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.

Chapter 28: A Night Time Invasion Equals A Day Time Feast

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.


The day after the invasion of the bug-a-bugs (termites), our next door neighbor spread the bug-a-bugs out to dry so they could be preserved fro future meals.

The day after the invasion of the bug-a-bugs, our next door neighbor spread the termites she and her family had harvested out to dry so they could be preserved for future meals.

It’s almost impossible to contemplate life in the jungle without thinking bugs. Think of every jungle movie you have ever seen, documentary you have watched, or National Geographic article you have read; tropical rainforests are creepy, crawly places.

Leeches that suck your blood, ants that march in armies, and mosquitoes that ooze with malaria are all legendary representatives of jungle lore. Anyone who writes about the jungle is expected to include bug stories. Editors and their lawyers write it into the contract. So here are some bug tales.

I’ve already introduced you to bug-a-bugs or termites as we more prosaically call them. If we listened very quietly in our first house, we could almost hear them dismantling the place around us, bite by bite. They were everywhere. The rainforest was full of their skyscrapers, huge mounds that have been known to reach forty feet into the air. An equivalent human building would be over nine miles high.

Americans are of course familiar with the voracious appetite of termites but they may not be aware that termites in turn are considered to be tasty treats by a substantial portion of the animal kingdom.

Jo Ann and I learned this at the beginning of rainy season. This is when the little buggers sprout wings and fly in the millions to set up new colonies. We had a vague concept of what insect migration meant. We had seen ladybugs and other insects swarm when we were growing up. What we weren’t prepared for was the sheer massiveness of the invasion.

Somewhere in the middle of night, we woke up with rain pounding against our shutters. At least we thought it was rain until we realized that it was only pounding on one shutter, the one protected by our porch roof. Curiosity led me to go exploring.

When I opened the door, the first thing I noticed was that we had left the porch light on. The second was that the sky was alive with flying termites, all of which seemed determined to land on the wall and shutters next to the light. Once landed, they immediately begin to move downward, making room for more bugs. I’m sure their greedy little minds were contemplating the wood beams that held up the porch.

Whether they could get to the beams was something else. Every animal in the neighborhood including Do Your Part, Brownie Girl, Puppy Doodle, Rasputin and Les Cohen’s dog, Thorazine, were scarfing up bug-a-bugs as fast as their tongues and mouths could work. What they missed was being taken care of by a huge army of toads that ranged in size from teeny-tiny to humongous. There were so many termites that no one was going away hungry.

I called for Jo to come out and watch the carnage for a few minutes and then we retired back to bed, leaving the light on. We didn’t have the heart to deprive the animals of their feast.

The next morning I headed out to survey the damage. Not a termite was to be seen. It appeared that the animals and toads had hung around until the last bug-a-bug had disappeared off the platter. I was eager to get to school that morning so I could learn more about the termites swarming habits from my students.

What I learned was that my students enjoyed eating the bug-a-bugs as much as the animals. Many of the students, in fact, showed up in class carrying cans loaded with the still alive and squirming termites, which they proceeded to pop into their mouths for breakfast as we went through the day’s first lesson.

“Sweet meat, Mr. Mekemson,” they reported while making a smacking sound with their lips. “Would you like to try some?”

I primly informed them I preferred my food a little less rambunctious and without quite so many legs.

“The queens are best,” one of the students stated authoritatively and was immediately backed up by a chorus of agreement.

Queen termites are huge egg laying machines with fist-sized abdomens capable of popping out 30,000 kiddos a day. The Liberians caught them by tearing apart the termite mounds.  Appropriate eating etiquette involved biting off their tails and sucking out their innards. Sweet meat indeed!

Later that day I watched as Mr. Bonal’s sister-in-law spread out mats for drying dead termites. The termites were then stored away for later feasting. Nothing edible was ever wasted in Liberia, whether it was meat flying, meat running, meat swimming or meat crawling.

And yes we did get to try dried bug-a-bugs in Liberian chop. They were crunchy.

Chapter 27: Trial by Poisonous Leaves and a Red Hot Machete

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.


This was the Eleventh Grade class at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga in 1967. Amani Page is second from left on the bottom row.

This was the Eleventh Grade class at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga in 1967. Amani Page is second from left on the bottom row. Jo Ann is on the right.

While the Lighting Man provided a hit or miss opportunity for taking out bad guys, a more formal means of determining guilt and innocence was achieved by asking the tribal judge or Sassywood Man to resolve the issue. This tribal official obtained his name through use of poisonous leaves from the Sassywood tree. The accused person was invited to chew a few. If he died, he was guilty. No DAs, lawyers or juries were needed.

Since modern society frowned upon trial by survival, the Sassywood Man had been forced to come up with a new way of determining guilt. As it turned out, the father of one of my students, Amani Page, was the local tribal judge and Jo and I were privileged to witness an actual trial.

It all started with Amani showing up at our house at two in the afternoon on a Saturday in the middle of the dry season. His father was about to start a trial. Would we like to see it? There was no hesitation on our part even though it meant like ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ we had to forgo our afternoon siesta and go out in the tropical sun.

As we headed west across town through the stifling heat, Amani provided background on the case. The plaintiff’s wife had come home in the evening after a hard day of selling oranges at the market and told her husband that three men had accused her of not wearing underpants. This was serious slander suggestive of loose behavior and the husband had filed charges through Liberia’s western-type court system.

