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 17: Abijoudi Supermarket: Almost Heaven… Peace Corps Tales

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

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

Our decision to visit Monrovia led us past the huge Firestone Rubber Tree Plantation. I am standing next to a rubber tree that has been slashed to release the white sappy substance that will be turned into tires.

Dinner popped into my mind on the taxi trip home from Ganta. After two months of eating Argentina’s finest canned beef, I found myself lusting after the neighbor’s chickens. My last instructions to Sam before leaving to visit Morris had been to buy us one for the stew pot. I had visions of arriving back home with the hen waiting for us in the refrigerator.

It was a pleasant, if short-lived, dream.

The chicken was roosting on our stove and appeared to like her new home. Generous piles of chicken poop decorated the kitchen. Sam and I had discussed my preferences before we left. Apparently the instructions had not been clear. I corrected the error.

“Here’s another dollar. Take this chicken out and have her killed, gutted and plucked.”

My chicken whacking days were over. Sam returned a couple of hours later with dinner and Jo Ann did her culinary thing. The final product met all of my mouth-watering expectations. When the bones had been picked clean I worked my way through the pile again. Chicken had never tasted better… before or since. But there was a close match.

The lyrics to a popular West African tune proclaimed, “Chicken and rice with palm butter is nice.” I agreed; it was my favorite chop. Palm butter has a unique sweet flavor and rich texture. Unfortunately, pounding palm nuts was clearly defined as women’s work, which Sam avoided at all costs. A stone wall divided male and female roles within the Kpelle culture. I threatened to trade Sam in on a house girl and he miraculously found a way to obtain the illusive product.

It was possible to eat well in Gbarnga, even on our $160 per month salaries. But there were times we longed for a convenient grocery store packed with rib eye steaks, fresh milk and ice cream. Or, even better, a restaurant where we could order such food.

The visit with Morris provided a break in our routine but Morris lived the same way we did. His chop was quite tasty, but it was still chop. Jo and I decided it was time for our first trip back to Monrovia. Once again we packed our bags and headed over to Gbarnga’s taxi stand.

This time the price was $15 for the two of us. The taxi was packed and I rode shotgun. My job was to put my thumb on the windshield whenever we met another vehicle. The theory was that this would keep the windshield from imploding if struck by a rock. Shatterproof glass hadn’t made it to Liberia.

Rainforest, villages and small towns whizzed by slowly. I felt like we were caught in a time warp. An occasional burned out hulk of a money bus or taxi decorated the roadside and reminded us of our mortality. We passed Phebe Hospital built and operated by Lutheran missionaries and then Cuttington College built and operated by Episcopal missionaries.

In the town of Suakoko, we dropped one passenger and picked up another. He was chewing on a dark, smoky leg of either dog or monkey meat. My stomach growled in appreciation. I was adjusting to Africa.

Tribal Liberians waited with Zen-like patience beside the road for their unscheduled money bus rides. Usually a faint trail led off into the bush to their villages. I wondered what they thought about while waiting. Did they ponder their reception in Monrovia as they descended on relatives who lived in tin shacks already overflowing with people?

At some point, the jungle gave way to rubber trees with bark slashed to drain the white sticky substance. We had entered the world’s largest rubber tree plantation. Owned by Firestone, it was known for the low wages it paid Liberian workers and the generous payoffs it made to government officials.

With Kakata came relief, a paved road. Several Americo-Liberians had large farms in the area. Their names were a who’s who of Liberia’s elite.

Morris had reveled in telling us a story about a scandalous murder that had happened in the town. The guy’s body had been dismembered. His head ended up in a toilet. The local Peace Corps Volunteer told anyone who would listen, “If you want to get a-head in life, come to Kakata.”

Eventually we made it to Monrovia and our taxi let us off at the Peace Corps hostel. I’d be bunking with the guys and Jo Ann would be bunking with the girls. I didn’t think much of sleeping with a group of snoring men but the price was right. Plus Abijoudi’s was waiting.

Abijoudi’s was a genuine supermarket; it was close to heaven. I am not sure what was more impressive: the air conditioning or the aisles crammed with goods.  We wandered awestruck up and down the rows staring at the canned and frozen foods from around the world. And then we splurged. Jo Ann bought a frozen duck from Holland. Morris was coming to Gbarnga for a return visit. It would be the first meal she ever cooked for a guest.

