Heart of Darkness
Still another lesson: you can make up your own lessons, and draw on them as needed. Had I decided that my friends were out there, had I been able to admit I needed help, and been willing to solicit it, things would have been different. Instead, I only learned from the lesson that said when you’re hurting, quit. Wrong lesson. But the choice of lessons is always ours. Choose wisely.
Note: This account of my Peace Corps experience is taken from my unpublished memoir, “Remember Me,” about my best friend, Jay Fox.
I FINALLY GRADUATED college in June 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in history. It had been a long strange trip through academia, altogether six years – during which I dropped out twice and spent a year overseas. But I still wasn’t ready for a job – the “real world,” we called it, where we would “be productive” and hardworking. For one thing I still had a rampant case of wanderlust. But without a continuing deferment, the draft loomed, dark and threatening, like an approaching storm.
Jay had a medical deferment from his childhood hip surgery. We knew other guys who talked about going to Canada, and heard stories of people who shot off their toes, or contrived to fail their military exam by staying up for days, overdosing on caffeine or recreational drugs so they’d show up for their physical exams babbling like monkeys. Occasionally these tactics worked; more often not.
Most people we knew had managed however to join a reserve unit, which meant training a couple of weeks every summer and one weekend a month with their unit. This was of no interest to me. My opposition to the war as well as the military was principled and absolute. As for Canada or deliberately flunking my physical, I didn’t view either option as rational. But my distaste for prison was even more acute, so I needed to find something else, ideally something that would enable me to travel and keep my deferment at the same time.
Peace Corps was the answer: both a magic bullet and a magic carpet. To my great excitement I was accepted as a volunteer that summer and assigned first to Ethiopia, and, when civil war broke out there, to Liberia, a tiny country along the coast of West Africa. Liberia experienced its own terrible civil war two decades later, followed by the horrendous Ebola plague. But at the time it was entirely safe, even a sleepy place.
Liberia had an interesting history. It was founded in the early 19th century by former American slaves. They carved out a small enclave along the African coast and gradually established a modest dominion over disease, wild animals and the local tribes, who viewed them not with open arms as brothers but rather with knives and spears as invaders. Nevertheless the returnees gradually flourished, expanded their control and established a government that in many respects mirrored the American model, with a presidency, supreme court and two houses of congress. Even their architecture, in its grandest manifestation, resembled the ante-bellum mansions they knew from America. Despite the appearance of a democracy, however, actual power resided with the descendants of the American slaves, called Americo-Liberians, whose families constituted a ruling tribe of their own.
In late July I said goodbye to my family and friends and prepared to embark. Jay still had a year of college left at Roosevelt, and was envious of my exotic prospects while he slogged through more courses, books and exams. As a going-away present he promised to send me a subscription to Playboy magazine, which seemed like an odd but interesting gift for someone going to Africa.
I experienced a tinge of anxiety on leaving. As excited as I was, I’d be heading off to a far distant land and culture. Sure I’d lived in London, had been to Europe, and had traveled as far away as Israel. I’d even managed on my far-flung travels to go broke for a few days, and had survived without too much inconvenience. But Africa was different. Get your physicals and dental appointments done before you leave, we were advised, because you won’t have access to that kind of medical care there. Even phone calls to and from Liberia were chancy propositions.
More personally, this would be the first time since we met 18 months earlier that Jay and I would be apart. Nevertheless, we assured each other, it would be a great adventure. In my last conversation with him, the day before I left, we talked about life as a series of adventures, from birth to death. The trick was to flow from one to the next gracefully, learning what there was to learn, and gaining in experience and friendships. It was a charming if somewhat naïve conceit.
I left for Washington D.C. for orientation. There I met the young men who were part of my training group. We were a small cohort, just five in all: Gary from Berkeley, California; Brad from downstate Illinois; Matthew, the only African-American, from New Jersey; and Brian, from Kansas. All of us were recent college grads, except Matt, who had gone to work after high school.
We were designated “community development volunteers,” helping tribal chiefs undertake or finish local building programs, such as clinics, schools and roads. Some of us would be assigned to the capital, Monrovia, while others would be sent “upcountry,” to the more remote bush areas. Individual assignments would be determined after we arrived in Liberia for training.
After a few days in Washington, mostly finishing paperwork, we flew to Paris and connected on a plane to Senegal. At Dakar Airport we waited a few hours before our next flight, which enabled me to observe the tall, handsome, high-cheeked Senagalese in their fezzes and flowing robes as they strode through the terminal. We hadn’t even ventured outside the airport, yet already we were in a demonstrably different world. The next flight was a short hop to Gambia. The plane’s air conditioning conked out, and we sweated profusely the half hour or so until we landed in Bathurst (now known as Banjul). Despite being the nation’s capital, the city wasn’t very cosmopolitan, judging by the landing strip, which consisted of a metal grid laid out across a large grassy field, a remnant of World War II, we were told. We waited inside the “terminal,” a concrete blockhouse about the size of a Greyhound bus station. Finally we loaded onto the plane for the last leg of the trip, a two-hour flight to Monrovia.
Liberia’s capital was lined with tin-roofed shacks, alongside small one- and two-story concrete block structures housing small shops, restaurants, movie theaters and night clubs. In the nicer section of town, we could see fairly grand and expansive estates. That was where the Americo-Liberian elite and the diplomatic corps lived. Near the oceanfront, protected by guardhouses and formidable two-story spiked fencing, stood the executive mansion. It was known as the White House, and with its porticos and columns bore some resemblance to the American version. Mostly, the city was dusty, tawdry and squalid. Many parts of it smelled of the stinky fish oil used for cooking.
I didn’t care. The people were friendly, helpful and polite, and the city seemed exotic. Plus there was a lot to learn – about history, culture, politics – a whole new way of life. Our team was housed in a Peace Corps apartment building in town, and from there we ventured out every day to the Peace Corps offices and training facilities. Most of our construction training was outside, hands on. We spent a week laying out a road, learning to use a variety of survey tools including an engineer’s level. Another week we clambered up the beams of a new house and built a roof. It was hot, dusty, work, fun and interesting – but totally useless. As we later learned, our principal clients, the local paramount and tribal chiefs, managed their own building and construction projects and supplied the labor. Our real function would be to act as middlemen, funneling money from the U.S. Agency for International Development to worthwhile projects. The challenge would be to identify the best ones and facilitate the flow of cash. As such, we met with USAID officials to learn their protocols and personnel.
After a month of what might be called basic training, we began the second phase, heading upcountry to visit the bush. Ah, the bush! It wasn’t what you saw in King Solomon’s Mines or Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. There were no monkeys swinging from vines or crocodiles gliding smoothly across slow-moving rivers. The canyon of foliage that hugged most country roads was so thick you could hardly see what was inside.
