Ten Years and 1,001 Posts… Texas Hospitality

Linda Leinen from her Word Press blog, The Task at Hand, and I in front of her Liberian masks in League City, Texas.

Safety Harbor, Florida: I had intended to make a big deal out of my tenth year of blogging, which, surprisingly, coincided with my thousandth post. But both slipped right by. Post #1,000 was on Balanced Rock in Arches National Park. I was eager to get it up and totally missed my landmark occasion. We’ve covered a bit of ground since and are now in Florida with our son Tony, his wife Cammie and our grandsons Connor, Chris, and Cooper. There hasn’t been much time for blogging— or even backroads. So I am even further behind!

Given all of this, I decided that Texas hospitality would make an ideal blog for post #1001. It began with celebrating Peggy’s 70th birthday. We stopped off in Georgetown, Texas where Peggy’s brother John and his wife Frances live. They spoiled us rotten— feeding us salmon, ribs and steak. When we left, they loaded us down with chocolate cake, pumpkin bread (a true weakness of mine), and beautiful, large, garden tomatoes.

But our spoiling wasn’t over. We drove from Georgetown to League City just outside of Houston where Linda Leinen, a good blogging friend, had prepared another Texas feast for us. It came complete with brisket, potato salad and fruit salad finished off with Blue Bell ice cream topped with cherries. (Linda has been raving about Blue Bell for a long time.) She had also stocked in Texas beer and Texas wine. I’ll get back to Linda; but first, John and Frances.

John and Frances share a moment with Peggy on a hiking trail in Sun City.
“You have to try my biscuits and sausage gravy,” Frances insisted on Peggy’s birthday morning. “It’s a true Texas dish.” And it was delicious. I gained a pound just looking at it. Frances is a great cook. Breakfast came with Bloody Marys that John made. “They are light on vodka,” he assured us. “Only 25%.” Hmmm, they were BIG Bloody Marys. Light probably meant a couple of shots. At least.
John and Francis live in a the developed senior community of Sun City near Georgetown. Its suburban nature does not discourage the wildlife. Peggy awoke on her birthday morning with four large, whitetail bucks parading by our bedroom window. John and Frances call them ‘The Boys’ Club.’ They are frequent visitors.
A turkey and her chicks also came by and drank out of the bird bath!
And a fawn stopped off to drink out of another bird bath strategically placed at fawn height. The wildlife made Peggy and me feel right at home!
I love it when people have a passion for doing something. John’s is building magnificent sailing ships. It goes along with his passion for history, which we share.
The attention to detail is incredible.
John was working on putting together canons for his latest sailboat project. Everything from wheels to recoil ropes needed to be meticulously added. “How long does it take you to do a ship?” I asked. “2,000 hours,” was his response. Now, that’s passion!

Georgetown has a bit of family history tied to it. The Mekemsons/Makemsons came down from Illinois prior to the Civil War and were among the early settlers of the area. William Makemson was sheriff of the town following the Clvil War and later served as editor of the town’s newspaper. He eventually ran for Governor of Texas on the Republican ticket but lost. It was a time when only Democrats won. Texans still blamed the Republicans for freeing the slaves and for the ‘Reconstruction’ period that followed the Civil War.

A Texas historical marker provides background information on the Steele-Makemson building in Georgetown.

While we were visiting John and Frances, I got a note from Karen at the WP blog, Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge. “I can’t believe you are in Georgetown,” she exclaimed. “My family had the original Spanish land-grant for the area!” Odds are that our families would have known each other. It’s possible that they even intermarried. Like Linda, Karen lives in the Houston area.

Visiting Linda had been on my agenda for several years. We had almost pulled it off four years ago when Peggy and I had re-driven the 10,000 mile route I had followed on my bike trek around North America in 1989. I had ridden my bike across Texas at the time. It’s a long way by car, so you can imagine what it is like on a bicycle! We had missed that connection with Linda on our road trip, but this time we succeeded.