Abijoudi’s was only one of Monrovia’s many temptations. Going to a movie was next on our list. The first James Bond thriller, “Dr. No,” had finally made it to Liberia. Our friends were raving about the film. An effort had been made in the fifties to turn Fleming’s novels into a TV series. The producers recruited an American actor for the Bond role and named him Jimmie. Can you imagine the line, “My name’s Bond, Jimmy Bond?” The series flopped.

We also discovered Oscar’s, an excellent French restaurant that perched on the edge of the Atlantic in a beautiful setting. Oscar stood by our table and personally cooked flaming steak Diane with cognac. Later, a volunteer would catch amoebic dysentery at the restaurant and Oscar’s was put on Peace Corps’ ban list. Jo and I never ate the salad, never got dysentery and never obeyed the ban.  Oscar’s became a must do on our Monrovia trips.

Oscar’s was perched on the edge of the Atlantic. Beaches in Monrovia can be quite beautiful.

After dinner we found a cozy bar tended by a big-busted German woman and Jo ordered a grasshopper: a frothy drink made with Crème de Menthe, Crème de Cacao and cream.

“A grasshopper,” the woman shouted across the crowded room. “What’s a hopper?” Everyone turned and stared at us as Jo Ann and I struggled to remember the ingredients. After that, Jo ordered more simple drinks.

Satiated and exhausted, we returned to the PC hostel. The next morning we caught a taxi back to Gbarnga and the quiet life.

Chapter 9: The Levitating Squat Routine… 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.

Termites, or bug-a-bugs as the Liberians called them, created large mounds such as this one throughout the rainforest.

In my last post, Jo Ann and I travelled upcountry to Gbarnga, Liberia and our Peace Corps assignment. Arriving after dark at our new home, we opened the door to find the house swarming with life.

“Lots of bug-a-bug and cockroaches,” Sam observed as we peered in at the chaos.

Sure enough, our flashlight revealed that the writhing floor was a multitude of three-inch African cockroaches scurrying every which way. The tunnels climbing the walls had been sculpted by termites, or bug-a-bug as the Liberians colorfully named them. The tomb-like odor was how a house normally smelled in the tropics when left vacant for a few weeks.

Bob’s proudly drawn bucket of water sat carefully placed in the middle of the living room. Warm thoughts of veteran Peace Corps Volunteers taking care of the new kids temporarily blocked our darker visions.

I directed the flashlight into the bucket. A thick layer of scum reflected the light as a complete ecosystem came to life. Somewhere in the house a malaria-bearing mommy mosquito was extremely proud of her progeny. Hundreds of little wigglers broke the surface, virtually guaranteeing the continuation of the family line for a thousand years.

“Can you imagine what this would have been like if the Volunteers hadn’t cleaned?” I chuckled nervously, making a weak attempt at humor. Jo Ann recognized it for what it was worth and ignored me. I had the uncharitable thought that cleaning our house out had meant removing the furniture.

“Let’s tour our new home.” Again silence, but at least Jo Ann followed me. I had the flashlight. The bedroom was first. A fist-sized crab like spider went scurrying sidewise across the wall. Splat! One problem was eliminated. I hoped that its aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters weren’t the vengeful type.

Our bed was a moldy mattress shoved into the corner. It smelled suspiciously like the house.

“Hey, our first furniture,” I noted, still trying to get a laugh. This time I was rewarded with a weak smile.

Next we came to the kitchen. There was no chance it would show up in Sunset Magazine.  A kerosene lantern, kerosene stove and kerosene refrigerator filled the space. But there was no kerosene.

My thoughts returned to the PCVs and what they might have done. I envisioned the refrigerator running and full of cold beer. Then I just envisioned the beer. It didn’t have to be cold, just plentiful. But there wasn’t any beer, there wasn’t any light, there wasn’t any drinkable water and there wasn’t any food. It promised to be a long night.

“I need to visit the outhouse,” Jo Ann announced. My bladder gave an empathetic twinge. Our last pee stop had been in Monrovia. The three of us trooped outside. Jo took the flashlight and disappeared into the rickety one holer.

“Curtis!” she yelled. I yanked open the door and prepared to be heroic. Jo Ann was standing inside with a wild look on her face. The flashlight was shining down into the hole. Thousands of little eyes stared back at us.

“Lots of cockroaches,” Sam noted. He was beginning to sound repetitious.

