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

Quirky Berkeley— I Return to My Roots

 

Sproul Hall

Sproul Hall, the administrative center of UC Berkeley, looks imposing. It comes with a welcome sign now but it wasn’t so welcoming when I gave a speech while standing on the Dean’s desk at the height of the Free Speech Movement in 1964.

Last week went on forever. By Sunday, the events at the beginning of the week seemed like ancient history. Maybe that’s not a bad thing; time slowed down. Lately it’s been zipping by like a hummingbird on sugar-water. Zoooooooom!

I began my week by being a guest lecturer in a writing class at Southern Oregon University where I talked about changes in the publishing industry. Mainly I discussed how authors are now responsible for marketing their own books. Grump. It is not my favorite activity. “Go start a blog,” I urged, “at least you can have fun. And it is great writing practice.”

Thursday found me keynoting an author’s day at a local community school. I had jumped from talking with seniors in college to kids. And how in the heck do you tailor a talk for a group with an age range from 7-14? Tell stories, I decided— and started with the tale from The Bush Devil Ate Sam about Rasputin the Cat and the Cockle Doodle Rooster. Afterwards I taught classes of fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders. My message was that we are all storytellers.

It was fun. The eight-hour drive to Berkeley immediately afterward wasn’t.

I drove down to attend a national conference of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. I was one pooped pup when I arrived. It was lights out for Curt. I hardly even needed my noisemaker to drown out the clamor on University Avenue.

Berkeley is many things, among them a world renown center of education.

Speaking of tired puppies, I found these hemp collars and leashes on Telegraph Avenue. In addition to being home to one of the world’s greatest educational institutions, Berkeley can be a bit quirky.

I went to the conference to participate in some workshops relating to Peace Corps writers, of which there are legions. I also wanted to hear presentations by Congressman Sam Farr and Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. Sam had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in South America in the 60s and, like me, worked in Peace Corps recruiting afterwards. He is known as “Mr. Peace Corps” in Congress for the strong advocacy role he plays for the organization.

He argued that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers also needed to become advocates. It’s budget time in Washington, and there are a lot more countries requesting Peace Corps Volunteers, and people who want to be Volunteers, than Peace Corps has money to fund. As usual, the money goes elsewhere. For example, we are spending a billion and a half dollars this year to keep Egypt happy— four times the total budget of Peace Corps.

On the good news side of the equation, Carrie announced that Peace Corps Volunteers would be back in Liberia this week. As you may recall, they were pulled out in the fall because of Ebola. Carrie also mentioned a major new initiative that Peace Corps is working on with Michelle Obama, Let Girls Learn. It is a worldwide effort to provide girls with the same education opportunities boys now have.

Michelle

We listened to a pre-recorded message on Let Girls Learn from Michelle Obama in Wheeler Auditorium, which was the site of my first class at Berkeley. I had walked right by the classroom, incapable of imagining that there would be over a thousand students in the class. Berkeley gave me a new understanding of mass education.

I must confess— I also had an ulterior motive for the trip. Any journey to Berkeley is a trip into the past for me. I think of it as a pilgrimage, a return to my roots. I still hear echoes from the 60s when I was caught up in Berkley’s Free Speech Movement. This time the echoes were real. A resounding expletive caught my attention. I turned around to see Cliff Marks descending on me. Cliff and I had shared an apartment during out senior year and Cliff had also served in the Peace Corps. The last time I had seen or talked with him was at his wedding in 1969. We had a grand time catching up. Now it is time to catch up on the blogs I have missed this past week and a half.

But first, let’s go on a tour of Berkeley.

Sather Gate

Every student who has ever been to Berkeley passes through Sather Gate…

Campanile

And at some point, stops to admire the Campanile, which is Berkeley’s best known landmark.

Bay Bridge

The campus looks out over San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the distance.

Steps of library

I had spent the day buried in the Bancroft Library and surfaced for a break when I found a young woman crying on these steps. The campus was deathly quiet. “What’s the problem?” I had asked. “They’ve shot the President,” she told me in a broken voice. It was November 23, 1963 and President Kennedy had been killed, shot down in the streets of Dallas.

