Three Hundred Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job… More Tales from West Africa

Three Hundred Cups of Tea and the Toughest Job by Asifa Kanji and David Drury

 

Peggy, who is President of Friends of the Ruch Library, came home from a Jackson County Library meeting this summer and told me that two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers had just given a program at the Ashland Library on a book they’d written about their experience in Mali, West Africa. She also had their names, David Drury and Asifa Kanji, and contact information.

Given the book I’d written about my Peace Corps adventures in Liberia, it caught my attention.  I called immediately and reached David. Asifa was off in Hawaii attending to business. Within a few minutes we had a picnic set up for Lithia Park in Ashland. We’d bring the wine. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ashland, it’s the first town you come to when following I-5 north from California into Oregon. The community is renowned for its Shakespeare Festival.)

By the end of lunch, we were on our way to becoming friends and had exchanged books. Asifa and David’s books, Three Hundred Cups of Tea and The Toughest Job, are combined under one cover. My book is The Bush Devil Ate Sam. 

I immediately took their books home and begin reading them. I was fascinated. Both are good writers, have a great sense of humor, and have interesting stories to tell.

I joined the Peace Corps when I was 22, right after I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965. David and Asifa joined almost 50 years later in 2012 when David was 60 and Asifa 57. They had to have vastly different experiences from mine, I thought. And yes, there were differences. I certainly didn’t have a cell phone or access to the Internet. They still weren’t invented. And David worked in a cybercafe! In 1965, I would have been running to the dictionary for a definition— and not finding it.

But in the end, I was more impressed by the similarities of our experiences than the differences. Working in an impoverished third world country while struggling to accomplish something in a totally different culture is slow arduous work, and often unsuccessful. Both of their book titles reflected this. Asifa’s 300 cups of tea was the number of cups you had to drink with someone to get their attention. Patience and, I might add, a strong bladder were called for. David’s book got right to the point; it was the toughest job he had ever had.

If you want a good tale that will transport you into another world with both compassion and humor, I recommend David and Asifa’s book. It’s available here on Amazon.

The Bush Devil Ate Sam, Tree Hundred Cups of Tea, and the Toughest Job: Books on Peace Corps Experiences in West Africa

If you are among my blog followers in Southern Oregon, Asifa, David and I will be doing a program featuring tales from West Africa on this coming Saturday, January 20 at the Ruch Library from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. You are invited! The address for the library is 7919 Highway 238 (one block past the Upper Applegate River intersection if you are coming in from Jacksonville on 238).

Friends of Liberia… Working to Improve the Nation’s Future— by Stephanie Vickers

 

Laundry Day. Stephanie Vickers in her first month as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia during 1971.

Stephanie Vickers does her laundry during in-country training in her first month as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zorgowee, Liberia during 1971.

I asked Stephanie Vickers, the president of Friends of Liberia (FOL), to do a guest blog today outlining the work that the organization does in Liberia and her connection to that work. If you are a regular follower of my blog and/or have read my book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” you are aware that I once served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia and have maintained an active interest in the country since. You can obtain a copy of the book on Amazon. Half of the profits from the sale of the book go toward supporting FOL projects in Liberia.

Education is a key ingredient to improving life in Liberia, as it is in all third world nations. During the civil war that raged in the country for over a decade from 1990 to 2000, education efforts ceased to exist. They suffered a similar fate this past year during the Ebola crisis. A 2012 study revealed that there were 571,555 school-aged children out of school and over 400,000 at the risk of dropping out. According to UNESCO in 2014 (before the Ebola crisis), only 26.7% of school-aged children were attending school. 

Friends of Liberia, Peace Corps and other non-government organizations are working in partnership with the Liberia government to once more make education a national priority. I was particularly excited to learn about FOL’s Family Literacy Project, a new program that is designed “for situations where parents with low literacy levels want to become involved in their children’s education.” It is literally a case of helping parents to help their children at a point in their lives when such help is critical to their future educational success.

Stephanie brings a high level of expertise to this effort and over 17 years of experience in working with the people of Liberia (three as a volunteer and fourteen as a member of FOL). Her words:

 

Friends of Liberia began in 1986 at a National Peace Corps Association conference as an alumni group for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) from Liberia.

At the outbreak of the civil war in 1990, the organization changed its mission to advocating for Liberian peace, which it did so aggressively. It also turned to actively helping organizations addressing problems in Liberia. By necessity, FOL evolved over the next decades to be far more inclusive in its membership, welcoming Liberians who live in America and many others who had worked in Liberia. Today, it is open to anyone who cares about Liberia and her people. To read more about the early days of the organization, go to http://fol.org/history/.

My connection with Liberia started with the Peace Corps. I grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1967, and grad school in 1968. I was hired to teach in the Berkeley Public Schools until I joined the Peace Corps in 1971.