That was the night that Jo Ann mastered her famous levitating squat routine. Cockroaches used your butt as a runway when you sat on the toilet. Jo solved the problem by positioning herself about five inches up in the air. I am not sure how she managed this Yoga feat but her rear never touched an outhouse seat during the two years we were in Africa.

I used a different approach. A loud stomp on the floor sent the cockroaches scurrying downward. The trick was to escape before they came back up. My habit of reading in the bathroom was sacrificed to the cause.

There wasn’t much left to do but send Sam on his way and try to get some sleep. We retired to our bedroom and I scrutinized the walls to see if any new monster crab spiders had appeared. They hadn’t. Word of their truncated life span had gotten around.

I then beat the bed for several minutes with the sincere hope of persuading any other unwanted guests to hit the road.

I also leaned the rest of our furniture, three well-used Salvation Army type folding chairs, against each of the screened windows. Veteran Peace Corps Volunteers had warned us that rogues, i.e. burglars, loved to rob green Volunteers on their first few days in town. The chairs would serve as a primitive burglar alarm. My theory was that jiggling the window would knock over the chair and scare away the rogue. It was guaranteed to scare the hell out of us.

Finally it was time to crawl in. We left our clothes on. Jo Ann, by this point, had reached a high level of unhappiness. I was glad there were no handy airplanes around. There was a story about a Volunteer who had landed at Robert’s Field Airport, taken one look and climbed back on the plane. My perspective on the evening was that things had been bad enough they were bound to get better.

That’s when the drums and screaming started.

No one had told us that a Kpelle funeral was like an Irish wake.

Mourners stayed up all night pounding on drums, wailing and drinking lots of cane juice, a concoction similar in nature to moonshine. It was important that the dead be sent off properly. Otherwise the spirit of the dead person would become irritated, hang around and do all sorts of bad stuff.

Of course we knew nothing about any of this. All we knew was that people were beating on drums and screaming. It was time to circle the wagons. Eventually I went to sleep; I don’t think Jo ever did.

Next post: We wage war on the bug-a-bug and I have an encounter with Crazy Flumo.

Chapter 8: Armies of the Night… 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.

A view of Monrovia from Bob and Gerry Branch’s apartment.

Bob and Gerry Branch, friends from training in San Francisco, generously agreed to host our stay in Monrovia. They lived in a second floor apartment that overlooked a busy Monrovia street. It provided a birds-eye view of life in the city.

Monrovia was bursting at the seams with young people escaping from rural areas. The poverty was intense. Tin shacks fought for space as extended families struggled to find shelter from tropical downpours. Taxi and money-bus drivers used their horns for brakes and competed with barking mongrels in creating unceasing noise. Evening air was tainted with the unique smell of cooked palm oil, smoke and moldering garbage.

On the plus side, Monrovia had several good restaurants, a modern movie theater, an air-conditioned supermarket and a large paperback bookstore, all of which we came to appreciate over the next two years.

Most Americo-Liberians did quite well and the top families lived in luxury. They owned mansions in Monrovia and large farms Upcountry. Many had second homes overseas. Their children went to college in Europe and America and dressed in the latest fashions. President Tubman’s official residence, located on the edge of town, cost the Liberian people $15 million. This was approximately half of Liberia’s total government budget the year it was built.

We were quite relieved to learn that our teaching jobs weren’t in Monrovia. Originally, we had been assigned to an elementary school down the coast in Buchanan. It was supposed to be a plum location complete with golden beaches and palm trees swaying in the breeze. The Director told us our top rating in training had earned us the assignment. The rating was news to us.

Naturally another couple grabbed it when we failed to turn up on time. We were left with their jobs; Jo would teach first grade and I would teach second in the upcountry town of Gbarnga. Apparently this was our punishment for partying too long in Auburn.

Gbarnga was a long 120 miles out of Monrovia on the nation’s primary dirt road. With a population approaching 5000, it was Liberia’s largest upcountry town and the center of government for Bong County.

We were eager to get there and escaped from Monrovia as soon as the Director said go. Wellington Sirleaf, the Peace Corps’ driver, carted our minimal belongings and us up to our new home. We arrived in Gbarnga just before dark… tired, hungry, and nervous.

Our feelings ran the gamut from “wow, we are finally here” to “what in the heck we have gotten ourselves into?”

