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

Liberian Peace Corps photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A fading black and white photo shows children in Gbarnga, Liberia mugging for my camera in 1965. Life wasn’t easy– check out the head loads.

In 1965, my first wife, Jo Ann, and I joined the Peace Corps, graduated from UC Berkeley, and flew off to the country of Liberia where we were assigned as elementary school teachers in the upcountry town of Gbarnga. My book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” relates our experiences at Berkeley and in Liberia.

January was the Liberian school equivalent of summer vacation and second year Peace Corps Volunteers took full advantage of it by chartering a jet airplane and flying off to East Africa. First year Volunteers were left behind and had to take on a ‘summer’ project.

I decided to write a second-grade reader while JoAnn worked with a blind student.

I had spent my first semester teaching a second-grade class where the children were expected to learn to read out of well-used 1950’s era California readers. It was hard for the kids to relate. The world of Dick and Jane in their big houses with white picket fences and white playmates in no way resembled the life of my kids in Gbarnga, as demonstrated by the photo above. As for Spot, he bore a striking resemblance to food.

I had plunged into my project: researching elementary school readers, gathering African folk tales, and putting together stories about the children that reflected their lives, not those of Dick and Jane. The country Peace Corps staff liked the book I submitted. They agreed to assign me an editor, an expert in elementary school education, and an illustrator. But it wasn’t to be. The government decided that my book on African Folk tales and Liberian children was somehow dangerous, a threat to its one-party state. Peace Corps told me to forget the book and not even bring it up in conversations. I might be kicked out of the country.

Fortunately, I had other things to occupy my mind. Jo and I had been assigned to teach at Gboveh High School our second semester and were moving across town. There were classes to prepare for and our ‘new’ house was in desperate need of a paint job. We had also assumed in loco parentis status. One of the second-year Peace Corps couples, Dick and Sandy Robb, had left four little female kittens to live with us while they flew off to East Africa. Our pay was to have the pick of the litter. Whoopee.

I had built our temporarily adopted cat family a three-story mansion out of cardboard. It was a maze of rooms, hanging toys, hallways and ramps. It even had a carpeted floor and a bathroom— a kitty litter box. The kittens would disappear inside and play for long periods. We could hear them banging around as they stalked each other and attacked the hanging toys.

In a creative moment inspired by the evening cocktail hour, we decided to use the house as an intelligence test to determine which kitten we would keep. First, we waited until the kittens were appropriately hungry, and then we brewed up their favorite meal, fish head stew. Here’s the recipe: Take several ripe fish heads and throw them in a pan of boiling water. When their eyes pop out, they’re done.

Next, we encouraged the kittens to sniff their gourmet dinner and showed them that the meal would be located just outside the ground floor door of their mansion. Now we were ready for the test. Each kitten would be placed inside the third story door and given a nudge. We would then close the door and time how long it took the kitten to reach the banquet. Our theory was that the kitten with the quickest time through the maze of hallways and ramps would be the brightest.

Grey Kitten # 1 was a pudgy little character that never missed a meal. My money was riding on her. She breezed through the maze in three minutes sharp and set the time to beat. There was a chance that the sound of her munching away on fish heads might inspire the other kittens on to even greater glory, however.

Grey Kitten #2 was one of those ‘whatever it is you want me to do I am going to do the opposite’ type cats. Not surprisingly, she strolled out of the door seven minutes later and ignored the food altogether. (Afterwards, we were to speculate that she was the most intelligent cat and blew the race because she had no intention of living with someone who made her go through a maze for dinner.)

Grey Kitten #3 was the lean and mean version. Scrawny might be a better description. She obviously needed dinner the most and proved her mettle by blazing through the house in two minutes. The contest was all but over.

Kitten # 4 was what pollsters normally classify as ‘other.’ To start with, she was yellow instead of grey. She was also loud. In honor of her operatic qualities, Jo had named her Brunhilda, after the Wagnerian opera star. By the time her turn came up, she was impatiently scratching the hand that was about to feed her and growling in a demonic way. I gladly shoved the little monster in the third story door and closed it. We heard a scrabbling on the other side as tiny claws dug into the cardboard floor. Her race down the first hall was punctuated by a loud crash on the other end. Brake problems.

Then she was up and running again, but it sounded like toward us. Had her crash disoriented her? Suddenly the third story door burst open and one highly focused yellow kitty went flying through the air. She made a perfect four-point landing and dashed to the dinner dish. Her time? Ten seconds.

And that is how Brunhilda came to be our cat. Our decision to keep her led us to turn her over and check out her brunhildahood a little more closely. Turns out she had a couple of furry little protuberances where there shouldn’t have been any. She was a he. In honor of Brunhilda’s demonic growl and generally obnoxious behavior, we renamed the kitten Rasputin after the nefarious Russian monk.