In addition to enjoying blogging, photography, nature and wandering, we have another bond. We both lived in upcountry Liberia, West Africa. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there from 1965-67. Linda was connected with a Lutheran Mission in Liberia starting in 1970. We often share tales of our experiences.

When Peggy and I walked into her house, I immediately noticed Liberian tribal masks on her wall and decided we had to have a photo with them as a backdrop. There was also Liberian country money on display. Even more significant to me, she had a wood-carved crucifix from the leper colony in Ganta. If you have read my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam, the carving of the bush devil featured on the front also came from the colony. It’s possible that Freddy the Carver did both of our pieces. My friend Morris Carpenter, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ganta and introduced me to Freddy, had a crucifix from him that looked quite similar to Linda’s.

The bush devil was possibly carved by the same leper that carved Linda’s crucifix. Sam, BTW, who had worked for us as a 13 and 14 year old, would later become a physician and work at Phoebe Hospital where Linda had spent some of her time working while in Liberia.

We had a delightful evening with Linda. At 73 she is full of both energy and laughter and can still put in a full week sanding and varnishing sailboats in the harbor next to her condo, which is how she makes her living. She shared some of her fascinating history with us, which I will leave up to her to share other than to note the time she hitchhiked from Liberia up to London. If you have ever been in Africa, you have some idea of what a monumental task that would be! It speaks to what an adventuresome soul she is.

As we left, I noticed that Linda had a collection of rocks in a basket on the floor. I was going to comment on how they reminded me of the collections of rocks you find scattered around Georgia O’Keeffe’s house in New Mexico. Before I could get my observation out, Linda commented, “I collected the large rock from below Georgia O’Keefe’s house.” Forever generous, she reached down into her collection and came up with a fossilized snail from Texas and handed it to us as a memento of our visit.

Later that night, I thought “Darn. I meant to take Bone in to meet Linda.” Turns out she had her own bone that she wanted Bone to meet. “Next time,” she told me in an Email.

Bone, wearing his Covid-19 mask, took an immediately liking to the fossilized snail. I think that he decided that the snail would make an excellent Texas hat! I told him that it made him look jaunty.

Our thanks to John, Frances and Linda for showing us the true meaning of Texas Hospitality!

NEXT BLOG: Who knows. The good news is that I have plenty of new blog material. The bad news is that I don’t have any time to blog. From here we are heading up to North Carolina where our kids have rented a large home on the Outer Banks as another celebration of Peggy’s birthday! She isn’t suffering. This morning, our son Tony took her flying while I finished this post!

Bush Devils, Juju, and Lightning Men

Liberian Bush Devil photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A Grebo Bush Devil, with his jaws open and teeth showing, was guest of honor at a Haight-Asbury party put on by Liberian Peace Corps Volunteers in 1967. I was quite surprised to find my photo from then being used by the Liberian Observer newspaper a few months ago. It is an interesting article.

The book about my Peace Corps experience in West Africa, The Bush Devil Ate Sam, is now available in printed as well as digital form on Amazon. It’s taken a while to get the print copy. To celebrate, I decided to post a sample chapter from the book and feature the story that gave the book its name. Every month or so, I will post another chapter.

Here is this month’s chapter:

Sam, the young man who worked for us in Liberia, was enamored with western culture. It fired his imagination. He spent hours listening to the Kingston Trio get Charlie off the MTA and dove into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like a frog dives into water. Still, for all of his excitement about things modern, ancient African was an integral part of who he was. He had the scars to prove it. They marched down his chest in two neat rows.

“How did you get those,” Jo (my former wife) asked with ten percent concern and ninety percent curiosity.

“I can’t tell you,” Sam replied with obvious nervousness as Jo’s eyebrows rose. “But I can tell Mr. Mekemson.”

Aha, I thought, Sam and I belong to the same organization, the Men’s Club! Actually Sam belonged to a very exclusive men’s organization, the Poro Society, which I wasn’t allowed to join. Its functions were to pass on tribal traditions, teach useful skills, and keep errant tribe members in line. Everything about the organization was hush-hush. Tribal members who revealed secrets could be banned and even executed.