What Gbarnga had that other upcountry sights lacked, however, was an official Peace Corps staff person, Bob Cohen, and an official Peace Corps doctor, Less Cohen (not related). I assumed this would make our life officially easier. Sirleaf took us straight to Bob’s trailer. It was located on a well-maintained USAID (United States for International Development) compound. Bob came out to greet us.

Bob Cohen and Les Cohen (not related). Bob was our upcountry Peace Corps Representative and Les was the Peace Corps Doctor.

“Welcome to Gbarnga,” he said. “Your house is located across town.”

Using mental telepathy, I beamed at him, “Invite us in for dinner. It’s the proper thing to do.”

“The Volunteers had a work party and cleaned your house last week,” he went on, oblivious to my sendings. I urged Jo Ann to look hungry. “And, they even drew you a bucket of water.”

This seemed to impress Bob, so I mumbled something like, “They shouldn’t have.”

“Wellington will drive you over so you can get settled in. Enjoy your evening.” And with that, Bob returned to his trailer. I pictured his filet mignon getting cold.

There was one more stop before we got there. This time it was to see Shirley Penchef, another Peace Corps Volunteer. She was waiting at her house with a young Liberian of the Kpelle tribe and a surprise. It wasn’t food.

“This is Sam,” she bubbled (Shirley always bubbled). “Sam is so excited you are here! He has been waiting weeks for you! He is going to be your houseboy!”

Jo and I were speechless. We had talked about the possibility; it was common practice among PCVs. A young Liberian would help with chores, earn spending money, and often eat with the volunteer. Both the Liberian and the PCV gained from the experience. We recognized the value of the arrangement but had decided that having a houseboy didn’t fit the Peace Corps image.

I mean how do you tell the folks back home you are roughing it out here in the jungle and doing ‘good’ while someone cooks your dinner, washes your clothes, and cuts your grass?

On the other hand, how do you tell a woman who talks in exclamation points and a 13-year old boy who is grinning from ear to ear that you don’t want what they are selling?

“Uh, gee, uh, well, why doesn’t Sam help us get settled in and then we’ll see,” we managed to stutter. It was one of the better decisions we were to make in Liberia.

“It’s time to go,” Wellington announced impatiently. I surmised that a delicious plate of hot Liberian food was waiting for him somewhere in Gbarnga as soon as he could lose us. Sam, Jo Ann and I climbed in the jeep, waved goodbye to Shirley, and went bouncing off down the road.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about the introduction to our new home but a little horror movie music might be appropriate. The sun had just set when we arrived. In the tropics, that’s like someone turned off the lights on a dark night. Twilight doesn’t exist.  Fortunately we had a flashlight.

Outward appearances weren’t bad. Our new home was a typical Liberian town house. Two sets of closed shutters and a door stared out at us. A zinc roof capped the whitewashed walls. Off to the left was a hole in the ground that Sam informed us was our well. Peeking out from behind on the right was the outhouse. All in all, it was pretty much what we expected.

A day time view of the house with me standing on the left.

Then we opened the door.

It was a full-scale Armies of the Night scene straight out of Hollywood: the type of scene Bella Lugosi drooled over. Our noses were assailed with the scent of something that had been entombed for a thousand years. The floor writhed with life. Hundreds of small tunnels etched their way up the walls. I jumped back a foot. Jo Ann qualified for the Olympics.

Sam laughed…

Next post: We learn about what lives in our house; Jo Ann masters the levitating squat routine; and drums and screams make for a restless night.

Chapter 7: Liberia, A Nation Born and Nurtured in Paranoia… 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.

President Tubman’s Mansion circa 1965. A small elite of wealthy Americo-Liberians ruled Liberia from its founding.

Liberia was born and nurtured in paranoia. Its birth took place in the US during the early 1800’s. The number of free black people was growing rapidly in the North. Yankees saw this growth as an issue of assimilation and competition.

Southerner slave owners saw it as a dangerous threat.

The existence of free blacks encouraged their slaves to think of freedom. Insurrection was a real possibility and that possibility generated deep paranoia in the minds of slave owners. Visions of being killed haunted their dreams.

Various solutions were suggested including the creation of a new state in the US strictly for free black people. Louisiana was named as one possibility. Carving a state out of western territories was another proposal. Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and a number of other prominent Americans offered a different solution: ship free African-Americans back to Africa.

The idea was greeted with enthusiasm. Northern humanists believed that free blacks would be more successful in Africa. Southern slave owners felt that removing free blacks from the continent would eliminate their influence. Powerful Christian groups added their support.  A foothold in Africa was an opportunity to save millions of ‘heathen’ souls.

