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.
I put on my coat and tie and shined my shoes. Jo donned her best dress. Kids were streaming by our house and staring through the screens, hoping for a glance at the new teachers.
Jo and I smiled at each other, took a deep breath, and walked out the door.
The air was warm and thick with humidity. Towering cumulus clouds filled the sky. Distant thunder rumbled. Rain was coming. We turned left on the red dirt road and joined the parade of students who glanced shyly at us. NV Massaquoi Elementary School waited.
It wasn’t far, maybe a half of mile, just far enough to get sweaty. Lush growth lined the road… green, dense, impenetrable, alive with buzzing, biting insects. The school sat off to the right in a clearing that been hacked out of the jungle.
Four classrooms faced the road while two more faced inward forming an elongated U. Cement blocks painted blue sat on top of cement blocks painted brown. Palm trees peeked over the zinc roof. Shuttered windows and closed doors completed the simple structure. A flagpole with Liberia’s red, white and blue flag was planted exactly in the center of the yard.
Students and teachers milled about as we approached. All eyes were on us, two white people in a sea of black. A man broke free from the crowd and approached. It was the Principal. We smiled and shook hands and he pointed out our classrooms. The orientation was over. And so was the gathering.
Students and teachers moved toward their rooms. Jo Ann wished me good luck and stalked off to her first grade with a look of determination. I walked toward my second grade with a look of bemusement.
“Good Morning Teacha” thirty bright and shiny faces shouted in unison as I entered.
It was scary, scarier than the big burly policeman who had guarded the door to the Administration building at Berkeley. I was expected to entertain and actually teach these kids something over the next couple of years.
“How?” bounced around in my skull and jumped down to my stomach.
I had a total of two months training at San Francisco State on educational theory. I didn’t have a clue about managing a classroom of second graders or teaching reading and writing and arithmetic. The last time I had been in a second grade, I was seven years old. My brief stint at student teaching a third grade in was helpful. But ‘brief’ is the critical word here.
And how did a classroom full of middle class kids in South San Francisco relate to a classroom of tribal Africans in Gbarnga, Liberia?
My students came from another world: one where spirits lived in trees, ghosts were dangerous, lightning strikes could be controlled, birds were meat-flying, homes were made of mud, live termites were considered a delicacy, and tribal justice was determined with a red-hot machete.
“Good morning students” I replied and smiled. Look confidant, I urged myself. Take control. It became my mantra.
I walked up to the blackboard and wrote Mr. Mekemson. The silence of the room was broken by the squeakiness of the chalk. I introduced myself, pronounced my name and had them pronounce it… several times. They laughed.
“I am from California,” I explained and noticed a slight recognition. Hollywood was there. “It’s a long way off.” I sketched a map of North America, Africa and the Atlantic Ocean with X’s for California and Liberia. Then I drew a great circle route with Diamond Springs on one end and Gbarnga on the other. I added a large jet plane with me looking out the window.
It was my first geography lesson. Of course it was incomprehensible. The kids had never seen a map. The only distance they understood was one they could walk. Jet airplanes were rare tiny specks in the sky.
But they liked the picture of me looking out the airplane’s window.
“OK, it’s your turn. I want you to tell me your name, your age and what tribe you belong to.” I could sense Americo-Liberians in Monrovia frowning. We were supposed to be moving away from tribalism and toward national unity. My students weren’t there yet. They were Kpelle or Mano or Bassa or one of several other ethnic groups first and Liberian second, a distant second.
The majority of my students were Kpelle. It was the largest tribe in Liberia and Gbarnga was in the heart of Kpelle country. But there were also several other ethnic groups. English was the common language that was supposed to bind them together. Tribal dialects were not allowed in the classroom.
I quickly learned English meant Pidgin English spoken with a deep Liberian accent. At first, it seemed like a foreign language.
For example, you might say to me, “I have to go down town for about twenty minutes. I promise I won’t be gone long. Please wait for me.” My students would say, “Wait small, I go come.” “Small,” I, might add, in Liberian time could mean a few hours.
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. One day I looked up and saw one of my male students standing outside and listening to me through the window. I saw a slight shake of his shoulder and realized he was peeing on the wall. I admired his dedication but discouraged the practice.
Another challenge I faced was age difference. My youngest student was a decent second grade age of seven. The oldest was 22, my age, and a heck of a lot tougher. Several were middle school age and had middle school attitudes.
Books created a different 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 I should have been grateful for anything but it was difficult for tribal 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 pinching him and saying, “Oh, Mr. Mekemson, what fine meat.”
The room reflected the simplicity of the building. Shutters covered windows without glass and without screens. Open shutters provided air conditioning. Bugs were free to come and go. Closed shutters kept heat in and tropical deluges out. The only audio-visual aid available was my writing on the blackboard.
Eventually we got through introductions, seat assignments and the other chores inherent in the first day of class. It was time to teach. I broke out Spot.
Somehow I managed to struggle through that first day. There was a curriculum to follow. More importantly, Jo Ann I had taken over from the two Volunteers who had lived in our house. Unlike us, they were experienced teachers. The kids had benefitted from their expertise.
Back at home after school, Jo had a story to tell.
“I was reading the Owl and the Pussy Cat out loud when one of my first graders broke in and said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Mekemson, you shouldn’t say that!’ The whole class broke out in laughter.”
“I asked them what they were talking about. They clammed up. All I could get was nervous giggles.”
“After school I related the story to one of the Liberian teachers and asked if she had any idea what the kids were talking about. She clammed up as well but I pushed her.”
“You were reading about a pussy, Mrs. Mekemson.” The woman managed to stutter. “You know a woman’s down under.”
How in the world her first graders who could barely speak English had picked up this particular meaning of pussy, we didn’t have a clue.