I was originally recruited to work as a teacher trainer in Sanniquellie, Liberia with counterparts that traveled to schools to train and support teachers. Unfortunately, the program was loosely organized and I wanted to work more, so I requested a transfer to St Mary’s School (7-12 grades) where I taught Reading/English, Liberian and World History and Economics.

At the end of my two-year assignment, I spent a third year in Liberia helping train new Peace Corps Volunteers. I was responsible for arranging cultural activities to introduce new trainees to the Liberian culture. I also served as an education trainer for new groups of teacher volunteers. My responsibilities allowed me to travel extensively throughout the country.

Stephanie in her role as Peace Corps Trainer in Liberia, 1973.

Stephanie in her role as Peace Corps Trainer working with Roosevelt Harris and Dan Goe in Tapita, Liberia, 1973.

After 30 years spent teaching and administering education programs in the U.S, I was drawn back to Liberia in 2001 as a volunteer in FOL’s early childhood education teacher-training project, called the Liberian Education Assistance Project (LEAP). Ironically, I actually got to do teacher training, the original assignment I had as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1971. Professionally, it was very exciting. I went on to serve as the Administrator and Language Arts instructor of LEAP for 14 years.

FOL Trip to Liberia May 2009: Literacy lesson with first graders at the Ganta Mission School

On an FOL Trip to Liberia in May 2009, Stephanie shared a literacy lesson with first graders at the Ganta Mission School.

Working directly with Liberian early childhood educators just emerging from the war years, I discovered that many of these teachers and principals had serious gaps in their education and had not had professional development since the 1980s. The small difference I could make as a Language Arts trainer in our methodology sessions was not enough to combat a serious literacy crisis.

Partly due to FOL’s advocacy over all those years, the Ministry of Education has taken up the cause for early childhood education and is addressing it with teacher training and creating model schools. We have yet to determine the full effect of the recent Ebola epidemic that caused schools to close for most of the year on this and other education programs.

I am part of FOL’s “education working group” (EWG), which has decided to take a more holistic approach to improving the literacy rate among adults and children. The FOL Family Literacy Project is in its design stage but aims to be implemented in the next year.

The goal is to improve the academic success of children by improving adult parenting and literacy skills and child literacy skills through a program developed in Israel and widely in use in the U.S and a half-dozen other countries. Home Instruction for Parents and Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) http://www.hippy-international.org was designed for situations where parents with low literacy levels want to become involved in their children’s education. FOL will partner with organizations in Liberia to implement the project.

I hope Curt’s fascinating stories and my own experience might generate interest in others to get involved in helping Liberia. The Family Literacy Project will need major support to get started and prove itself effective in some of Liberia’s poorest communities. We will continue to keep you updated on www.FOL.org and appreciate your interest.

I would like to close by urging you to follow Stephanie’s link to learn more about FOL and its programs. Please hit the donate button. Reducing illiteracy and empowering people to take charge of their lives is in all of our interests. It’s a small world and getting smaller. –Curt

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.

Thank You Bill and Hilary*… for Your Fine Words

Basenji dog in Liberia, West Africa.

Do You Part, the Liberian named Basenji that adopted me in the Peace Corps and that Bill Guerrant refers to in his book review below, is the small dog with the curly tail standing in the forefront. One of her many exploits was slipping behind me into the grand opening of a mosque in Gbarnga— almost causing a riot.

I am tickled that two of my favorite Word Press bloggers enabled me to create the above headline. Now, before you dash off a note to me that I have misspelled Hillary, the *Hilary I am talking about is not Hillary Clinton. It’s Hilary Custance Green, a writer and author living in England. Bill is Bill Guerrant, a one time attorney, now farmer, and soon to be author living in Virginia. Both have recently written unsolicited reviews of my book, a fact for which I am both grateful and somewhat humbled.

Writing a book is hard work. At least it was for me, and I am sure it is for most authors. Thousands of hours, even years, can be spent on the project. The page that takes a few minutes to read probably required several hours to write, or longer. Sometimes words flow; I have those minutes when my fingers dance over the keyboard. But more often than not, the process is painfully slow, like sitting in a dentist’s chair and waiting for the dentist to get his hand and drill out of your mouth.

As an aside, I was sitting in my dentist’s chair last week when my dental hygienist started giggling while she was reading my chart. “What?” I asked grumpily. My mouth is no giggling matter. Usually dentists start planning their next trip around the world when they look inside. “I see,” she said laughing, “that you have listed dentists under things you are allergic to.” Yep, that would have been me.