Sproul Plaza

Sproul Plaza was a major location for student protests in the 60s. This entrance to the campus, at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Avenue, was the location of Berkeley’s Free Speech Area that the University arbitrarily closed down in the fall of 1964, thus leading to the beginning of the Free Speech Movement.

Ludwig's fountain

The Student Union and Ludwig’s Fountain are under renovation. Ludwig was a 60’s type dog who wandered wherever he chose. He came down from his house on the hill daily and frolicked in the fountain that would eventually bear his name. I petted Ludwig and watched as a police car was taken hostage and then used as a speaker’s podium. Jack Weinberg, a Civil Rights organizer, was being held in the car. It was Jack, now 75, who coined the phrase, “never trust anyone over 30.”

Cafe Mediterraneum

I learned as much outside of the classrooms as I did inside at Berkeley. The Cafe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue was my main hangout. It was one of America’s first European style Coffee Houses in the 1950s and proudly claims to be the creator of the caffe latte.

Moe's

One of my primary forms of entertainment in the 60s at Berkeley was perusing bookstores. It still is today when I visit the city. Moe’s was and is one of the greats. Sadly, my favorite, Cody’s, is now closed.

Amoeba Records

Amoeba Records is next to the Cafe Meditteraneum. Street booths, like those in front on the left, have become a permanent  fixture along Telegraph Avenue.

Crystals on Telegraph

As one might expect, many of the items for sale have a New Age connection, such as these ‘healing’ quartz crystals.

Dream Catchers

And these dream catchers.

People's Park

“If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” –Ronald Reagan’s response as Governor of California to students who were protesting his closing down Berkeley’s People’s Park as a community garden in the late 60s. National Guard troops were sent in and local police were armed with shotguns loaded with buckshot. One student, apparently a bystander, was killed and another was blinded. The whole city was tear gassed from the air.

Tree sign

A sign thanking trees that live in the park today.

Mural

A mural on the side of the Amoeba record store depicts events surrounding People’s Park as well as other Telegraph Avenue happenings.

Mural

The mural.

Pan Handler

Berkeley has always been a mecca for young people,  both those seeking an alternative lifestyle as well as those seeking a first class education. Many who came looking for alternatives arrived without money, as this young man shown in the mural.

Homeless

Today, Berkeley is the ‘home’ for numerous homeless people. I took this photo on Dwinelle Plaza on campus.

Street Spirit

This homeless man was selling the newspaper “Streetsmart” in front of Moe’s Bookstore. Headlines announced a recent protest that the community’s religious leaders including Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist representatives had made against the city’s efforts to criminalize homelessness as a means of driving homeless people out of town.

Berkeley sign board

A sign of the times? Not really. Berkeley’s sign boards have always been plastered with notices on top of notices. I was amused to find help wanted notices for Berkeley’s Call Center. I hear from these young people several times a year as they solicit money for Berkeley. I found it interesting that the University, who charges them $14,000 a year in tuition ($38,000 if out-of-state), only pays these kids $11 per hour.

South Hall

South Hall, built in 1873, is the oldest building on the UC Berkeley Campus. It’s an appropriate photo to end this post, and also to raise a question about the future of public education in America. Tuition was free when I went to Berkeley and I was able to pay for my living costs by driving a laundry truck in the summer. I graduated debt-free. Today’s young people graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. It’s close to tragic. All I can think of is how incredibly stupid our state and national leaders are when the future of our nation, and indeed the world, depends upon an educated and knowledgeable population. Germany can somehow find the money to provide a free college education. Why not America?

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

A Devilishly Hard Decision… The Title to My Peace Corps Africa Book

Pat hay stack and part voodoo nightmare, a Liberian Bush Devil shuffles through the dirt toward me.

A fading photo from 1967 captures a Liberian Bush Devil, part hay stack and part voodoo nightmare, as it shuffles toward me through the red laterite dirt.

So, I’ve been struggling with the title of the book about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. As part of the process, I asked for help from my fellow bloggers and friends.

