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.
When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.
Gradually, we settled into a routine. By one in the afternoon, we had finished with another day of teaching and assigned it to the done pile. PB&J washed down by orange Kool-aid rewarded our success. Sam joined us. We bought the jelly and peanut butter from the Lebanese market. The bread came from the local baker. Occasionally it included bug parts. We looked before we bit.
Nap time was next; I fell in love with siestas. Rainy season helped. Torrential afternoon showers pounded down on our zinc roof, cooled the air, and lulled us to sleep. An hour later we rolled off the bed and jumped into lesson planning.
Monday through Friday Sam cooked Liberian chop for the three of us and on Saturdays Jo cooked Kwi food (western food) for him, usually pasta of some type. He had a teenager appetite and our budget was tight. Sam was off on Sundays.
Chop consisted of a thick soup made up of meat, greens, hot peppers, bouillon, tomato paste and palm oil. It was served on top of country rice, the staple crop and food of the Kpelle. The rice was raised on the hillsides as opposed to in swamps and arrived with small stones that Sam carefully picked out. The nearest dentist was in Monrovia. If you let him near your mouth he would find 15 cavities you didn’t have. Peace Corps paid well.
The meat might be beef, chicken, fish, goat or even pork, but we usually opted for Argentine canned beef.
Fresh beef required a six am trip to the market on Saturday. We knew it was fresh because the butcher carved it off a still quivering carcass that had been a live steer an hour earlier. You pointed at the cut you wanted. Anything without bone was steak. It was not marbled in fat. Liberian cattle were rib-showing skinny and fed off of any grass they could hustle. We sacrificed the meat to an old-fashioned meat grinder and cooked it to death.
Our experience with Gbarnga’s butcher convinced us that canned beef tasted really good.
The greens for our chop came from Gbarnga’s thriving open-air market. Collards, potato greens, eggplants, pumpkins and bitter balls were our options. Bitter balls tasted exactly like their name: eating them one time was once too many. The number of peppers thrown in depended on tolerance for hot. We progressed from being one-pepper-people to three-pepper-people during our stay. Palm oil added a unique, almost nutty taste.
The market was filled with tribal women selling everything from palm oil to large snails that constantly escaped from their tubs and crawled off. ‘Small boys’ were sent to retrieve them. Sam refused to cook the fist-size Gastropods. “They are taboo for my family.” Taboo was a word he had learned from an anthropologist. I wasn’t sure about the taboo part but hung in with him. I had no more desire for dining on the slimy creatures than he did.
Produce was carried to market in large metal bowls that the women balanced on their heads with ramrod backs and ballerina grace. Given enough beer, I wandered around our house trying to master the procedure. Five seconds were my record before everything came crashing down.
The women wore brightly colored lappas with blouses and headscarves. They would squat next to their produce and call out prices. Large, juicy oranges were “one cent, one cent” in season. Grapefruits were “five cent, five cent” and giant pineapples a quarter. Avocados or butter pears as the Liberians called them could also be purchased for a few cents.
The oranges sported green skins and the pineapples ant nests but both were “sweeto,” as my students liked to say. We added orange juice to our orange Kool-aid. Plopping the pineapples into a bucket of water over night did in the ants. By morning they were little black floaters, forming a scum on top of the water.
Our appearance at the market caused inflation but bargaining was expected. We took along Sam whose rapid Kpelle assured everyone got a fair deal. Eventually Sam took over the shopping chores. We’d send him off with five dollars and he would bring home a week’s worth of food.
When dark arrived in it’s efficient tropical fashion, we would light our kerosene lantern and get cozy. Peace Corps supplied each Volunteer with a book locker filled with one hundred books. We considered it our responsibility to read them all. TV was not an option. I was curious about who made the book selections. My money was on a Harvard professor of literature. The book lockers were heavy on classics and short on mysteries and Sci-fi.
Occasionally we would add a game of scrabble or cards to our evening routine. Around 10 PM it was time for us to eliminate any cockroaches that had strayed into our bedroom and drift off to dreamland.