But there was a potential problem: what if the men knew something about his wife’s behavior he didn’t? Perhaps his wife was lying to him. If he lost the suit, he would have to pay all of the court costs plus he would be subject to countersuit. He decided to hedge his bet by taking his wife to the Sassywood Man first. If he found his wife was lying, the husband would drop the charges and probably divorce her.

We arrived at court before the husband and wife and were rewarded with front row dirt seats. Jo and I had already asked Amani what the appropriate title for his father was and Amani had told us to call him Old Man, a term of respect. So we did. Old Man didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Kpelle but there was much smiling and finger snapping. We were delighted to meet him and he was equally delighted to meet his son’s teachers.

After the greetings were complete, we got down to the important business of preparing for the trial. The first thing Old Man did was to ignite a roaring bonfire, just the thing for a hot afternoon. About this time the husband arrived sans wife.

“Where’s your wife,” Old Man asked as Amani translated.

“She is being brought by her family,” the husband replied.

‘Being brought,’ it turned out, was a conservative description of the process. She was being dragged and appeared ready to bolt at the first opportunity, which she did. The woman was half gazelle; my greyhound of childhood days couldn’t have caught her as she leapt off down the trail. For everyone involved, it looked like a clear case of guilt. But the trial was still going to be held. I asked Amani if it was being carried on for our benefit but he explained it was legitimate for the husband to sit in for the wife.

Old Man disappeared into his hut and came out with a wicked looking machete, a can of ‘medicine’ or magical objects, a pot of mystery liquid and a pot of water. He promptly shoved the machete’s blade into the fire. Next, he dumped his can of magic objects on the ground. Included were two rolls of Sassywood leaves and several small stones of various colors and shapes.

“Uh-oh,” I thought to myself. “Are we about to witness something here with the Sassywood leaves that we would just as soon not see?”

But Old Man had a use for them other than ingestion. He asked the husband to sit down on the ground opposite him and place one roll of the leaves under his right foot. He placed the other roll under his. Both men wore shorts and had bare feet. It appeared we were to witness a trial by osmosis.

Next he arranged his magic objects and proceeded to mumble over them like a priest preparing for Communion. Once the appropriate spirits had been called, it was time for mystery liquid. A generous amount was rubbed on each Sassywood leg. We were ready for the truth.

“If the knife is cold, the woman is lying,” Old Man declared dramatically as he pulled the glowing machete from the fire.

Old Man took the “knife” and rubbed it down his leg. It sounded like a hot grill cozying up to a T-bone steak. But Old Man grinned. The knife was cold.

The husband was next. His leg appeared much less optimistic about the process. It was, in fact, preparing to follow his wife’s legs lickety-split down the hill. A firm glare from Old Man made the leg behave. The machete sizzled its way down the shinbone and a look of surprise filled the husband’s eyes. The knife was cold; the woman was lying.

We had to be absolutely sure, however, so Old Man shoved the machete back in the fire. This time he rubbed water up and down his and the husband’s legs instead of mystery fluid. He then rearranged his magic rocks and commenced mumbling over them again. After about fifteen minutes he was ready for the final phase of the trial. He yanked the machete from the fire a second time.

“If the knife is hot, the woman is lying,” he instructed as he reversed the directions.

“Ow!” he yelled and jumped back as the machete barely touched his leg! The knife was definitely, absolutely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, hot.

This time Old Man couldn’t even get near the husband’s leg since the husband had jumped up from his sitting position and was strategically located ten feet away. The jury had returned its verdict; his wife was lying and he would drop the charges. He didn’t need his leg torched to prove the point.

All of these elements of tribal culture were fascinating to me. There were aspects of what the Kpelle believed such as the spirit in the cottonwood tree that I could almost believe myself. I like the pantheistic concept of spirits existing in plants, animals and places as well as people. It implies an element of sacredness, interconnectivity and respect for the world around us that was lost ever so long ago when we decided that humankind was the hottest stuff in creation.

There also was a lot I didn’t believe in but could recognize had value. The Lightning Man, Sassywood Man and the Bush Devil played important roles in maintaining order within the tribal society. They served as policeman, judge and priest.

Think of the power of the Lighting Man as a deterrent to crime. It’s almost biblical. Given our scientific knowledge of how lightning works, it’s easy to be amused by the concept of lightning striking bad guys. But is our system all that different? After all, we believe lawyers stand for justice. I know, I know… cheap shot, but if you stop and think about it, our society requires almost as much faith to operate as the Kpelle’s.

The use of Juju to make people become sick or die was something else, both dark and dangerous. Left unchecked these practices can and did lead to dire consequences. Some of the more macabre aspects of the violence that has haunted Liberia may be traced to similar abuse of the ‘dark arts.’

Chapter 25: The Bush Devil Ate Sam

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.

The Bush Devil is a powerful figure within traditional Liberian Culture. This is a Bush Devil of the Grebo Tribe that visited a Peace Corps Haight-Ashbury Party Liberia circa 1967.

The Bush Devil is a powerful figure within traditional Liberian Culture. This is a Bush Devil of the Grebo Tribe that visited a Peace Corps Haight-Ashbury Party Liberia circa 1967.