Rasputin surrounded by Rhinoceros beetles.

 

If you have enjoyed this story and the many other tales I share, you might also enjoy “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.” It’s available in both Kindle and paperback form here on Amazon. For other sources such as Apple, click on the book cover top right.

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Friends of Liberia… Working to Improve the Nation’s Future— by Stephanie Vickers

 

Laundry Day. Stephanie Vickers in her first month as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia during 1971.

Stephanie Vickers does her laundry during in-country training in her first month as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zorgowee, Liberia during 1971.

I asked Stephanie Vickers, the president of Friends of Liberia (FOL), to do a guest blog today outlining the work that the organization does in Liberia and her connection to that work. If you are a regular follower of my blog and/or have read my book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” you are aware that I once served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia and have maintained an active interest in the country since. You can obtain a copy of the book on Amazon. Half of the profits from the sale of the book go toward supporting FOL projects in Liberia.

Education is a key ingredient to improving life in Liberia, as it is in all third world nations. During the civil war that raged in the country for over a decade from 1990 to 2000, education efforts ceased to exist. They suffered a similar fate this past year during the Ebola crisis. A 2012 study revealed that there were 571,555 school-aged children out of school and over 400,000 at the risk of dropping out. According to UNESCO in 2014 (before the Ebola crisis), only 26.7% of school-aged children were attending school. 

Friends of Liberia, Peace Corps and other non-government organizations are working in partnership with the Liberia government to once more make education a national priority. I was particularly excited to learn about FOL’s Family Literacy Project, a new program that is designed “for situations where parents with low literacy levels want to become involved in their children’s education.” It is literally a case of helping parents to help their children at a point in their lives when such help is critical to their future educational success.

Stephanie brings a high level of expertise to this effort and over 17 years of experience in working with the people of Liberia (three as a volunteer and fourteen as a member of FOL). Her words:

 

Friends of Liberia began in 1986 at a National Peace Corps Association conference as an alumni group for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) from Liberia.

At the outbreak of the civil war in 1990, the organization changed its mission to advocating for Liberian peace, which it did so aggressively. It also turned to actively helping organizations addressing problems in Liberia. By necessity, FOL evolved over the next decades to be far more inclusive in its membership, welcoming Liberians who live in America and many others who had worked in Liberia. Today, it is open to anyone who cares about Liberia and her people. To read more about the early days of the organization, go to http://fol.org/history/.

My connection with Liberia started with the Peace Corps. I grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1967, and grad school in 1968. I was hired to teach in the Berkeley Public Schools until I joined the Peace Corps in 1971.

I was originally recruited to work as a teacher trainer in Sanniquellie, Liberia with counterparts that traveled to schools to train and support teachers. Unfortunately, the program was loosely organized and I wanted to work more, so I requested a transfer to St Mary’s School (7-12 grades) where I taught Reading/English, Liberian and World History and Economics.

At the end of my two-year assignment, I spent a third year in Liberia helping train new Peace Corps Volunteers. I was responsible for arranging cultural activities to introduce new trainees to the Liberian culture. I also served as an education trainer for new groups of teacher volunteers. My responsibilities allowed me to travel extensively throughout the country.

Stephanie in her role as Peace Corps Trainer in Liberia, 1973.

Stephanie in her role as Peace Corps Trainer working with Roosevelt Harris and Dan Goe in Tapita, Liberia, 1973.

After 30 years spent teaching and administering education programs in the U.S, I was drawn back to Liberia in 2001 as a volunteer in FOL’s early childhood education teacher-training project, called the Liberian Education Assistance Project (LEAP). Ironically, I actually got to do teacher training, the original assignment I had as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1971. Professionally, it was very exciting. I went on to serve as the Administrator and Language Arts instructor of LEAP for 14 years.

FOL Trip to Liberia May 2009: Literacy lesson with first graders at the Ganta Mission School

On an FOL Trip to Liberia in May 2009, Stephanie shared a literacy lesson with first graders at the Ganta Mission School.

Working directly with Liberian early childhood educators just emerging from the war years, I discovered that many of these teachers and principals had serious gaps in their education and had not had professional development since the 1980s. The small difference I could make as a Language Arts trainer in our methodology sessions was not enough to combat a serious literacy crisis.

Partly due to FOL’s advocacy over all those years, the Ministry of Education has taken up the cause for early childhood education and is addressing it with teacher training and creating model schools. We have yet to determine the full effect of the recent Ebola epidemic that caused schools to close for most of the year on this and other education programs.

