jo Ann make mincemeat out of a Green Mamba, one of the world’s more deadly snakes. A menagerie of animals adopt us and provide both companionship and comic relief. They also create mischief. Rasputin the Cat collaborates with the Cockle Doodle Rooster to wake us at five every morning. Do Your Part the Good Dog crashes a solemn ceremony I am at attending at a mosque and causes a riot while Boy the Bad Dog develops a penchant for eating guinea fowl that belong to the Superintendent (governor) of Bong County. It’s the latter that brings the soldiers to our house in the middle of the night. Apparently, the illegal consumption of would-be chickens is a more serious crime than writing a subversive second grade reader or teaching high school kids they can be part of the government.

Burning out a nest of army ants in Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1966.

The army ants invaded our home. Here I burn out their nest in an effort to persuade them to move elsewhere.

I learn that the scarification marks marching up the chest on Sam, the young man who works for us, were ‘made’ by the Kpelle Bush Devil’s teeth, which leads to an interest in tribal culture. I discover the Lightning Man can make lightning strike people, sit in on a trial where justice is determined by a red-hot machete, and find myself involved in a situation where Juju, the dark magic of West Africa, is being used on one of my students.

The use of Juju in West Africa.

Mamadee Wattee, shown here, appeared at our house on a dark, stormy night to tell us that juju, dark magic, was being used to make him sick.

A year and a half into our service, we are numbered among the veteran Peace Volunteers of Liberia, the people to go to for sage advice. Jo and I take a month off to tour the big game parks of East Africa in a rented VW Bug, my students receive top national honors in social studies, and we turn down a request from Peace Corps’ to spend our last six months touring Liberia and training teachers. Instead we spend our time with the students who have earned our allegiance and the animals that have won our hearts.

I snapped this photo of a baby zebra with a Kodak Instamatic camera on our trip through East Africa.

I snapped this photo of a baby zebra with a Kodak Instamatic camera on our trip through East Africa.

One of my final encounters is disturbing. A representative from the US Embassy in Monrovia requests that I meet with him at our house in Gbarnga. He wants my views on the future of Liberia. My experience with the paranoid reactions of the government leads me to suggest that the future is bleak unless drastic changes are made in how Liberia is governed. Unfortunately, as I share in the Epilogue, much of what I feared in 1967 comes to pass. Only today is Liberia recovering from the tragic results.

12th Grade Class of Gboveh High School, Gbanrga, Liberia (1967)

A photograph of my twelfth grade class along with me standing in front of Gboveh High School. (1967)

NEXT BLOG: I join the spirit of the season by re-blogging hair-raising stories of the ghosts that lived in the graveyard next to the house I grew up in.

Chapter 35: Teacher

Good teaching involves capturing the imagination of students and encouraging them to become active participants in the classroom. Often it also involves participating in extracurricular activities. In this 1966 photo I am coaching Gboveh's High Scool volleyball team in Gbarnga, Liberia.

Good teaching involves capturing the imagination of students and encouraging them to become active participants in the classroom. Often it also involves participating in extracurricular activities. In this 1966 photo I am coaching Gboveh’s High School volleyball team in Gbarnga, Liberia.

I am not sure I earned the title of teacher at the elementary school, even though I put in the time and occupied the chair. I did learn that teaching was hard work and developed a life-long respect for elementary school teachers. I like to believe, had to believe, that I had some impact on the life of my students.

High school was different. From the beginning I was teaching subjects I truly enjoyed: World History, World Geography, African History and African Geography. I had never understood how history and geography could be boring. The best of my teachers had brought the subjects to life and made them exciting and relevant. I was determined to do the same for my students. We debated, did projects and made maps.

As strange as it may seem, my high school African History course was a first for Liberia. We travelled back in time starting with the exciting discoveries being made at Olduvai Gorge in East Africa about the early beginnings of humanity. We looked at the major West African kingdoms such as the Songhai and Mali. We explored the impacts of slavery, Colonialism, Islam and Christianity on Africa.

In geography we started locally and moved outward, from Gbarnga to Liberia to Africa and the world. Like their elementary school counterparts, the high school students found it almost impossible to accept that Liberia occupied such a small part of the African Continent. They became incensed, like it was my fault.

I wisely opted out of teaching Liberian History. It’s likely that I would have deviated from the Americo-Liberian version and been run out of the country. How could I teach the kids that Matilda Newport was someone they should idolize when her claim to fame was blasting their great-great-grandfathers with a cannon? I even had to be careful what I taught my World and African History classes. The students were bright and would draw their own conclusions.