There is more to the book process than hard work. Call it an ego thing, if you must, but most writers are an insecure bunch, especially first time authors. We don’t have a clue how our book is going to be received. It is somewhat akin to having your child on stage for her first big solo performance. By the time I had finished The Bush Devil Ate Sam, I had put so much effort into writing the book, and so much of myself, that I was prepared to head for the cooking sherry at the slightest criticism. I am ever so thankful that I didn’t have to live with me. (Peggy nods in agreement.)

Fortunately people have been kind. It’s true that my book isn’t out there in the world where the professional critics are paid big bucks to be nasty, but people I care about and respect seem to genuinely enjoy the book. What I had hoped for— that it would introduce readers to Liberia and her people, that it would provide insight into what being a Peace Corps Volunteer is like, and that it would provide some laughs along the way, seem to be happening.

I reblogged Hilary’s post a week ago. Here’s what Bill has to say:

Just before starting Ben Falk’s book I read frequent-commenter Curt’s book The Bush Devil Ate Sam, a delightfully entertaining (and informative) memoir of his time in the Peace Corps in Liberia in the 1960s. The book is a page-turner, and I highly recommend it.  Curt enrolled at UC-Berkeley just in time for the beginnings of the student rebellion there, putting him on the frontlines at the beginning of one of the world’s greatest movements for social justice. Some of that story is told in his book, and a fascinating story it is. Most of the book tells the story of the time he and his wife spent in Liberia.  I laughed out loud and I learned a lot, which only happens with good books. The story of his dog Do Your Part crashing the grand opening of the community’s first mosque (Curt having been mistaken for “the international media”) is alone worth the price of the book.

The book closes with some insightful thoughts about Liberia’s tragic history of the past few decades.  It caused me to think of a Liberian woman who was a classmate of mine in seminary, a kind and gentle person who lived through the horrors of the civil war there.  Whenever she tried to talk about it, she cried. Something she said about Americans has stuck with me.  She said that here when we say grace before a meal (if we bother), it just seems perfunctory. In Liberia, she said, people are truly grateful for every meal and they offer thanks with joy at the miracle that food is.  I wish I could recall her exact words, because I’m not doing them justice.  Suffice it to say that Curt’s concern for Liberia and the Liberian people resonated with me, even though I’ve never been there.

By the way, Curt is also one of the rock-stars of the blogosphere. Go check out his blog. You can buy his book from Amazon, but I recommend you contact him directly for a copy.**

Hilary and Bill are both caring and highly productive people, contributing to and making a difference in the world. Hilary is a sculptor and the author of two books that are available on Amazon. Presently she is working on Letters from Relatives of Far East POWS—Writing to a Ghost, a book that explores an almost forgotten aspect of World War II involving Far East Japanese prisoners of war and their families. It is a story that deserves to be remembered. Her blog is the Green Writing Room.

Bill is a farmer who is a leader in the movement to reintroduce America to the natural and healthy foods being grown on small farms across the country. In his own words: “Our produce is grown naturally, without pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers. Our animals are raised humanely.” His blog is Practicing Resurrection.

** For those of you that do your reading in EBooks, The Bush Devil Ate Sam is available on Amazon and a number of other sites around the world. Simply click on the cover of the book in the right hand column above. It will take you to my author’s page and the sites. If you prefer a written copy, the book will eventually be available on Amazon and several other sites as print on demand copies. In the mean time you can write me at cvmekemson@gmail.com and I will be glad to send you a copy while supplies last. Please include your address. I will send an invoice with the book. You pay when you receive the book. The cost is presently $13 plus mailing costs, normally $3.00 in the US.

“The Bush Devil Ate Sam” Is Now Published…

Facebook Bush Devil

The Bush Devil Ate Sam is now available on a number of sites worldwide as an eBook including Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo— plus several others you can find by visiting my author’s page. It will also soon be available as a print on demand book on several sites including Amazon and Barnes and Noble for those of you who prefer a printed version.

In the meantime, you can Email me at cvmekemson@gmail.com for printed and signed books. I have two versions, an original ‘beta’ copy with a few mistakes for $10 plus shipping, and a revised copy for $13 plus shipping. Tell me which book you would prefer and provide your address. We will mail it to you along with an invoice (as long as the books last).

Sam and I cut back weeds with machetes in front of our house in Gbarnga, Liberia. Our outhouse is off to the left.

Sam and I cut back weeds with machetes in front of our house in Gbarnga, Liberia. Our outhouse is off to the left.

Ready to eat monkey meat in Ganta, Liberia.

Monkey meat anyone?

The "Bush Devil" featured on the cover of my book was created by Freddy the Carver shown here. Freddy was a leper who lived in a leper colony in Ganta, Liberia circa 1965.

The “Bush Devil” featured on the cover of my book was created by Freddy the Carver shown here. Freddy was a leper who lived in a leper colony in Ganta, Liberia circa 1965.

