Bush Devils, Juju, and Lightning Men

Liberian Bush Devil photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A Grebo Bush Devil, with his jaws open and teeth showing, was guest of honor at a Haight-Asbury party put on by Liberian Peace Corps Volunteers in 1967. I was quite surprised to find my photo from then being used by the Liberian Observer newspaper a few months ago. It is an interesting article.

The book about my Peace Corps experience in West Africa, The Bush Devil Ate Sam, is now available in printed as well as digital form on Amazon. It’s taken a while to get the print copy. To celebrate, I decided to post a sample chapter from the book and feature the story that gave the book its name. Every month or so, I will post another chapter.

Here is this month’s chapter:

Sam, the young man who worked for us in Liberia, was enamored with western culture. It fired his imagination. He spent hours listening to the Kingston Trio get Charlie off the MTA and dove into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like a frog dives into water. Still, for all of his excitement about things modern, ancient African was an integral part of who he was. He had the scars to prove it. They marched down his chest in two neat rows.

“How did you get those,” Jo (my former wife) asked with ten percent concern and ninety percent curiosity.

“I can’t tell you,” Sam replied with obvious nervousness as Jo’s eyebrows rose. “But I can tell Mr. Mekemson.”

Aha, I thought, Sam and I belong to the same organization, the Men’s Club! Actually Sam belonged to a very exclusive men’s organization, the Poro Society, which I wasn’t allowed to join. Its functions were to pass on tribal traditions, teach useful skills, and keep errant tribe members in line. Everything about the organization was hush-hush. Tribal members who revealed secrets could be banned and even executed.

Political power on the local level was closely tied to membership in the Poro Society. On the national level, President Tubman assumed leadership of all Poro Societies in Liberia. Tribal women had a similar secret organization called the Sande Society, which prepared young women for adulthood and marriage. A controversial aspect of the Sande initiation ceremony was female genital mutilation— cutting off the clitoris.

Sam got off easy.

He had been to Bush School the previous summer and learned how to be a good Kpelle man. Graduation to adulthood consisted of an all-consuming encounter with the Poro Society’s Bush Devil. It ate him— metaphorically speaking. Sam was consumed as a child and spit out as a man. The scarification marks had been left by the devil’s ‘teeth.’ It seemed like a tough way to achieve adulthood, but at least it was fast and definitive. Maybe we should introduce the process to our kids in the US and skip the teenage years. Think of all of the angst it would avoid.

The Bush Devil was a very important tribal figure who was part religious leader, part cultural cop and part political hack. Non-Kpelle types weren’t allowed to see him. When the Devil came to visit outlying villages, a frontman preceded him and ran circles around the local Peace Corps Volunteer’s house while blowing a whistle. The Volunteer was expected to go inside, shut the door, close the shutters and stay there. No peeking.

We did get to see a Grebo Devil once. The Grebo Tribe was less secretive, or at least more mercenary. Some Peace Corps Volunteers had hired the local Devil for a Haight-Ashbury style African party. It was, after all, 1967, the “summer of love” in San Francisco and the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Along with several other Volunteers, we hired a money bus to get to the party. Had we been thinking, we would have painted the bus with Day-Glo, like Ken Kesey’s bus, Further.

The Devil was all decked out in his regalia. His persona was somewhere between a voodoo nightmare and walking haystack. Grebo men scurried in front of him with brooms, clearing his path and grunting a lot. We stayed out of the way and took pictures.

The Grebo men carefully tended the Bush Devil.

The Grebo men carefully tended the Bush Devil.

Another area where Sam showed his tribal side was his fear of the newly dead. A person’s spirit was considered particularly powerful and dangerous right after he or she died. Later, the spirit would move away into the bush and fade. But first it had to be tamed with appropriate mourning, an all-night bash. One didn’t take chances. When Sam worked late for us after someone had died, he would borrow a knife and a flashlight in case he had to fight off the malevolent ghost on his way home. I had grown up next to a graveyard and was sympathetic with his concern.

Juju, or African witch doctor medicine, was another area where African reality varied from modern Western reality. Late one evening, in the middle of a tropical downpour, one of my high school students appeared on our doorstep very wet and very frightened. Mamadee Wattee was running for student body president. His opponent had purchased ‘medicine’ from a Juju man to make him sick.

It was serious business; people were known to die in similar circumstances. Had the opposition slandered Mamadee or stuffed the ballot box, I could have helped, but countering a magic potion wasn’t taught at Berkeley, at least not officially. I took the issue to Mr. Bonal, the high school principal, and he dealt with it. Mamadee stayed well and won the election.

The use of Juju medicine represents the darker side of tribal culture. Human body parts derived from ritual human sacrifice are reputed to be particularly effective in creating potions. Cannibalism may be involved. On the lighter side, my students once obtained a less potent ‘medicine’ and buried it under the goal post on the football (soccer) field with the belief that it would cause the other team to miss goals. Apparently, it wasn’t potent enough; the other team won.

