How Brunhilda the Cat Became Rasputin… A Tale from The Bush Devil Ate Sam

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.

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.

Rasputin surrounded by Rhinoceros beetles.

 

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.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Chapter 36: Goodbye Liberia…

My Senior Class from Gboveh High School, took top honors in the National Social Studies Test.

My Senior Class from Gboveh High School took top honors in Liberia’s National Social Studies Test.

When we returned from East Africa, a shift had taken place; Jo Ann and I had become grizzled, respected veterans. Peace Corps V had left the Country and Peace Corps VIII had come in. With a year and a half under our belts, we were the folks to go to for sage advice. We were even entitled to reminisce about the old days. I was, after all, 24 years old.

Cuttington College sent student teachers to learn from me while the fame of Jo’s choir continued to increase. My seniors took top honors in the national social studies test… competing against the best public and missionary high schools in the country.

What seemed most surprising to us was that Peace Corps requested we spend our last six months touring the country and working in different schools as master teachers. We quickly declined. Our skill level may have fooled Peace Corps but not us. We thought it best to keep our little secret. We also had several projects going at the school we wanted to complete.

Jo and I, along with other selected PCVs, were also asked to help develop a manual for future Volunteers coming into the country. I chaired the section on Liberian culture. According to staff, my experience in doing research for the second grade reader qualified me for the task. (Grin) I had my doubts but took the job seriously. I was fortunate to have several Volunteers working with me who came from different sections of the country and added depth about their regions and tribes.

Apparently our effort caught the attention of the American Embassy in Monrovia. A State Department official was sent to interview me about my views on tribal culture and Liberian politics. At least I hoped he was from the State Department. Embassies also housed CIA agents and a careful line was drawn between the Peace Corps and the CIA. Our mission was based upon trust and that trust could be severely damaged if it was found we worked with the CIA. Whatever my visitor’s affiliation, he came bearing a six-pack of Heineken. We talked way into the night drinking his Heineken and then doing serious damage to my supply of Club Beer.

I shared three concerns. The first was about tribalism. The government’s efforts to put the nation first and tribes second had barely scratched the surface. The influence of tribal identification had been dramatically driven home to Jo and me during our first months in the country. One day we were walking home from the elementary school and found a very sick child sprawled out on the road. Rather than stopping to help, our students were detouring around him. They hardly seemed to notice that he was there. Jo Ann ripped into them. I had never seen her so angry.

“Why aren’t you helping this sick child?” she demanded. The question seemed to confuse them.

“He’s not Kpelle,” was the response. Why should they help him? He was from another tribe. He was less than human. My sense was that the vast majority of tribal people put their tribe first, other tribes second, and the country a very distant third in terms of identity and loyalty. There was very little glue to hold the nation together.

Second, I had been deeply disturbed by the effort to make Mamadee Wattee sick during the student body election. Our students were highly educated from a tribal perspective and becoming president of the student body was hardly a great prize. And yet, here they were willing to use ‘dark magic’ with the potential of killing a friend. It was all out of proportion, a form of insanity that might cause great damage if not held in check.

Finally, I believed that Liberia was headed for a revolution unless dramatic changes were made in the relationship between Americo-Liberians and the tribal populations. President Tubman talked about bringing more tribal people into the government but it was a tortuously slow process. Americo-Liberians were clinging desperately to their power and prestige. The paranoia that I had personally experienced was a prime example of that desperation. On one level, I could understand the government’s reaction to the student body elections. But the reaction to the second grade reader I had written was ridiculously stupid. At some point tribal Liberians would run out of patience and all hell would break loose. I was not optimistic that Americo-Liberians would ever willingly share power.

But the future of Liberia was not in my hands. Jo and I had done what we could as Peace Corps Volunteers though our positions as teachers and efforts in the community. We had gained tremendously from our experience in Gbarnga and hoped our students had as well.

Time flew and the reality of going home could no longer be ignored. Our last days came and we said our goodbyes to friends, the school, our house and the countryside. We found a good Peace Corps Volunteer home for Rasputin and packed up our African treasures. Sam had already left to attend Liberia’s top boarding school and we were helping pay costs. A school assembly loaded us down with gifts and good wishes. It was sad to be leaving, but bearable. New adventures waited.

On the last morning I arose early to go outside and to have my last cup of coffee while sitting on our old jeep seat couch. A Doo-Doo bird plaintively issued his comment on the world, “doo, doo, doo” and I found myself agreeing. The sun hit the rain forest and then the school. The first students were making their way up the hill. They waved.

Do Your Part came trotting over. Do Your Part who was my dog but wasn’t. Do Your Part who followed me wherever I went. Do Your Part who had exquisite manners and never jumped up on me, climbed onto my lap and looked into my eyes. She was shivering; she knew I was leaving and her knowing made it real. It almost broke my heart. I said my final goodbye.

This ends my series of blogs on my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. I hope you have enjoyed the stories. Presently I am working with an editor to get the blogs ready for self-publishing this spring. There will be both electronic and printed versions. I am also adding several chapters. After my experience as a Volunteer, I worked as Peace Corps staff in the Southern United States and the West for three years. There are many more stories to tell. I also want to address the devastating war that took place in Liberia. I will finish by looking at Liberia, and Peace Corps Liberia, today.