 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, here is a brief summary of what it is about:

In 1965 I left the chaotic world of UC Berkeley and the student revolution of the mid 60s to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in the even stranger world of Liberia, West Africa. When I arrived, descendants of freed slaves from America ruled the country with an iron grip while the tribal people were caught in a struggle between modern culture and ancient Africa.

I quickly discovered that being a Peace Corps Volunteer was anything but dull. Army ants invaded our house. Students strolled into class with cans of squirming termites for breakfast, and Sam, the young man who worked for me, calmly announced that the scars running down his chest were the teeth marks of the Poro Bush Devil.

On the teaching front, my seniors took top national honors in social studies, but the national government determined a student government I created to teach democracy was a threat to Liberia’s one party state. My students were to be arrested; I was told to pack my bags.

These and many other stories are included in The Bush Devil Ate Sam. If you enjoy my blog, I think you will like the book. I conclude with an epilogue that traces the history of Liberia since I served in the country including the recent Ebola crisis. The book is designed to capture both the humor and challenges of serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Half of the profits from this book will be donated to Friends of Liberia, a nonprofit organization that has been in existence since 1980 and is made up of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, people who have served on missions in Liberia, experts on international development, and Liberians. The goal of the organization is “to positively affect Liberia by supporting education, social, economic and humanitarian programs.”

To say that I am excited (or maybe relieved?) about finally publishing the book is a gigantic understatement. (Grin) I had no idea about how much work was involved. Now I get to jump into marketing. Woohoo. Last week, I held my first book signing in Sacramento, California (75 people attended). Today is my blog’s turn. A whole series of other activities are to follow. And of course, I get to start on my next book. It’s going to be on Burning Man.

One bit of fun news. I recently received an Email from Steven Spatz, the president of BookBaby. BookBaby is the largest distributer of eBooks in the US and I worked with the company in publishing my book. He wanted to feature The Bush Devil Ate Sam on his blog as a perspective on the range of books BookBaby produces. Go here to see what Steven had to say.

My thanks to each of you who purchase a book and a special thanks to those of you who helped me pick out the name of the book several months ago. One request, if you do the download from Amazon, please do the review. It impacts how Amazon places the book.

Book signing in Sacramento. I am off in the corner working.

Book signing in Sacramento. I am off in the corner working. (Photo by Wayne Cox, my nephew.)

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1966 where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1966 where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Blog Hopping the World… with Curt and Peggy Mekemson

There are millions of beautiful photos of the Greek Island of Santorini, but none can match going there.

There are millions of beautiful photos of the Greek Island of Santorini, but none can match going there.

“There are travelers and then there are Travelers. If you take some time to review Curt’s lengthy résumé you’ll see what we mean: Peace Corps in Liberia, year after year at Burning Man, kayaking with orcas, and backpacking with the grizzlies. He walks the walk and his blog documents all of it.”

Travel Bloggers James and Terri Vance

"Now where did I leave that fish?" A big Kodiak Bear looks for salmon on the Frazer River of Kodiak Island.

“Now where did I leave that fish?” A big Kodiak Bear looks for salmon on the Frazer River of Kodiak Island. He was about 50 yards away from Peggy and me, a distance he could travel in 10 seconds. 1o, 9, 8,7…

A couple of weeks ago, two of my favorite world travelers, James and Terri Vance at Gallivance, nominated me to participate in what is called a “Behind the Scenes Blog Hop.” It’s a project making its way around the blogosphere where bloggers provide insight into why they blog. In this particular case, it was about people who travel frequently and write about their experiences. Go here to learn about what James and Terri have to say about their own journeys. I highly recommend following their blog if you don’t already.

The project sounded like fun but I was busy at the time. Today, I came up for air. Let me start by noting I am a wanderer by nature. I think it’s genetic. I’ve done a fair amount of genealogical research and discovered that my direct line of ancestors, at least as far as the 1600s, hit the road running and rarely looked back. As for me, as soon as I was allowed out of the house on my own, I set off to explore the fields, woods, ponds and creeks of the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills where I grew up.

Why do you write what you write?

I am a storyteller and some of my best stories are about my travels and adventures. I believe that travel is one of the most enriching experiences we can have. Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Explore, dream, discover: magical words that have always been my motto. Consequently, I have a lifetime full of wandering and very few regrets. My wife Peggy and I are wealthy with the experiences we have had.

And it is wealth we love to share— partially because it is fun to relive the adventures, but there is more. I hope to encourage those who read my blogs to “catch the trade winds in their sails.” And if not? I at least hope I can provide a taste of adventure, a dash of humor, a pinch of education, and on occasion, a serious thought.

