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.
In my last post, Jo Ann and I travelled upcountry to Gbarnga, Liberia and our Peace Corps assignment. Arriving after dark at our new home, we opened the door to find the house swarming with life.
“Lots of bug-a-bug and cockroaches,” Sam 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 smelled 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. Warm thoughts of veteran Peace Corps Volunteers taking care of the new kids temporarily blocked our darker visions.
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. There was no chance it would show up 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 came back up. 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 appeared. 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 the 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 a high level of unhappiness. I was glad there were no handy airplanes around. There was a story about a Volunteer who had landed at Robert’s Field Airport, taken one look 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.
Next post: We wage war on the bug-a-bug and I have an encounter with Crazy Flumo.