I am part of FOL’s “education working group” (EWG), which has decided to take a more holistic approach to improving the literacy rate among adults and children. The FOL Family Literacy Project is in its design stage but aims to be implemented in the next year.

The goal is to improve the academic success of children by improving adult parenting and literacy skills and child literacy skills through a program developed in Israel and widely in use in the U.S and a half-dozen other countries. Home Instruction for Parents and Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) http://www.hippy-international.org was designed for situations where parents with low literacy levels want to become involved in their children’s education. FOL will partner with organizations in Liberia to implement the project.

I hope Curt’s fascinating stories and my own experience might generate interest in others to get involved in helping Liberia. The Family Literacy Project will need major support to get started and prove itself effective in some of Liberia’s poorest communities. We will continue to keep you updated on www.FOL.org and appreciate your interest.

I would like to close by urging you to follow Stephanie’s link to learn more about FOL and its programs. Please hit the donate button. Reducing illiteracy and empowering people to take charge of their lives is in all of our interests. It’s a small world and getting smaller. –Curt

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.

Coming Soon… The Bush Devil Ate Sam— and Other Tales of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa

Cover for book by Curtis Mekemson.

It’s countdown time here at the Mekemson household. The Bush Devil Ate Sam will be available worldwide as an E-book by the end of they year. Below is a promotion piece I’ve written for the book.

 

Scruffy soldiers with guns pointed in all directions were scattered around my yard when I returned from teaching. “What’s up?” I asked in a shaky voice. Liberian soldiers were scary.

     “Your dog ate one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” the sergeant growled. The Superintendent was the governor of Bong County. Apparently, he was quite fond of his fowl birds. But Boy, the perpetrator of the crime, didn’t belong to me— and he regarded my cat Rasputin as dinner.

     “Why don’t you arrest him,” I suggested helpfully. “Not him. You!” the sergeant roared.

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. The Bush Devil Ate Sam is the story of my experience. 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 snacked on squirming termites for breakfast, and the young man who worked for me, 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 that a student government I had created to teach students about democracy was a threat to Liberia’s one party state. I was told my students would be arrested and I should pack my bags.

These are only the beginning of the tales you will find in The Bush Devil Ate Sam.

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. In addition to supporting the fight against Ebola, the goal of the organization is “to positively affect Liberia by supporting education, social, economic and humanitarian programs.”

Who I Am… A Brief Bio for the Book

Peace Corps recruitment poster from 1967.

An early poster I used as a Peace Corps Recruiter after I returned from West Africa.

Since I am still receiving input on the title of the book about my Africa Peace Corps experience, I decided to put together a brief bio for the end of the book. Following recommendations from the book industry, the bio is written in the third person. It will be shortened somewhat.

Curt was raised in the small foothill town of Diamond Springs, California. He grew up wandering through the woods and communing with nature. It was a great life. But he also learned a lot about transparency. Everybody knew everything about everybody else, which was more than he wanted to know. So he escaped the confines of his small universe in the mid-60s and headed off to UC Berkeley where he learned that integration was good, war was bad, and that young people who held such views should be bashed on the head and thrown in jail.

He was waiting for his turn with the Oakland police while sitting on the floor of the UC administration building and singing protest songs with Joan Baez when he had an epiphany: he should make America a better place and leave the country; he would join the Peace Corps. Eight months later he was chopping off the head of a chicken in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California as part of his training to teach African history to high school students in Liberia, West Africa.

Berkeley and the Peace Corps ruined Curt for living the American Dream. He decided that obtaining an 8-5 job, moving to the suburbs, buying a big house, and driving a fancy car were not for him. “If you would only make babies, become a good Christian boy, and take up photography,” his father had grumbled.  Instead, Curt became an environmentalist and a health advocate, happily making war on polluters and the tobacco industry.

Wanting to get back to nature, he created the American Lung Association’s long distance backpack and bike trek program. The Lung Association needed a new fundraiser; Curt needed an excuse to play in the woods. He added wilderness guide to his ever-growing resume and spent two decades leading wilderness adventures.

Every three to five years Curt quits whatever he is doing and goes on an extended break. Travelling through the South Pacific and Asia, backpacking throughout the western United States, and going on a six-month, 10,000-mile, solo bicycle trip around North America are among the highlights. This lifestyle came to a temporary halt when he climbed off his bike in Sacramento, met the lovely Peggy, and decided to get married– in about one minute. It took a while longer to persuade Peggy and her two teenage kids.

Today Curt and Peggy live on five wooded acres in Southern Oregon where he pursues yet another career, this time in writing. Visit him at his blog wandering-through-time-and-place.me. He’d love to hear from you. Or you can Email him at cvmekemson@gmail.com.