There are two of other points I try to make with my travel writing. One, adventure travel doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. Of course it can be, but it can also be a walk in the woods or a visit to a new restaurant. Anything that broadens our perspective on life can be an adventure. Just recently, for example, I wrote about a visit to a restaurant in Nashville that served really hot chicken. Believe me it was an adventure. And last year I wrote about a walk to my mailbox. It didn’t have to be an adventure, but I turned it into one.

This oak tree lives along the path I walk to the mailbox.

This oak tree lives along the path I walk to the mailbox. In addition to having its own unique look, it serves as a home to a number of woodland creatures. A whole adventure could be built around watching it for 24 hours. I might add, this tree would be completely happy in the Hobbit.

Two, age does not have to be a barrier to travel. Peggy is big on this point. Young and old alike can have adventures. I am now in my 70s and Peggy is in her 60s and yet last year found us disappearing into a remote wilderness on a backpacking trip by ourselves, sea kayaking with the orcas off Vancouver Island, and going to Burning Man in the Nevada desert. If we can do these things, certainly people in their 50s, 40s, 30s and 20s can, not to mention 60s and 70s. And if you have children, take them along. You will create a lifetime of memories.

How does your blog differ from others of its genre?

Variety comes to mind. One day I might be writing about cruising the Mediterranean Sea and visiting a Greek Island like Santorini. Another day I could be introducing you to Pastie Dan, a character at Burning Man who makes, and will gladly apply, pasties to cover women’s nipples. You might join me for a raft trip down the Colorado, a boat trip up the Amazon, or a narrow boat tour in England. Want a little excitement? Try waking up at 3 a.m. with a bear standing on your chest in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park. Then there was the rattlesnake that tried to bite me on the butt when I was doing my thing in the woods. My poor sphincter was frozen for a week. Want a touch of the exotic? Join Peggy and me as we search for Big Foot, UFOs and ghosts— it’s all in fun, and yet…

Panamint Rattlesnake in the Panamint Mountains, Death valley.

Admittedly, this guy is a little bigger than the rattlesnake that tried to bite me on the butt. With rattlesnakes, I am not sure size matters, however. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Bigfoot trap found above Applegate Lake in Southern Oregon.

This Bigfoot trap is located four miles from my home. It was maintained in the 70s in hopes of actually capturing one of the big fellows. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Pastie Dan in Black Rock City.

Normally Pastie Dan plies his trade at the Center Camp Cafe but occasionally, he wanders the roads of Black Rock City. He stopped at our camp to see if any of the women were in the market for pasties.

Maneuvering a 60 foot long Narrow Boat through the Trent and Mersey Canal in England two summers ago was a very different but equally rewarding experience.

Maneuvering a 60 foot long Narrow Boat through the Trent and Mersey Canal in England is a wonderful adventure that comes with pubs along the way.

How does your writing process work?

My stories start with experiences. I don’t scramble over rocks in New Mexico looking for petroglyphs because I want to write about the experience. I risk life and limb because I am fascinated with petroglyphs. I will confess, though, that when Peggy and I take photographs, we think about the blog— in addition to documenting our travels.

We call this large cat a cougar, mountain lion, puma… it would be interesting to know what the ancient Native American who made this rock art thought about and called his creation.

We call this large cat a cougar, mountain lion, puma… it would be interesting to know what the ancient Native American who made this rock art thought about and called his creation. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Research is also part of the process, either before we traipse off on an adventure because it enhances the experience, or afterwards because I want to add depth to what I am writing about.

As for the actual writing… writing is writing; it’s work. And I say this even though I love to write. I will normally think through what I want to write about, create a first draft, do a rewrite and then edit for mistakes. Then I turn it over to Peggy for further editing.

Photographs are also a very important part of my blogging. Between Peggy and me, we often have as many as 100 photos we have taken in relation to a particular blog. Ten to fifteen have to be selected out for a post and then processed. Mainly I work on cropping the photo to capture what I want, but I also make minor adjustments to light, color, shadows and sharpness if needed. Altogether, the process of creating a blog can take from three to eight hours.

What are you working on/writing?

I work from a calendar of blogs I want to write. I’ll usually have two or three months’ worth of blogs in mind. This time of the year, I often do several on Burning Man because many of my readers are Burners, excited about getting tickets. Since I have now been to Burning Man for ten years, I am going to do a best of ten series (from my perspective) of sculptures, mutant vehicles, burns, structures, etc. over the next few weeks. After that, I will return to my north coast series exploring the coast of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Or I may do a series on California’s gold rush towns. (My home town was one.)

Two oil tankers provide an interesting Sculpture at Burning Man

One of my all-time favorite sculptures at Burning Man.