Sam spent hours listening to our record player getting Charlie off the MTA and Tom Dooley hung. He lived between two cultures. Scars marched down his chest in two neat rows.

“How did you get those,” Jo asked with 10 percent concern and 90 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 belong to either. 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 to the Poro Society called the Sande Society, which prepared young women for adulthood and marriage. A rather controversial aspect of the Sande initiation ceremony was female genital mutilation, i.e. 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. Sam went in as a child and was 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 and skip the teenage years. Think of all of the angst it would avoid.

Bush Devil was the missionary’s designation for 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 he was preceded by a front man who ran circles around the local PCV’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 a little less secretive or at least more mercenary. Some Volunteers had hired the local Devil for an African style Haight-Ashbury Party. It was, after all, 1967, the “summer of love” in San Francisco and the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”

Local Peace Corps Volunteers hired a money-bus to take us to the Haight-Ashbury party. The bus sits in front of our house in this photo.

Local Peace Corps Volunteers used a money-bus to take us to the Liberia Haight-Ashbury party in 1967. Here, the bus picks Jo Ann and I up at our house in Gbarnga. The rain forest lurks in the background.

The Devil was all decked out in his regalia. Description-wise, I would say 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.

Another area where Sam showed his tribal side was in his fear of the newly dead. As I mentioned earlier, a person’s spirit was considered particularly powerful and dangerous right after he or she died. Later it would move away into the bush and fade. But first the spirit 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 grew up next to a graveyard and was sympathetic with his concern.

In my next blog I will introduce the Lightning Man, a figure so powerful he could make lightning strike people.

Chapter 23: Rasputin and the Cockle Doodle Rooster


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.

rasputin B&W copy

My only picture of Rasputin has suffered with age but here he is communing with Rhinoceros Beetles. I will discuss the beetles in a later chapter.

Rasputin had grown into one fine tomcat, sweet meat as my kids said. He did not grieve over Boy’s untimely demise, quite the opposite. Now he could resume his rightful role as Dominant Animal.

His primary responsibility under this job title was dog stalker. You knew when he was at work because the neighborhood dogs carefully avoided the tall clumps of grass where he liked to hide. He was particularly obnoxious when it was windy. He could hide down wind and make it more difficult for the dogs to sniff him out. I felt for the poor dog that came too close.

A streak of yellow and a yip of surprise proclaimed his attack. What made his behavior particularly strange was that he came at the dogs on his two hind legs, walking upright. This allowed both front legs to be used as slashing weapons. It was the wise dog that steered clear.

This wasn’t Rasputin’s only trick. He could also do flips. I had taught him how and was quite proud of my accomplishment. Each night Rasputin and I would head for the bedroom where I would flip him several times in a row on the bed. He was usually good for about ten before he would attack me, thus signaling that the game was over.

Jo thought it was cruel but I told her it was quality bonding time. It also turned out to be a valuable skill. One evening when the ricebirds were returning to their nests we saw a yellow flash out the window. Rasputin leapt into the air, did a flip and came down with bird a la carte. After that I figured Rasputin had graduated so we didn’t practice anymore.

Another game we played was leap snake. It was quite similar to leap-frog except the objective was to see how high Rasputin could jump in the air. On a good night he would clear five feet.

The rules of the game were that I would detach the spring from our screen door and roll it across the floor. Rasputin, who had a Liberian’s instincts, assumed that anything long and twisty was a snake and that all snakes were deadly poisonous. His response was to shoot straight into the air and land several feet away. It was one of those situations where you leap first and ask questions afterward. In this case, Rasputin was guilty of jumping to the wrong conclusions.

One way he returned the favor of my hassling him was to wake me up at 5:30 in the morning, demanding to be let in. He did this by practicing his operatic meows under our bedroom window.

Since no amount of suggesting that he should learn from Boy’s experience discouraged him, I jumped out of bed one morning and chased him across the yard. This got Jo Ann excited. Our cat was going to run away and never come back. Jo may have also been concerned about the neighbor’s reaction to me charging out of the house naked. That type of thing bothered her. I promised to repent and assured her that the cat would be back in time for dinner. He was.

I think Rasputin subcontracted with the rooster next door to wake us when he was out tomcatting. I didn’t make this correlation until the rooster crowed directly under our window one morning at 5:30. Even then I thought it was just a coincidence until the rooster repeated himself the next morning.

It wasn’t just the crowing that irritated me; it was the nature of the crow. American and European roosters go cock-a-doodle-do. Even urban children know this because that’s how it is spelled out in books. Liberian roosters go cock-a-doodle… and stop. You are constantly waiting for the other ‘do’ to drop.

“This crowing under our window,” I thought to myself, “has to be nipped in the bud.”

That evening I filled a bucket with water and put it next to my bed. Sure enough at 5:30 the next morning there he was: “COCK-A-DOODLE!”  I jumped up, grabbed my bucket, and threw the water out the window on the unsuspecting fowl. “Squawk!” I heard as one very wet and irritated rooster headed home as fast as his little rooster legs could carry him.

“Chicken,” I yelled out after his departing body. “And that,” I said to Jo Ann, “should be the end of that particular problem.”