Political power on the local level was closely tied to membership in the Poro Society. On the national level, President Tubman assumed leadership of all Poro Societies in Liberia. Tribal women had a similar secret organization called the Sande Society, which prepared young women for adulthood and marriage. A controversial aspect of the Sande initiation ceremony was female genital mutilation— cutting off the clitoris.

Sam got off easy.

He had been to Bush School the previous summer and learned how to be a good Kpelle man. Graduation to adulthood consisted of an all-consuming encounter with the Poro Society’s Bush Devil. It ate him— metaphorically speaking. Sam was consumed as a child and spit out as a man. The scarification marks had been left by the devil’s ‘teeth.’ It seemed like a tough way to achieve adulthood, but at least it was fast and definitive. Maybe we should introduce the process to our kids in the US and skip the teenage years. Think of all of the angst it would avoid.

The Bush Devil was a very important tribal figure who was part religious leader, part cultural cop and part political hack. Non-Kpelle types weren’t allowed to see him. When the Devil came to visit outlying villages, a frontman preceded him and ran circles around the local Peace Corps Volunteer’s house while blowing a whistle. The Volunteer was expected to go inside, shut the door, close the shutters and stay there. No peeking.

We did get to see a Grebo Devil once. The Grebo Tribe was less secretive, or at least more mercenary. Some Peace Corps Volunteers had hired the local Devil for a Haight-Ashbury style African party. It was, after all, 1967, the “summer of love” in San Francisco and the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Along with several other Volunteers, we hired a money bus to get to the party. Had we been thinking, we would have painted the bus with Day-Glo, like Ken Kesey’s bus, Further.

The Devil was all decked out in his regalia. His persona was somewhere between a voodoo nightmare and walking haystack. Grebo men scurried in front of him with brooms, clearing his path and grunting a lot. We stayed out of the way and took pictures.

The Grebo men carefully tended the Bush Devil.

The Grebo men carefully tended the Bush Devil.

Another area where Sam showed his tribal side was his fear of the newly dead. A person’s spirit was considered particularly powerful and dangerous right after he or she died. Later, the spirit would move away into the bush and fade. But first it had to be tamed with appropriate mourning, an all-night bash. One didn’t take chances. When Sam worked late for us after someone had died, he would borrow a knife and a flashlight in case he had to fight off the malevolent ghost on his way home. I had grown up next to a graveyard and was sympathetic with his concern.

Juju, or African witch doctor medicine, was another area where African reality varied from modern Western reality. 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. His opponent had purchased ‘medicine’ from a Juju man 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 a magic potion wasn’t taught at Berkeley, at least not officially. I took the issue to Mr. Bonal, the high school principal, 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. Cannibalism may be involved. 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 wasn’t potent enough; the other team won.

This is my senior class. Mamadee is second form the left. Later he would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

This is my senior class. Mamadee is second from the left. Later he would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

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 a 50-gallon drum of kerosene. When we returned there was neither kerosene nor $50, but Mamadee was sitting on our doorstep. Someone had stolen the money and Mamadee was extremely upset. Fifty dollars represented a month’s income for a Kpelle farmer. Mamadee’s father, a chief of the Kpelle 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 close to half of the Volunteer’s monthly income. He had owned his new toy for two days when it disappeared.

“I am going to get my radio back,” he announced to anyone who would listen and then 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.

NEXT BLOG: Wednesday’s photo essay.

“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 Dead Chicken, the Bush Devil, the Lighting Man, and the Bad Dog

Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1965-67. The photo was taken at that time.

Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1965-67. The photo was taken at that time.

A dead chicken, a bush devil, a lightning man, and a bad dog walk into a bar… Just kidding.

Last week I asked for help from my blog followers, Facebook friends, and members of my book club to help choose a title for the book on my Africa Peace Corps experience. The choices were:

  • The Dead Chicken Dance
  • The Bush Devil Ate Sam
  • The Lightning Man Strikes Again
  • How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup

Each title also included a subtitle connecting the book to Africa and the Peace Corps.