Nor was the food very exotic: no goat’s head soup or monkey meat for us. In fact the first few months we were there we ate Western food. A Peace Corps cook was dispatched to western-style supermarkets to bring back imported hamburger meat, chop steaks and lamb chops. This was considered prudent to allow our tender digestive systems time to adjust to the native cuisine and bacterial organisms. Once we moved upcountry, however, we were introduced to local food, everything from chicken to beef to pork, served with yams, eggplant, okra and cabbage and topped with generous servings of local or Texas, Egyptian and other foreign rice.
It was wonderful, except for one thing. I was almost immediately assaulted by African tummy – growling stomach, constant and sometimes violent diarrhea and incapacitating cramps. On a trip back to Monrovia, the Peace Corps medical office gave me some pills to try, but they did no good. As soon as I got back upcountry it started all over again. Worst of all, including for those around me, was the killer gas, characterized by an odor and constancy unknown to anyone since the First World War. It got so bad that I would volunteer for the unpopular rear seat in our open Jeep, so as we drove from town to town I could at least fart harmlessly behind me. When my cramps got too bad I’d yell out for the driver to stop, stagger into the bush, and void into the ground like some wounded animal, wiping myself with whatever leaves were at hand. I learned to travel with toilet paper. As for the injunction never to wade into the bush, I ignored it. A snake bite would merely have put me out of my misery.
Diarrhea wasn’t the only native hazard. We were always careful to boil water at least 15 minutes, and to take our daily chloroquine pills for malaria. Another risk was the dreaded schistosomiasis, a chronic parasitic disease caused by exposure to dirty water that caused the genitalia to swell up to the size of beach balls. We were shown cautionary pictures of native men hauling their private parts around in wheelbarrows, as if they were transporting watermelons.
Despite the horror stories, inconveniences and occasional bouts of sickness, Liberia offered plenty plenty delights, as the natives would say. The people were typical West Africans, who prided themselves on being friendlier and more genuine than their East African counterparts. And indeed, city as well as country folk were unfailingly polite and attentive to our needs. True, that was in part because we were Americans, and because we were Pee-cee Co, both in good standing. Given Liberia’s special relationship with America, the Peace Corps had from its inception maintained a large contingent and enjoyed special cachet and privileges. And in a country as small as Liberia, roughly the size of Ohio, with a population of 3 million, a contingent of several hundred volunteers gave Peace Corps a significant presence across the land.
Plus the place had an odd and endearing character. Like other African nations, the wheels of bureaucracy turned more smoothly with a little bribe, called “dash,” which was endemic. Need some official paperwork? Dash. Visa? Dash. Also typical was the African love of bargaining. A volunteer told me she once bargained over stamps at the post office.
In at least one important sense Liberia was unique. Almost alone among African countries, it had never been colonized. That meant the European influences so pervasive elsewhere – the Brits in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone; French in the Ivory Coast and Guinea; Dutch in South Africa; Germans in Cameroon and Togo – were almost totally absent from Liberia. A benign Americanism had protected Liberia, and while the protectorate had contributed to some odd cultural manifestations, such as the Old South ante-bellum flavor of parts of the capital and along the coast, it had also preserved an old and authentic African culture throughout the land, particularly upcountry, in the rural sections away from the coast.
It was through these bush counties that we now traveled. I was assigned to a small village called Karnplay, in Gbarnga (pronounced Bonga) county, a remote area about 150 miles northeast of Monrovia, near the southeastern border of Guinea and the western border of Ivory Coast. The nearest town of any size was Sanniquellie, the county seat, 20 miles southwest, which had a population of perhaps 5,000, including a sizeable contingent of Peace Corps volunteers, mostly teachers. In the dry season 20 miles was a couple of hours away in an uncomfortable cab ride, bumping along the rutted dirt roads. In the rainy season, the muddy trip might take all day, if the road was even passable.
My upcountry training began in Sanniquellie. The town consisted of a few dozen dusty streets with shops that sold canned and fresh foods, cloth and dry goods, as well as “cook shops” (small restaurants), a few bars, several churches, a school and homes. The better homes were made of concrete or brick, but the majority were huts of mud and stick construction. Incongruously, most shops were owned and run by Lebanese immigrant families, some of whom had been there for generations. The Lebanese served as the merchant class of West Africa, though how this came about no one seemed to know for sure. Apparently it was in their blood: the Phoenicians of Lebanon were famous as the boat builders and explorers of the ancient Middle East and Africa and had traded, sailed and settled throughout the region. In East Africa, Indians served the same function.
Besides, Liberians considered shopkeeping beneath them. The men worked mostly in the fields. They tended cattle, sheep and goats and grew rice, mangos, bananas, eggplant, okra, yam, cassava and other native foods. Since the growing season ended with the coming of the rains in the spring, months went by when many men hardly worked at all. They simply lounged around, swapped stories and drank. When I first arrived in Liberia I took note of this apparent and extensive “unemployment.” It took me a while to discard this Western economic notion for a more accurate Third World model based on seasonal work cycles.
The women worked full-time in the home, tending to the children and the cooking, as well as helping the men with the harvest. Like women the world over, their work cycle was ceaseless and daily.
There was no rural electrification in upcountry Liberia. Portable generators provided the few hours of lighting that was needed after dark. I didn’t realize how unusual this was until I took a day trip to neighboring Ivory Coast, where, even further from their capital, the roads were paved and electrical wires connected small villages.
My language instructor, Wonlay, was a young man of medium height and sturdy build, friendly and helpful, but his half-lidded eyes and thick tongue made him seem sly and dim-witted. Appropriately, “Wonlay” means “tired” in the local Gio tribal tongue he was to teach me. He wasn’t, but neither of us had much patience for the daily hours we spent practicing the language. We would meet after lunch in a small palaver hut near the center of town, and he would patiently explain the complexities of the Gio tongue, pointing to one object after another and mouthing the words for me to repeat. Since Gio was a spoken and not a written language, this was the only kind of training available. Ah me Dan wo Dan, he would say, slowly. Ah me Dan wo Dan, I would repeat: I want to learn Gio.
One afternoon shortly after I arrived in Sanniquellie, Wonlay and I set off in a cab to Karnplay to meet the Peace Corps volunteer who lived there. I was looking forward to the visit: Debbie could provide some background on the local community and maybe introduce me to some of her neighbors and the paramount chief. Interesting romantic entanglements, never far from mind, seemed like a possibility as well.
