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.
With Rasputin chosen as our cat, it was time to choose our Peace Corps summer projects.
Jo Ann decided to read to a blind student. Henrietta George lived on the Methodist compound. Reading a variety of books and magazines to her was a simple but worthwhile project that would brighten and broaden the young woman’s world.
My decision was slightly more complicated. I decided to do away with Spot. Why shouldn’t Liberian children have books that reflected their own culture as opposed to books that were based on Dick, Jane and their bouncy, four-legged companion? So I chose to write an elementary school Liberian reader. Peace Corps staff in Monrovia quickly approved the idea.
Immediately afterwards I woke up at 3 AM wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into. My lack of knowledge about Liberian culture was only exceeded by my limited expertise in developmental reading skills. But second thoughts rarely stop me from plunging forward and this time was no exception. There were teaching guides to review, people to interview, folk tales to gather, and stories to write, rewrite and finish in simple English.
It turned into a massive project that occupied my full summer and beyond. Sam gathered several of his friends together to tell me African Folktales they had learned around village cooking fires as young children. Most of the stories involved animals and included lessons on behavior.
Several were about the trickster Spider. Here’s one I included in my reader.
How Spider Got His Small Waist
Spider was very greedy. He didn’t share food and he didn’t share money. He didn’t share anything. He kept it all for himself. One day a group of villagers came to visit Spider.
“We are having a feast. Would you like to come?” they asked.
“Oh yes,” Spider answered with joy as he rubbed his eight legs together. “I will be glad to eat your food.”
Shortly after, people from another village knocked on his door. They, too, were having a feast on the same day and Spider was invited. Of course he would come. He never missed a free meal. But how could he make sure he stuffed himself with food at both feasts? He thought and he thought.
Suddenly he jumped up and did a dance. “I know what I can do!” he sang.
Spider found two very long ropes. He tied one to his door and then walked to the first village and gave the people the other end. “When the feast is ready, tug on the rope,” he told them. Spider then did the same thing with the second village.
When Spider got back to his hut he tied both ropes around his waist. “Now I am ready,” he thought. “When the first feast starts I will run to the village and eat as much of their food as I can gulp down.” (Spider could gulp very fast.) “When the second village tugs on my rope, I will run there and eat all of their bananas.”
Spider was quite pleased with his plan but all of his work had made him very tired. He fell into his bed and snored loudly. He was dreaming about a large dish of palm butter and rice when a tug on his waist woke him up. “Dinner!” he shouted.
He was just outside of his hut when the second village tugged on its rope. Oh no, both feasts were happening at once! But that wasn’t the bad part. With both villages tugging on him, Spider could not move. He was going to miss both feasts.
“Where’s Spider?” the villagers at the first feast worried. Everyone in the village grabbed the rope and tugged has hard as they could.
“Spider is going in the wrong direction!” the people in the second village yelled. Everyone grabbed the rope begin pulling. Even the children helped. It was a tug of war between the two villages and Spider was caught in the middle! The ropes pulled tighter and tighter around him.
And that, my friends, is how Spider got his small waist.
I liked the story. Students could relate and have fun with it. If the teacher had a rope, she could even divide her class and play tug of war.
In addition to folktales, I wrote several stories about the everyday life of the children. One series had them finding a large snake, another playing football (soccer). I even sent them off to Monrovia to visit a favorite uncle.
Finally I wrapped up the book. I did a final rewrite on the stories and shipped them off to Peace Corps headquarters in Monrovia. And then I waited. I was nervous. I felt like a new author who had sent his work off to a publisher or an agent for the first time. I had devoted hundreds of hours to a project that might come to nothing.
Two weeks later I heard back from Monrovia. Peace Corps staff liked the book… apparently a lot. A Peace Corps Volunteer with editing experience would be partnered with a curriculum expert to prepare the book for publishing. A Volunteer who was an artist would add illustrations.
The book was to become a Department of Education project. None of our names would be included. I was fine with that. Or let me put it another way. My ego wasn’t too bruised. The satisfaction was in knowing that the book was being used in classrooms. Dick, Jane and Spot could retire to California.
Then WAWA (a term coined by experienced African hands that stood for West Africa Wins Again) struck. The book wouldn’t be published at all.
I had made the mistake of assuming the government would support a reader that featured Liberian children instead of Dick, Jane and Spot. I understood I might be criticized for inaccurately portraying Liberians or missing the target on developmental reading skills. But these were things that could be fixed.
What I had failed to understand was just how paranoid the Americo-Liberians were about maintaining power. The reader was apparently a dangerous revolutionary tract that would help tribal Liberian children develop a sense of identity and pride. They might grow up and challenge the government. I was told not to fight for the project and to pretend it had never happened. To do otherwise was my one-way ticket home.
Naturally I was angry. I went back and reread what I had written. Yes it featured tribal children and tribal folktales but there was nothing revolutionary about the book. Not one word criticized President Tubman, the True Whig Party or the Liberian government.
On the other hand the book didn’t praise President Tubman, the True Whig Party or the Liberian Government. To be published the reader apparently needed to be a propaganda piece… and that I was unwilling to write.