The input was great and there were many thoughtful comments on the various choices. There were also more general suggestions such as put the titles in the active voice and make them shorter. An example of the former is The Dead Chicken Dance might become The Dead Chicken Dances or Dead Chicken Dancing. In the latter, How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup might be retitled Bad Dog Soup.

Here’s a pie chart that shows how people responded:

Book titles

What seems clear here is that the Bad Dog was not good. But let me note, Boy did have some strong support. Alison and Don felt the title had a “good hook to it.” And Kocart said, “Boy the Bad Dog. Of Course.” Naturally. Linda at Shoreacres, who lived in Liberia, made the interesting comment, “Boy the Bad Dog certainly evokes all of the collections of African folk tales that are out there.” On the con side, The Writing Waters Blog observed that the title might be “too much for this dog loving country.”

Pull Boy out of the pie and what we have left is close to a dead heat. The titles are running nose-to-nose. The dead chicken garnered 30% of the vote, the Bush Devil 33% and the Lightning Man 28%. It isn’t what I would call a clear mandate. (Grin) So how about the very thoughtful comments? Maybe they are too thoughtful! Strong arguments were made for each title. I found myself nodding, ‘that’s right’ over and over as first one title and then another worked its way to the top.

Some of the comments:

“The Dead Chicken Dance hands down. I would pick it up and look at it. That’s as good of a title as “Getting Stoned With Savages…” which was a damn good book!”

“The Dead Chicken Dance is my favorite…. A touch grisly plus touch of the familiar plus invitation to dance equals enigmatic… Strong short and sure of itself like The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Joy Luck Club, The Kite Runner.”

I would use the Dead Chicken Dance, but I’d change it from “The Dead Chicken Dance” to “Watching a Dead Chicken Dance.”

Personally, I like The Dead Chicken Dance best. They’re all catchy, but for some reason, this one jumped out at me most. My second choice would be The Bush Devil Ate Sam. In fact, now that I see them both side-by-side, I like them equally. Oh, boy, that wasn’t much of a help, was it? 🙂

“The Bush Devil Ate Sam” is definitely my favorite; short, catchy, intriguing, and feels more encompassing of a collection of African stories than the others…

“I am leaning toward the Bush Devil Ate Sam as I have met Sam, a doctor trained in the American University system, highly educated, yet “marked” by his right of passage to manhood.”

“ (The Bush Devil Ate Sam) is the most cogent, the most compelling.”

“Curt, these titles are all great and we love the stories behind them. We’re voting for The Bush Devil Ate Sam because we feel it embraces the mystery that is Africa…”

“Personally, the one that would make me pick up the book first would be “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.”  It has three things: something exotic (the bush devil), something familiar (the name Sam being a sedate, western-sounding name makes it more familiar and less threatening), and the mystery of how the two came together – you can be pretty sure something called a bush devil didn’t literally eat Sam, so what is this really about?  Of all of your proposed titles, it was the one that made me most want to find out the story behind it.”

“ …the one that was most immediately appealing was the Lightning Man Strikes Again and the most intriguing was The Bush Devil Ate Sam.”

“I read all of the stories to the boys and there was a unanimous vote for The Lightning Man Strikes Again. Very catchy and a fun story!” (The grandkids check in.)

“I loved all the stories but my favorite title is The Lightning Man Strikes Again. I usually choose books by the title and I’d pick that one up just because of the sound of it. Lightning is fascinating anyway and the title sounds interesting and humorous, which goes perfectly with those stories. I’ve always wanted to join the Peace Corps and can’t wait to read this now.”

“The Lightning Man Strikes Again: I like it because it has a double entendre..Is it about someone else or are you the lightning man helping to bring change to Africa… 
Can’t wait to read your follow up post!”

“Love The Lightning Man Strikes Again – can just feel the dread the Lightning Man induced. Do let us know when you make your choice.”

“The problem is that ALL the titles are intriguing; they all entice the reader to want to read the stories.  But, if forced to choose, I would go with the lightning man.  I’m not quite sure, maybe because it relates so directly with superstition and myth.”

