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.
Joining the Peace Corps should come with a label like they put on cigarette packs. It would read “Warning: This experience may change your concept of reality.”
Our vision of the world is perceived through culturally tinted glasses. Not surprisingly, the reality of our parents and our society becomes our reality. It’s very hard to imagine life from any other perspective. Close encounters with other cultures can shake this vision but not easily. We wear our culture like bulletproof vests, rarely allowing a stray thought to penetrate. Or we focus so hard on extolling our own culture that we fail to learn valuable lessons another culture may teach us.
A key element of our Peace Corps training had been to instill cultural sensitivity. Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s book, “The Ugly American,” came out in 1958 and was turned into a movie starring Marlon Brando in 1963. Both made a significant impression on me. US citizens were known for being pushy and acting superior in dealing with foreign cultures. It created enemies. Peace Corps’ job was to make friends and provide aid, not alienate people.
There was another important reason for the training. Risks are involved when you run headlong into another culture. Depression is one. The environment may be so totally different that it becomes disorienting. The common name for this is culture shock. Learning about Liberia and its tribes was a form of inoculation.
My transition from California to Liberia was relatively smooth. At first, Gbarnga didn’t seem all that different from my old hometown of Diamond Springs. A small rural town is a small rural town. I suffered more shock going from Sierra College to UC Berkeley than I did going from Berkeley to Liberia. My disorientation (and depression) would wait until I returned to the US.
A less common phenomenon is going native or bush as it was called in Liberia. In this instance, you become so enthralled with the new culture that you adopt it as your own. There was a joke that circulated among Peace Corps Volunteers on how to determine when you were teetering on the edge.
Phase One: You arrive in country and a fly lands in your coffee. You throw the coffee away, wash your cup and pour yourself a new cup.
Phase Two: You’ve been there a few months and a fly lands in your coffee. You carefully pick the fly out with your spoon and then drink the coffee.
Phase Three: It’s been over a year and you have become a grizzled veteran. A fly lands in your coffee. You yank it out with your fingers, squeeze any coffee it may have consumed back into the cup, add the fly to your fly collection, and then drink the coffee.
Phase Four: You’ve been there too long. A fly lands in your coffee cup. You yank the fly out of the cup, pop it into your mouth and throw the coffee away. It’s time to go home.
I never met a Liberian who ate flies but bug-a-bugs, aka termites, were considered a real delicacy.
If Peace Corps Volunteers had a tough time with culture shock and going bush, the tribal Liberians had a tougher one. Traditional cultures have normally found their confrontations with the western world a losing proposition. It isn’t that our culture is so great; it’s just that our technology is so glitzy. How do you keep Flumo down on the farm when he hears the taxi horn blowing? And there were lots of taxis and money busses in Gbarnga offering one-way trips to Monrovia.
Gbarnga was on the frontier of cultural change. On the surface, life could appear quite westernized. An occasional John Wayne movie even made it to town. My students would walk stiff-legged down Gbarnga’s main street and do a great imitation of the Duke. They dreamed some day of traveling to America where they would swagger down dusty streets and knock off bad guys with their trusty six shooters.
In town, loud speakers blared out music at decibel levels the Grateful Dead would have killed for while Lebanese shops pushed everything from Argentinean canned beef to London Dry Gin. The epitome of Americana, a Coca Cola sign, dominated the road as you left town on your way to Ganta.
William Tubman had been the first Americo-Liberian President to actively encourage tribal Liberians to shed their traditional cultures and become more Westernized, or at least more Liberian. His first push had been to encourage an increase in the number of missionaries working upcountry. They were welcome to proselytize whatever brand of Christianity they wished as long as they remembered, “to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s.”
We had enough US-based churches in Gbarnga to satisfy Pat Robertson. Missionaries were everywhere. Baptists and Catholics and Episcopalians and Presbyterians and God only knew how many other Christian groups worked the streets in unending competition to recruit African souls.
I was out on a bush walk several miles from town once when I spotted this man coming toward me dressed up in a coat and tie, wearing shiny black shoes, and carrying a brief case. My first reaction was to get off the trail. I was too slow.
“Wait, I have something to give you,” he called.
You can bet that reassured me. But I waited. Standing there in the middle of a muddy trail in the middle of the African jungle, the man very carefully opened his brief case and pulled out a magazine. The headline screamed, ‘The World Is Coming to an End’ and apparently I was too. The magazine was “Awake” and a Jehovah Witness had me in his clutches.
Sometimes, if I closed my eyes and pretended, I could almost believe I was home. Almost. Then Africa would whip around and bite me. Sure, the local villagers would dutifully file in to church on Sunday morning and pray for blessings like their western counterparts did. But Sunday afternoon might find them out sacrificing a chicken to make sure God got the message. And yes, there was a Coca Cola sign on the way to Ganta but next to it was a tall tree where you could usually find offerings to the spirit that lived in the tree.
During my stay in Liberia I was to encounter a number of situations where African reality differed substantially from American reality. In my next blog I will introduce one of the most powerful figures in Liberia’s tribal culture, The Bush Devil.