As sometimes happened, however, we didn’t make it: the cab broke down en route. The driver coasted to the side of the road and got out to inspect the engine. After awhile the passengers got out too and reclined against the side of the cab, idly chatting and watching him poke around the cab’s innards without success. We weren’t particularly worried; every Third World driver seems gifted with natural mechanical aptitude, capable of heroic feats of repair with a few simple tools.
At the equator nightfall comes quickly, however, and as we waited a curtain of darkness descended as if in a theater, when the lights dim and the room goes black. The sky lit up with stars, far more than I had ever seen before. There were infinite cascades of twinkling white and hazy blue gems. Off the road, the jungle receded into vast dark nothingness. Aside from our own small chatter and an occasional distant shriek from some animal, the silence was utter and complete. Gradually, talked out, we grew silent too.
Suddenly, up ahead in the distance, I spotted a pair of small white dots, circling slowly to and fro like the orbits of a pair of lightning bugs, lazily swirling and dancing. As I stared at them they seemed to grow slightly larger. Then there was another pair and another. It was odd, almost hallucinogenic. “Hey, look at that,” I said, standing up straight and pointing at the image. The dots seemed to double and double again, quickly becoming dozens and then hundreds, growing bigger and closer. “What the hell…?”
“Cows,” the driver said laughing, and went back to the engine. It was a herd of cattle, their eyes illuminated by moonlight, being driven to market.
Wild animals, creatures commonly seen in any zoo, were rare. The elephants, alligators, monkeys, hippos and rhinos I had looked forward to observing in their native habitat (from a safe distance) had long ago been driven so deep into the bush they were almost never seen. Snakes, on the other hand, which I had no desire to see, were prevalent. There were dozens of varieties, many deadly, such as cobras, adders, vipers and the misnamed black mambas, which were actually solid gray or olive green. Mambas are the fastest land snakes in the world, capable of bursts of 10 to 12 miles per hour in pursuit of unfortunate prey. They tend to spring up when they strike, like a jack in the box, so the victim is often bitten in the face, and multiple bites are common. The victim’s nervous system shuts down and breathing becomes impossible. Death follows quickly. We were warned never to venture off a bush trail and to watch our footing even in villages and towns. You don’t want to step on a snake, we were told, which was about as necessary as telling someone to avoid stepping in front of a speeding train.
One evening I attended a party at a Peace Corps volunteer’s house in Sanniquellie. Peace Corps parties were noisy and jolly affairs, with a mix of locals, volunteers and other Americans, plus good highlife dance music, all lubricated with plenty of Senator’s gin. This was the locally distilled brew, reputed to leave one blind if consumed in quantity. But it was smooth, cheap and fast-acting, and thus the favorite of many natives and foreigners alike. In the bedroom, a little more surreptitiously, a few of us toked up on Congo Gold, the cannabis of choice among local connoisseurs. Under the country’s harsh penal code possession of marijuana was a capitol offense, but that was more joke than deterrent. Few Liberians used it, police ignored it, so volunteers felt safe indulging it.
I was a little stoned when I excused myself to use the outhouse. The small mud and wattle shed was located out back, on the edge of a swamp behind the house. As I settled down onto the wooden toilet seat I idly played my flashlight along the dried mud walls. Whoa! On one side, a long, solid-colored snake was curled alongside me, not much more than an arm’s length away, embedded in the mud wall. But wait, was it a snake? The light was murky, and the thick sinuous shape was immobile, frozen like a fly in wax. Maybe it was just the shape of the mud. Thank God it wasn’t moving. Suddenly it seemed to twitch – just at the moment my flashlight flickered…and went out. “Shit,” I said softly and shook the light. Nothing. Dead. Darkness. I stood up to beat a hasty exit but my underwear and pants twisted around my ankles. I reached down with one hand to pull them up, with the other hand shaking the light, mumbling, “Shit, shit, shit…” As if in response it flickered back to life for a second, then went out again. Giving up on the light and my pants, I took two large hops to the door and pushed – it was stuck! “Shit damn fuck. Shit damn fuck,” I yelled, and pushed again. Still stuck, trapped in an outhouse with a deadly black mamba!
Seized by panic, I hurled myself at the door. It flew open and I spilled onto the ground outside. When I stopped rolling I took a deep breath. The air was cool, the night quiet and the skies twinkling with stars. Slowly I got up and composed myself. Really, I thought, how silly! If ever there was a time when imagination had run away with reality, this was it. At least no one had witnessed me somersaulting half naked across the yard. All that fuss over nothing.
I quietly shook the flashlight, and this time, as if it too had settled down, the beam flickered back to life. I tiptoed back to the outhouse and carefully peered back inside, shining the light where I thought I had seen the snake. There it was, all right, four or five feet long and the width of a garden hose, writhing and slithering its way down the wall.
“Holy shit,” I announced breathlessly when I ran back inside, “you won’t believe what I just saw.”
Odd nature stories abounded in Liberia. My training group colleague Gary was visiting the same volunteer’s home in Sanniquellie one night during a violent rainstorm. Outside lightning lashed the skies every few seconds and thunder roared continuously. African storms, like all of African nature, seemed more intense and close at hand than back home. Half jesting and half in apprehension, Gary declared he’d leave the country instantly if a bolt hit the house. At that second a huge roar tore at the ceiling and an intense flash of light ripped through the room, just a few feet from where he sat. (Nevertheless, he stayed on. It took the U.S. government, and specifically Gary’s draft board, possibly more powerful even than God and nature, to send him home.)
Fearsome driver ants were known to burrow straight through a house – even across a village – and devour everything in their path, including sleeping animals. Only a generous ladling of kerosene in a big circle outside one’s hut, forming a poisonous moat, could sidetrack them.
Also of interest to us Pee-cee Co volunteers were the Liberian secret societies. No one I met had ever seen them, but we heard all sorts of stories. Society members trained and initiated the young men of the tribe into manhood, an African bar mitzvah of sorts. Usually the two-week initiation rites were kicked off by a dancing devil, a local society member decked out in straw and brandishing a spear, who danced through the village in a hallucinatory frenzy, sometimes on stilts. Witnessing the dance, let alone the bush rites, was strictly forbidden to non-secret society members, even Liberians.
A female volunteer, so the story went, lived alone in a village with a secret society. Of course she was curious about it – most volunteers have a strong sense of wonder about indigenous cultures, one reason they’re there – but when she made innocent inquiries she was sharply rebuked by the local chief. Don’t ask questions, he commanded. Stay indoors and don’t even look out the window when society business was underway. “Why not?” she asked. “Tings not go well for you if you do,” he said ominously. “Plenty plenty bad.” But the volunteer was unimpressed. Most Liberian boasts and threats were of equal weight – empty.