Life's about choices, right. It may be about the title of a book or it may be about which piece of monkey meat you are going to buy.

Life’s about choices, right. It may be about the title of a book or it may be about which piece of monkey meat you are going to buy. The lady selling the meat held up a little head and said, “Very tasty.”

So… these are some of the thoughts you have shared. They represent views from people with widely varying backgrounds… including writers, the under ten crowd, and folks who have lived in Africa. Do you see my dilemma? Thanks so much for taking the time to participate. It means a lot.

NEXT BLOG: My choice and the reasons behind it. (Yes folks, I am going to drag this out for one more blog.)

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 IV… Peace Corps Returns

 Hopefully todays young people in Liberia  will not face the grim future my students shown here from 1967 faced.

Hopefully, today’s young people in Liberia will not have to face the grim future my students shown here from 1967 experienced.

Peace Corps exited Liberia in 1990 because of the danger to Volunteers created by the civil war. At the request of Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, the organization returned in 2008.  Once again Volunteers are spreading throughout the country and joining with Liberian teachers in educating young people.  At this time, they are teaching math, science, and English– subjects the Liberian government has determined are critical to the development of the country. Of equal importance to their jobs is the sense of friendship and stability Peace Corps Volunteers bring to Liberia. They become part of their communities, live at the level of their peers, roll up their sleeves, and go to work. It’s how Peace Corps does business. It provides a powerful message.

As I follow blogs of Volunteers presently serving in Liberia, I am struck by the similarities of challenges we were faced with in the 60s, but I am struck even more by the differences. How could it be otherwise given the devastation the country has been through? We dealt with absenteeism, lack of supplies, corruption, and the daily challenges of living and functioning effectively in another culture. But our students and communities had never experienced the fear, psychotic behavior, and death the civil wars unleashed.  Neither were we overly concerned with our own security, as Volunteers must be now. (Although I must confess that when the soldiers came pounding on my door with their guns at 4 AM one morning in 1966, I was a wee bit concerned.)

Capacity building, helping people to help themselves, has always been a central goal of the Peace Corps. The Bosh Bosh project in Salala, Bong County provides an excellent example of what can happen when a talented and enthusiastic Peace Corps Volunteer is paired with a welcoming and supportive community. Charlene Espinoza from San Diego, California began her Peace Corps assignment in 2011. She has documented her experience on her blog. I highly recommend reading it for an insight into Peace Corps life.

Here’s the short version of the Bosh Bosh story. The community of Salala built a house for Peace Corps Volunteers– even though none had been assigned to the town. Dutifully impressed, Peace Corps posted Charlene, along with a roommate, Kristin Caspar, to teach junior high at the Martha Tubman Public School in Salala. The two were soon consumed with teaching, tutoring and building a library. A few months into their tour, they went on a brief vacation in Sierra Leone where Charlene came across a purse made out of brightly colored lappa scraps. (Lappa cloth is the fabric that West African women use as wrap around dresses and that tailors turn into shirts and other clothing.)

Inspiration struck! What if she went back to Salala and introduced the concept there. Young women could be taught how to sew and develop marketable products. In addition to learning valuable skills, the girls would also be increasing their self-confidence. The LapaScraps Project, later to become the Bosh Bosh Project, was born. Bosh Bosh is a Liberian word for different types of fabrics.

Charlene, working closely with her Liberian counterpart at school, reestablished a local but dormant Girl’s Club and recruited young women to sew lappa scrap bags.  The girls loved the work and the project soon acquired several sewing machines. A tailor was hired to come in and teach the girls more sophisticated sewing techniques. New market lines such as purses and E-reader covers were introduced. Regular seminars in everything from women’s rights to HIV Aids Awareness were also offered to the club members. As the products begin to sell, profits were put back into the project, providing the girls with full scholarships to meet their education costs.