Step one included developing four options and providing backstories. Step two involved reviewing and summarizing the input.

Now it’s my turn.

I have two objectives for my title. First, it needs to be catchy. Unless people are familiar with an author or have recommendations from a trusted source (friend, author they enjoy, media), the first thing that leads them to choose a book is its title.

Second, the title needs to reflect my Peace Corps Africa experience.

For example, on the one level, The Dead Chicken Dance is about cutting the head off a chicken and watching it dance– slightly unusual and a little macabre. As such, the title might gain attention. But there was more. Early Peace Corps was struggling with how to prepare people to jump into another culture that was totally foreign to them. Killing, gutting, and plucking a chicken was guaranteed to provide trainees with a challenging experience that few of them had ever had but might face as a Volunteer. It’s a long ways between buying a pasty white, pre-packaged chicken in the grocery store and picking up a hatchet to cut the head off a feathered, clucking Henny Penny.

The Bush Devil Ate Sam and The Lightning Man Strikes Again reflected two aspects of African culture that were quite real to tribal Liberians. Both of these titles were designed to capture attention, but they also represented the dramatically dissimilar world that tribal Liberians existed in. Understanding Liberia, in fact understanding much of Africa, depends upon recognizing these differences.

How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup represents a sharp break from our Western dog-centric world… of which I am very much a part. Dogs were a legitimate food source in Liberia. Students would tease me by coming by and pinching my cat, Rasputin. “Sweet meat, Mr. Mekemson” they would say while smacking their lips. They were cautious, however. Rasputin could take care of himself: “Pinch me once and I’ll squawk a warning. Pinch me twice and I’ll take off your finger.” As with each of my other titles,  there was more to the story with Boy than a gastronomical challenge.  It went beyond scary that soldiers would show up at my house in the middle of the night solely because the dog had eaten a guinea fowl.  It was strange with a strangeness that I would think of more than once when Liberia fell into the tragedy of its civil wars.

As I noted when I summarized the responses on titles, each title received strong support but Boy received the fewest ‘votes.’ Part of this may because we are so dog centric. As one blogger observed, the title might turn people off. I get that.

Support for the other three titles was evenly split. For me, it finally came down to either the Bush Devil or the Lightning Man. The Dead Chicken relayed an insight into early Peace Corps and cross-cultural challenges, but the other two did more to capture the Africa experience. Tossing a mental coin, I’m going with the Bush Devil. As my blogging friends James and Terri Gallivance, who have lived in Africa, noted: “We’re voting for The Bush Devil Ate Sam because we feel it embraces the mystery that is Africa.” The mystery that is Africa seems like a good place to start.

On a more prosaic level, I am adding “And Other Peace Corps Tales of West Africa” as a subtitle because it is important to have both Peace Corps and Africa included. Next up: the cover. As soon as I develop examples, I’ll post them.

NEXT BLOGs: Peggy and I will soon be heading into Nevada where I have several posts I am thinking about including 1) an art hotel in Reno created by Burners from Burning Man, 2) the remote town of Hawthorn with its history of being America’s primary ordnance depot (bunkers fill the desert), 3) the Extraterrestrial Highway and Area 51– subject of more conspiracy theories than there are people in Nevada, 4) Death Valley in the spring, 4) the Valley of Fire, 5) Red Rock Canyon, and 6) Las Vegas being Las Vegas. BUT, IN THE MEANTIME, I will post on another of my favorite petroglyph sites, Painted Rocks out of Yuma Arizona. I think I will also revisit the actual Big Foot trap about three miles from my home and see if Bigfoot is hanging out there. (It sort of goes along with the ET Highway.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book titles

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

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

Some of the comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Bush Devil Ate Sam… And Other Possible Book Titles: HELP!

Liberian bush devil photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Freddie the carver, a leper who lived in the up-country Liberian town of Ganta, carved this replica of the Bush Devil for me in 1965. In the 70s similar carvings would become known as Jimmy Carter dolls.