NEXT: Join me on Tuesday when I begin a photographic exploration of the Mediterranean Sea. Just prior to Christmas, my wife Peggy and I spent a month traveling from Turkey to Portugal while stopping off in such great places as Ephesus, Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Venice, Naples/Pompeii, Rome, Florence, Barcelona, Cannes, Lisbon and the Azores. I will begin with one of my top favorites: Santorini.

Chapter 31: Minced Green Mamba

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.

 

Tropical rainforests are home to numerous species of snakes. A large boa lived in this lake, which was just down from our house.

Tropical rain forests are home to numerous species of snakes. A large boa lived in this lake, which was just down from our house in Gbarnga, Liberia.

Another denizen of the rain forest that receives considerable press is the snake. As a youth I had become aware of their treacherous ways by reading Tarzan comic books.

We encountered a number of the wily serpents in our two years. They came in a myriad of sizes, shapes and colors. I already mentioned the tiny orange snake in the driver ants’ nest. “Very poisonous,” Sam had said.

I also found a black one coiled up in our flower garden and another poised in a tree above my classroom door. One dark, rainy night Jo and I were walking home from chaperoning a high school dance. Our flashlight was on the verge of dying. I looked down and found my foot three inches away from landing on top of a snake that stretched all the way across the road… which was just about the distance I managed to hop on one leg.

The Liberians assumed that all snakes were poisonous. We decided while in Liberia to do as the Liberians did. The only good snake was one with its head chopped off.

The most poisonous was reportedly the cassava snake. This ugly pit viper was about as long as your arm and twice as thick. It was supposedly sluggish; you had to step on it to get a reaction. When you did, it was all over though. Sluggishness disappeared. It whipped around and struck causing instant death. On my jungle hikes I always encouraged the dogs to go first and watched them closely. Like Rasputin, they were snake-wise. They detoured; I detoured.

Of all of Liberia's snakes, the Cassava Snake was the most deadly.(Google image)

Of all of Liberia’s snakes, the Cassava Snake was the most deadly.(Google image)

We even had a giant boa constrictor hanging out in the neighborhood. It lived in the reservoir just down the hill from our house. Town folks would spot it occasionally slithering through lake like the Loch Ness monster. I started calling it Nessie. Whenever a local dog or cat disappeared, it was assumed the snake had eaten it. My thoughts tended more toward a hungry Liberian, but this didn’t discourage me from suggesting to Boy the Bad Dog that he go play in the lake. He refused.

Soldiers eventually drained the lake in an unsuccessful attempt at finding the boa. Maybe it had developed a taste for Guinea Fowl and moved up the Superintendent’s compound.

The green mamba was an even more feared snake. It was said to climb trees, leap from limb to limb, and chase people. Jo Ann and I assumed that the Liberian who told us this story had been sipping too much fermented cane juice.

At least we did until we looked out the window one day and saw a green mamba climbing our tree. Faster than I could say, “Let’s sit this dance out,” Jo had grabbed our machete and was through the door. The mamba saw her coming and wisely made a prodigious leap for a higher limb. It missed.

Down it came amidst a mad flurry of machete strokes. Not even the three musketeers could have withstood that attack. It was instant minced snake. After that I learned to have more respect for Jo Ann when she was irritated.

In a slight reversal of roles, a snake did manage to ‘tree’ Jo once. I was happily ensconced in my favorite chair when I heard a scream from our outdoor bathroom. Talk about primitive male instincts. Hair on end, adrenaline pumping and blood rushing, I grabbed the machete and charged outside.

I threw open the bathroom door and there was Jo Ann, standing on the toilet with her pants down. Meanwhile a small black snake was merrily slithering around on the floor in hot pursuit of the little toads who considered our bathroom home. It had crawled under the door and across Jo’s foot while she was sitting on the pot. Had it happened to me, I might have been on the toilet, too.

Needless to say, I quickly dispatched the snake and saved the day. What a man!

Chapter 14: A Quivering Carcass… 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.

When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.

Women in Gbarnga carried produce to and from the market on their heads. It was very graceful. Banana trees are growing on the left.

Gradually, we settled into a routine. By one in the afternoon, we had finished with another day of teaching and assigned it to the done pile. PB&J washed down by orange Kool-aid rewarded our success. Sam joined us. We bought the jelly and peanut butter from the Lebanese market. The bread came from the local baker. Occasionally it included bug parts. We looked before we bit.

Nap time was next; I fell in love with siestas. Rainy season helped. Torrential afternoon showers pounded down on our zinc roof, cooled the air, and lulled us to sleep. An hour later we rolled off the bed and jumped into lesson planning.

Monday through Friday Sam cooked Liberian chop for the three of us and on Saturdays Jo cooked Kwi food (western food) for him, usually pasta of some type. He had a teenager appetite and our budget was tight. Sam was off on Sundays.