Free blacks were not asked for their opinion.

In 1816 the American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded and by 1820 the first group of 88 African Americans and three white ACS agents sailed to Liberia on the ship Elizabeth.

Life was bleak and dangerous at first. The tribal people were not happy at seeing the intruders take over the region and the Americo-Liberians (ALs), as they came to be known, constituted a very small percentage of the total population. Many died from disease. The new Liberians had long since lost their immunity to tropical bugs.

Purchasing land for the colony from the reluctant tribes was not easy. Gunboat diplomacy solved the problem. Lieutenant Robert Stockton of the US Navy persuaded a local tribal chief, King Peter, to sell the area that would become Monrovia. He pointed a gun at the Chief’s head.

Further territory was added by Stockton’s successor, Jehudi Ashmun, using similar methods. In 1825 he persuaded King Peter and other tribal chiefs to sell prime real estate along the coast for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of gun powder, five umbrellas and miscellaneous other trinkets.

In 1847 Americo-Liberians declared their independence from the American Colonization Society and Liberia became the first independent black republic in Africa.

Only a tiny portion of America’s black population, some 17,000, emigrated from the US to Liberia. African Americans had lived in the US since early colonial times. Their culture was that of their white counterparts, not their distant cousins in Africa. They had fought in America’s wars and helped build the nation.  The United States was their home.

Africans freed from slave ships and a small contingency of blacks from Barbados supplemented the Americo-Liberian population.

The history of Liberia is the history of the relationship between Americo-Liberians and the tribal people. The ALs had learned their lessons well in America. They quickly set themselves up as the ruling class. Tight controls were established over the government, military, education, media and economic opportunity.

Tribal Liberians were regarded and treated as second-class citizens and possibly even slaves. In 1929 the League of Nations instigated an investigation into the use of forced labor on the Spanish Island of Fernando Po. Liberian soldiers were used in raids on tribal villages to obtain workers. High government officials were involved. There were rumors that Liberia’s President Charles King, and Vice President Allan Yancey participated in the scheme.

Whether King was involved or not, there is no doubt he was corrupt. The 1982 Guinness Book of World Records listed his 1927 election as the most corrupt in history. King received 234,000 votes from Liberia’s 15,000 registered voters.

Fernando Po represented the tip of a large iceberg. Tribal people were expected to provide free labor for public projects such as road building. They were also expected to provide an inexpensive to free source of labor for the large Upcountry farms of Americo-Liberians. Tribal chiefs also benefitted, as did a Major American corporation.

In 1926 Liberia provided Firestone Tire and Rubber Company with a 99-year, one million acre concession to grow rubber trees. There was to be an exemption on all present and future taxes and the government guaranteed a cheap labor supply… even if soldiers had to recruit it. During my time in Liberia, Firestone workers would go on strike to earn $.25 per hour.

Power and privilege were the results of the policies of the Americo-Liberian government. But it was power and privilege accompanied by an underlying fear that the majority native population would rise up in revolt. This in turn led to a siege mentality similar in nature to that felt by the white slave owners in the Southern United States, which is ironic, to say the least.

When Jo Ann and I arrived in August of 1965, the role of the Peace Corps was to help bring Liberia’s tribal population into the twentieth century. It was a first for the country, considering that Americo-Liberians had worked so hard for so long to keep the tribal population under tight control.

The times ‘they were a changing’ however, as Bob Dylan sang. Independence was sweeping through the continent as one country after another threw off its colonial chains. Liberia’s tribal people’s were aware of what was happening in the world around them and the natives were getting restless.

On an outward level, we found a number of similarities between the United States and Liberia. English was the national language, the currency of the country was well-used American Dollars, and the flag was red white and blue complete with eleven stripes and one star. We even learned that the commanding general of the Liberian army was named George Washington. Government and judiciary were patterned after the American system.

In reality, Liberia was a one party state. The government was controlled by the True Whig Party, which in turn was controlled by Americo-Liberians. What justice existed was heavily weighted toward keeping the ALs in power.

The challenge to William Shradrack Tubman, who had been President since 1943, was to convince the tribal people they were getting a good deal, make a show of it internationally, and still protect the privileges of the Americo-Liberians.

It required an incredible balancing act at which Tubman was a master. The recipe for success involved one part substance, five parts fancy footwork, and ten parts paranoia. The paranoia evolved from the fear that the tribal Liberians would take the process seriously and demand their share or, God forbid, all of the goodies.