Everyone who repeated the story said they knew someone who knew someone who knew the volunteer in question, and she was variously described as stupid, feisty or a wild risk-taker. That all made sense, since she was the only kwi poo – white person – for miles around, which for a woman took a certain dumb adventurousness as well as an admirable willingness to endure isolation and even danger. One evening, as the devil danced and initiates were being herded together and marched off for their training in the bush, she strolled out back of her house to tend to her clothesline. She contrived to position herself between the sheets and clothing in such a way that she could watch, unobtrusively and unobserved. Or so she thought. The next morning she awoke to find some tribal words scribbled on her shoulder. Someone had evidently stolen in during the night, and with the help of some strong magic, managed to drug her and tattoo a warning.
We laughed off this story. It certainly sounded apocryphal, though in fact no one actually knew much about secret societies – whether they were fearsome initiation cults or simply fraternal social orders along the lines of an African Elks club or Moose lodge. We did know – had heard – they dotted the countryside, and that women had their own societies. I assumed they were prevalent locally, to the extent they were, due to the umbrella of America’s informal protectorate. Secure in its cultural independence, Liberia was never modernized, sanitized or homogenized by European countries and institutions like the rest of Africa. If there were secret societies in Liberia, I reasoned, they were probably close proximities to what their tribal ancestors had experienced generations past. Beyond that we knew nothing; they were strictly off limits to the kwi poo.
WONLAY AND I took off for the bush during my second month there. The bush hike was a requirement for all rural volunteers in training. The idea was to head out into the remote backcountry, test our nerve and language skills and introduce ourselves to the local elders and chiefs in the area we were to serve.
We pushed off late one morning and made good progress along the dirt trails west of Karnplay, where I had been assigned to live and work. We moved steadily away from the motor road; the footpath was tramped down from the flow of country people bringing their goods – food, robes, cloth, carvings – to Karnplay and on to Saniquellie to sell at market. This was practically as remote as Liberia got. Nevertheless, the region was well populated. We passed children playing, one wearing, of all things, a torn Grateful Dead T-shirt. Adults tramped past and gave us a friendly nod or a curious stare. At one point several children spotted me, let out a shriek and bolted the other way, shouting, “kwi poo nu la, kwi poo nu la!” Wonlay laughed and explained that meant “white man coming,” the white man being the bogeyman of their parents’ scary bedtime stories.
Every few miles we’d come across another village. There were no signs or indications it was just up ahead, at least that I could divine; suddenly it would just materialize, like Hamlet’s ghost. Invariably this one would look the same as the last one. A dozen or more small mud and stick huts were arranged more or less randomly on a cleared dirt field. The chief’s hut would be off to one side, though not necessarily bigger than any other. It was Levittown, African style.
Protocol was the same too. After Wonlay and I arrived, a loose collection of village chiefs and elders assembled at the chief’s hut. We’d sit down cross-legged on the dirt floor and pass a bottle of palm wine to toast the occasion. The elders and chiefs were all glad to see me; they liked Pea-cee Co, mostly I suspected because my presence meant that American money might soon flow. I inquired about the local economy (“ah, we po country”), farming (OK), politics (polite smiles) and the president, an Americo-Liberian named William Tubman. The elders professed to respect Tubman; every few months his motorcade would pull out of Monrovia, official cars lining the roadways heading upcountry while little children looked goggle-eyed at the procession, and stop at some local provincial capital. There Tubman would make a big show of sitting in the tribal council and dispensing crisp dollar bills as gifts to a long line of supplicants. Of course he never got this far upcountry, they told me, but they’d heard about his travels and exploits from relatives, or perhaps seen him when they walked to the motor road and made the day-long taxi ride to Sanniquellie and Monrovia.
We tromped through half a dozen or more villages in this pleasant fashion, palavering with passersby and village leaders and consuming a fair amount of wine, when it started to get dark. This effectively gave us 15 minutes to find a place to stay for the night. Fortunately a small village was close at hand, and when we got there and introduced ourselves, we were immediately invited to stay over. A coterie of excited adults and curious children escorted us to the chief. He was a large, taciturn man, who would have immediately been recruited to play college football on some Division II American campus. Wonlay and the chief chatted a few minutes in Gio – it might as well have been Swahili or Sanskrit for all the Gio I had managed to learn. Wonlay listened attentively, nodded his head and turned to me.
“The chief say you join Snake Society. He say meeting tonight. You be first kwi poo member. Big big honor,” and he spread out his arms to demonstrate how big. I absorbed this news in silence. The African night had now completely enveloped us, dark as tar. We were 10 or 15 miles from the nearest road. There probably wasn’t another white person within 30 or 40 miles. My family and friends were thousands of miles away, in a city no Gio tribesman had ever heard of. I might as well have been on another planet. A newspaper headline suddenly popped into my mind:
PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER FOUND
DEAD IN RURAL AFRICAN VILLAGE
Victim of Hideous Snake Rite
“Whaddya think?” I asked Wonlay nervously.
“Oh, you should do it, for true,” he nodded his head. “Fine ting. And chief be angry wit you if you say no.”
I scowled. “Yeah, damn fine thing.” But then I considered. No Liberian would allow any harm to befall a Pea-cee Co worker, at least, not if he or she could help it. Also, deep down, I hated to turn down an opportunity like this. This was why I traveled, why I was here, for the romance, the adventure, the challenge, right? Plus, I’d be making history: the first kwi poo to join a Snake Society!
“OK. What do I need to do?” I asked, trying to sound cheery, my native optimism only slightly disturbed by the thought this might be my last decision – ever.
“We find out,” he said, and led me back to the chief’s hut. They palavered awhile and then Wonlay briefed me on the rules. They were fairly simple, if odd. I listened carefully; everything had to be done strictly by the book.
I don’t recall much conversation at dinner. We ate in the small hut of our hosts. While Wonlay chatted with them, I ruminated about snakes and secret societies and sorcery and stupidity.
After finishing our meal we were led to a large hut in the middle of the village. This was it, the Snake Society meeting place – I could tell by the hubbub from within. I took a deep breath and reviewed my first instruction: enter with the left foot first. I peered into the room, lit by a number of kerosene lamps on the dirt floor. There were 70 or 80 villagers, men and women – more than I thought even lived in the vicinity – crowded along the walls, some sitting, some standing. They must have come from miles around when word got out that a Peace cee Co worker was the evening’s guest of honor, something that was evidently unheard of. It suddenly dawned on me to wonder why I was the first. I hoped it was because I was the first volunteer to venture up this way, and not because no one else had stupidly chosen to make the sacrifice. But too late to speculate!