Born in Ashland, Oregon, I moved with my parents, sister Nancy, and brother Marshall to the Bay Area. I'm the little one.

Born in Ashland, Oregon, I moved with my parents, sister Nancy, and brother Marshall to the Bay Area. I’m the little one.

Photo of Curt Mekemson as a child with pets.

I grew up wandering in the woods of the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, usually with an assortment of pets. There may be a rabbit between the dogs.

Free Speech Movement protest at UC Berkeley in 1964.

A protest at UC Berkeley in 1964 when police occupied campus. I am in the middle of the photo looking up at the camera.

My first house in Liberia when I was teaching second graders. Later I would teach high school students and move to another house.

My first house in Liberia when I was teaching second graders. Later I would teach high school students and move to another house.

A photo of my dad.

A photo of my dad in his 80s– a good man who read the bible daily, wanted grandkids, and loved to take photographs.

 In 1996, I put together an effort to increase California's tobacco tax, which would eventually lead to one of the most extensive privation campaigns in history. Today it is estimated that the effort has saved over one million lives and one hundred billion dollars in health care costs.

My focus on health and environmental issues took me from California to Alaska and back. In 1996, I put together an effort to increase California’s tobacco tax, which eventually led to one of the most extensive prevention campaigns in history. Today it is estimated that the effort has saved over one million lives and one hundred billion dollars in health care costs.

Wanting to spend more time in the woods, I set up the American Lung Association's Trek Program. The photo is of me leading a group in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

Wanting to spend more time in the woods, I created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program. The photo on the front of ALA’s National Bulletin is of me leading a group in the Sierras of California.

Ever wonder what it takes to bicycle 10,000 miles? One of my friends has suggested strong legs and a weak mind. I was half way through my trip bicycling up a very steep hill in Nova Scotia when this photo was taken.

Ever wonder what it takes to bicycle 10,000 miles? One of my friends has suggested strong legs and a weak mind. I was half way through my trip and bicycling up a very steep hill in Nova Scotia when this photo was taken.

It took me two years to persuade Peggy to put on a wedding dress.

It took me two years to persuade Peggy to put on a wedding dress.

The view from our sunroom, which is one of my writing locations.

The view from our sunroom in Southern Oregon, which is one of my writing locations.

 

 

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.

An Introduction to The Bush Devil Ate Sam… and other Peace Corps Tales

Mandingo mosque in Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

I watched as this mosque was built in Gbarnga, Liberia in 1966 and then showed up for the opening ceremony– the only non-African present. I was sitting up front with the dignitaries when Do Your Part the Dog came whipping through the door and made a beeline for me, almost causing a riot.

(I’ve been working hard on a book about my Peace Corps adventures in West Africa. It is actually getting close to being published as an Ebook– with close meaning some time in the next three months (grin). I’ve  posted a number of my draft chapters on this blog over the past year. They are listed under Africa Peace Corps Tales in the sidebar. Today I will post a draft featuring part of the book’s introduction. It is designed to give readers a taste of what is included in the book.)

The soldier pounding on our door with the butt of his rifle in the middle of an African night made me seriously question my decision to join the Peace Corps. When he demanded that I go off with him into the dark, my questioning became epic. People had been beaten and even killed under such circumstances. I told him to screw off.  The sergeant was not pleased.

My decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer was one of the best decisions in my life, however. The way I was raised and educated, even my DNA, had pointed me in the direction of volunteering and striking off for parts unknown. But there was more.

I am very much a “child of the 60s.” Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and student activism dramatically effected how I viewed the world. Being a student at UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement in 1965 intensified my involvement in these issues. Looking back, I can see how the Berkeley experience, my ‘wandering’ genes, and the influence of family, friends and teachers combined to encourage my decision to join the Peace Corps.

In 2007 I was working on my memoirs. I had retired from my career as an environmentalist and public health advocate, needed a new challenge, and loved to write. Conventional wisdom and a thousand books on writing dictated I should write about what I knew best. Having finished the first draft, I bravely decided to share the manuscript with the book club my wife Peggy and I had belonged to for 17 years, the BSBC out of Sacramento, California. We had a fun night and the book club was kind. It can be feisty.

At the end of the evening, John Robbins, an iconoclastic professor and physician with the University of California Medical School at Davis, suggested that I pull out the section I had written about my Peace Corps experience and turn it into a book on its own. His suggestion led me to consider the idea. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Peace Corps in 2011 clinched the deal.

Dr. John Robbins of the University of California  Medical School of Davis.

