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 in book format.
When I have finished, I will publish the book digitally and in print.
Liberia was born and nurtured in paranoia. Its birth took place in the US during the early 1800’s. The number of free black people was growing rapidly in the North. Yankees saw this growth as an issue of assimilation and competition.
Southerner slave owners saw it as a dangerous threat.
The existence of free blacks encouraged their slaves to think of freedom. Insurrection was a real possibility and that possibility generated deep paranoia in the minds of slave owners. Visions of being killed haunted their dreams.
Various solutions were suggested including the creation of a new state in the US strictly for free black people. Louisiana was named as one possibility. Carving a state out of western territories was another proposal. Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and a number of other prominent Americans offered a different solution: ship free African-Americans back to Africa.
The idea was greeted with enthusiasm. Northern humanists believed that free blacks would be more successful in Africa. Southern slave owners felt that removing free blacks from the continent would eliminate their influence. Powerful Christian groups added their support. A foothold in Africa was an opportunity to save millions of ‘heathen’ souls.
Free blacks were not asked for their opinion.
In 1816 the American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded and by 1820 the first group of 88 African Americans and three white ACS agents sailed to Liberia on the ship Elizabeth.
Life was bleak and dangerous at first. The tribal people were not happy at seeing the intruders take over the region and the Americo-Liberians (ALs), as they came to be known, constituted a very small percentage of the total population. Many died from disease. The new Liberians had long since lost their immunity to tropical bugs.
Purchasing land for the colony from the reluctant tribes was not easy. Gunboat diplomacy solved the problem. Lieutenant Robert Stockton of the US Navy persuaded a local tribal chief, King Peter, to sell the area that would become Monrovia. He pointed a gun at the Chief’s head.
Further territory was added by Stockton’s successor, Jehudi Ashmun, using similar methods. In 1825 he persuaded King Peter and other tribal chiefs to sell prime real estate along the coast for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of gun powder, five umbrellas and miscellaneous other trinkets.
In 1847 Americo-Liberians declared their independence from the American Colonization Society and Liberia became the first independent black republic in Africa.
Only a tiny portion of America’s black population, some 17,000, emigrated from the US to Liberia. African Americans had lived in the US since early colonial times. Their culture was that of their white counterparts, not their distant cousins in Africa. They had fought in America’s wars and helped build the nation. The United States was their home.
Africans freed from slave ships and a small contingency of blacks from Barbados supplemented the Americo-Liberian population.
The history of Liberia is the history of the relationship between Americo-Liberians and the tribal people. The ALs had learned their lessons well in America. They quickly set themselves up as the ruling class. Tight controls were established over the government, military, education, media and economic opportunity.
Tribal Liberians were regarded and treated as second-class citizens and possibly even slaves. In 1929 the League of Nations instigated an investigation into the use of forced labor on the Spanish Island of Fernando Po. Liberian soldiers were used in raids on tribal villages to obtain workers. High government officials were involved. There were rumors that Liberia’s President Charles King, and Vice President Allan Yancey participated in the scheme.
Whether King was involved or not, there is no doubt he was corrupt. The 1982 Guinness Book of World Records listed his 1927 election as the most corrupt in history. King received 234,000 votes from Liberia’s 15,000 registered voters.
Fernando Po represented the tip of a large iceberg. Tribal people were expected to provide free labor for public projects such as road building. They were also expected to provide an inexpensive to free source of labor for the large Upcountry farms of Americo-Liberians. Tribal chiefs also benefitted, as did a Major American corporation.
In 1926 Liberia provided Firestone Tire and Rubber Company with a 99-year, one million acre concession to grow rubber trees. There was to be an exemption on all present and future taxes and the government guaranteed a cheap labor supply… even if soldiers had to recruit it. During my time in Liberia, Firestone workers would go on strike to earn $.25 per hour.
Power and privilege were the results of the policies of the Americo-Liberian government. But it was power and privilege accompanied by an underlying fear that the majority native population would rise up in revolt. This in turn led to a siege mentality similar in nature to that felt by the white slave owners in the Southern United States, which is ironic, to say the least.
When Jo Ann and I arrived in August of 1965, the role of the Peace Corps was to help bring Liberia’s tribal population into the twentieth century. It was a first for the country, considering that Americo-Liberians had worked so hard for so long to keep the tribal population under tight control.
The times ‘they were a changing’ however, as Bob Dylan sang. Independence was sweeping through the continent as one country after another threw off its colonial chains. Liberia’s tribal people’s were aware of what was happening in the world around them and the natives were getting restless.
On an outward level, we found a number of similarities between the United States and Liberia. English was the national language, the currency of the country was well-used American Dollars, and the flag was red white and blue complete with eleven stripes and one star. We even learned that the commanding general of the Liberian army was named George Washington. Government and judiciary were patterned after the American system.
In reality, Liberia was a one party state. The government was controlled by the True Whig Party, which in turn was controlled by Americo-Liberians. What justice existed was heavily weighted toward keeping the ALs in power.
The challenge to William Shradrack Tubman, who had been President since 1943, was to convince the tribal people they were getting a good deal, make a show of it internationally, and still protect the privileges of the Americo-Liberians.
It required an incredible balancing act at which Tubman was a master. The recipe for success involved one part substance, five parts fancy footwork, and ten parts paranoia. The paranoia evolved from the fear that the tribal Liberians would take the process seriously and demand their share or, God forbid, all of the goodies.
As long as Peace Corps Volunteers behaved themselves, they were part of the substance. The Liberian government made it quite clear that there would be serious consequences for anyone caught challenging the supremacy of the Americo-Liberians and the True Whig Party. For Liberians, the serious consequences could mean jail… or worse. For us, it was a one-way ticket out of the country.
I would find myself on the edge of being shipped out, twice.