This is my senior class. Mamadee is second form the left. Later he would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

This is my senior class. Mamadee is second from the left. Later he would become an elementary school principal in New Jersey.

Mamadee was also the reason behind our introduction to the Lightning Man. When Jo and I went on vacation to East Africa, we left Mamadee with $50 to buy a 50-gallon drum of kerosene. When we returned there was neither kerosene nor $50, but Mamadee was sitting on our doorstep. Someone had stolen the money and Mamadee was extremely upset. Fifty dollars represented a month’s income for a Kpelle farmer. Mamadee’s father, a chief of the Kpelle tribe, was even more upset and wanted to assure us that his son had nothing to do with the missing fortune. It was a matter of honor. He offered to have Mamadee submit to the Lightning Man to prove his innocence.

The Lightning Man had a unique power; he could make lighting strike whoever was guilty of a crime. If someone stole your cow or your spouse, zap! Since we were in the tropics, there was lots of lightning. Whenever anyone was struck, people would shake their heads knowingly. Another bad guy had been cooked; justice had been served.

We didn’t believe Mamadee had taken the money, and even if he had, we certainly didn’t want him fried, or even singed. We passed on the offer. The Chief insisted on giving us $50 to replace the stolen money.

Another Liberian Peace Corps Volunteer in a similar situation chose a different path. Here’s how the story was told to us. The Volunteer had just purchased a brand new $70 radio so he could listen to the BBC and keep track of what was happening in the world. The money represented close to half of the Volunteer’s monthly income. He had owned his new toy for two days when it disappeared.

“I am going to get my radio back,” he announced to anyone who would listen and then walked into the village where he quickly gathered some of his students to take him to the Lightning Man. Off he and half the town went, winding through the rainforest to the Lighting Man’s hut. The Volunteer took out five dollars and gave it to the Lighting Man. (Lighting Men have to eat, too.)

“I want you to make lighting strike whoever stole my radio,” he said.

The Volunteer and his substantial entourage then returned home. By this time, everyone in the village knew about the trip, including, undoubtedly, the person who had stolen the radio.

That night, there was a tremendous thunder and lightning storm. Ignoring for the moment that it was in the middle of the rainy season and there were always tremendous thunder and lightning storms, place yourself in the shoes of the thief who believed in the Lightning Man’s power. Each clap of thunder would have been shouting his name.

In the morning the Volunteer got up, had breakfast and went out on his porch. There was his radio.

NEXT BLOG: Wednesday’s photo essay.

22 comments on “Bush Devils, Juju, and Lightning Men

  1. I was so relieved when this chapter showed up in the book, because I had been dying to know how your book got its name! 🙂 The Lightning Man story is a good one! I think on a stormy night even I would have been worried enough to return the radio – just in case.

    • I realized when I posted the chapter, that some of my friends would have already read it in the book, or even way back when I blogged it. And my thanks, Crystal. But I knew it would be new for the majority of my followers. I would have been right there with you on the radio bit, even though I didn’t believe in the Lightning Man. Why take chances. 🙂 –Curt

  2. A great book. I have finally put a review on Goodreads. I am sorry it has taken so long, I am allergic to the star system so keep putting it off. Basically, everything I review will get 4 stars. If I don’t like a book, I won’t review it and only a Shakespeare play will get five.

    • It was no joke, that’s for sure. Even though Sam was only 13 at the time (as far as he knew) he had spent some time working as an informant with the anthropologist Jim Gibbes. He may have been more forthcoming than others of his age. –Curt

  3. Well the reader ate my like, but but the book sounds wonderful based on the excerpt and everything else you have written. Cheers & congratulations to you from S. Africa~

  4. We’re waiting for another of the storms that’s been rolling through Texas, and I can see lightning in the distance. Once the storms over, if we haven’t blown away, I believe I might peek out the door and see if something’s there. 🙂

    This is such a great story. I remember when you blogged it — I confess I’ve not read it in the book yet. But I will, and I’ll enjoy it just as much, if not more.

    I always think about my houseboy, Phillip, who absolutely refused to have anything to do with one of the masks I have. He’d dust everything else, but not that. And by the by — I heard rumors of some unfortunate political sacrifices during the last big election, pre-Ebola. And I don’t mean sacrifice, as in giving up an evening to meet with the constituents.

    • I thought of you as the storms swept across Texas, Linda. Scary. Texas is the only place where I ever came close to having an automobile washed off of a road. I also remember dodging golf sized hailstones on my bicycle. Those huge, towering cumulus clouds can be frightening with their potential.

      Traditional Africa was always lurking on the edge. Those masks contained a great deal of power from a tribal perspective, even more so if they were Poro masks. No wonder Phillip was wary around them. (I just rotated my seat to see the medicine mask that hangs on my wall.) I am not the least surprised that Juju still works its way into elections. –Curt

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