Once a month, I will be posting a chapter from the book I wrote describing my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. These are to provide a taste of what the book is about and hopefully encourage you to go to Amazon and buy a copy. It’s available on Kindle for a bargain $3.99. If you enjoy my blog, the odds are you will enjoy the book. A number of my followers have commented on the book. This one is by Bill Guerrant:
The book is a page-turner, and I highly recommend it. I laughed out loud and I learned a lot, which only happens with good books. — William C. Guerrant: Virginia Author, Attorney, and Organic Farmer
Chapter background: In 1965, my first wife, Jo Ann, and I graduated from UC Berkeley and flew off to the West Africa Country of Liberia as Peace Corps Volunteers. We had been confused about the date we were supposed to leave and been partying the night the rest of the Volunteers flew to the country. As a result, our assignment was changed to the upcountry town of Gbarnga. This describes our first night. It was culture shock all the way! Welcome to the…
Armies of the Night
Bob and Gerry Branch, friends from training in San Francisco, generously volunteered to host our stay in Monrovia. They lived in a second-floor apartment that overlooked one of Monrovia’s busiest streets. We had a bird’s-eye view of life in the city.
Monrovia was bursting at the seams with young people escaping from rural areas. Poverty was intense. Tin shacks fought for space as extended families struggled to find shelter from tropical downpours. Taxi and money-bus drivers, using their horns for brakes, competed with mangy dogs in creating unceasing noise. The air was tainted with the unique smell of cooked palm oil, smoke and rotting garbage.
On the plus side, Monrovia had several good restaurants, a modern movie theater, an air-conditioned supermarket and a large paperback bookstore, all of which we came to appreciate over the next two years.
Most Americo-Liberians did quite well and the top families lived in luxury. They owned mansions in Monrovia and large farms upcountry. Many had second homes overseas. Their children went to college in Europe and America and dressed in the latest fashions. President Tubman’s official residence, located on the edge of town, had cost the Liberian people $15 million (approximately $120 million in today’s dollars).
We were quite relieved to learn that our teaching jobs weren’t in Monrovia. Originally, we had been assigned to an elementary school down the coast in Buchanan. It came with golden beaches and swaying palm trees. Staff told us our top rating in training had earned us the assignment. We weren’t even aware that we had been “rated.”
Naturally another couple grabbed the assignment when we failed to turn up on time. We were left with their jobs: Jo would teach first grade and I would teach second in the upcountry town of Gbarnga. Evidently, this was our punishment for partying too long in Auburn, California. Gbarnga was a long 120 miles out of Monrovia on the nation’s primary dirt road. With a population approaching 5000, it was Liberia’s largest upcountry town and the center of government for Bong County.
We were eager to get there and escaped from Monrovia as soon as the Director said go. Wellington Sirleaf, the Peace Corps’ driver, carted our minimal belongings and us up to our new home. We arrived in Gbarnga just before dark— tired, hungry, and nervous. Our feelings ran the gamut from “Wow, we are finally here,” to “What in the heck we have gotten ourselves into?”
What Gbarnga had that other upcountry sights lacked, however, was an official Peace Corps staff person, Bob Cohen, and an official Peace Corps doctor, Less Cohen (not related). I assumed this would make our life ‘officially’ easier. Sirleaf took us straight to Bob’s trailer. It was located on a well-maintained USAID (United States for International Development) compound. Bob came out to greet us.
“Welcome to Gbarnga,” he said. “Your house is located across town.”
Using mental telepathy, I beamed to him, “Invite us in for dinner. It’s the proper thing to do.”
“The Volunteers had a work party and cleaned your house last week,” he went on, oblivious to my sending. I urged Jo Ann to look hungry. “And, they even drew you a bucket of water.”
This seemed to impress Bob, so I mumbled something like, “They shouldn’t have.”
“Wellington will drive you over so you can get settled in. Enjoy your evening.” And with that, Bob returned to his trailer. I pictured his filet mignon getting cold.
There was one more stop before we got to our new home. This time it was to see Shirley Penchef, another Peace Corps Volunteer. She was waiting at her house with a young Liberian of the Kpelle tribe and a surprise. It wasn’t food.
“This is Sam,” she bubbled (Shirley always bubbled). “Sam is so excited you are here! He has been waiting weeks for you! He is going to be your houseboy!”
Jo and I were speechless. We had talked about the possibility; it was common practice among Peace Corps Volunteers. A young Liberian would help with chores, earn spending money, and often eat with the volunteer. Both the Liberian and the Volunteer gained from the experience. We recognized the value of the arrangement but had decided that having a houseboy didn’t fit the Peace Corps image.
I mean, how do you tell the folks back home you are roughing it out here in the jungle and doing ‘good’ while someone cooks your dinner, washes your clothes and cuts your grass? On the other hand, how do you tell a woman who talks in exclamation points and a 13-year-old boy who is grinning from ear to ear that you don’t want what they are selling?
“Uh, gee, uh, well, why doesn’t Sam help us get settled in and then we’ll see,” we managed to stutter. It was one of the better decisions we were to make in Liberia.
“It’s time to go,” Wellington announced impatiently. I surmised that a delicious plate of hot Liberian food was waiting for him somewhere in Gbarnga as soon as he could lose us. Sam, Jo Ann and I climbed in the jeep, waved goodbye to Shirley, and went bouncing off down the road.