John Robbins has a discussion with his cat at his home in Sacramento, California.

John Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961 as one of his first acts as President of the United States. His reasons were both idealistic and pragmatic. Yes, he wanted to help third world countries combat the terrible poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy and conflict they faced, but he was also interested in winning hearts and minds for the West. The mindset of Kennedy, and most other leaders of his generation, was that we were in the midst of a worldwide conflict between capitalism and communism, totalitarianism and democracy, and Christianity and Atheism. The Cold War was raging and much of this war was being fought in third world countries.

While few Peace Corps Volunteers would list “making friends for America” as their reason for joining the organization, it more or less comes with the territory of being from the United States and working intensely in another country to help people improve their lives. In this sense, the Peace Corps is one of the most effective foreign aid programs ever created by the US. It is certainly one of the least expensive– especially when the work Volunteers do overseas and the skills and commitment they bring back home are considered. A recent Peace Corps budget justification noted that the total cost of running the Peace Corps for the past 50 years could be covered with what the US spends on the military every six days.

My assignment was to serve as a teacher in Liberia, West Africa.  The country has a unique history dating back to the early 19th Century when freed slaves from America were shipped back to Africa. Within 30 years, the freed slaves, or Americo Liberians as they came to be known, had established themselves as the rulers of Africa’s first black republic. When I arrived in 1965, their descendants still controlled the political, military, justice, education and economic systems of Liberia– i.e. almost everything. William Shadrach Tubman, President of the country since 1944, had invited Peace Corps into Liberia to help tribal Liberians, who made up 95% of the population, prepare for a larger role in the nation’s future. Not all Americo-Liberians agreed with this goal– as I would learn.

“The Bush Devil Ate Sam” is a the story of adventures that I, along my ex-wife, Jo Ann, had in Africa, but it also includes, background on my decision to join the Peace Corps and some thoughts on the tragic history of Liberia since the 60s.

I begin with a brief look at the influence of my family’s restless nature and discover that I was right to be worried about the soldier knocking on our door: wandering can be hazardous to your health. William Mekemson has his head chopped of by tomahawks during the Blackhawk War and George Marshall, my mother’s great grandfather, is killed for his gold after striking it rich during California’s gold rush.

Following in the footsteps of my ancestors, I wander off to UC Berkeley where police occupy the campus, liberally use nightsticks, and drag students down stairs. A roommate tells the FBI I am a Red, a Communist– and I not even pink. But this is a time when innuendo is more important than facts and J. Edgar Hoover believes there is a Russian agent hiding behind every tree on campus. I figure my chances of making it into the Peace Corps are ruined. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, likes people who challenge the status quo, however, and I soon find myself in the Sierra Nevada Mountains decapitating a chicken as part of my training.

In Liberia I am thrown into a second grade class of 7-22 year olds where children who barely speak English are taught reading out of aging California textbooks featuring middle-class white kids and Spot, a pet that resembles dinner. Peace Corps encourages me to write a Liberian second grade reader using Liberian children and African folk tales, which I do. Americo-Liberians in the Department of Education determine the book is subversive. It’s torpedoed and I am told to never mention the project.

The high school principal recruits me to teach social studies to 10th, 11th and 12th graders and Jo Ann to teach French and English. Somewhat to my surprise, I discover I enjoy teaching and may even be good at it. Things run smoothly until the Liberian government determines that the student government I create to teach my students about democracy is a direct challenge to the country’s one party state. I am told to pack my bags. My students are told they will be arrested.

Our tenth and eleventh grade classes and Jo Ann at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga, Liberia (1967)

Our tenth and eleventh grade classes and Jo Ann at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga, Liberia (1967)

On the home front I repulse an invasion of army ants, breed rhinoceros beetles, and watch Jo Ann make mincemeat out of a Green Mamba, one of the world’s more deadly snakes. A menagerie of animals adopt us and provide both companionship and comic relief. They also create mischief. Rasputin the Cat collaborates with the Cockle Doodle Rooster to wake us at five every morning. Do Your Part the Good Dog crashes a solemn ceremony I am at attending at a mosque and causes a riot while Boy the Bad Dog develops a penchant for eating guinea fowl that belong to the Superintendent (governor) of Bong County. It’s the latter that brings the soldiers to our house in the middle of the night. Apparently, the illegal consumption of would-be chickens is a more serious crime than writing a subversive second grade reader or teaching high school kids they can be part of the government.

Burning out a nest of army ants in Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1966.

The army ants invaded our home. Here I burn out their nest in an effort to persuade them to move elsewhere.