I was inspired though. Cats don’t think much of getting wet either. What if I kept a bucket of water next to the bed and dumped it on Rasputin the next time he woke us up. Jo couldn’t even blame me for running outside naked. With warm thoughts of having solved two problems with one bucket, I went to bed that night loaded for cat, so to speak.

“COCK-A-DOODLE” roared the rooster outside our window precisely at 5:30.

“Damn,” I thought, “that boy is one slow learner.”

I fell out of bed, grabbed the bucket and dashed for the window. There was no rooster there. I looked up and spotted him about half the way to Bonal’s house. He was running at full tilt across the yard away from our window. He had slipped up on us, crowed and taken off! My opinion of the rooster took a paradigm leap. Here was one worthy opponent. The question was how to respond.

It took me a couple of days of devious thinking to arrive at a solution. What would happen if I recorded the rooster on a tape recorder and then played it back? I had a small hand tape recorder that I used for exchanging letters with my dad so I set myself the task of capturing the rooster’s fowl language. Since he had an extensive harem he liked to crow about, it wasn’t long before I had a dozen or so cock-a-doodles on tape. I rewound it, cranked up the volume and set the recorder up next to our front screen door.

The results were hilarious. Within seconds the rooster was on our porch, jumping up and down and screaming ‘cock-a-doodle.’ There was a rooster inside of our house that had invaded his territory and he was going to tear him apart, feather-by-feather. Laughing I picked up the recorder, rewound it, carried to the back screen door, and hit the play button.

“Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle,” I could hear the rooster as he roared around to the back of house to get at his implacable foe. Back and forth I went, front to back, back to front. And around and around the house the rooster went, flinging out his challenges.

Finally, having laughed myself to exhaustion, I took pity on my feathered friend and shut the recorder off.  This just about concludes the rooster story, but not quite.

One Friday evening, Jo and I had been celebrating the end of another week with gin and tonics until the wee hours when we decided to see how the rooster would respond to his nemesis at one o’clock in the morning. Considering our 5:30 am wakeup calls, we felt there was a certain amount of justice in the experiment. I set it up the recorder and played a “Cock-a-doodle.”

“COCK-A-DOODLE?!” was the immediate response. No challenge was to go unanswered. “Cock-a-doodle” we heard as roosters from the Superintendent’s compound checked in. “Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle” we heard in the distance as town roosters rose to the challenge. Soon every rooster in Gbarnga was awake, and probably every resident.

Jo and I decided to keep our early morning rooster-arousing episode to ourselves.

Chapter 21: Do Your Part, the Good Dog

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.


The usual assortment of dogs follows me up a jungle trail. Do Your Part, as always, is right on my heals.

The usual assortment of dogs follows me up a jungle trail. Do Your Part, as always, is right on my heals.

The conclusion of our other vacation project, the painting of our green, purple and orange house, was much more satisfying than my second grade reader. I started by buying a case of Club Beer. I didn’t know much about painting but I knew house painters found inspiration in hops.

While I was sipping a brew and pondering what paint best covered purple, Mr. Bonal came over and assured me there wasn’t anything that a bucket of white wash couldn’t cure. Jo and I dutifully trotted down to the Lebanese store and were soon applying white wash with our broom. We were quite pleased with the finished project and ourselves.

As our summer vacation drew to a close, we started preparing for our career as high school teachers where I would continue my efforts to get booted out of the country.

First, however, I am going to share stories about our everyday life in Liberia. I’ll talk about the animals that amused us, look into tribal culture, discuss the creepy, crawly things that exist in a tropical jungle, and escape to East Africa for a safari vacation in a VW Beetle.

As for the animals, you are about to meet Do Your Part the good dog, Boy the bad dog, Rasputin the terrorist cat, and Rooster, the foulest of fowls. Consider this the Alf Wight, aka James Harriot, section of my book.

John Bonal lived in a cement-block house that was the twin of ours. His brother’s family lived behind the house in an attached shed. Being successful in Liberia meant that your relatives came over and lived with you. It was the ultimate share-the-wealth-social-welfare program.

Part of John’s extended family included three dogs creatively named Puppy Doodle, Brownie Girl and Do Your Part. They came over to watch the white washing action and decided to stay. They became our extended family. We fed them. If I have my genealogy correct, Brownie Girl was Do your Part’s mom who in turn was Puppy Doodle’s mother.

This three-generation family dug foxholes around the outside of our house and quickly established that they were our pets. Other dogs need not apply. Mr. Bonal’s brother was more than happy to have us take over feeding responsibilities and Rasputin was pleased to have someone to terrorize. So everyone was happy.

Do Your Part took things a step further and became ‘my’ dog. She was a charming little Basenji with impeccable manners. Everywhere I went, she went, including school.  Normally this amused my students. I would walk into the class with DYP a respectful three feet behind. She would immediately arrange herself under my desk and quietly remain there until I left the classroom.

This worked fine until she had puppies. They started following her as soon as they could walk the 100 yards to the school. Then I would arrive in my class followed by DYP who in turn was followed by four puppies. It was quite the parade. Unfortunately, the puppies lacked Do Your Part’s decorum and considered the classroom a playpen. The students decided it was not an appropriate learning environment and I had to agree.

DYP and company had to go. It was not a happy parting.

