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 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.