I learn that the scarification marks marching up the chest on Sam, the young man who works for us, were ‘made’ by the Kpelle Bush Devil’s teeth, which leads to an interest in tribal culture. I discover the Lightning Man can make lightning strike people, sit in on a trial where justice is determined by a red-hot machete, and find myself involved in a situation where Juju, the dark magic of West Africa, is being used on one of my students.

The use of Juju in West Africa.

Mamadee Wattee, shown here, appeared at our house on a dark, stormy night to tell us that juju, dark magic, was being used to make him sick.

A year and a half into our service, we are numbered among the veteran Peace Volunteers of Liberia, the people to go to for sage advice. Jo and I take a month off to tour the big game parks of East Africa in a rented VW Bug, my students receive top national honors in social studies, and we turn down a request from Peace Corps’ to spend our last six months touring Liberia and training teachers. Instead we spend our time with the students who have earned our allegiance and the animals that have won our hearts.

I snapped this photo of a baby zebra with a Kodak Instamatic camera on our trip through East Africa.

I snapped this photo of a baby zebra with a Kodak Instamatic camera on our trip through East Africa.

One of my final encounters is disturbing. A representative from the US Embassy in Monrovia requests that I meet with him at our house in Gbarnga. He wants my views on the future of Liberia. My experience with the paranoid reactions of the government leads me to suggest that the future is bleak unless drastic changes are made in how Liberia is governed. Unfortunately, as I share in the Epilogue, much of what I feared in 1967 comes to pass. Only today is Liberia recovering from the tragic results.

12th Grade Class of Gboveh High School, Gbanrga, Liberia (1967)

A photograph of my twelfth grade class along with me standing in front of Gboveh High School. (1967)

NEXT BLOG: I join the spirit of the season by re-blogging hair-raising stories of the ghosts that lived in the graveyard next to the house I grew up in.

Chapter 34: African Safari by VW Bug: Part 2

George, the Rhino, stood quietly and watched us in Ngorongoro Crater until I was precariously perched on our landrover to take his photo... The he charged.

The Rhino stood quietly and watched us in Ngorongoro Crater until I was precariously perched on the Land Rover to take his photo… Then he charged.

In my last blog I described how Peace Corps Volunteers from Liberia, West Africa ended up exploring the big game parks of East Africa. My ex-wife, Jo Ann, and I joined another Peace Corps couple, John and Chris Ogden from New York, to rent a VW Beetle and go on a self-guided 2500 mile safari through Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Our greatest wildlife adventure in East Africa was to be a toss-up between Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Plains, both in Tanzania. Ngorongoro is an extinct volcanic crater ten miles across that offers one of the greatest wildlife concentrations in the world. We arrived in late afternoon and chose a nearby tent camp as home.

There was a beautiful old colonial hotel overlooking the crater, but its cost exceeded our budget by a factor of ten. We consoled ourselves by going there to drink beer on its verandah and watch the sun set over the crater. The hotel’s high-paying guests missed the experience we had that night of animals grunting, growling and grazing outside their bedrooms.

Mere mortals aren’t allowed to drive into the crater. For that we needed a bona fide Land Rover and licensed guide. We paid the price and descended the thousand feet to the floor of the crater.

Our first sight was a standoff between buzzards and hyenas over the remains of a dead zebra. Next we saw the King of Beasts, lying on his back with all four feet up in the air. Nice kitty. I felt a strange compulsion to rub its belly but resisted the urge. An ostrich performed a ballet for some reason, whirling in tight circles before dashing off on an important errand.

There was no "nice kitty" about this lion. It was thinking "food."

There was no “nice kitty” about this lion. It was thinking “food.”

On the opposite end of the food chain from the lion, was this cute baby zebra I photographed in Ngorongoro Crater. Mom was standing nearby.

On the opposite end of the food chain from the lion, was this cute baby zebra I photographed in Ngorongoro Crater. Mom was standing nearby.

Ungainly hartebeests and wildebeests also appeared to have appointments and patiently joined up in organized lines for their journey. George, the Rhino, just stood and stared until I was precariously perched on top of the Land Rover snapping his picture. Then he charged. The driver took off and I almost didn’t. I never did learn why his name was George but I was ever so thankful I didn’t get close enough to ask.

After Ngorongoro, we dropped into one of the cradles of humanity, a rather dry and rocky Eden known as Olduvai Gorge. It was here that the Leakeys discovered the skull of Zinjanthropus, a 1.7 million year old precursor to humankind. We were lucky to engage a guide who had been with Mary Leakey when she found the skull seven years earlier in 1959. The guide took us to the discovery site and excitedly relived the experience. We were almost ready to grab shovels and begin hunting for our own ancient ancestors.