As I entered, careful to step in left foot first, the crowd let out a lusty cheer, followed by a great hubbub of excitement. The chief did not seem to share their enthusiasm. He sat stone-faced and cross-legged on the dirt floor in the center of the hut. I took notice of him more closely now, like you might eye your executioner on the scaffold. He had pock-marked cheeks and a stubble of beard, not the friendly figure you’d like to have initiating you into the dark arts. I approached as I had been instructed, sitting down across from him with my left foot carefully tucked under my right. He made a speech in Gio to the crowd, and they roared back with what I hoped was approval. Across from me sat Wonlay, looking sleepy in his heavy-lidded way. I thought I detected a glint of a smile, possibly ironic, or maybe a grimace. The chief motioned to the floor. A square piece of kinte cloth about the size of a handkerchief was spread between us, and as he spoke he put his hand under the cloth and pulled out a fistful of small brass rings. “Here you will find the snake,” he said in Gio (as Wonlay helpfully summarized for me beforehand so I knew what to expect). He put the rings back under the cloth with a flourish. Somewhere in the tangle and maze of rings, the symbolic jungle, was a needle, the symbolic snake, and I had to find it. As easy as finding a needle on a dirt floor, blindfolded. Because, of course, I wasn’t allowed to peek under the cloth.
Gingerly I inserted my hand – as instructed, my left hand – under the cloth and felt around for the needle. I sifted through dirt and rings, but felt nothing smooth and sharp. After 15 or 20 seconds the chief held up both hands, a clear order to stop. He said something in Gio, put his hand under the cloth and pulled out the needle. “Ooooo,” the crowd responded, accompanied by whistles and foot stomping. I looked over at Wonlay, and he whispered, just loud enough so I could hear, “Try again.” I turned to the chief and asked, “Can I try again?” adding after a moment in what I hoped was a pleasantly pleading (but not wheedling) tone that needed no translation, “…please?”
The chief held up the needle for all to see, and then with another flourish stuck it back under the cloth. The cloth twisted and writhed like the snake I saw in the outhouse, but even as he tried to disguise the whereabouts of the needle, I thought I could detect where he might have left it, before withdrawing his arm. I inserted my left hand and carefully felt in the vicinity. Voila – the needle! I pulled it out with my left hand and with a triumphant gesture held it aloft. Ooooo, the crowd roared again.
I grinned and looked at Wonlay. He had the same glimmer of a smile on his sleepy poker face, which wasn’t much encouragement.
Next, the chief held out two Coke bottles, one filled with water. He poured the contents into the other bottle, which represented the snake slithering from down a tree. This seemed easy enough, only he kept lifting his pouring arm higher and higher, at first a few inches, then a foot, then two feet. Not a drop of water spilled out of the lower bottle. The crowd roared an appreciative ooooo.
He handed the bottles to me, and turning to the crowd said something in Gio. The people roared in laughter. “What did he say?” I mouthed to Wonlay, and he mouthed back, “Pea-cee Co drown.” I nodded; it was a challenge. Fortunately as a kid I liked to pour Coke from one bottle to another in the same fashion, to amuse my friends and get out the fizz. The chief held out the bottles and I confidently gripped them, lifted one above the other and just as he had, began to pour the water from one bottle to another, lifting the top one higher and higher. I drained the whole thing without spilling a drop.
Oooooooo the crowd yelled louder. I smiled, not too much, but enough to acknowledge the cheers. I didn’t want to antagonize the chief. But I felt a small sense of relief: Hey, this seemed pretty easy. Wonlay allowed himself a slightly wider smile. The chief remained stony-faced.
The third and final test seemed like the easiest. The chief held out a small jack knife – again, the symbolic snake – and, gripping it by the blade, flipped it a few inches handle first into his other hand. He did this a few times to demonstrate. Then with a flourish worthy of a magician or a TV pitchman, he held the knife aloft and gestured for me to stick out my left palm. I did. I had to catch the knife handle just three times. I felt like the home baseball team, three outs away from the championship. He flipped the knife a few inches and I caught it. Ooooo, the crowd cheered. One out. He took back the knife, circled it in the air, and tossed it again. Caught it again. Two outs! The ooooohing grew louder and continued. I looked around and saw the villagers leaning in expectantly, like fans on the 3-and-2 pitch. The chief took the knife once more, twirled it in his hand and tossed it a little harder. I grabbed for it a moment too soon and bobbled it. The knife bounced to the floor. Oh oh. The chief jumped to his feet in disgust, turned around and stalked out of the hut. The crowd hooted crazily. Beads of sweat broke out on my forehead. Holy shit, I thought: I’m screwed! “What now?” I said to Wonlay, but he had already spun out through the door in pursuit of the chief, presumably to palaver for my safe passage out of the village. The newspaper headlines returned to mind.
But a few moments later Wonlay re-emerged, with the chief a few steps behind. I started to jump up but Wonlay said, “Stay,” and leaned over to me. “Chief want five cent.”
“What?” I said. “He wants what?”
“Five cent. You give chief five cent, he do knife test over.”
I let out a sigh of relief and fishing into my pocket, careful to use my left hand, came up with a nickel and handed it up to Wonlay, who turned around and passed it to the chief. He resumed his place across from me and repeated the knife test. This time I caught the knife cleanly all three times. The crowd roared their approval, and I permitted myself a big smile. I had escaped the headlines.
The chief shushed the crowd and made a lengthy incantation over me that of course I did not understand, then produced a bottle and slathered some liquid on my shirt and arms. It had the viscosity of salad oil. Wonlay told me later this was some kind of repellant to keep snakes away from me. Snake oil?
And that was it. I was done. I took a seat in the back of the audience, relieved to be out of the limelight.
A gaunt, ancient woman, who looked like one of the witches from Macbeth, only the color of ebony, approached and sat down across from the chief. He laughed and the audience joined him, haw haw haw. Laughter is the same in all languages and cultures, I reflected, grateful not to be the target. Then the chief turned serious, frowning, and lectured her in harsh tones. Wonlay said later the woman had tried to pass the initiation rites before, and failed. The chief was telling her she wasn’t worthy of the Snake Society. (That made me laugh: I was?) Still, he was ready to give her another chance. He pulled the needle out from the pile of brass rings, held it aloft for everyone to see, and inserted it back under the kinte cloth. With an elaborate hand gesture that required no translation, he invited the old woman to find it. She reached in, fished around for a few moments, and came up empty-handed. “Haw!” the chief bellowed. Again he jumped up and retreated from the hut, this time calling after him as he left. To my astonishment, people started to get up and follow him.
