(This travel blog is one of a continuing series where I relate my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid 60s in Liberia, West Africa honoring the Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary.)
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 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 enter. Or we focus so hard on extolling our own culture that we fail to learn valuable lessons another culture may teach us.
One of the great values of the Peace Corps experience is the sensitivity and respect it teaches for the beliefs and values that other people hold. Often this leads to a greater appreciation of our own culture.
There are definite risks involved in running headlong into another society, however. Culture shock is one. The environment may be so different that it becomes disorienting and may lead to depression. My transition from California to Liberia was relatively smooth. At first, Gbarnga didn’t seem significantly different from my old hometown of Diamond Springs. I suffered much greater shock going from Diamond Springs to UC Berkeley.
Going native, or bush as it was called in Liberia, is another risk. A person becomes so enthralled with the new culture that he adopts it as his own. A joke circulated among West Africa Volunteers on how to determine if 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 swallowed back into the cup, 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.
If Peace Corps Volunteers had a hard time with culture shock and going bush, the tribal Liberians had a tougher one. Traditional cultures normally find 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 has heard the taxi horn calling or climbed on the Internet?
Gbarnga was on the frontier of cultural change in the 60s. On the surface, life appeared quite westernized. An occasional John Wayne movie even made it to town. My students would walk stiff-legged down the 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 the way to Ganta and Guinea.
We had enough US-based churches to satisfy Pat Robertson. Missionaries were everywhere. Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and numerous other Christian groups worked the streets in unending competition to recruit African souls.
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 would find them out sacrificing a chicken to make sure God got the message. And yes, the Coca Cola sign was there but next to it was a giant Cottonwood with offerings to the spirit that lived inside the tree.
Sam, the young Liberian who worked for us and spent hours listening to our record player getting Charley off the MTA, was another case in point. Scarification marks marched down his chest in two neat rows.
“How did you get those,” my ex-wife Jo Ann 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. Its function was to pass on tribal traditions and keep errant tribe members in line. The women had a similar organization called the Sande Society.
Sam 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 visited outlying villages, a front man came first and ran circles around the local Peace Corps Volunteer’s home 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 Bush Devil once. The Grebo Tribe was a little less secretive or at least more mercenary than the Kpelle. Some Volunteers had hired the local Devil for an African style Haight-Ashbury Party. 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.
While the Bush Devil and the Sassywood Man I blogged about last week seem foreign and even threatening to the Western mind, the truth is that they played an important role in maintaining order within the tribal culture.
Next up: If somebody steals your dog, car or wife, who do you call: The Lightning Man!