An assistant to Mary Leaky, this man was with her when she made the exciting discovery of Zinzanthropus. Here, he excitedly relives the experience with us.

An assistant to Mary Leaky, this man was with her when she made the exciting discovery of Zinjanthropus. Here, he relives the experience with us in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

The Serengeti is flat; so flat you can leave the road and drive across it. That provided an opening for all sorts of mischief such as chasing giraffes, ostriches and gazelles. We spotted a cheetah perched in a tree and drove under her. She didn’t pounce. A momma warthog and four little pups, all with tails straight up in the air, provided a humorous diversion.

Captured on my inexpensive Kodak Instamatic camera, these giraffes were running away from our VW bug as we chased them across the Serengetti Plains of Tanzania.

Captured on my inexpensive Kodak Instamatic camera, these giraffes were running away from our VW bug as we chased them across the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania.

I discovered that tiny Dik-diks, members of the antelope clan, are truly small when I was able to sneak up within two feet of one that was sleeping. Again we had the same feeling that we had numerous times during our journey; we were in the world’s greatest zoo but we were the ones behind bars. The animals ran free.

I discovered this young Dik Dik sleeping on the Serengetti Plains. It's possible its mother had told it to stay put. Shortly afterwards it jumped up and dashed away.

I discovered this young Dik-dik lying on the Serengeti Plains. It’s possible its mother had told it to stay put. Shortly afterwards it jumped up and dashed away.

After the Serengeti, the majority of our wildlife viewing was over. We drove around Lake Victoria, crossed the Equator going north, entered Uganda in its relatively peaceful days, visited Kampala and made a beeline for the Victoria Nile. Here we chugged up river amid memories of the African Queen. Hippos dutifully wallowed in the mud, crocodiles slid down the banks and Murchison Falls rumbled. At last, it was time to return to Nairobi and turn in our faithful VW. The 2500-mile safari was over.

Jo stands in the Southern Hemisphere and I stand in the North in this photo taken by John Ogden.

Jo stands in the Southern Hemisphere and I stand in the North in this photo taken by John Ogden.

This photo provides a fitting end to my two blogs on traveling through East Africa when I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia 1965-67.

This photo provides a fitting end to my two blogs on traveling through East Africa when I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia 1965-67.

Chapter 29: The Invasion of the Army Ants

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.

Army ants cross road

A trail of army ants snakes across a road outside of Gbarnga, Liberia. Large soldier ants provided guard duty… 

Even more than termites, driver or army ants are appropriate subjects for jungle bug horror stories. There’s a reason. These guys are ferocious.

My first experience with driver ants was when I came upon a line of them crossing a trail. At first glance they looked like any other group of respectable ants negotiating a path and minding their own business. On closer inspection, however, I found myself facing a tunnel of knife-sharp mandibles, each one wide open and wanting to crunch down on something. The big soldiers had linked their hind legs and were facing out, creating a tunnel for the other ants to crawl through.

Always up for a challenge, I took a stick and applied it to the middle of the line. Chomp! I pulled the stick back. The whole line of linked ants came along and a high-speed foot race commenced. I was both the finish line and first prize.

Or at least I was supposed to be. I gave the ants a free flying lesson. It’s possible they are still searching for their lost comrades.

Army ants are noted for their bite. In some parts of West Africa they are reputedly used as sutures. Once their jaws clamp shut, they are locked. I can attest to this since one managed to get at me through a hole in my tennis shoe. They are also noted for eating anything that can’t move fast enough to get out of their way. I watched as they gobbled down an unfortunate mouse. Their squeaking dinner simply disappeared under a sea of black.

Villagers clear out of their huts when the ants come to town. The ants go through, eat all of the bugs, mice, occasional snake and anything else alive, and then move on. It’s a good deal for the villagers and the ants. My attitude about our house being invaded wasn’t nearly as positive.

It all started on a quiet tropical evening. I was working my way through a James Bond novel, Jo was being good and preparing lesson plans, and Sam was glued to our phonograph, still trying to get Charlie off the MTA. Since bugs were such a central part of our lives, we normally ignored them. It was the hoard of tiny insects hopping and crawling under the screen door that caught our attention.

“Ants,” Sam said.

“No, Sam,” I said, assuming my teacher role, “these are not ants.” I was rewarded with an exasperated ‘I know that’ look from Sam.

“They are running away from ants that want to eat them,” he jumped in to interrupt any further explanations on my part. He was right, as usual. I turned on the porch light. Anything that could hop, crawl, walk or run was seeking sanctuary in our house. Behind them came the ants. They weren’t organized in a neat little line this time. They were spread out across our yard and coming on like a tsunami.