“What’s going on?” I asked Wonlay when I caught up with him. “Woman bad bad. Chief off to hut to show.” Sure enough, the crowd filed along to the woman’s hut, which was just a few dozen steps away. Eager to see what was happening, I impolitely pushed my way through the crowd to the entrance and peered in. The chief was at her bed, a few sheets sewn together with straw bundled inside. The woman’s husband, astonished and confused, had apparently been asleep when the chief came in. The chief ignored him, bent down and thrust his hand under the sheets. He came up with…the needle! What treachery, what perfidy, what showmanship: the snake was in her bed! No wonder she couldn’t find the needle. The crowd bellowed in what I took to be contemptuous amusement.
Next morning I stopped off to thank the chief and bid him farewell. With Wonlay translating, the chief invited me to return to the village in the dry season, early next year, when society members went out looking for snakes. The role of the society, he told me, was to find snakes and squeeze out their venom to help isolate antidotes. “Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked. He assured me that society members were well trained and, more important, repellant to serpents, thanks to his generous application of snake oil.
“Here,” he said, and handed me one of the brass rings. “You keep.” I took it and we shook hands in the West African style, snapping our middle fingers smartly, and I made ready to leave. But he stopped me. “One more ting” he said gravely. “Must never tell story about Snake Society. If you do, you die.” I nodded my head in solemn agreement.
I kept the ring for many years; I might still have it around somewhere. I kept the promise about 48 hours, until I got back to Sanniquellie, and started telling the first volunteers I saw.
MY BUSH HIKE safely navigated and over, I proceeded back to Monrovia for the volunteer swearing-in ceremony. The other trainees, fresh from their bush hikes, were also heading back, and it would be good to see them and compare stories. Doubtless mine would top theirs.
I managed to get permission to ride back to the capital on the country’s only railroad, owned and operated by the local mining company, LAMCO (Liberian-American Mining Company), a consortium of Swedish and American business interests.
Ordinarily I love train trips, and I had been looking forward to this one. But as the train chugged slowly out of the LAMCO station and rumbled south through the rubber plantations and jungle forests, I was troubled by a sense of unease. Taking stock of my first few months in Liberia, it seemed the balance sheet was tipping negative. True, there were some assets. I had successfully navigated the socialization, the learning and the protocols required of volunteer trainees. I had enjoyed immersing myself in the strange brew of cultures: the Pee-cee Co bureaucracy, with its fairly rigid rules and loose traditions; and Liberia, with its amazing history and odd mix of tribes, peoples and customs. Certainly this was no small feat. Yet I didn’t credit it for much. After all, I had lived a year in London on my own, had navigated dozens of strange lands, languages, people, currencies, and had juggled travel schedules and traveling companions with comparative ease.
No, the problem, as Shakespeare said of Brutus, was in me. I was lonely and troubled.
The lonely part was understandable. I had made some friends, but none that resounded deeply. In fact, I had yet to meet anyone with whom I enjoyed spending more than a few hours. There was Laurence, a handsome, longhaired blonde high school English teacher from Chicago stationed in Monrovia, whose house was a magnet for music lovers like myself who enjoyed dropping by evenings, getting stoned and listening to the latest rock and jazz records from the States. But Laurence liked to hold forth freely on topics that seemed to me rather far afield from his areas of expertise – whatever they might be – and was a little too self-reverential for my taste. Gary, my cohort from Berkeley, was bright, engaging and easy-going. But he had been off on his own bush tour in Kpora County in northwest Liberia, and I hadn’t seen him in weeks. I liked spending time with Mark, another volunteer teacher, in Sanniquellie, and looked forward to seeing him again. But he was merely affable and pleasant, not someone with whom to build a strong connection.
Worse yet, as I had written to Jay, there were no American women who seemed interested in the awkward waltz of starting a relationship. My dance card was empty; horniness reinforced loneliness.
Then there was my prospective assignment, which seemed strange and daunting. What did a liberal arts major from Illinois know about construction financing in rural Africa? A few weeks spent scrambling on rooftops and laying culverts weren’t going to make me a Third World finance expert. The personal element was unnerving too, for it spoke to my own weakness and fears. If I were hours away from the nearest coterie of volunteers, wouldn’t that exacerbate my loneliness? Why did it seem inconceivable that I could make friends with the Liberians from Karnplay? Was it some sort of racism, or the realization that maybe I didn’t have what it took? Welling up from just beneath the surface of my consciousness, a place I rarely liked to probe, was the uneasy feeling that I didn’t have the right stuff – the patience, the guts, the desire – to stick it out. So there it was, finally, staring back at me, like a drunk’s image in a mirror – my old bete noir: lack of resolve. I had the courage and drive to start things; I just couldn’t finish them. The two years ahead loomed like mountains seen from foothills.
Compounding all this anxiety was a parallel sense of alienation, akin to homesickness. While we drifted in this quiet backwater, critical events (anti-war and civil rights demonstrations) were unfolding back home, thousands of miles away. I was starting to feel trapped by lassitude and irrelevance.
This feeling was heightened by news that greeted us back in Monrovia. Debbie, my volunteer neighbor in Karnplay, learned that her brother had been killed in Vietnam, and she was leaving to go home. This was doubly disastrous. My only Western connection might not return, leaving me alone in the wilderness. And for her, and for all Americans, it was another tragedy in the unending litany of tragedies that the war had come to represent: painful, pointless deaths piling up like boulders in a landslide.
I talked with a few dozen volunteers about expressing our continuing opposition to the war. In a letter home, dated November 14, 1969, I described to my parents the situation.
“Yesterday we learned that the brother of the Public Health Volunteer in Karnplay was killed in Vietnam, and coming on top of the Moratorium news in the States, turned our attention to the war. Over dinner I suggested we ought to demonstrate in some fashion at the American Embassy, and several of us who felt serious enough sat down after dinner to hash out details. Picketing in front of the Embassy was rejected in favor of presenting a statement to the Ambassador and sitting inside, to avoid involving Liberians. I then wrote the statement that we agreed to hand in:
Today in the United States and around the world, people are mobilizing to publicly denounce United States participation in the war in Vietnam. In our capacity as responsible individuals and private American citizens we wish to demonstrate our sympathy with and support of their efforts by presenting this statement to the American Ambassador, and by maintaining a short, silent vigil inside the American Embassy. We intend that our physical presence here serve to memorialize the fallen and to remind the Embassy staff of the terrible responsibility all Americans share, and the catastrophic effect the war has had on the lives of our contemporaries.
