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.)

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

Mandingo mosque in Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The use of Juju in West Africa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 31: Minced Green Mamba

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.

 

Tropical rainforests are home to numerous species of snakes. A large boa lived in this lake, which was just down from our house.

Tropical rain forests are home to numerous species of snakes. A large boa lived in this lake, which was just down from our house in Gbarnga, Liberia.

Another denizen of the rain forest that receives considerable press is the snake. As a youth I had become aware of their treacherous ways by reading Tarzan comic books.

We encountered a number of the wily serpents in our two years. They came in a myriad of sizes, shapes and colors. I already mentioned the tiny orange snake in the driver ants’ nest. “Very poisonous,” Sam had said.

I also found a black one coiled up in our flower garden and another poised in a tree above my classroom door. One dark, rainy night Jo and I were walking home from chaperoning a high school dance. Our flashlight was on the verge of dying. I looked down and found my foot three inches away from landing on top of a snake that stretched all the way across the road… which was just about the distance I managed to hop on one leg.

The Liberians assumed that all snakes were poisonous. We decided while in Liberia to do as the Liberians did. The only good snake was one with its head chopped off.

The most poisonous was reportedly the cassava snake. This ugly pit viper was about as long as your arm and twice as thick. It was supposedly sluggish; you had to step on it to get a reaction. When you did, it was all over though. Sluggishness disappeared. It whipped around and struck causing instant death. On my jungle hikes I always encouraged the dogs to go first and watched them closely. Like Rasputin, they were snake-wise. They detoured; I detoured.

Of all of Liberia's snakes, the Cassava Snake was the most deadly.(Google image)

Of all of Liberia’s snakes, the Cassava Snake was the most deadly.(Google image)

We even had a giant boa constrictor hanging out in the neighborhood. It lived in the reservoir just down the hill from our house. Town folks would spot it occasionally slithering through lake like the Loch Ness monster. I started calling it Nessie. Whenever a local dog or cat disappeared, it was assumed the snake had eaten it. My thoughts tended more toward a hungry Liberian, but this didn’t discourage me from suggesting to Boy the Bad Dog that he go play in the lake. He refused.

Soldiers eventually drained the lake in an unsuccessful attempt at finding the boa. Maybe it had developed a taste for Guinea Fowl and moved up the Superintendent’s compound.

The green mamba was an even more feared snake. It was said to climb trees, leap from limb to limb, and chase people. Jo Ann and I assumed that the Liberian who told us this story had been sipping too much fermented cane juice.

At least we did until we looked out the window one day and saw a green mamba climbing our tree. Faster than I could say, “Let’s sit this dance out,” Jo had grabbed our machete and was through the door. The mamba saw her coming and wisely made a prodigious leap for a higher limb. It missed.

Down it came amidst a mad flurry of machete strokes. Not even the three musketeers could have withstood that attack. It was instant minced snake. After that I learned to have more respect for Jo Ann when she was irritated.

In a slight reversal of roles, a snake did manage to ‘tree’ Jo once. I was happily ensconced in my favorite chair when I heard a scream from our outdoor bathroom. Talk about primitive male instincts. Hair on end, adrenaline pumping and blood rushing, I grabbed the machete and charged outside.

I threw open the bathroom door and there was Jo Ann, standing on the toilet with her pants down. Meanwhile a small black snake was merrily slithering around on the floor in hot pursuit of the little toads who considered our bathroom home. It had crawled under the door and across Jo’s foot while she was sitting on the pot. Had it happened to me, I might have been on the toilet, too.

Needless to say, I quickly dispatched the snake and saved the day. What a man!

Chapter 30: How to Fly Rhinoceros Beetles

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.

images

An African Rhinoceros Beetle. (Google image.)

Most of our bug encounters were less traumatic. Indeed, some, such as our interaction with rhinoceros beetles, we classified as entertainment.

These large bugs were a throwback to ancient times. In addition to being a good three inches long, they were coated with armor. The males had a huge horn projecting up from their noses; thus the name. They are reputedly the world’s strongest animal and can carry up to 850 times their own weight. Liberian children would tie a thread around the horns and fly the beetles in circles.