“Take your puppies and go,” I ordered firmly. Do Your Part looked at me in disbelief.

“Out!” I said.

Sad eyes stared back accusingly. But I held firm. She didn’t let it get her down, however. As soon as the puppies had departed she was back in class. One time her insistence on following me had more drastic consequences.

Gbarnga had a sizeable population of Mandingoes, most of whom were Muslims. They had been gradually sifting into Liberia from across the Guinea border. Originally the Americo-Liberians had blocked their entrance to the country, fearing they might pose a threat to their power. American Missionary influence may also have played a role.

Tubman’s open door policy changed that and by the time we had arrived their numbers had reached the point where they decided to build a mosque in town. I’d wander over on occasion to check their progress. The mosque was an impressive building by Gbarnga standards, easily five times larger than any other structure on the main road.

The new mosque was much larger than other buildings on Gbarnga's main street. (1966)

The new mosque was much larger than other buildings on Gbarnga’s main street. (1966)

At last the day came for its grand opening. Having watched the mosque being built, I decided it would be interesting to attend the festivities. I put on my tie, grabbed our two cameras and headed out the door. Do Your Part was waiting and ready to go along.

This was not a Do Your Part type of celebration, however. Muslims aren’t particularly fond of dogs and consider them unclean. I figured this meant they didn’t want any dogs, even polite dogs, attending their holy ceremony. I suggested to Do Your Part she stay home. Fat chance. I walked 100 yards and glanced back over my shoulder. There was DYP, slinking along behind. I knew there was no way I would make it to the ceremony without a little brown dog lurking in the background.

Do Your Part would have to be left in our house. The action was drastic; the only time we let her in was to eat dead insects in the evening. She would come in just before we went to bed and wander around crunching down sausage bugs. It eliminated sweeping. She had never been locked inside.

Since Jo was reading to her blind friend and Sam was off for the day, I couldn’t even leave her with company. I reluctantly shoved her inside and marched off to the sounds of doggy protest.

It seemed to work. I reached the mosque just as the outside ceremonies were concluding and people were preparing to move inside. Dignitaries were everywhere. It was my intention to hang out on the periphery and remain inconspicuous. This is hard when you are the only white person in the crowd and you have two cameras hanging around your neck.

It took about thirty seconds for a tall, official looking man in a white robe to approach me and express in broken English how pleased he was that the international press from Monrovia had decided to cover the event. While I struggled to inform him that I was only a local Peace Corps Volunteer, he ushered me into the mosque to a seat of honor. I looked around nervously. The podium was about 10 feet away and I was in the front row.

A hush descended on the crowd as an obviously important dignitary approached the podium. Liberia’s top Muslim Cleric had come to town to officiate at the opening ceremony. He gave me his best media smile and I dutifully took his picture.

Unexpectedly, there was a disturbance at the back of the mosque. Several men were trying to capture a little brown dog that was deftly eluding them and was making a beeline for me. Do Your Part had managed to escape from the house. Now she was escaping from half of Islam. In seconds that seemed like hours she was in front of me, wagging her tail and prancing around like she hadn’t seen me in six months. Hot on her tail were three huge Mandingo men.

“Is this your dog?” their leader managed to stammer out in barely repressed fury as he gave DYP a tentative boot in the butt. Fortunately she figured out that the situation was hazardous and decided there were other parts of town she wanted to see. I was amazed at her ability to avoid lunging people. I dearly wished I could have escaped with her. It wasn’t to be. It was my job to stay behind and be glared at. I was so embarrassed I don’t remember a single part of the ceremony.

Later when I arrived home, Do Your Part was outside the house, all wiggles and waggles, obviously no worse for her adventure. Jo Ann greeted me.

“It was the strangest thing when I got home,” she said. “Do Your Part was inside and frantic to get out. When I let her loose she took off like our house was on fire. I wonder if Sam let her in by mistake.” The best laid plans of mice and men…

Chapter 20: I Do Away with Spot…

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.

 Henrietta George

With Rasputin chosen as our cat, it was time to choose our Peace Corps summer projects.

Jo Ann decided to read to a blind student. Henrietta George lived on the Methodist compound.  Reading a variety of books and magazines to her was a simple but worthwhile project that would brighten and broaden the young woman’s world.

My decision was slightly more complicated. I decided to do away with Spot. Why shouldn’t Liberian children have books that reflected their own culture as opposed to books that were based on Dick, Jane and their bouncy, four-legged companion? So I chose to write an elementary school Liberian reader. Peace Corps staff in Monrovia quickly approved the idea.

Immediately afterwards I woke up at 3 AM wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into. My lack of knowledge about Liberian culture was only exceeded by my limited expertise in developmental reading skills. But second thoughts rarely stop me from plunging forward and this time was no exception. There were teaching guides to review, people to interview, folk tales to gather, and stories to write, rewrite and finish in simple English.

It turned into a massive project that occupied my full summer and beyond. Sam gathered several of his friends together to tell me African Folktales they had learned around village cooking fires as young children. Most of the stories involved animals and included lessons on behavior.

Several were about the trickster Spider. Here’s one I included in my reader.

How Spider Got His Small Waist

Spider was very greedy. He didn’t share food and he didn’t share money. He didn’t share anything. He kept it all for himself. One day a group of villagers came to visit Spider.