What leads people to choose a particular book is a question every author, agent and publisher asks. If my name were Stephen King or J.K. Rowling and I was writing my umpteenth best seller, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything except writing the book and raking in the dough. But being Curt Mekemson… let’s just say I have a few more challenges (grin).

I am now in the final stages of self-publishing a book on my Peace Corps experience in Africa. Making money isn’t the objective; I’m happily retired. But I do hope people will read the book. I realize that success will ultimately depend upon whether people like what I have written and tell their friends. But first I have to capture their attention.

The Writer’s Guide to Self-Publishing (and every other book that purports to tell us go-it-alone writers how to) suggests that an enticing name, great cover, compelling back copy, and dynamite first few pages are what count. Of course, an endorsement by J.K. Rowling would help, but, as they say in the vernacular, that ain’t going to happen.

I’ve decided to ask for your advice. Several of the people who read this blog are authors and all of you are avid readers. So here’s the question. Which of the following titles would capture your eye and lead you to pick up the book? Why? (You can pick more than one.)

FYI, I’ve included the back-story behind each title. Depending on the title I choose, I will use a short, spiffed up version of the story in the introduction of the book.

Thanks for your participation!

Curt

1. The Dead Chicken Dance

And Other Peace Corps Africa Tales

Peace Corps training lacked its modern sophistication in the 1960s. Our group did its initial training at Cal State SF. We were then dropped off in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with paper sleeping bags for a wilderness camping experience. During the week, we faced a number of challenges such as rock climbing, bridge building, etc. A psychologist followed us around and took notes. It was serious business. Based on our responses, we could be sent home. One of the most memorable challenges was when our leader showed up the first night with a hatchet and a crate of live chickens. “Here’s dinner,” he announced with a laugh.  You can imagine how the kids from the big cities reacted. I was a country boy, however. I had killed, plucked, and gutted chickens. So I volunteered for the messy part. My chicken did a nice little dance when I cut off her head off. The city kids turned pale. They lost their appetites when I reached into Henny Penny and yanked out her still warm innards. It was a good thing; I got more to eat.

2. The Bush Devil Ate Sam

And Other Peace Africa Corps Tales

When my first wife, Jo Ann, and I arrived in Liberia we recruited a young man to help with our chores. In return, we provided meals and funds to cover school costs and other necessities. One day, Sam was working with me outside and took off his shirt. Jo noticed that he had a series of parallel scars marching down his chest. “How did you get those?” Jo had asked, partially out of concern but mainly out of curiosity. “I can’t tell you,” Sam had blurted out. “But,” he quickly added, “I can tell Mr. Mekemson.” Aha, I thought to myself, Sam and I belong to the same organization, the men’s club. Actually Sam belonged to a very exclusive men’s club, the highly secretive Poro Society that existed to keep tribal people in line and pass on tribal culture. The year before Sam had been to bush school where he had learned the Society’s secrets. At the end of the session, he had had a close encounter with the Bush Devil. It ate him. He was swallowed as a child and spit out as a man. The scarification marks represented the Devil’s teeth. The Bush Devil (so-named by Christian missionaries) is part politician, part cultural cop, part spiritual leader, and all secret.  Outsiders don’t get to see the Kpelle version. I was able to see one from another tribe, however. He looked like  someone had crossed a walking haystack with a voodoo nightmare.

Gbarnga photo of Curt Mekemson and Sam Kollie.

A photo of Sam and me cutting grass with machetes right around the time we noticed his scarification marks. Sam would later become a physician.

Liberian Bush Devil photo by Curtis Mekemson.

The Bush Devil I was allowed to see.

Another photo of the Liberian Bush Devil carved by Freddie.

Another photo of the Liberian Bush Devil carved by Freddie.