When we went outside after dark with a flashlight, they would sometimes dive bomb the light and crash into us Kamikaze like. It hurt. The buzzing noise made by their wings meant that we could hear them coming in time to flinch.

One of my more unique discoveries was if you put several of the big males down next to a female, they would become quite excited. Before long one would sidle up to the female in what was obviously an attempt at beetle foreplay. Permission granted, the male would them mount the female. It had all of the grace of two Sherman tanks going at it.

I know, get a life Curt.

Another insect of note was the sausage bug mentioned earlier as doggy treats. These guys were large flying abdomens. They would buzz in lazy circles through our house at night flying so slowly that Jo and I used them for badminton practice, knocking them out of the air with our rackets. Afterwards, Do Your Part would be invited in to clean up the carnage.

The best action by far was on the big screen, our screen door that is. Here we witnessed the law of the jungle in action.

The bright lights of our house guaranteed a hoard of small juicy insects would be attracted and clamor for admission. The opportunity for a free lunch quickly attracted a crowd of gourmet bug eaters. It was the bug-a-bug feast all over except the players were different and less greedy. There was a lot more stalking and a lot less gobbling.

Knobby-toed iridescent tree frogs would suction cup their way across the screen at a glacial pace and then unleash a lighting fast tongue on some unsuspecting morsel.

An eight-inch long praying mantis was a regular visitor until Jo Ann did it in, wrapped it up and shipped it off to her old zoology instructor back at Sierra College. He reported to Jo that the monster never made it. I suspect someone in the Monrovia Post Office opened the box looking for treasure. Surprise!

My favorite predators were the bats. They would fly circles around the house and pick a bug off the screen with each circuit. I could have my face inches from the screen and not disturb the hunt. Whoosh, a bat grabbed a bug for dinner. Zap, the pinkish white frog tongue unfurled and reeled in dessert. A night at the movies was never better.

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 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 24: Eat More Bugs… Cultural Challenges

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.

 

Local tribal people believed this tree hosted a spirit. Often I would find offerings left at its base.

Local tribal people believed this tree outside Gbarnga, Liberia hosted a spirit. Often I would find offerings left at its base.

Joining the Peace Corps should come with a label like they put on cigarette packs. It would read “Warning: This experience may change your concept of reality.

Our vision of the world is perceived through culturally tinted glasses. Not surprisingly, the reality of our parents and our society becomes our reality. It’s very hard to imagine life from any other perspective. Close encounters with other cultures can shake this vision but not easily. We wear our culture like bulletproof vests, rarely allowing a stray thought to penetrate. Or we focus so hard on extolling our own culture that we fail to learn valuable lessons another culture may teach us.

A key element of our Peace Corps training had been to instill cultural sensitivity. Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s book, “The Ugly American,” came out in 1958 and was turned into a movie starring Marlon Brando in 1963. Both made a significant impression on me. US citizens were known for being pushy and acting superior in dealing with foreign cultures. It created enemies. Peace Corps’ job was to make friends and provide aid, not alienate people.

There was another important reason for the training. Risks are involved when you run headlong into another culture. Depression is one. The environment may be so totally different that it becomes disorienting. The common name for this is culture shock. Learning about Liberia and its tribes was a form of inoculation.

My transition from California to Liberia was relatively smooth. At first, Gbarnga didn’t seem all that different from my old hometown of Diamond Springs. A small rural town is a small rural town. I suffered more shock going from Sierra College to UC Berkeley than I did going from Berkeley to Liberia. My disorientation (and depression) would wait until I returned to the US.

A less common phenomenon is going native or bush as it was called in Liberia. In this instance, you become so enthralled with the new culture that you adopt it as your own. There was a joke that circulated among Peace Corps Volunteers on how to determine when you were teetering on the edge.

Phase One: You arrive in country and a fly lands in your coffee. You throw the coffee away, wash your cup and pour yourself a new cup.

Phase Two: You’ve been there a few months and a fly lands in your coffee. You carefully pick the fly out with your spoon and then drink the coffee.

