Good Mornin Teacha

Main street Gbarnga circa 1965. Our main shopping district.

“Good Morning Teacha” thirty bright and shiny faces shouted in unison as I walked into the classroom on my first day of teaching in Gbarnga.

“Good morning,” I responded in my best new Peace Corps Teacher voice. And then reality struck. I was expected to entertain and actually teach these kids something over the next several months.

Unless you are a teacher, you might be saying, “Hey, how hard can it be to teach a group of second graders?” My only response is “Try it some time.”

Plus there were handicaps.

My students ranged in age from seven to twenty-two and spoke several different tribal languages. While Kpelle was the predominant language used in our area, several others were represented. English was supposedly the common language but its reach into tribal areas was minimal.

Pidgin English Liberian style provided the bridge. For example, I might say to you, “I have to go down town for about twenty minutes. I promise I won’t be gone long. Please wait for me.” The Pidgin English equivalent would be, “Wait small, I go come.”

One idiom I learned quickly was, “Teacha, I have to serve nature.”  That meant, “May I have your permission to use the restroom?” Actually it was permission to use the outhouse or just as likely the ‘bush’ or even the side of the building. Some of my male students would listen to me through the open window as they did their thing on the wall. I admired their dedication but discouraged the practice.

Books created another problem; for the most part, there weren’t any. What we did have for reading were vintage 1950 California readers complete with Dick, Jane and Spot. I suspect we should have been grateful for anything but it was difficult for the Liberian kids to identify with big white houses, white picket fences and little white kids.

As for Spot, he bore a striking resemblance to food. Later, when I had a cat, my students would tease me by coming by, pinching him and saying, “Oh, Mr. Mekemson, what fine meat.”

Getting sick didn’t help the education process. I had been teaching for two months when I met an obnoxious tropical bug that knocked me out for several weeks. It announced its presence with a low temperature of 100 degrees that soon climbed to 103. Normally it hovered around 101.

As for its pedigree, who knows? Les Cohen, the Peace Corps doctor, would come by and shrug his shoulders a lot. He used the lottery approach to medicine. We must have explored his whole medicine chest.

The sad thing about being sick was that there were no substitute teachers. Whenever a teacher was absent, the class was left to fend for itself.  Often, my students would come by to check on how “Teacha” was doing.

“How are you feeling Mr. Mekemson? When are you coming back to teach? Can’t you teach us while you are sick?” There’s nothing like thirty kids standing around your house and looking mournful to create guilt.

At least I was able to plow through a number of the 100 books the Peace Corps generously provided for Volunteers. There was also entertainment of another sort. Each day around 10 AM a woman would stop in the dirt road opposite our house, squat down and pee.

I didn’t have a clue to her motivation but I found myself looking forward to her visits. Maybe she was practicing Ju Ju (African medicine). Or maybe she just had to go or was marking her territory. Who knows? I tried to pry out of Sam what she was up to but he would just shake his head and mutter in Kpelle.

Evening entertainment was supplied by Miranda Hall. This popular bar/dance hall added substantially to my already splitting headache. Loudspeakers perched on top of the establishment blasted African High Life music for miles around. Since it was located one hundred yards from our house, we received the full benefit of its marketing campaign.

One song I remember from hearing at least ten times a night had a country-western theme: “Woe is me, shame and scandal in the family.”

Later, I actually witnessed a little shame and scandal in the house next to the bar. I was walking by when the ‘man of the house’ came down the street, nodded to me and went inside. It seems he was early. I heard a loud shout at the same time a well-endowed naked man burst through the screen window and hit the ground running. Right behind was the jilted husband. The two streaked by me and disappeared downtown.

The naked guy was really fast.

Les was out of town when my illness finally decided to peak.  As my temperature passed the 103 mark and headed for 104 I began to worry about hallucinating and becoming irrational. I asked Jo to contact an Indian doctor who served the local community. Dr Swami (yes that was his name) came right over.

“Here, drink this,” he said.

Dr. Swami gave me a sweet, syrupy liquid that tasted great, knocked me out and cured me. The next morning I woke up feeling much better. I was even able to participate in helping consume a Thanksgiving turkey that Bob Cohen’s wife had prepared. The turkey tasted a little like sawdust due to the lingering remnants of my bug but hey, who was complaining. There was a bottle of scotch to wash it down.

(Tomorrow… Reading, writing and arithmetic taught to the tune of an ebony stick.)

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