The really big writing project I have been working on has been the book about my Peace Corps experience in Liberia, West Africa: The Bush Devil Ate Sam. I’ve posted several chapters over the past couple of years on my blog and a number of you helped me select the title of the book. This is my first venture into self-publishing and let me say unequivocally and undeniably, it has been a steep learning curve (understatement). I wrapped up getting the book in to Bookbaby two months ago, or at least thought I did. Bookbaby dutifully put the book on numerous E-pub sites and sent me back printed copies I requested. And what did I discover? Even though Peggy and I had meticulously done a line-by-line edit, some 30 errors. Damn. (A woman who is really good at editing found 25 of them, friends and family others.) So it was back to the drawing boards. Anyway, I sent all the corrections in last Wednesday and also set up the print on demand option. Soon…

One good bit of news, Steven Spatz, the president of Bookbaby, wrote to me on Friday and said he would like to feature The Bush Devil Ate Sam this week on Bookbaby’s blog. Given that Bookbaby is one the largest self-publishing companies in the world, produces thousands of books, and has an excellent reputation, things are looking up. (And no, Steven is not going to use me as an example of how not to.)

Kpelle footbridge near Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

When I graduated from UC Berkeley and travelled off to Liberia, West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I began one of the grandest adventures of my life. Once there, I continued to explore my surroundings by hiking off into the jungle. Here, I am standing on a bridge built by Kpelle villagers.

NOMINATIONS

As part of this process of blog hopping, we are asked to nominate two other bloggers to participate in the blog hop. This is tough; there are so many great bloggers I follow. But that said, here are my two nominations:

Linda at Shoreacres: Wow, this woman can write. While she isn’t exactly a travel blogger, I can guarantee she will take you on some great journeys. As a compliment to the posts she writes, her followers comment in paragraphs instead of sentences.

Cindy Knoke: Cindy takes you from her home in southern California, the Holler, to journeys around the world. Her photography, particularly in terms of birds and wildlife, is superb.

 

Coming Soon… The Bush Devil Ate Sam— and Other Tales of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa

Cover for book by Curtis Mekemson.

It’s countdown time here at the Mekemson household. The Bush Devil Ate Sam will be available worldwide as an E-book by the end of they year. Below is a promotion piece I’ve written for the book.

 

Scruffy soldiers with guns pointed in all directions were scattered around my yard when I returned from teaching. “What’s up?” I asked in a shaky voice. Liberian soldiers were scary.

     “Your dog ate one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” the sergeant growled. The Superintendent was the governor of Bong County. Apparently, he was quite fond of his fowl birds. But Boy, the perpetrator of the crime, didn’t belong to me— and he regarded my cat Rasputin as dinner.

     “Why don’t you arrest him,” I suggested helpfully. “Not him. You!” the sergeant roared.

In 1965 I left the chaotic world of UC Berkeley and the student revolution of the mid 60s to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in the even stranger world of Liberia, West Africa. The Bush Devil Ate Sam is the story of my experience. When I arrived, descendants of freed slaves from America ruled the country with an iron grip while the tribal people were caught in a struggle between modern culture and ancient Africa.

I quickly discovered that being a Peace Corps Volunteer was anything but dull. Army ants invaded our house. Students snacked on squirming termites for breakfast, and the young man who worked for me, announced that the scars running down his chest were the teeth marks of the Poro Bush Devil.

On the teaching front, my seniors took top national honors in social studies, but the national government determined that a student government I had created to teach students about democracy was a threat to Liberia’s one party state. I was told my students would be arrested and I should pack my bags.

These are only the beginning of the tales you will find in The Bush Devil Ate Sam.

Half of the profits from this book will be donated to Friends of Liberia, a nonprofit organization that has been in existence since 1980 and is made up of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, people who have served on missions in Liberia, experts on international development, and Liberians. In addition to supporting the fight against Ebola, the goal of the organization is “to positively affect Liberia by supporting education, social, economic and humanitarian programs.”

I cried, but I’m good now (sort of)

I rarely reblog posts, but this one touched my heart. Those who know me are aware that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, way back when. I’ve followed several blogs of Peace Corps Volunteers serving now, Volunteers who were pulled out of the country last month because of Ebola. This blog brings Ebola a little closer. We must face it and deal with it. But it also captures the meaning of what it is to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Thank you Nimu for sharing your thoughts. –Curt

Nimu in Liberia

Sorry that posting about my evacuation has taken one whole month (how long have I been home?!). The emotional roller coaster has taken the following progression:

  1. Disbelief and complete shock/feigning normalcy, but then lying awake at night
  2. Deep realization and reawakening of my love for specific people and aspects of Liberia/trying to savor fleeting moments that seem to occur in 4x fast-forward
  3. Utter despair over leaving and simultaneous insecurity about my unpreparedness for returning to America/crying to the point of exhaustion
  4. Total loneliness; this is a tragedy but no one is acting as such to make me feel better/sporadic bursts of tears
  5. Numbness/eating my feelings in front of a screen

About a week ago, I recognized the possibility that I might not go back to Liberia. With the negative trend in Ebola’s spread, I’m not sure what will happen, and no one really has the answers. It makes me angry…

View original post 2,444 more words

A Devilishly Hard Decision… The Title to My Peace Corps Africa Book

Pat hay stack and part voodoo nightmare, a Liberian Bush Devil shuffles through the dirt toward me.