As long as Peace Corps Volunteers behaved themselves, they were part of the substance. The Liberian government made it quite clear that there would be serious consequences for anyone caught challenging the supremacy of the Americo-Liberians and the True Whig Party. For Liberians, the serious consequences could mean jail… or worse. For us, it was a one-way ticket out of the country.

I would find myself on the edge of being shipped out, twice.

A Letter from Africa

The hospital ward at Phebe Hospital in Liberia, Africa. Netting provides protection against malaria bearing mosquitos. Air conditioning from the tropical heat is provided by fans during the six or so hours the hospital has electricity each day.

I received a letter last week from Dr. Kylkon Makwi of Suakolo, Liberia. It was an old fashion type of letter. It came in the mail and was handwritten.

When I first met Dr. Makwi, he was a 13 year old boy who went by the name of Sam Kollie. It was the summer of 1965. My former wife Jo Ann and I had just arrived in the upcountry town of Gbarnga, Liberia where we were to serve as Peace Corps teachers.

We were tired, hungry and nervous. It was the end of a long day that had started in Monrovia, Liberia’s Capitol. A week earlier we had been partying in Jo’s back yard in Auburn, California. Now we were in the heart of West Africa. The Peace Corps driver, Wellington Sirleaf, made a quick stop to introduce us to Bob Cohen, the Upcountry PC Director, and was taking us to our new house.

There was one more stop before we got there. This time it was to see Shirley Penchef, another Peace Corps Volunteer. She was waiting at her house with a young Liberian of the Kpelle tribe and a surprise.

“This is Sam,” she bubbled (Shirley always bubbled). “Sam is so excited you are here! He has been waiting weeks for you! He is going to be your houseboy!”

Jo and I were speechless. We had talked about the possibility; it was common practice among Volunteers. A young Liberian would help with chores, earn spending money and often eat with the Volunteer. Both the Liberian and the PCV gained from the experience.

We recognized the value of the arrangement but had decided that having a houseboy didn’t quite fit the Peace Corps image. Like how do you tell the folks back home you are roughing it out here in the jungle and doing good while someone cooks your dinner, washes your clothes and cuts your grass?

On the other hand, how do you tell a woman who talks in exclamation points and a 13 year old boy who is grinning from ear to ear that you don’t want what they are selling?

“Uh, gee, uh, well, why doesn’t Sam help us get settled in and then we’ll see,” we managed to stutter. It was one of the better decisions we were to make in Liberia.

You’ll find the complete story of our first day in Gbarnga under “Armies of the Night” on the sidebar. It includes drums in the night, ghosts, screaming and monster spiders… but no beer.

Sam was a bright young man. Eventually he would get a full paid scholarship to Brandeis University in Boston, pick up his MD in Monrovia and earn a Masters in Public Health at Loma Linda University in Southern California. Life would not be easy for him, however.

The story of modern Liberia is one of the great tragedies of our time. A revolution that begin with the elimination of the ruling elite quickly degraded into tribal warfare that featured modern weaponry in the hands of children and dark juju, the voodoo of West Africa. Brutality, death, disease and starvation were the results. A full generation of Liberians was either lost or forever scarred by the nightmare.

Today, Liberia is struggling to recover and Sam/Kylkon is part of the effort. He and a handful of other medical professionals are working at Phebe Hospital in Upcountry Liberia. The odds against success are staggering.

As Kylkon notes, “there is a gross shortage of health manpower and hospital supplies.” (2009 statistics from Liberia report there was one doctor per 100,000 people in Upcountry.) Even basics, such as bed linens are missing. “We are in need of patient gowns, surgeon gowns and gloves, instruments, anesthetics and therapeutic drugs.” He sometimes performs surgery wearing an apron.

Hospital facilities in Liberia were damaged during the war and are “badly in need of renovation and repair.” Electricity and water at Phebe are limited to six or so hours per day.

Phebe serves the surrounding communities such as Gbarnga, which now has a population exceeding 50,000, and border populations from neighboring countries. Few people have the money to pay for their care.

“People come by my house at all hours begging for drugs,” Kylkon reports. But there are few drugs to be had.

It is hard, almost impossible, to imagine the challenge of providing medical care under such circumstances. The tragedy of Liberia continues.

Hang in there Sam. Our thoughts and wishes are with you.