“Gee Mr. Mekemson, the way the white minority in South Africa controls things is a lot like Americo Liberians control things here.”

“Oh really?’’ was about as far as I dared go in response. Things had a way of getting back to the authorities. Favors could be earned by reporting supposedly seditious comments to paranoid government officials and I had already earned enough black marks from the second grade reader and Boy’s appetite for Guinea Fowl.

But I didn’t stay out of trouble. During our second semester at Gboveh, I decided that creating a student government would help our students prepare for the future. I argued that the best way to prepare for democracy was to practice it. Everyone, including students, teachers and Mr. Bonal, agreed. We pulled together interested students, worked through developing by-laws, and set up elections. The students even decided they would organize and run for office on party tickets. Why not? It sounded like fun.

It never entered my mind that this relatively innocent gesture would strike terror in the hearts of Americo-Liberians. Once again, I had failed to comprehend just how paranoid the Liberian government was. Within 24 hours we had been accused by the Superintendent of Bong County of setting up competing political parties to the Government’s True Whig Party.

Student leaders were told to cease and desist or they would be arrested and thrown in jail. Mr. Bonal called me in and suggested I should start packing my bags. There was no way that he was prepared to take responsibility. I didn’t blame him. At a minimum he could lose his job… and that would be a stroll through the rainforest in comparison to rotting in a Liberian jail.

On one level, the government’s paranoid behavior made sense. The True Whig Party was how the Americo Liberians maintained control of the government and, more importantly, their privileged positions. The Kpelle Tribe was the largest tribe in Liberia and my students were becoming the elite of the tribe through education. A political party set up at high school might indeed morph into a political party of the Kpelle, given time.

So we eliminated the tickets and names. We were then allowed to proceed but I have no doubt we were closely monitored. I couldn’t help but wonder which of my students or fellow faculty members reported regularly to the Superintendent on my treasonable behavior.

Somewhat on the lighter side was the business of keeping the names of my students straight. It wasn’t that I had a lot to remember; there were five students in the 12th grade, ten in the 11th and sixteen in the 10th. Most teachers would kill for that student-teacher ratio. The problem was that the students changed their names frequently.

John Kennedy was big in Liberia at the time so there were several John Kennedys. Moses was also popular. Five trillion missionaries made sure of it. Kids would also take the name of whomever they were living with. Most of them had left villages and were trying to survive life in the big town. By adopting the name of the family taking care of them, they encouraged better care. Sam even told me he considered becoming Sam Mekemson, our African son. Finally, as students became more aware of their heritage, some switched back to their tribal names. What a unique thought that was.

Roll call was often a challenge. Students wouldn’t answer if I didn’t use their name of the moment. I finally adopted a rule that students could change their names but only at the beginning of a semester. It worked, sort of.

My school activities increased as time went on. I chaired the social studies department from the beginning. This wasn’t too significant since I was the social studies department and my primary responsibility involved keeping me in line. (Some misguided people claim that is not an easy task.) I also took on more work for Mr. Bonal and eventually came close to functioning in the role of vice principal. Daniel Goe had returned to the U.S. for further education.

Jo created a high school chorus that became so good the County Superintendent wanted her to create a Bong County Chorus. She gracefully declined. This was, after all, the same man who wanted to throw us in jail when Boy ate his Guinea Fowl and was ready to kick us out of the country because we dared to develop a student government.

Jo Ann directing her Gboveh High School chorus. At Berkeley, she had belonged to the University's elite Glee Club.

Jo Ann directing her Gboveh High School chorus. At Berkeley, she had belonged to the University’s elite Glee Club.

There were a multitude of other activities. I developed a library for the school by raiding departing PCVs book collections. For some reason I was roped into coaching the school’s football/soccer team, a task I quickly traded for volleyball.  (There were four-year olds in town who knew more about soccer than I did.)

I also created a local Boy Scout troop. I taught them how to tie knots and they took me for great jungle walks. Jo Ann contributed by sewing Patrol flags. All in all, we kept busy carrying out the same type of work being done by thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers around the world.

One of my many activities as a Peace Corps Volunteer was serving as a scout master. My scouts took me on outdoor adventures.

One of my many activities as a Peace Corps Volunteer was serving as a scout master. My scouts took me on outdoor adventures.

Chapter 32: Goat Soup, Greed and Everyday Life

After a day of teaching at Gboveh High School, I would follow jungle trails to surrounding villages and farms. This picture features a Kpelle farmer with his three boys and young daughter. Harvested rice is piled behind the family.