A fading photo from 1967 captures a Liberian Bush Devil, part hay stack and part voodoo nightmare, as it shuffles toward me through the red laterite dirt.

So, I’ve been struggling with the title of the book about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. As part of the process, I asked for help from my fellow bloggers and friends.

Step one included developing four options and providing backstories. Step two involved reviewing and summarizing the input.

Now it’s my turn.

I have two objectives for my title. First, it needs to be catchy. Unless people are familiar with an author or have recommendations from a trusted source (friend, author they enjoy, media), the first thing that leads them to choose a book is its title.

Second, the title needs to reflect my Peace Corps Africa experience.

For example, on the one level, The Dead Chicken Dance is about cutting the head off a chicken and watching it dance– slightly unusual and a little macabre. As such, the title might gain attention. But there was more. Early Peace Corps was struggling with how to prepare people to jump into another culture that was totally foreign to them. Killing, gutting, and plucking a chicken was guaranteed to provide trainees with a challenging experience that few of them had ever had but might face as a Volunteer. It’s a long ways between buying a pasty white, pre-packaged chicken in the grocery store and picking up a hatchet to cut the head off a feathered, clucking Henny Penny.

The Bush Devil Ate Sam and The Lightning Man Strikes Again reflected two aspects of African culture that were quite real to tribal Liberians. Both of these titles were designed to capture attention, but they also represented the dramatically dissimilar world that tribal Liberians existed in. Understanding Liberia, in fact understanding much of Africa, depends upon recognizing these differences.

How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup represents a sharp break from our Western dog-centric world… of which I am very much a part. Dogs were a legitimate food source in Liberia. Students would tease me by coming by and pinching my cat, Rasputin. “Sweet meat, Mr. Mekemson” they would say while smacking their lips. They were cautious, however. Rasputin could take care of himself: “Pinch me once and I’ll squawk a warning. Pinch me twice and I’ll take off your finger.” As with each of my other titles,  there was more to the story with Boy than a gastronomical challenge.  It went beyond scary that soldiers would show up at my house in the middle of the night solely because the dog had eaten a guinea fowl.  It was strange with a strangeness that I would think of more than once when Liberia fell into the tragedy of its civil wars.

As I noted when I summarized the responses on titles, each title received strong support but Boy received the fewest ‘votes.’ Part of this may because we are so dog centric. As one blogger observed, the title might turn people off. I get that.

Support for the other three titles was evenly split. For me, it finally came down to either the Bush Devil or the Lightning Man. The Dead Chicken relayed an insight into early Peace Corps and cross-cultural challenges, but the other two did more to capture the Africa experience. Tossing a mental coin, I’m going with the Bush Devil. As my blogging friends James and Terri Gallivance, who have lived in Africa, noted: “We’re voting for The Bush Devil Ate Sam because we feel it embraces the mystery that is Africa.” The mystery that is Africa seems like a good place to start.

On a more prosaic level, I am adding “And Other Peace Corps Tales of West Africa” as a subtitle because it is important to have both Peace Corps and Africa included. Next up: the cover. As soon as I develop examples, I’ll post them.

NEXT BLOGs: Peggy and I will soon be heading into Nevada where I have several posts I am thinking about including 1) an art hotel in Reno created by Burners from Burning Man, 2) the remote town of Hawthorn with its history of being America’s primary ordnance depot (bunkers fill the desert), 3) the Extraterrestrial Highway and Area 51– subject of more conspiracy theories than there are people in Nevada, 4) Death Valley in the spring, 4) the Valley of Fire, 5) Red Rock Canyon, and 6) Las Vegas being Las Vegas. BUT, IN THE MEANTIME, I will post on another of my favorite petroglyph sites, Painted Rocks out of Yuma Arizona. I think I will also revisit the actual Big Foot trap about three miles from my home and see if Bigfoot is hanging out there. (It sort of goes along with the ET Highway.)

The Dead Chicken, the Bush Devil, the Lighting Man, and the Bad Dog

Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1965-67. The photo was taken at that time.

Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1965-67. The photo was taken at that time.

A dead chicken, a bush devil, a lightning man, and a bad dog walk into a bar… Just kidding.

Last week I asked for help from my blog followers, Facebook friends, and members of my book club to help choose a title for the book on my Africa Peace Corps experience. The choices were:

  • The Dead Chicken Dance
  • The Bush Devil Ate Sam
  • The Lightning Man Strikes Again
  • How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup

Each title also included a subtitle connecting the book to Africa and the Peace Corps.