“Four of us took a taxi to the Peace Corps Director’s house to inform him of our plans,” the letter continued. “This morning we gathered, 10 strong, dressed solemnly in dark suits, arriving at the Embassy at 7:30. We had candles and a placard with our statement printed in large letters so that Embassy staff could read it, and we proceeded to sit on the carpet in the reception room. A few minutes later the Ambassador met us, accepted the statement from me, assured us that he would wire the contents to Washington along with an account of our demonstration and told us we were free to continue our sit-in. We maintained our vigil, with candles lit, until noon. Most of the Embassy staffers peeked in at one time or another; some read our placard, quite a few managed to look like they were ignoring the whole proceeding. Nonetheless, from my point of view, we accomplished our limited objective of reminding the Americans there that distance from the U.S. did not diminish their moral responsibilities in regard to the war, nor did it excuse us of the obligation of continuing to protest against it. The whole thing was solemn and dignified, well-planned considering its spontaneous conception and probably about as effective as any peaceful demonstration of that type can possibly be.
“The P.C. Director was exceptionally casual and helpful, especially considering that we had the evening before agreed he might attempt to dissuade us to the point of sending us home if we went through with it. We had lunch with him this afternoon, and he told us that behind the scenes the Embassy was considerably flustered by our sudden arrival there, and that our effect was considerable.”
The rest of the letter touched on more commonplace news, and ended with a complaint about female volunteers, “who tend to be the sisterly rather than the mistress type. The few exceptions among the women date men from the concession companies or embassies, who have more money…However, there are always other possibilities. Having a ‘country wife’ is quite common among PC volunteer males.”
How any of this news might sit with my parents was something I evidently didn’t consider at the time. Surely, they might have reasoned, organizing and leading an Embassy sit-in would result in my own CIA file, and might get me expelled. And to make matters worse, even alluding to an African “country wife” must have given them shudders of apprehension about my social life.
Actually, despite the statement in the letter, I knew of only one male volunteer with a country wife. Walter was a quiet, amiable fellow who had extended his PC service an additional two-year term, the limit, and then stayed on to work with USAID. He had immersed himself in the country and become fluent in Mende, a local tribal tongue. By the time I got to Liberia he had given up work altogether and was living in a small upcountry house, content to do nothing but palaver with the tribal men and produce beautiful brown babies with his country wife. This kind of life was possible because basics there were incredibly cheap – I wound up paying a dollar a day rent for one of the nicest Volunteer homes in the country, and food cost just pennies. Walter was like a character out of Graham Greene or Somerset Maugham, a Westerner who had gradually but irrevocably gone bush, like someone might quietly go berserk, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. He was pointed out to us as a cautionary tale on the danger of treading too closely to the lazy and torpid and sometimes dissolute African way of life, which we were warned was an inviting mudhole in which we might, if we weren’t careful, happily sink. I don’t know, I remember thinking: it seems like a pretty good deal to me.
A few days after the Embassy protest we were sworn in as volunteers, at a salary of $130 a month. The money was considered an honorarium; we were technically still volunteers. Within a week I was heading back upcountry to assume my post. First stop was Saclapea, a small town halfway to Karnplay, where I had been invited to spend a few days and attend a wedding of two volunteers. Peace Corps policy was to discourage volunteer weddings, on the theory that relationships that ripened in the hothouse climate of the Third World might not survive the cooling and tempered atmosphere back home. But when such relationships did ripen, the authorities didn’t – probably couldn’t – stand in the way.
I don’t recall the wedding, but I have two striking memories of my brief stay. On the afternoon we arrived I was walking through the village and passed a young Liberian woman curled up on the ground near a hut, sobbing hysterically. She was alone – unattended and inconsolable. Her cries were almost inhuman, fathomless wails of despair and grief. The woman looked like she was in her twenties, which meant she might have been in her teens, because women there aged quickly. I asked, what’s the matter? Someone responded, she’s just lost her baby.
In general volunteers lived and worked on a plane of magical, almost transcendent immunity from everyday domestic concerns like money, children, career and responsibility. About the worst that could be said of our stay there was that the weather was frightfully hot and our lives sometimes boring. Of course we had our workaday frustrations and occasional bouts with severe sunburn, African tummy or even malaria. Our emotional cauldrons boiled over from romantic entanglements and spats with friends. But in general, we were blessed, young and energetic, mixing with people from across America and Liberia, being paid to work in this exotic and faraway place and get to know and help the local people, to the extent we could. It was a unique and unforgettable adventure, one we knew we could never hope to repeat after we got home.
The mother’s mournful cries cut through all that, like an air raid siren on a quiet day, and pierced the blissful haze of our privileged perspective. Seeing her was a jarring reminder that on rare occasions the veil of everyday life could be thrown back to reveal raw pain and emotion exposed like a bright red wound.
It reminded us – like all of Peace Corps experience – that the untapped depth and extent of human life was somehow infinitely varied and yet always the same. The natives might have their strange habits, their secret cults and mysterious rites, their peculiar languages, different working habits and all the other customs and practices that characterized African society. But beyond the exterior structure, under the veil of the soul, was a foundation of emotions and desires and instincts that was universal, the same in Saclapea and Saniquellie as it was in Chicago or Shanghai or Pottstown, PA.
That evening, the night before the wedding, some 15 or 20 of us crowded into a volunteer’s living room and entertained each other, as volunteers often did, pouring over a recently arrived Sears catalogue. Look at this: a leafblower! We ooohed and ahhhed and laughed. Or this: crystal goblets! It wasn’t that some of these things weren’t available somewhere in Africa. It’s just that they seemed so impossibly…unreal, superficial and superfluous. Life here could pretty quickly get down to the essentials: shelter, food, a little work, a little fun. One of the great Peace Corps lessons was that the basics were just fine.
All except for our music, the one luxury we insisted on. Someone walked in just then bearing a gift from the Gods. Look, the new Beatles album! We threw aside the Sears catalogue and slipped Abbey Road on the turntable. “Catch this,” someone said, as we passed around the album cover, “Paul is barefoot! What do you suppose that means?” We tried to divine the significance. Someone produced around a joint and while the crickets outside chirped a steady accompaniment, we played the album through again and again. In this remote and peaceful setting, far from hardship and responsibility, it was easy to think that if four youngsters from Liverpool could produce a masterpiece like this, the world might yet become a better place.
It was months after I returned home before I discovered the cricket sounds we heard were on the soundtrack, and not coming from the village. And years later before we realized Abbey Road was a cultural high water mark, and not a harbinger of better things to come.
Heart of Darkness
SINCE DEBBIE had gone back to America, I moved temporarily into her house in Karnplay. If she returned to Liberia after her brother’s funeral, I’d have to find some other home. Meantime, I inherited her housekeeper, Sammy, a local boy who came by once a day to cook and clean up. His cooking skills extended mainly to country chop, which consisted or some kind of meat, boiled okra and peppers over rice, potato greens and palm butter. It was tasty but so spicy it singed my mouth, the better, I was told, to kill the incipient germs. Still, my digestive system must finally have been getting the hang of it, since episodes of African tummy had significantly diminished.