What is most important about the Bosh Bosh Club is how it has changed the self-perception of the young women working on the project. They now believe they have a future; they have hope. And they are eager to make a difference in their country. Most have a perspective similar to Comfort Thomas who is 20 years old and has a six-year-old child:

“I decided to join the Salala Girls Club because I like the projects objective. I have learned a lot while being in the club. I have learned how to sew different things, and it has made me more aware of my own health through the workshops offered and has given me a better understanding of how to take care of myself and think about my future as well. When I graduate from high school, I want to attend the University of Liberia and major in Political Science so that I can work in the Ministry of Education, and help many indigent people in Liberia and around the world.”

You can go to the Bosh Bosh website and learn more about the organization, its products, and the participants.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Liberia are also working to help the country. I recently received a call from Judy Reed of Madison, Wisconsin. Judy served in Liberia Group IV (1964-66) with my friend Morris Carpenter. In 2007 she and a friend, Jane Scharer, visited Liberia and reconnected with 15 of her former students who are now adults in their 50s and 60s. She describes the experience as “bittersweet.” Many had barely survived the war years and had lost family members to the conflict. Life continued to be hard. Their children had few opportunities for education.

Judy and Jane returned to the US determined to help. They created a small non-profit organization called the Liberian Assistance Program and went to work. Former Peace Corps Volunteers, friends and community organizations jumped in and offered support. Today, as a result, a new school stands in the town of Cow Field with over 200 students and 15 employees. The principal is a former student of Judy’s. My wife Peggy and I have signed up to sponsor a student at the school for three years.

The most extensive Return Peace Corps Volunteer effort is being carried out by Friends of Liberia (FOL). FOL was originally created as an alumni group for returned Volunteers in 1986. By 1989 the organization was centrally involved in raising awareness in the US about the plight of Liberians involved in the civil conflict, and in seeking solutions to end the horrendous war, a role it continued to play up until the close of the conflict in 2003.

Today FOL is focused on encouraging early childhood education/teacher training, improving the skills of health care workers, and in fostering entrepreneurship. The latter involves helping identify, educate and provide startup capital to motivated Liberians who would like to build small businesses. The ultimate goal here is to support the development of a middle class, a move that is essential to the long-term stability and prosperity of the nation.

Peace Corps is only one of numerous private and government agencies that are offering aid to Liberia and other African nations. One of the most ambitious programs is being pursued by the Obama administration: providing 7 billion dollars for electrification in Sub-Sahara Africa. Obviously this program has the potential of making a significant difference in the lives of Africans, assuming it lives up to its promise of building internal capacity, balancing urban and rural needs, and using both traditional and renewable energy sources.

Liberia is blessed with natural resources. Historically, these resources have been exploited by outside economic interests such as Firestone and have served to make a small minority of Liberia’s population wealthy. Used to benefit the nation, these resources can provide the base for rebuilding the country. Continued investment by outside corporations is critical. Obviously such investments require a stable government and a promise of profits, but they also need to be accompanied with decent salaries, training for the workforce, focus on local development, and protection of the environment. Balance between meeting the needs of the investors and meeting the needs of the country is critical.

The tragedy of Liberia is a tragedy shared by most other African nations. The past history of colonialism and outside exploitation combined with Africa’s own unique challenges such as tribalism, minimal education and lack of economic development, have left these nations easy prey to outside forces and internal abuse. From slavery, to ivory trade, to blood diamonds, to rare woods and even rarer minerals, Africa has been viewed as a way to instant, illicit wealth regardless of its cost in human life and suffering. It has also been viewed as a battleground between powerful, opposing forces. Colonial nations, various religious groups, and dominant political blocks have all seen Africa as a means to some outside objective.

Liberia is still very fragile and must have continued support from the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and other countries. What is desired, however, is independence, not dependence. The country, with help, has the potential of standing on its own and becoming a model for the rest of war-torn Africa, not simply another tragedy in a long line of tragedies.

My students at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga from 1965 to 67 were as bright, caring, and ambitious as any group of young people. They were excited about their future. They saw their dreams dashed by greed, corruption and civil war. It is my hope that today’s youth, given guidance, education and opportunity, can become the backbone of a more prosperous, democratic, and peaceful nation.

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.

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.