“We are having a feast. Would you like to come?” they asked.

“Oh yes,” Spider answered with joy as he rubbed his eight legs together. “I will be glad to eat your food.”

Shortly after, people from another village knocked on his door. They, too, were having a feast on the same day and Spider was invited. Of course he would come. He never missed a free meal. But how could he make sure he stuffed himself with food at both feasts? He thought and he thought.

Suddenly he jumped up and did a dance. “I know what I can do!” he sang.

Spider found two very long ropes. He tied one to his door and then walked to the first village and gave the people the other end. “When the feast is ready, tug on the rope,” he told them. Spider then did the same thing with the second village.

When Spider got back to his hut he tied both ropes around his waist. “Now I am ready,” he thought.  “When the first feast starts I will run to the village and eat as much of their food as I can gulp down.” (Spider could gulp very fast.) “When the second village tugs on my rope, I will run there and eat all of their bananas.”

Spider was quite pleased with his plan but all of his work had made him very tired. He fell into his bed and snored loudly. He was dreaming about a large dish of palm butter and rice when a tug on his waist woke him up. “Dinner!” he shouted.

He was just outside of his hut when the second village tugged on its rope. Oh no, both feasts were happening at once! But that wasn’t the bad part. With both villages tugging on him, Spider could not move. He was going to miss both feasts.

“Where’s Spider?” the villagers at the first feast worried. Everyone in the village grabbed the rope and tugged has hard as they could.

“Spider is going in the wrong direction!” the people in the second village yelled. Everyone grabbed the rope begin pulling. Even the children helped. It was a tug of war between the two villages and Spider was caught in the middle! The ropes pulled tighter and tighter around him.

And that, my friends, is how Spider got his small waist.

I liked the story. Students could relate and have fun with it. If the teacher had a rope, she could even divide her class and play tug of war.

In addition to folktales, I wrote several stories about the everyday life of the children. One series had them finding a large snake, another playing football (soccer). I even sent them off to Monrovia to visit a favorite uncle.

Finally I wrapped up the book. I did a final rewrite on the stories and shipped them off to Peace Corps headquarters in Monrovia. And then I waited. I was nervous. I felt like a new author who had sent his work off to a publisher or an agent for the first time. I had devoted hundreds of hours to a project that might come to nothing.

Two weeks later I heard back from Monrovia. Peace Corps staff liked the book… apparently a lot. A Peace Corps Volunteer with editing experience would be partnered with a curriculum expert to prepare the book for publishing. A Volunteer who was an artist would add illustrations.

The book was to become a Department of Education project. None of our names would be included. I was fine with that. Or let me put it another way. My ego wasn’t too bruised. The satisfaction was in knowing that the book was being used in classrooms. Dick, Jane and Spot could retire to California.

Then WAWA (a term coined by experienced African hands that stood for West Africa Wins Again) struck. The book wouldn’t be published at all.

I had made the mistake of assuming the government would support a reader that featured Liberian children instead of Dick, Jane and Spot. I understood I might be criticized for inaccurately portraying Liberians or missing the target on developmental reading skills. But these were things that could be fixed.

What I had failed to understand was just how paranoid the Americo-Liberians were about maintaining power. The reader was apparently a dangerous revolutionary tract that would help tribal Liberian children develop a sense of identity and pride. They might grow up and challenge the government. I was told not to fight for the project and to pretend it had never happened. To do otherwise was my one-way ticket home.

Naturally I was angry. I went back and reread what I had written. Yes it featured tribal children and tribal folktales but there was nothing revolutionary about the book. Not one word criticized President Tubman, the True Whig Party or the Liberian government.

On the other hand the book didn’t praise President Tubman, the True Whig Party or the Liberian Government. To be published the reader apparently needed to be a propaganda piece… and that I was unwilling to write.

Chapter 18: Reading and Writing and Arithmetic Taught to the Tune of an Ebony Stick… 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.

I went out in the jungle searching for a big stick. Note the work that went into building this bridge.

The first 15 minutes in class answered the question about how the students were going to react to my long absence. The class of moderately behaved students had morphed into a 30-headed monster. I was to be punished for being gone..

Considering the 15-year age difference between the youngest and oldest student, the kids were capable of several levels of mischief. After five days I had worked my way through every classroom management skill Peace Corps taught and several I made up. Nothing worked.

“They need to be whipped,” my fellow Liberian teachers suggested. “That’s what we do.”

I patiently explained that Peace Corps teachers didn’t whip their students. It was chiseled in stone. Eternal damnation would result.

“Then pretend you are going to whip them. Just don’t do it,” was the next helpful suggestion.

Being desperate and up for a little corruption, I thought about it. Where in the Peace Corps bible did it say that threats were out of line? After all, hadn’t Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick?” So I went out in the jungle and cut one. Next I introduced it to my students.

“Oh, Mr. Mekemson, what a big stick you have,” they said. I could see the respect shining in their eyes. I explained its purpose. They could behave and earn positive points or they could misbehave and earn negative points. If they earned enough negative points, the stick would be waiting. I didn’t tell them it would take a combination of Al Capone and Count Dracula to reach the point total for punishment.