Phase Three: It’s been over a year and you have become a grizzled veteran. A fly lands in your coffee. You yank it out with your fingers, squeeze any coffee it may have consumed back into the cup, add the fly to your fly collection, and then drink the coffee.

Phase Four: You’ve been there too long. A fly lands in your coffee cup. You yank the fly out of the cup, pop it into your mouth and throw the coffee away. It’s time to go home.

I never met a Liberian who ate flies but bug-a-bugs, aka termites, were considered a real delicacy.

If Peace Corps Volunteers had a tough time with culture shock and going bush, the tribal Liberians had a tougher one. Traditional cultures have normally found their confrontations with the western world a losing proposition. It isn’t that our culture is so great; it’s just that our technology is so glitzy. How do you keep Flumo down on the farm when he hears the taxi horn blowing? And there were lots of taxis and money busses in Gbarnga offering one-way trips to Monrovia.

Gbarnga was on the frontier of cultural change. On the surface, life could appear quite westernized. An occasional John Wayne movie even made it to town. My students would walk stiff-legged down Gbarnga’s main street and do a great imitation of the Duke. They dreamed some day of traveling to America where they would swagger down dusty streets and knock off bad guys with their trusty six shooters.

In town, loud speakers blared out music at decibel levels the Grateful Dead would have killed for while Lebanese shops pushed everything from Argentinean canned beef to London Dry Gin. The epitome of Americana, a Coca Cola sign, dominated the road as you left town on your way to Ganta.

William Tubman had been the first Americo-Liberian President to actively encourage tribal Liberians to shed their traditional cultures and become more Westernized, or at least more Liberian. His first push had been to encourage an increase in the number of missionaries working upcountry. They were welcome to proselytize whatever brand of Christianity they wished as long as they remembered, “to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s.”

We had enough US-based churches in Gbarnga to satisfy Pat Robertson. Missionaries were everywhere. Baptists and Catholics and Episcopalians and Presbyterians and God only knew how many other Christian groups worked the streets in unending competition to recruit African souls.

I was out on a bush walk several miles from town once when I spotted this man coming toward me dressed up in a coat and tie, wearing shiny black shoes, and carrying a brief case. My first reaction was to get off the trail. I was too slow.

“Wait, I have something to give you,” he called.

You can bet that reassured me. But I waited. Standing there in the middle of a muddy trail in the middle of the African jungle, the man very carefully opened his brief case and pulled out a magazine. The headline screamed, ‘The World Is Coming to an End’ and apparently I was too. The magazine was “Awake” and a Jehovah Witness had me in his clutches.

Sometimes, if I closed my eyes and pretended, I could almost believe I was home. Almost. Then Africa would whip around and bite me. Sure, the local villagers would dutifully file in to church on Sunday morning and pray for blessings like their western counterparts did. But Sunday afternoon might find them out sacrificing a chicken to make sure God got the message. And yes, there was a Coca Cola sign on the way to Ganta but next to it was a tall tree where you could usually find offerings to the spirit that lived in the tree.

During my stay in Liberia I was to encounter a number of situations where African reality differed substantially from American reality. In my next blog I will introduce one of the most powerful figures in Liberia’s tribal culture, The Bush Devil.

Chapter 23: Rasputin and the Cockle Doodle Rooster

HAPPY HOLIDAYS

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 22: Boy, the Bad 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.

Boy was a large, brindle dog with questionable parentage and a serious problem. He didn’t like black people. He lived with a Peace Corps Volunteer named Holly, who also had a dog named Lolita. Boy came into our life when Lolita had puppies and drove him off. She believed he would eat her children.

Boy went out looking for other white people to live with and found Jo Ann and me.

Normally, I wouldn’t have cared. One more dog wasn’t going to make much difference given our menagerie of three dogs and Rasputin the Cat. It was Boy’s attitude that bothered me. It wasn’t very Peace Corp-like to have your dog attack Liberians when they came to visit.

Boy also had an issue with Rasputin; he regarded him as prey. I initiated several civil discussions with the dog about his bad habits and suggested he might end up in Liberian soup, but all he did was growl. Once, when he had Rasputin cornered, I slapped him on the butt. He almost took my hand off. Consequently, I wasn’t sympathetic when the soldiers arrived.