After a day of teaching at Gboveh High School, I would follow jungle trails to surrounding villages and farms. This picture features a Kpelle farmer I met along with his three boys and young daughter. Harvested rice is piled behind the family.

In some ways our everyday life as high school teachers resembled our everyday life as elementary school teachers. We would crawl out of bed at 6:30, eat a quick meal and walk to school. Shortly after 1:00 we would be home downing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the school day finished. Our nap was next.

The new location encouraged wandering. After siesta, the dogs and I would disappear into the jungle. This continued a tradition of hiking in the woods from my earliest childhood years. I explored the surrounding village trails going farther and farther afield. Sometimes I would take my compass so I could draw primitive maps and figure out where I had been. Tribal folks were surprised to find me out in the bush but were always friendly.

I discovered where the cane fields and whiskey stills were, found a primitive but well-built wooden bridge across the river, made my first acquaintance with Driver Ants, and avoided the numerous poison snakes.

Sometimes Jo Ann would join me and on occasion I would take Sam, other Volunteers and Peace Corps staff along. The hikes provided an opportunity to explore aspects of tribal life not normally found in Gbarnga. They also served as a major part of my exercise program. I became svelte, or maybe just skinny.

A Kpelle woman and her daughter take turns pounding palm nuts in this 1966 photo taken near Gbarnga, Liberia.

A Kpelle woman and her daughter take turns pounding palm nuts in this 1966 photo taken near Gbarnga, Liberia.

Jo Ann holds an Eddo or Taro leaf. The tubers of this plant are used as food throughout the tropics.

Jo Ann holds an Eddo or Taro leaf. The tubers of this plant are used as food throughout the tropics.

Hidden by palm fronds, I climb up a Kpelle ladder I discovered on one of my jungle hikes. Notches in a trunk serve as rungs.

Hidden by palm fronds, I climb up a Kpelle ladder I discovered on one of my jungle hikes. Notches in the trunk served as rungs for the primitive but effective climbing device.

Peace Corps staff member Dick Hyler and his wife Maureen join me on a hike through the jungle.

Peace Corps staff member Dick Hyler and his wife Maureen join me on a hike through the jungle.

Our social life was nothing to write home about. Unlike single Peace Corps Volunteers, we had each other for amusement. We did maintain our friendship with other married couples. Occasionally students or teachers would drop by. Sam was always hanging around, even when not working. I maintained an ongoing chess game with the minister of the Presbyterian mission. We would send our house boys back and forth with moves.

The largest social event we hosted was a goat feast for our fellow teachers from the high school and elementary school. Between finding a goat, having it slaughtered and making soup, it turned into a major project. Three women teachers from the elementary school came over to help with the cooking chores. They wanted to make sure the goat was properly cooked. The soup along with rice was delicious, and plenteous. No one went home hungry, or sober for that matter. I’d bought two cases of club beer and one case of Guinness Stout to accompany dinner. Drunk driving was not an issue. No one owned a car.

Even with everyone stuffed, there was ample goat chop left over to feed the dogs for a week. It lasted a night. Liberian dogs always ate like they were on the edge of starvation, even fat Liberian dogs. Somewhere in the midst of the four-legged feeding frenzy, I heard a yip and went outside to find that Brownie Girl had shoved a goat bone through her cheek. The medical emergency was minor; her real concern was being knocked out of the action. The other dogs and Rasputin were gobbling down her share. I pulled the bone out and Brownie Girl jumped back into the fray. It was pure greed. Not a scrap was left in the morning.

One of my favorite pastimes was to sit outside in the late afternoon, drink a gin and tonic, and watch the incredible tropical lightning storms. We found a jeep seat somewhere that made a comfortable couch for our porch. On occasion the sky would turn an ominous black and we could hear the storm as it ripped through the rainforest. The impending mini-hurricane would send Jo and I scurrying to yank clothes off the clothesline and batten down the hatches, i.e. make sure doors and shutters were firmly closed.

Dark storm clouds like these over Gbarnga suggested it was time for Jo Ann and I to quickly take in the laundry and shut up our house.

Dark storm clouds like these over Gbarnga suggested it was time for Jo Ann and I to quickly take in the laundry and shut up our house.

Every month or so, we would visit Monrovia for a touch of city life. Eating at the French restaurant by candlelight, spending an hour in the air-conditioned super market, hanging out in a book store or seeing the latest movie did wonders for morale. It almost made up for the three to four-hour harrowing taxi ride. We even took Sam with us once for his ‘birthday.’ He really didn’t know when it was so we declared it was during the trip. He still uses the same birth date.