I don’t want to be melodramatic about the introduction to our house but a little horror movie music might be appropriate. The sun had just set when we arrived. In the tropics, that’s like someone turned off the lights on a dark night. Twilight doesn’t linger. Fortunately, we had a flashlight. Outward appearances weren’t bad. Our new home was a typical Liberian town house. Two sets of closed shutters and a door stared out at us. A zinc roof capped the whitewashed walls. Off to the left was a hole in the ground that Sam informed us was our well. Peeking out from behind on the right was the outhouse. All in all, it was pretty much what we expected.
Then we opened the door.
It was a full-scale Armies of the Night scene straight out of Hollywood, the type of scene Bella Lugosi drooled over. Our noses were assailed with the scent of something that had been entombed for a thousand years. The floor writhed with life. Hundreds of small tunnels etched their way up the walls. I jumped back a foot. Jo Ann qualified for the Olympics.
Sam laughed. “Lots of bug-a-bug and cockroaches,” he observed as we peered in at the chaos.
Sure enough, our flashlight revealed that the writhing floor was a multitude of three-inch African cockroaches scurrying every which way. The tunnels climbing the walls had been sculpted by termites, or bug-a-bug as the Liberians colorfully named them. The tomb-like odor was how a house normally smells in the tropics when left vacant for a few weeks.
Bob’s proudly drawn bucket of water sat carefully placed in the middle of the living room. It temporarily blocked our darker visions. Warm thoughts of veteran Peace Corps Volunteers taking care of the new kids filled our minds. I directed the flashlight into the bucket. A thick layer of scum reflected the light as a complete ecosystem came to life. Somewhere in the house, a malaria-bearing mommy mosquito was extremely proud of her progeny. Hundreds of little wigglers broke the surface, virtually guaranteeing the continuation of the family line for a thousand years.
“Can you imagine what this would have been like if the Volunteers hadn’t cleaned?” I chuckled nervously, making a weak attempt at humor. Jo Ann recognized it for what it was worth and ignored me. I had the uncharitable thought that cleaning our house out had meant removing the furniture.
“Let’s tour our new home.” Again, silence, but at least Jo Ann followed me. I had the flashlight. The bedroom was first. A fist-sized crab like spider went scurrying sidewise across the wall. Splat! One problem was eliminated. I hoped that its aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters weren’t the vengeful type. Our bed was a moldy mattress shoved into the corner. It smelled suspiciously like the house.
“Hey, our first furniture,” I noted, still trying to get a laugh. This time I was rewarded with a weak smile.
Next we came to the kitchen. It would never be featured in Sunset Magazine. A kerosene lantern, kerosene stove and kerosene refrigerator filled the space. But there was no kerosene.
My thoughts returned to the PCVs and what they might have done. I envisioned the refrigerator running and full of cold beer. Then I just envisioned the beer. It didn’t have to be cold, just plentiful. But there wasn’t any beer, there wasn’t any light, there wasn’t any drinkable water and there wasn’t any food. It promised to be a long night.
“I need to visit the outhouse,” Jo Ann announced. My bladder gave an empathetic twinge. Our last pee stop had been in Monrovia. The three of us trooped outside. Jo took the flashlight and disappeared into the rickety one holer.
“Curtis!” she yelled. I yanked open the door and prepared to be heroic. Jo Ann was standing inside with a wild look on her face. The flashlight was shining down into the hole. Thousands of little eyes stared back at us.
“Lots of cockroaches,” Sam noted. He was beginning to sound repetitious.
That was the night that Jo Ann mastered her famous levitating squat routine. Cockroaches used your butt as a runway when you sat on the toilet. Jo solved the problem by positioning herself about five inches up in the air. I am not sure how she managed this Yoga feat but her rear never touched an outhouse seat during the two years we were in Africa. I used a different approach. A loud stomp on the floor sent the cockroaches scurrying downward. The trick was to escape before they climbed back to the top. My habit of reading in the bathroom was sacrificed to the cause.
There wasn’t much left to do but send Sam on his way and try to get some sleep. We retired to our bedroom, and I scrutinized the walls to see if any new monster crab spiders had reappeared. They hadn’t. Word of their truncated life span had gotten around.
I then beat the bed for several minutes with the sincere hope of persuading any other unwanted guests to hit the road.
I also leaned the rest of our furniture, three well-used Salvation Army type folding chairs, against each of our three screened windows. Veteran Peace Corps Volunteers had warned us that rogues, i.e. burglars, loved to rob green Volunteers on their first few days in town. The chairs would serve as a primitive burglar alarm. My theory was that jiggling the window would knock over the chair and scare away the rogue. It was guaranteed to scare the hell out of us.
Finally, it was time to crawl in. We left our clothes on. Jo Ann, by this point, had reached such a high level of unhappiness, I was glad there were no handy airplanes around to cart her home. There was a story about a Volunteer who had landed at Robert’s Field Airport, taken one look around, and climbed back on the plane. My perspective on the evening was that things had been bad enough, they were bound to get better.
That’s when the drums and screaming started.
No one had told us that a Kpelle funeral was like an Irish wake. Mourners stayed up all night pounding on drums, wailing, and drinking lots of cane juice, a concoction similar in nature to moonshine. It was important that the dead be sent off properly. Otherwise, the spirit of the dead person would become irritated, hang around, and do all sorts of bad stuff.
Of course, we knew nothing about any of this. All we knew was that people were beating on drums and screaming. It was time to circle the wagons. Eventually, I went to sleep; I don’t think Jo ever did.
I hope you have enjoyed this. If you read the book on Kindle, please comment. Much appreciated! You can find other sources for the book by clicking on the book cover featured on my blog. Be sure to check in next month when Do Your Part the Dog sneaks in behind me when I am attending the dedication of a mosque and almost causes a riot.