3. The Lightning Man Strikes Again

And Other Peace Corps Africa Tales

We left Mamadee with 50 dollars to buy a 50-gallon drum of kerosene while we went off to explore East Africa in a Volkswagen beetle. Mamadee was sitting on our doorstep when we returned but there was no kerosene and no 50 dollars. Someone had stolen the money. Mamadee’s father, who was a chief of the Kpelle tribe, wanted to assure us (and himself?) that Mamadee was innocent so he offered to subject Mamadee to a trial by lightning. The Lightning Man had a special power; he could make lighting strike people who had committed crimes. Somebody steals your cow or your spouse, ZAP! Even if Mamadee were guilty, we didn’t want him struck by lightning, or even singed for that matter. We passed on the offer. Another Volunteer took a different approach. He had spent half of his monthly income ($70) on buying a new radio. Somebody stole it the first day. He vowed that he would get his new toy back. So he had his students take him out in the jungle to hire the Lightning Man. That night there was a horrendous lightning storm. Ignoring for the moment that it was in the middle of the rainy season and there were always horrendous lightning storms, put yourself in the shoes of the person who had taken the radio and believed in the Lightning Man. Every lightning strike and every peal of thunder would have had his name on it. The next morning, the Volunteer went outside and there was his radio, sitting on the porch.

Dark clouds, roaring winds, crashing thunder and multiple lightning strikes are common during Liberia's rainy season. When ever someone was struck by lightning when we were there, the assumption was is that the Lightning Man had caused the strike and the person was obviously guilty of some wrong doing.

Dark clouds, roaring winds, crashing thunder and multiple lightning strikes are common during Liberia’s rainy season. When ever someone was struck by lightning, the assumption was is that the Lightning Man had caused the strike and the person was obviously guilty of some wrong doing.

Mamadee standing in front of his house. Later Mamadee would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

Mamadee standing in front of his house. Later Mamadee would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

4. How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup

And Other Peace Corps Africa Tales

Boy, the Bad Dog, lived at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s house across town with a female dog named Lolita. When Lolita had pups, she drove Boy off. He went looking for other Peace Corps Volunteers to live with and ended up at our house. Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me. But Boy had a problem: he didn’t like black people. He also regarded our cat as dinner. I encouraged him to live elsewhere. One day I came home from teaching and found a number of soldiers occupying our yard. I approached nervously; Liberian soldiers were scary. “What’s the problem?” I asked the sergeant.  “Your dog ate one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” he growled at me. The Superintendent was the boss of Bong County, the most powerful person in our neck of the jungle. “Which one?” I asked. “What does it matter which fowl the dog ate?” he snarled. “No, no,” I responded, “I meant which dog.” He pointed at Boy and I relaxed. “Why don’t you arrest him?” I suggested helpfully. “Not him!” the sergeant screamed. “You, you are coming with us.” The interview was not going the way he had expected. “The dog doesn’t belong to me and I am not going anywhere with you.” I replied and went into our house. The soldiers were not happy. They milled around in our yard for a half hour before marching off. It was a six-pack night for Jo and I.

At 4 AM the next morning we heard a loud bang, bang, bang. “What’s that,” Jo asked, frightened. “It sounds like someone pounding to get in,” I responded, grabbing our baseball bat and heading for the back door. I opened it just as the sergeant from the day before was preparing to strike it again with the butt of his weapon. “Your dog ate another one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowls,” he stated triumphantly. “This time you are coming with us.” The soldiers must have waited up all night for Boy. Maybe they threw the fowl over the fence. Here doggy. In addition to being scared, I was angry. “I told you yesterday that the dog belongs across town. Ask Mr. Bonal.” Mr. Bonal was the principal of the high school and lived next door. I slammed the door shut. It was like I had thrown a rock at a hornet’s nest. But Bonal was an important man in town and yanking a Peace Corps Volunteer out of his home was not something you did lightly. Eventually, the soldiers left. Jo and I waited nervously for strike three. Fortunately, the soldiers finally figured out that Boy belonged to a person who worked for the other Peace Corps Volunteer. The young man was hauled into court and fined. To pay the fine, he sold Boy to a village where the large dog became guest of honor at a tribal feast. Being a bad dog in Liberia can have serious consequences.

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Volunteer in 1965-67. The large building you see in the distance was the Superintendent's compound. The high school and the house where I lived was off to the right.

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Volunteer in 1965-67. The large building you see in the distance was the Superintendent’s headquarters. The high school and the house where I lived were off to the right of his compound.