Chop consisted of a thick soup made up of meat, greens, hot peppers, bouillon, tomato paste and palm oil. It was served on top of country rice, the staple crop and food of the Kpelle. The rice was raised on the hillsides as opposed to in swamps and arrived with small stones that Sam carefully picked out. The nearest dentist was in Monrovia. If you let him near your mouth he would find 15 cavities you didn’t have. Peace Corps paid well.

The meat might be beef, chicken, fish, goat or even pork, but we usually opted for Argentine canned beef.

Fresh beef required a six am trip to the market on Saturday. We knew it was fresh because the butcher carved it off a still quivering carcass that had been a live steer an hour earlier. You pointed at the cut you wanted. Anything without bone was steak. It was not marbled in fat. Liberian cattle were rib-showing skinny and fed off of any grass they could hustle. We sacrificed the meat to an old-fashioned meat grinder and cooked it to death.

Our experience with Gbarnga’s butcher convinced us that canned beef tasted really good.

The greens for our chop came from Gbarnga’s thriving open-air market. Collards, potato greens, eggplants, pumpkins and bitter balls were our options. Bitter balls tasted exactly like their name: eating them one time was once too many. The number of peppers thrown in depended on tolerance for hot. We progressed from being one-pepper-people to three-pepper-people during our stay. Palm oil added a unique, almost nutty taste.

The market was filled with tribal women selling everything from palm oil to large snails that constantly escaped from their tubs and crawled off. ‘Small boys’ were sent to retrieve them. Sam refused to cook the fist-size Gastropods. “They are taboo for my family.” Taboo was a word he had learned from an anthropologist. I wasn’t sure about the taboo part but hung in with him. I had no more desire for dining on the slimy creatures than he did.

Produce was carried to market in large metal bowls that the women balanced on their heads with ramrod backs and ballerina grace. Given enough beer, I wandered around our house trying to master the procedure. Five seconds were my record before everything came crashing down.

The women wore brightly colored lappas with blouses and headscarves. They would squat next to their produce and call out prices. Large, juicy oranges were “one cent, one cent” in season. Grapefruits were “five cent, five cent” and giant pineapples a quarter. Avocados or butter pears as the Liberians called them could also be purchased for a few cents.

The oranges sported green skins and the pineapples ant nests but both were “sweeto,” as my students liked to say. We added orange juice to our orange Kool-aid. Plopping the pineapples into a bucket of water over night did in the ants. By morning they were little black floaters, forming a scum on top of the water.

Our appearance at the market caused inflation but bargaining was expected. We took along Sam whose rapid Kpelle assured everyone got a fair deal. Eventually Sam took over the shopping chores. We’d send him off with five dollars and he would bring home a week’s worth of food.

When dark arrived in it’s efficient tropical fashion, we would light our kerosene lantern and get cozy. Peace Corps supplied each Volunteer with a book locker filled with one hundred books. We considered it our responsibility to read them all. TV was not an option. I was curious about who made the book selections. My money was on a Harvard professor of literature. The book lockers were heavy on classics and short on mysteries and Sci-fi.

Occasionally we would add a game of scrabble or cards to our evening routine. Around 10 PM it was time for us to eliminate any cockroaches that had strayed into our bedroom and drift off to dreamland.

The Woman Wore No Underpants; A Tale of African Justice

(This is the second in a series of blogs where I recognize the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps by writing about my own experiences as a Volunteer in Gbarnga, Liberia, West Africa, 1965-1967. Here I tell about a trial by ordeal that could have happened in a medieval court.)

The Sassywood Man, a tribal judge in rural Liberia, obtained his name through use of a poisonous drink infused from the bark the Sassywood tree. The accused person was invited to take a sip. If he died, he was guilty. No DAs, lawyers, judges or juries were required.

Since modern society frowned upon trial by survival, the Sassywood Man had come up with new ways of determining guilt.  As it turned out, the father of one of my students was the local tribal judge and my ex-wife and I were privileged to witness an actual trial.

It started with Amani coming to our house at two in the afternoon on a blistering hot Saturday in the middle of the dry season. His father was about to start a trial. Would we like to see it? Absolutely, there was no way we would miss the chance. As we trudged east across town through the dust and stifling heat, Amani provided background information.

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. The husband had filed charges against the men through Liberia’s western-type court system.

But there was a potential glitch: 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 she was lying, the husband would drop the charges.

We arrived at court (a round hut) and were rewarded with front row dirt seats. Jo and I asked Amani how to address his father and he 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, Old Man began preparing for the trial. The first thing he 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 whispered to Jo Ann. “Are we about to witness something here with the Sassywood leaves that we would just as soon miss?”

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 Old Man 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.

He took the “knife” and rubbed it down his leg. It sounded like a T-bone steak cozying up to a hot grill. But Old Man grinned. The knife was cold.

The husband was next. His leg appeared much less optimistic. It was, in fact, preparing to follow his wife’s legs lickety-split down the hill. Only a firm glare from Old Man made it 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 appeared to graze 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 cleared about ten feet from a sitting position and was strategically located behind a tree. 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.

NOTE: Before writing this blog, I looked up Sassywood on the Internet. Only recently has Liberia ceased issuing licenses for Sassywood Men and apparently several people were killed in 2007 while undergoing trials by drinking Sassywood tea.