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.

Chapter 4: The Dead Chicken Dance… Peace Corps Tales

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story in book format.

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

The Sierra Nevada Mountains about 20 miles south of where we did our training and at a slightly higher elevation.

Graduation from Berkeley, marriage in Auburn, a three-day honeymoon in Monterey, and reporting for Liberia VI Peace Corps training at San Francisco State College transpired in one whirlwind week.

My best man, Frank Martin, played his role superbly… from hosting the bachelor party at the Diamond Springs Hotel to making sure our escape car was appropriately decorated.

Frank grew up with me in Diamond Springs, California. We also attended Sierra College together. Somewhere along the line he discovered he was gay. Later on, he and his partner Hank would host several elegant but offbeat anniversary parties for us at their home on Clay Street in San Francisco.

Given our three-day honeymoon, Jo and I figured we would hold the record for newlyweds arriving at Peace Corps training. But we didn’t. One couple spent their honeymoon night flying out to the San Francisco State.

“Gee, Hon, let’s check out the airplane’s toilet again.”

Upon arrival, the married couples were crammed into one wing of Merced Hall, a student dormitory. Tiny rooms, paper-thin walls and a communal bathroom became our new home. We soon knew a lot about each other.

Peace Corps staff wanted to know even more; Beebo the psychologist was assigned to follow us around and take notes. First, however, they pumped us full of gamma globulin and explained deselection. Our job was to decide whether Peace Corps was something we really wanted to do. Their job was to provide stress to help make the decision. Initially this came in the form of a SF State football coach hired to shape us up.

“Okay you guys, let’s see how fast you can run up and down the stadium steps five times!” I hadn’t liked that particular sport during my brief football career in high school and still didn’t.

Beyond mini-boot camp, our time was filled with attending classes designed to teach us about Liberia and elementary school education. We were even given a stint at practice teaching in South San Francisco. There wasn’t much for Beebo to write about.

In case Peace Corps missed anything, we were given a battery of psychological tests to probe our miscellaneous neuroses. These were followed by in-depth interviews. “Answer honestly. Say the first thing that pops into your mind.” Yeah, sure I will.

A few people did wash out and were whisked away. Naturally it was a topic of conversation. What had they done wrong? Were we next?

The true stress test was supposed to be a camping trip up in the Sierras. This may have been true for the kids straight out of the Bronx who had rarely seen stars much less slept out in the woods but Jo and I considered it a vacation. We had been raised in the foothills of the Sierras and were going home.

The ante was upped when the camp leader arrived the first night.

“Here’s dinner,” he announced casually as he unloaded a crate of live chickens from the back of his pickup. They clucked a greeting.

Fortunately, I had chopped off a few chicken heads in my youth and knew about such things as chicken plucking and gutting. I couldn’t appear too eager in the chopping department, though. Beebo might write something like “displays obvious psychopathic tendencies.”

“Close the door, lock and latch it, here comes Curt with a brand new hatchet!”

My chicken spurted blood from its neck and performed a jerky little death dance, turning the city boys and girls a chalky white. Their appetites made a quick exit in pursuit of their color when I reached inside a still warm Henny Penny to yank out her slippery innards. It seemed that my fellow trainees were lacking in intestinal fortitude. If so, it was fine with me; I got more chicken.

Beebo’s biggest day came when we faced the wilderness obstacle course. Our first challenge was to cross a bouncy rope bridge over a deep gorge. Beebo stood nearby scratching away on his pad. We then rappelled down a cliff… scratch, scratch, scratch. Our every move was to be scrutinized and subjected to psychological analysis. We rebelled.

“Beebo, you’ve been following us around and taking notes for two months. Now it’s your turn. See that cliff. Climb down it.”

“Uh, no.”

“Beebo, you don’t understand,” we were laughing, “you have to take your turn.”

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, Beebo agreed. About half way down he froze and became glued to rock with all of the tenacity of a tick on a hound. We tried to talk him down and we tried to talk him up. We even tried talking him sideways. Nothing worked. Finally we climbed up and hauled him down. Note taking was finished. We wrapped up our wilderness week and our training was complete. Jo Ann and I took the oath and became official Peace Corps Volunteers.

We were allowed one week at home to complete any unfinished business before flying to New York City and reporting to the Pan Am desk at JFK. Since there wasn’t much to do, Jo and I relaxed and recovered from our tumultuous year that had begun ever so long ago with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

We wrapped up our brief visit with a going away party in Jo Ann’s back yard in Auburn. Surrounded by friends and family, we talked into the night. It was one of those perfect summer evenings that California is famous for, complete with a warm breeze tainted with a hint of honeysuckle flowers.