The system worked. Whenever the class bordered on chaos, I would head for the blackboard, chalk in hand. Instant silence resulted. It was “Reading and writing and arithmetic taught to the tune of an ebony stick.” We started making up for lost time.

Of course there was an exception. Isn’t there always? It came in the form of Mary, an 11-year old going on 13. Her uncle was principal of the high school and a Big Man in town so this meant she was important. No Liberian teacher would dare touch a stick to her ornery hide, so certainly a Peace Corps teacher wouldn’t. She called my bluff and pushed her points right up to the rim. I urgently sought reasons to give her positive points but the opportunities were few and far between. She went over the top and smugly whispered to her girlfriends to watch what would happen.

Now I had a real problem. Obviously I couldn’t beat her. I am really not the beating kind. But neither could I ignore her. The end of the day came and I dismissed the class but asked her to stay. The students walked out the door and stopped on the other side. They weren’t leaving. Nobody at the school was… including the teachers. They were all waiting to see what Mr. Mekemson would do.

Mr. Mekemson was worrying. That’s what he was doing. I got out my big stick. Mary was no longer so nonchalant.

“Don’t beat me Teacha, I beg you, don’t beat me,” she screamed and screamed and screamed. I gently touched her with my stick. You would have thought I was pulling all of her fingernails and half of her toenails out, slowly. I knew everyone in the school was listening in on this little drama and I imagined that half of Gbarnga was as well. Oh boy, I thought, you have royally screwed up this time, Curtis.

I mumbled something about the importance of changing her ways and sent her off. And then I waited. How long would it be before the Peace Corps jeep came by to carry Jo Ann and me away? The next day at school was quiet.  Mary stayed home and I had a class of angels. Even other classes were quiet.

At noon, one of the Liberian teachers stopped by. She had a student she wanted me to beat. My response was not polite.

Two days later I received the message: John Bonal, Principal of Gboveh High School and Mary’s Uncle, wanted to see me. This was it. I prepared my case carefully. I didn’t want to leave. A lovely war was waiting for me at home and I had developed a considerable fondness for Liberia and its people.

I went to see Mr. Bonal with all of the enthusiasm of a hippopotamus crossing the Sahara. He was smiling when I greeted him. I even managed to get a decent snap out of the handshake.

“I’ve heard about your reputation,” he started and paused. Words like child beater, monster, and hater of kids roared through my mind. “And I would like you and your wife to come and teach at the high school. We think you would make a great addition to our faculty. We would like you to teach history and geography and Jo Ann to teach French and science.”

Talk about surprise. Here I was prepared to be booted out of the country, ready to beg as the Liberians liked to say, ready to humble myself and crawl across the floor if need be, and I was being offered the opportunity to teach two of my favorite subjects.

“Sir, your niece…” I managed to stumble out.

Mr. Bonal’s smile widened, “Ah yes,” he said, “that was a good job. Now she will be a much better student.”

Suddenly I had this suspicion that Mr. Bonal wanted me for a reason other than my ‘great’ teaching ability. I pictured myself practicing with a bullwhip out behind the high school as students lined up for their daily punishment. “Mr. Mekemson will see you now. Do you have any final words?”

But the offer was legitimate. After appearing to give it consideration for two seconds, I said yes. Jo Ann would have to speak for herself but I couldn’t imagine her saying no. Actually, she took about five seconds to think through all of the ramifications. Her only complaint was that the history classes were assigned to me. She was the history major.

Chapter 16: Dirt Roads Don’t Have White Lines… 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.

A ‘mini-mart’ was waiting for us when we arrived in Ganta. Included were these containers of monkey meat. Note the skulls in the blue basin and the tails behind the basins.

When we boarded the Pan Am jet at JFK, we abandoned the life we had known.  Three-inch cockroaches, a rickety outhouse, and a hole-in-the-ground well came with the territory, as did boiling our water, reading by lantern, and eating chop.

And so what? We had kids to teach, collard greens to eat, and a zinc roof to keep out the rain. Serving as a married couple, we also had each other… our own little society. Plus we had Sam. He was bright, funny, and provided an introduction to the Kpelle culture. He also did many of the chores.

Life was almost too easy, too routine. We were good at self-entertainment; it is a primary survival skill for Peace Corps Volunteers, but we had jumped from racing down a multi-lane freeway to walking on a dirt path. The tumultuous year at Berkeley, marriage, Peace Corps training and Africa had happened bang, bang, bang. Now life was more like drip, drip, drip.

After two months we were climbing the walls like bug-a-bug. We needed a break. Relief came in the form of an invitation from our friend Morris Carpenter. He had escaped from Yopea and landed a job teaching sixth-graders in Ganta, 30 miles upcountry from us. Wellington Sirleaf, the Peace Corps driver, dropped off the note. Since there was neither phone nor mail service, Wellington was our once a week contact with the outside world.

I found it ironic that Morris and I lived closer together in Liberia than we had in California. Getting from Gbarnga to Ganta, however, was more challenging than getting from Diamond Springs to Auburn. We had two options: money bus or taxi.

The money bus was the more colorful choice. Think of taking a giant cargo van, cutting out windows, attaching a roof rack, and cramming it full of people, pigs, chickens, goats, bags of rice, fresh produce, luggage boxes and anything else a Liberian might need to survive on or sell.