Our really big break from teaching was a one-month trip to the big game parks of East Africa. In my next blog I will feature facing elephants and lions and water buffalo in a Volkswagen beetle, Oh My.

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.’

Chapter 26: The Lightning Man

Happy New Year!

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.


Mamadee Wattee stands in front of his home in Gbarnga Liberia in 1967. Later Mamadee would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

Mamadee Wattee stands in front of his home in Gbarnga Liberia in 1967. Later Mamadee would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

Late one evening in the middle of a tropical downpour, one of my high school students appeared on our doorstep very wet and very frightened. Mamadee Wattee was running for student body president and his opponent had purchased ‘medicine’ from a Juju man (witch doctor) to make him sick.

It was serious business; people were known to die in similar circumstances. Had the opposition slandered Mamadee or stuffed the ballot box I could have helped, but countering magic potions wasn’t taught at Berkeley. I took the issue to Mr. Bonal and he dealt with it. Mamadee stayed well and won the election.

The use of Juju medicine represents the darker side of tribal culture. Human body parts derived from ritual human sacrifice are reputed to be particularly effective in creating potions. On the lighter side, my students once obtained a less potent “medicine” and buried it under the goal post on the football (soccer) field with the belief that it would cause the other team to miss goals. Apparently it lacked power; the other team won.

Mamadee was also the reason behind our introduction to the Lightning Man. When Jo and I went on vacation to East Africa, we left Mamadee with $50 to buy us a drum of kerosene. When we returned there was neither kerosene nor $50 but Mamadee was waiting.

Someone had stolen the money and Mamadee was extremely upset. Fifty dollars represented several months’ income for a Kpelle farmer. Mamadee’s father, a chief of the tribe, was even more upset and wanted to assure us that his son had nothing to do with the missing fortune. It was a matter of honor. He offered to have Mamadee submit to the Lightning Man to prove his innocence.

The Lightning Man had a unique power; he could make lighting strike whoever was guilty of a crime. If someone stole your cow or your spouse, zap! Since we were in the tropics, there was lots of lightning. Whenever anyone was struck, people would shake their heads knowingly. Another bad guy had been cooked; justice had been served.

We didn’t believe Mamadee had taken the money and even if he had we certainly didn’t want him fried, or even singed. We passed on the offer. The Chief insisted on giving us $50 to replace the stolen money.

Another Liberian Peace Corps Volunteer in a similar situation chose a different path. Here’s how the story was told to us. The Volunteer had just purchased a brand new $70 radio so he could listen to the BBC and keep track of what was happening in the world. The money represented half of the Volunteer’s monthly income. He had his bright, shiny, new toy for two days when it disappeared.

“I am going to get my radio back,” he announced to anyone who would listen and walked into the village where he quickly gathered some of his students to take him to the Lightning Man. Off he and half the town went, winding through the rainforest to the Lighting Man’s hut. The Volunteer took out five dollars and gave it to the Lighting Man. (Lighting Men have to eat too.)

“I want you to make lighting strike whoever stole my radio,” he said.

The Volunteer and his substantial entourage then returned home. By this time, everyone in the village knew about the trip, including undoubtedly, the person who had stolen the radio.

That night, there was a tremendous thunder and lightning storm. Ignoring for the moment that it was in the middle of the rainy season and there were always tremendous thunder and lightning storms, place yourself in the shoes of the thief who believed in the Lightning Man’s power. Each clap of thunder would have been shouting his name.

In the morning the Volunteer got up, had breakfast and went out on his porch. There was his radio.

In my next blog I will report on a Sassywood trial of The Woman Who Wore No Underpants where poisonous leaves and a red-hot machete tip the scales of justice.

Chapter 24: Eat More Bugs… Cultural Challenges

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.


Local tribal people believed this tree hosted a spirit. Often I would find offerings left at its base.

Local tribal people believed this tree outside Gbarnga, Liberia hosted a spirit. Often I would find offerings left at its base.

Joining the Peace Corps should come with a label like they put on cigarette packs. It would read “Warning: This experience may change your concept of reality.

Our vision of the world is perceived through culturally tinted glasses. Not surprisingly, the reality of our parents and our society becomes our reality. It’s very hard to imagine life from any other perspective. Close encounters with other cultures can shake this vision but not easily. We wear our culture like bulletproof vests, rarely allowing a stray thought to penetrate. Or we focus so hard on extolling our own culture that we fail to learn valuable lessons another culture may teach us.