Jo and I held a hurried council of war. It was time to bring out the big gun, SHELLTOX.  Shelltox was one of those marvelous nerve gasses created by the pesticide industry that was so potent it was banned in the US even though this was still a time in America when DDT was considered as important to controlling six-legged life as butter was to making food taste good. The tiniest spurt of Shelltox and a cockroach rolled over and begin kicking its little legs in the air. We used it liberally.

Each of us armed with a can stomped off to war. The stomping was serious; it kept the ants off. Back and forth along the enemy line we marched, cans firing, filling the air with whatever odor Shell incorporated into its brew to let us know we were poisoning ourselves. The ants died by the hundreds and soon by the thousands. But still they came on. Our cans begin to sputter. Exiting stage left was rapidly becoming an option.

I pictured us packing up the cat and descending on the Peace Corps Rep like the ants had descended on us. First we would eat all of his food and then we would tackle his liquor closet. Unfortunately, the ants blinked first. Their buglers blew retreat. We had won the battle but the war was far from over.

That night, visions of monstrous ants visited me whenever I closed my eyes. Every hour we arose from bed to check if the attack had been renewed. Happily it hadn’t. By morning we were allowing ourselves to hope that the ants had figured out we were dangerous adversaries and moved on to easier targets. The ants had another plan. Mr. Bonal was wandering around outside so I went over to tell him our invasion story.

“Ah, let me show you something, Curtis,” he said. He walked me over to an old pile of mud bricks buried in the grass twenty feet away from our front porch. I looked down and all I could see was a moving black mass. The area was carpeted with a layer of driver ants several inches thick. There were zillions of them.

“Welcome to the ants’ home,” John explained. “They have moved in for the rainy season.”

The Bonals, it turned out, had been invaded the week before when Jo and I were in Monrovia. Again it had been a night attack but this time the ants made it into their house without discovery and found the baby. The baby, objecting strenuously to being a one-course meal, had started screaming. That brought the Bonals on the run. The baby was saved and the ants repulsed.

John assured me that the ants would be back to visit us again and again until they moved on.

I decided to remove the welcome mat. But first Jo and I had to restock our ordinance supplies. Off we went to town for umpteen cans of Shelltox, five gallons of kerosene, and a box of DDT. (Years later after I became a certified greenie and read Silent Spring, I would occasionally have twinges of guilt about the DDT.)

Our plan was to attack the home base with the kerosene, disorient the troops, destroy the barracks, and send the army packing. Of course there was a chance that the ‘packing’ would be toward our house rather than away from it. In that case, our first line of defense would be to mount an all out attack with Shelltox like we had before. As a fallback position, I scratched a narrow ditch around our house, translate that moat if you are romantically inclined, and filled it with DDT. The ants would have to crawl through the stuff to get at us.

Then I went to work. Reaching the nest without becoming ant food was the first challenge. Having grown up in red ant country, I remembered how sensitive ants are about their home territory. The slightest disturbance brings them boiling out of the ground in a blind rage. As a kid I used to pour water down their hole to watch the action.

The Apaches were reputed to have used the red ants’ proverbial ferocity as a means of torturing favored enemies.

I rightfully determined the driver ants were meaner, bigger and faster than their distant cousins. They would be on me and up the inside of my pants leg in a flash, a fate to be avoided at all costs.

The initial strategy of removing vegetation was relatively safe. Sam and I stood several feet away and tossed two gallons of kerosene on the nest. A carefully cast match created a raging inferno which proved quite effective in defoliating the area.

Burning out army ants

The first part of the campaign was to burn the vegetation away from where the ants lived. Two gallons of kerosene did the trick. Sam helped me while two neighborhood boys looked on. Gboveh High School is up the hill.

Digging into the nest was much more dangerous; I would be operating behind enemy lines facing thousands of steel jawed troops on a hunt and destroy mission. My solution was to draft a galvanized steel tub Jo and I had used for bathing at our first house. It provided ample standing room and the ants couldn’t crawl up the side. I tossed the tub next to the nest and leapt in.

Sam tossed me our shovel. Several minutes of dedicated digging brought me to the mother of all nurseries. Eggs covered an area at least three feet across and several inches deep. Right in the middle was a finger sized, bright orange snake.

“Very poisonous,” Sam said. I figured it had to be pure poison for the ants to leave it alone. We decided to take a break and let the ants and the snake work out their relationship.

After our standard lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich washed down by orange Kool Aid, we went out to check the results of our handiwork. Success! Long lines of ants, many dragging eggs, stretched off into the distance away from our house. The siege was over. There was no sign of the snake, by the way. Maybe the ants had stopped for lunch as well.