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.
Our life became routine, if you consider living without electricity or running water and parking your butt in a cockroach occupied outhouse as routine.
Morning started with a quick bowl of cereal topped off by a mixture of water and Milkman powder. Drinking the stuff involved an acquired taste I never acquired but fresh milk came with a question mark. Louis Pasteur had not made it to Gbarnga.
Water was equally scary. Amoebic dysentery is a common third world ailment that attacks your intestines with shock and awe. Think of it as Montezuma’s Revenge times ten. Peace Corps provided a ceramic filter and the Peace Corps doctor provided endless warnings. Paranoia ran rampant in our household. We boiled our water for ten minutes and then filtered it, even when it came straight from the rain barrel.
By 8:00 our screen door slammed behind us as we made our daily trek to Massaquoi and teaching. At least I hoped that was what I was doing. Nobody nominated me for teacher of the year but I was feeling less nervous about the job. In Peace Corps, you take your victories where you find them. I liked my students, followed the curriculum and tolerated the subject matter.
“Here comes Jane. She looks mad. Run Dick run.” did not get me excited. Neither did two plus three equals five or “Let’s see if you can print an A.”
On the other hand, the Liberian teachers at our school were getting by with a high school education. Between taking care of their families, illness and ‘don’t want to’ they were often absent. Pay was $40 per month without benefits. Like all government workers, they were required to ‘contribute’ one month of their annual salary to the True Whig Party. In fact, loyalty to the Party was more important than loyalty to the job.
Sadly, no Teacher meant no teaching. Substitutes were nonexistent. The kids were left to get by on their own, which they did like kids anywhere: laughing, yelling, fighting, playing games, and disrupting other classrooms. Sometimes, out of frustration, I would walk into an unsupervised classroom and be rewarded with instant silence. It lasted until I walked out the door.
Occasionally we escaped from our jobs. The students would be called out to join a work party, there would be a national holiday or an important politician would come to town.
Work parties involved beating the jungle back from the school. It lurked around the edges, eager to regain lost territory. All of the students were required to participate in chopping and hauling. We were expected to supervise.
The older boys wielded machetes. My 22-year old second grader, John, challenged me to a tree-cutting contest. It was a small tree, limb size. Naturally the whole class and half the school gathered around. I good-naturedly took the machete, sent a prayer to the forest spirits that I wouldn’t chop off my leg, and whacked downward with all my strength. Maybe, just maybe, I cut a third of a way into the sapling. The machete became stuck, like it was super glued to the tree. The kids broke out in laughter.
“Your turn,” I said to John, leaving the offending tool buried. He grabbed the handle, yanked the blade out, and swung the machete in one easy motion. The tree came crashing down. I told John he was now in charge of class discipline. The kids laughed again, but not so hard. Maybe I was serious.
Holidays normally celebrated some important event in Americo-Liberian history, like Matilda Newport mowing down Tribal Liberians with a canon. We shared the tribal perspective on the event but appreciated the day off.
When President Tubman or Vice President Tolbert came to town, school children were expected to line the streets and cheer. It was part of the National Unification Program. Tubman was the charismatic “father” of his nation, the big daddy. Teachers were expected to be there as well. And they were. It’s not smart to irritate your meal ticket.
Our presence was urged but not required. Most Volunteers opted out of the important politician parade. Part of it was because of irritation with the government but the main reason was that the politicians were never on time. Often the luminary was two or three hours late and it was pouring down rain, which it did half of the time, or the sun was boiling hot, which it did the other half.
One of our fellow Peace Corps teachers in Gbarnga, Phil Weisberg, took a different approach. He was a tall, gangly Volunteer who looked like he had recently lost something of profound value. He was a serious man who rarely laughed.
I remember three other things about him. One, he was in love with Barbara Streisand. He had all of her albums and would listen to her for hours on his battery driven record player.
Two, he instituted his own welfare system for needy Liberian kids. He would hire one kid to dig a hole in his backyard and a second to fill it in. Sam thought it was quite funny and laughed when he told us the story.
Three, if his students had to wait in the sun or rain for politicians, he was going to be there, suffering along with them.
Once, when he was waiting in the hot sun for the President’s wife, Phil decided to demonstrate his displeasure. He penned a sign that informed Mrs. Tubman, “You are Late.” Two hours later her motorcade tooled in to Gbarnga. Phil hoisted his sign and waved it at the First Lady’s limousine.
The protest lived as long as it took the security police to grab him. One didn’t mess with the President’s wife. One did not protest against the government.
After he had sufficient time to consider his crime, Mrs. Tubman directed the police to release him. For punishment Phil was transferred to Monrovia to teach Americo-Liberian children at a Methodist school. Several Peace Corps staff wanted to send him home… Phil’s antics made their jobs more difficult, but Liberia’s Peace Corps Director, William Wilson, supported him. Eventually, he returned to his teaching job in Gbarnga.
When Phil’s term expired he left his record player and collection with us, minus Barbara. It did include a great selection of the Kingston Trio, however. Sam spent his spare time getting Charlie off the MTA and Tom Dooley hung.