A key element of our Peace Corps training had been to instill cultural sensitivity. Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s book, “The Ugly American,” came out in 1958 and was turned into a movie starring Marlon Brando in 1963. Both made a significant impression on me. US citizens were known for being pushy and acting superior in dealing with foreign cultures. It created enemies. Peace Corps’ job was to make friends and provide aid, not alienate people.

There was another important reason for the training. Risks are involved when you run headlong into another culture. Depression is one. The environment may be so totally different that it becomes disorienting. The common name for this is culture shock. Learning about Liberia and its tribes was a form of inoculation.

My transition from California to Liberia was relatively smooth. At first, Gbarnga didn’t seem all that different from my old hometown of Diamond Springs. A small rural town is a small rural town. I suffered more shock going from Sierra College to UC Berkeley than I did going from Berkeley to Liberia. My disorientation (and depression) would wait until I returned to the US.

A less common phenomenon is going native or bush as it was called in Liberia. In this instance, you become so enthralled with the new culture that you adopt it as your own. There was a joke that circulated among Peace Corps Volunteers on how to determine when you were teetering on the edge.

Phase One: You arrive in country and a fly lands in your coffee. You throw the coffee away, wash your cup and pour yourself a new cup.

Phase Two: You’ve been there a few months and a fly lands in your coffee. You carefully pick the fly out with your spoon and then drink the coffee.

Phase Three: It’s been over a year and you have become a grizzled veteran. A fly lands in your coffee. You yank it out with your fingers, squeeze any coffee it may have consumed back into the cup, add the fly to your fly collection, and then drink the coffee.

Phase Four: You’ve been there too long. A fly lands in your coffee cup. You yank the fly out of the cup, pop it into your mouth and throw the coffee away. It’s time to go home.

I never met a Liberian who ate flies but bug-a-bugs, aka termites, were considered a real delicacy.

If Peace Corps Volunteers had a tough time with culture shock and going bush, the tribal Liberians had a tougher one. Traditional cultures have normally found their confrontations with the western world a losing proposition. It isn’t that our culture is so great; it’s just that our technology is so glitzy. How do you keep Flumo down on the farm when he hears the taxi horn blowing? And there were lots of taxis and money busses in Gbarnga offering one-way trips to Monrovia.

Gbarnga was on the frontier of cultural change. On the surface, life could appear quite westernized. An occasional John Wayne movie even made it to town. My students would walk stiff-legged down Gbarnga’s main street and do a great imitation of the Duke. They dreamed some day of traveling to America where they would swagger down dusty streets and knock off bad guys with their trusty six shooters.

In town, loud speakers blared out music at decibel levels the Grateful Dead would have killed for while Lebanese shops pushed everything from Argentinean canned beef to London Dry Gin. The epitome of Americana, a Coca Cola sign, dominated the road as you left town on your way to Ganta.

William Tubman had been the first Americo-Liberian President to actively encourage tribal Liberians to shed their traditional cultures and become more Westernized, or at least more Liberian. His first push had been to encourage an increase in the number of missionaries working upcountry. They were welcome to proselytize whatever brand of Christianity they wished as long as they remembered, “to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s.”

We had enough US-based churches in Gbarnga to satisfy Pat Robertson. Missionaries were everywhere. Baptists and Catholics and Episcopalians and Presbyterians and God only knew how many other Christian groups worked the streets in unending competition to recruit African souls.

I was out on a bush walk several miles from town once when I spotted this man coming toward me dressed up in a coat and tie, wearing shiny black shoes, and carrying a brief case. My first reaction was to get off the trail. I was too slow.

“Wait, I have something to give you,” he called.

You can bet that reassured me. But I waited. Standing there in the middle of a muddy trail in the middle of the African jungle, the man very carefully opened his brief case and pulled out a magazine. The headline screamed, ‘The World Is Coming to an End’ and apparently I was too. The magazine was “Awake” and a Jehovah Witness had me in his clutches.

Sometimes, if I closed my eyes and pretended, I could almost believe I was home. Almost. Then Africa would whip around and bite me. Sure, the local villagers would dutifully file in to church on Sunday morning and pray for blessings like their western counterparts did. But Sunday afternoon might find them out sacrificing a chicken to make sure God got the message. And yes, there was a Coca Cola sign on the way to Ganta but next to it was a tall tree where you could usually find offerings to the spirit that lived in the tree.

During my stay in Liberia I was to encounter a number of situations where African reality differed substantially from American reality. In my next blog I will introduce one of the most powerful figures in Liberia’s tribal culture, The Bush Devil.