They were standing outside our house, waving their guns around, when Jo and I came home from teaching.

“What’s up?” I asked in my most official Peace Corps voice. You learned early on not to mess with Liberian soldiers. Even the government refused to issue them bullets.

“Your dog ate one of the Superintendent’s Guinea Fowl,” their sergeant mumbled ominously. The Superintendent of Bong County was the equivalent to a governor except that he had more power. He lived a quarter-mile away and his Guinea Fowl strutted around freely in the government compound.

“Which one?” I asked innocently.

“What does it matter which Guinea Fowl the dog ate?”  Sarge sneered.

“No, no,” I responded, “I meant which dog.”

He glared at me for a moment and then pointed at Boy. I relaxed. It didn’t seem like Do Your Part, Brownie Girl or Puppy Doodle would have done in the Supe’s Guinea Fowl. They were three of the best-fed dogs in Gbarnga.

“Why don’t you arrest him?” I offered hopefully.

“Not him,” he shouted. “You. You come with us!” Apparently the interview wasn’t going the way the soldier wanted. A Liberian might have been beaten by then. I decided it was time to end the conversation.

“Look,” I said, “that dog does not belong to me. He belongs across town. I am not going anywhere with you.” With that I walked into our house and closed the door. It was risky but not as risky as going off with the soldiers. They grumbled around outside for a while and finally left.

Jo and I relaxed “small,” as the Liberians would say, but really didn’t feel safe until that evening. It was a six-beer night. Finally, around ten, we went to bed believing we had beaten the rap.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

“What in the hell was that?” I yelled as I jumped out of bed. It was pitch black and four o’clock in the morning.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

“Someone is pounding on our back door,” Jo Ann whispered, sounding as frightened as I felt.

I grabbed our baseball bat, headed for the door, and yanked it open. Soldiers were everywhere. The same friendly sergeant from the night before was standing there with the butt of his rifle poised to strike our door again.

“Your dog ate another one of the Superintendents guinea fowls,” he proclaimed to the world. I could tell he was ecstatic about the situation. He had probably tossed the bird over the fence to Boy.

“This time you are going with us!” he growled.

In addition to being frightened, I was growing tired of the routine. “I am sorry you are having such a hard time guarding guinea fowls,” I said, trying to sound reasonable, “but I explained to you yesterday that the dog does not belong to me and I am not going anywhere with you. Ask Mr. Bonal and he will tell you the dog is not ours.”

Usually the ballsy approach gets you in more trouble. This time it worked.

I closed the door and held my breath. Sarge was not happy. He and his soldiers buzzed around outside like angry hornets. Still, yanking a Peace Corps Volunteer out of his house and dragging him off in the middle of the night over a guinea fowl could have serious consequences, much more serious than merely reporting back that I was uncooperative. I could see the headlines:

Soldiers Beats Peace Corps Volunteer Because Dog Eats Guinea Fowl                                                                         Liberian Ambassador Called to White House to Explain

That would have been right up there with “Peace Corps Volunteer Beaten because Dog Invades Mosque!” How did I get myself into these things? I hoped the sergeant shared my perspective. At a minimum, I figured he would check with Bonal. John might not appreciate being awakened in the middle of the night but it would serve him right for laughing when I had told him the guinea fowl story the night before. Anyway, I suspected he was up and watching the action.

We had a very nervous thirty minutes before the soldiers finally marched off. In the US, this is the point where you would be calling your attorney, your mother, and the local TV station. Here, my only backups were the Peace Corps Representative and Doctor: one to represent me, the other to patch me back together.

Happily, our part of the ordeal was over. It turned out that Peter, a young Liberian who worked for Holly, actually owned Boy. The soldiers finally had someone they could bully.

Peter was pulled into court and fined for Boy’s heinous crimes. Boy, in turn, was sold to some villagers to cover the cost of the fine. As for Boy’s fate, he was guest of honor at a village feast. Being a Bad Dog in Liberia had rather serious consequences.

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.