These workhorses of the Liberian transportation system disdained schedules and stopped frequently. Minimal shocks, uncovered wood benches and bumpy dirt roads guaranteed butts were begging for mercy inside of 30 minutes. Packed conditions denied wiggle room to relieve an aching tailbone but might provide a kid or rooster for your lap. And there was always a chance of a breakdown accompanied by the fervent hope your driver would fix the problem in less than three hours.

We decided our daily life provided enough cross-cultural adventure and opted for the taxi. We packed a bag, left Sam in charge of buying a chicken, and walked into town to where the taxis gathered.

A dirty, grey, battered Peugeot was leaving for Ganta “small,” in a short time. “Ten dolla,” the driver informed us. “Five dolla,” we countered. Seven was the agreed price for the two of us. Then it was time to “wait small.” The driver wanted more passengers. After about an hour he gave up.

Any thoughts of a civilized trip in to Ganta were dispelled in the first five minutes. The driver drove like he saw a green mamba in his rearview mirror and the snake was gaining. While the law required us to be on the right side, dirt roads don’t have white lines. I doubt it mattered. When a car-eating pothole was located on our side of the road, we were on the other, even on a blind curve. It wasn’t a game of chicken; it was Russian roulette. Occasionally the driver would honk his horn.

Fortunately, the ride was relatively short. Our introduction to Ganta was a barrier backed up by an armed soldier.

“You pay,” the driver informed us. He had neglected to tell us there was a fee for entering the town. Turns out it was a bribe, or a dash as they call it in Africa. “Five dolla,” the soldier demanded as he looked at us menacingly. It made me angry but I took out two dollars and handed them to the driver. “Five dolla,” the soldier repeated. I shook my head no. The soldier glared at me again and then took the proffered money. Ever so slowly he opened the gate.

Dashes were a way of life in Liberia as they are in much of the world. It was a game we had to play, but we didn’t have to like it. “Asshole,” I mumbled as we drove off.

Ganta’s taxi stand included a mini-mart. Tribal women were sitting on the ground and selling a variety of items. One woman wearing a black and white wrap around lappa featured five metal basins filled with what appeared to be smoked animal parts. I looked more closely. A small, shrunken-head sized skull glared up at me with vacant eyes. A dozen or so other skulls looked elsewhere. Another basin contained legs; another split rib cages, and another long, curved tails. It was monkey meat. I looked more closely at the skulls.

“You buy?” the woman asked. “No thank you,” I replied a bit to hastily. Monkey brains were not on my list of preferred foods. She laughed.

A small boy appeared in front of me and shoved a boiled egg in my face. “Ten Cents.”

“I will give you ten cents to take us to Teacha Carpenter’s house,” I countered.

“Twenty.” “Fifteen.” “Okay.” We had struck a bargain.

Teacha Carpenter was waiting for us with a cold beer and laughed at our stories. He was a veteran PCV at the end of his term. We were green Volunteers at the beginning. Our traumas were everyday life to him. He had his own tales. An army of mice lived in his attic.

“I hear them doing parade drills every night. Back and forth, back and forth with the sergeant barking orders.” He hired Metternich the Cat to solve the problem. Each morning Metternich deposited two or three dead rodents for inspection. He was making a significant reduction in the mouse population. Besides all the mice he could eat, Metternich took his pay in chop.

Morris had planned a tour of the local leper colony for us. In particular, he wanted us to meet Freddie, a wood-carver he had befriended. Leprosy, Morris explained as we walked over to the colony, is hard to catch.

We were glad to hear there was little danger but still wary. Most of what we knew about the disease related to the old horror stories, the ones that led communities to ban lepers to remote locations. Losing body parts is scary. While leprosy might not be highly contagious, it was still contagious.

A neat row of cabins surrounded by banana, avocado and palm trees announced our arrival. It seemed that the lepers were well cared for and well fed.

The leper village in Ganta, Liberia as it looked in 1965.

Freddie reinforced my opinion. He had a lean-to studio and was dressed in a clean white T-shirt, jeans, and polished brown shoes. Chips were flying as he chopped away on a block with a curved head adze. The smell of freshly cut wood permeated the air. A scroungy brown and white dog was lying off to the side. It opened an eye, gave a partial wag, and went back to sleep.

I couldn’t stop myself from checking to see if Freddie had lost any limbs. Except for grey blotches on his hands, he appeared intact. A devil mask was displayed beside him. Other carvings were stacked against the wall.

Freddie the Carver at work in his studio. A medicine mask with horns is on the left.

Freddie grinned as we admired his carvings. It was obvious that he took pride in his work, that he had found a way to soften the fright his disease must cause.

I was developing a taste for African art. Its primitive subject matter jumped past my rational mind and captured my subconscious. I found one piece particularly appealing. Two large feet were connected to stumpy legs that disappeared into a shapeless robe that flared downward from the neck. There were no arms. A gigantic head with a mouthful of 28 teeth and a large nose topped off the neck. It was like a circus clown, both scary and humorous.

“It’s a Bush Devil,” Morris explained. The Bush Devil, so named by disapproving missionaries, was a powerful force within the tribal society. I happily broke out five dollars and bought the piece.

Back at Morris’s we ate four-pepper chop, drank more beer, told more tales and went to sleep with mice marching back and forth in the attic.

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.