The input was great and there were many thoughtful comments on the various choices. There were also more general suggestions such as put the titles in the active voice and make them shorter. An example of the former is The Dead Chicken Dance might become The Dead Chicken Dances or Dead Chicken Dancing. In the latter, How Boy the Bad Dog Ended Up in Soup might be retitled Bad Dog Soup.

Here’s a pie chart that shows how people responded:

Book titles

What seems clear here is that the Bad Dog was not good. But let me note, Boy did have some strong support. Alison and Don felt the title had a “good hook to it.” And Kocart said, “Boy the Bad Dog. Of Course.” Naturally. Linda at Shoreacres, who lived in Liberia, made the interesting comment, “Boy the Bad Dog certainly evokes all of the collections of African folk tales that are out there.” On the con side, The Writing Waters Blog observed that the title might be “too much for this dog loving country.”

Pull Boy out of the pie and what we have left is close to a dead heat. The titles are running nose-to-nose. The dead chicken garnered 30% of the vote, the Bush Devil 33% and the Lightning Man 28%. It isn’t what I would call a clear mandate. (Grin) So how about the very thoughtful comments? Maybe they are too thoughtful! Strong arguments were made for each title. I found myself nodding, ‘that’s right’ over and over as first one title and then another worked its way to the top.

Some of the comments:

“The Dead Chicken Dance hands down. I would pick it up and look at it. That’s as good of a title as “Getting Stoned With Savages…” which was a damn good book!”

“The Dead Chicken Dance is my favorite…. A touch grisly plus touch of the familiar plus invitation to dance equals enigmatic… Strong short and sure of itself like The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Joy Luck Club, The Kite Runner.”

I would use the Dead Chicken Dance, but I’d change it from “The Dead Chicken Dance” to “Watching a Dead Chicken Dance.”

Personally, I like The Dead Chicken Dance best. They’re all catchy, but for some reason, this one jumped out at me most. My second choice would be The Bush Devil Ate Sam. In fact, now that I see them both side-by-side, I like them equally. Oh, boy, that wasn’t much of a help, was it? 🙂

“The Bush Devil Ate Sam” is definitely my favorite; short, catchy, intriguing, and feels more encompassing of a collection of African stories than the others…

“I am leaning toward the Bush Devil Ate Sam as I have met Sam, a doctor trained in the American University system, highly educated, yet “marked” by his right of passage to manhood.”

“ (The Bush Devil Ate Sam) is the most cogent, the most compelling.”

“Curt, these titles are all great and we love the stories behind them. We’re voting for The Bush Devil Ate Sam because we feel it embraces the mystery that is Africa…”

“Personally, the one that would make me pick up the book first would be “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.”  It has three things: something exotic (the bush devil), something familiar (the name Sam being a sedate, western-sounding name makes it more familiar and less threatening), and the mystery of how the two came together – you can be pretty sure something called a bush devil didn’t literally eat Sam, so what is this really about?  Of all of your proposed titles, it was the one that made me most want to find out the story behind it.”

“ …the one that was most immediately appealing was the Lightning Man Strikes Again and the most intriguing was The Bush Devil Ate Sam.”

“I read all of the stories to the boys and there was a unanimous vote for The Lightning Man Strikes Again. Very catchy and a fun story!” (The grandkids check in.)

“I loved all the stories but my favorite title is The Lightning Man Strikes Again. I usually choose books by the title and I’d pick that one up just because of the sound of it. Lightning is fascinating anyway and the title sounds interesting and humorous, which goes perfectly with those stories. I’ve always wanted to join the Peace Corps and can’t wait to read this now.”

“The Lightning Man Strikes Again: I like it because it has a double entendre..Is it about someone else or are you the lightning man helping to bring change to Africa… 
Can’t wait to read your follow up post!”

“Love The Lightning Man Strikes Again – can just feel the dread the Lightning Man induced. Do let us know when you make your choice.”

“The problem is that ALL the titles are intriguing; they all entice the reader to want to read the stories.  But, if forced to choose, I would go with the lightning man.  I’m not quite sure, maybe because it relates so directly with superstition and myth.”

Life's about choices, right. It may be about the title of a book or it may be about which piece of monkey meat you are going to buy.

Life’s about choices, right. It may be about the title of a book or it may be about which piece of monkey meat you are going to buy. The lady selling the meat held up a little head and said, “Very tasty.”

So… these are some of the thoughts you have shared. They represent views from people with widely varying backgrounds… including writers, the under ten crowd, and folks who have lived in Africa. Do you see my dilemma? Thanks so much for taking the time to participate. It means a lot.

NEXT BLOG: My choice and the reasons behind it. (Yes folks, I am going to drag this out for one more blog.)