Bearing a letter of introduction from the Liberian Secretary of the Interior, I paid a courtesy call on the local chiefs. I asked the Paramount Chief in Karnplay, a large, jet black man with a booming voice to call a “development committee” meeting the following week to discuss construction projects. The idea was to determine which of the many opportunities for local development – a road to the nearby border with Ivory Coast, a medical clinic, an extension on the school building (which was a large hut) – made the most sense. A road project, for instance, might be the most economically advisable, since it would employ the most laborers and enable local growers and artisans to vastly extend and expand the scope of their market. But it would be far costlier and take longer to build than a clinic or schoolroom. The chief was amiable and seemed receptive to my ideas, and he even asked me to take charge of repairs to a schoolhouse in Zorgowee, a small village halfway to Sanniquellie. He graciously invited me to join him in his midday meal, which was an enormous mound of rice and gravy ladled over okra and some kind of meat – deer? I watched in amazement as he dispatched the meal in a big big hurry. When I injudiciously inquired about his eating habits – being Pea-cee Co gave one permission to ask all sorts of indelicate questions – he informed me this was his main meal of the day.
Otherwise I spent my time in the Lebanese shops in Sanniquellie buying household goods. My group’s staff leader, a weathered PC veteran named Jordan, turned up unannounced one day in his Jeep. This was a little unnerving, since it meant I had to be mindful that a supervisory visit could materialize at any time, even here, hundreds of miles upcountry. Further, I’d had a little run-in with Jordan in Monrovia the month before.
One night shortly after the Embassy sit-in I was at Laurence’s place with a few other volunteers, smoking pot and listening to the rock group Chicago’s fine first album, Chicago Transit Authority. Laurence claimed to know some of the band members and was holding forth on the merits of the album when Jordan walked in. Stoned as he was, Laurence had the presence of mind to palm the offending joint and drop it unobtrusively behind the couch. Of course, even if Jordan hadn’t seen it, he couldn’t help smelling it. But if he did, he didn’t let on. Just dropped by to say hello, he said sociably. We held a reasonably coherent and seemingly friendly conversation with him for a few minutes, after which he excused himself and left.
“You suppose he’ll report us?” I asked. Probably not, we decided. Most staffers looked out for the volunteers under their jurisdiction and Jordan, while businesslike, was friendly and didn’t seem the type to undermine anyone’s stint there over something so inconsequential as recreational pot – even if it was a capital crime. Still, someone reminded me, I had been the lead rabble-rouser in the Embassy protest. If there was pressure from the Embassy to ease one of us out, this might give Jordan the ammunition and the target.
But the reason for his visit upcountry, Jordan informed me, was procedural and informational. He wanted to make sure I was settling in OK. We talked for a while about my development plans. He knew and liked the Paramount Chief, and felt we’d get along well and accomplish a lot. He had big expectations, he said, which made me uneasy: I wasn’t feeling a lot of faith in myself at the moment.
The big news, however, was Debbie. She had decided not to return to the Peace Corps. That meant the home she had built, where Jordan and I were now conversing, was mine, if I wanted it. “Sure,” I said. “It’s one of the nicest around.” Jordan agreed and was pleased, since he hadn’t planned to offer me a choice anyway. As he was leaving, he commented on the weather. Monrovia and other population centers along the coast always sweltered. While the temperature rarely climbed much above 90 degrees, the humidity never dropped much below 90 percent. In the capital the sweat pooled along your neck, your arms, your back, a constant, unwelcome companion. In contrast, the weather in the hilly regions upcountry in and around Karnplay was temperate and sometimes even cool. “You might even need a sweater,” he said as he piled into his open Jeep and waved goodbye.
I was now on my own. Jordan wouldn’t be returning any time soon – he was too distant to come by with any frequency – and Debbie was officially and permanently gone. The closest Peace Corps volunteers were an hour away in the best driving conditions. My everyday companions were people whose language I hardly spoke, and whose lives seemed strange and unknowable. I had no schedule, no agenda and no job aid. I was free to invent my role, limited only by my own initiative and imagination and guided by common sense and our training sessions.
In theory this ought to have been the opportunity of a lifetime. Other volunteers in my position would surely have found it so, and made the most of it. But absolute autonomy seemed like a frightening paradise, “the dizziness of freedom,” Kierkegaard called it. I worried I didn’t have the energy, self-confidence or maturity to reshape and organize the vacuum that was my life.
Some of the uncertainty was amusing. One morning a little girl knocked at my door and dangled some bananas for sale. How much? Penny a banana, she said. I bought several bunches, thinking myself shrewd and lucky to have such a cheap source of food at hand. Later in the day I discovered a banana tree growing in my backyard. I had my own supply.
I spent time with the chief and his retinue, but conversation was limited because Wonlay was no longer available to translate, and my knowledge of Gio was scant. I was left to infer through hand signs and body language the chief’s enthusiasm, and inexplicably it seemed to be waning. He seemed increasingly uninterested in my help; he was a busy man, it was clear, and while he put up with me, it seemed obvious he was no longer as welcoming. There were active development projects already underway, I learned. Perhaps he didn’t need my assistance, or didn’t want to share the credit.
Unsure how to proceed, I sidestepped the issue just when I should have confronted it. I took a cab to Saniquellie and spent a few days among friends. This visit has mostly faded from memory, except for two sharply etched vignettes, frozen in my mind like lightning in a dark sky. In the first, I was walking through the center of town at night. The shops were closed and most people were in their huts. But as I passed an intersection I looked up to see with astonishment, brilliantly illuminated by giant lamps attached to a portable generator, hundreds of white-robed men sitting on the dirt road. At the front, seated on a raised platform above the crowd, was someone reciting verses in Arabic, a language not usually heard in Liberia. Still, I recognized it from my travels in the near east, the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, a chant as beautiful and haunting as any Schubert lieder or Billie Holiday ballad. It was, I realized, Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and prayer, and the Liberian and Lebanese Muslims were listening to readings from the Koran. The Koran is meant to be read aloud – the word koran means “recite” – and is said to be among the most beautiful spiritual poems ever written. The brilliant lights, like klieg lights, threw long shadows across the road. The reader was skilled and the usual harsh sibilants of Arabic were softened by his half-sung melody, a cross between a prayerful chant and narrative story. I stayed to watch for a few minutes, mesmerized, and then, realizing regretfully that, like Liberia, it was a world I could never hope to understand, quietly left.
A few minutes later (or perhaps another night? the memory has the quality of a dream) I was walking alone in a remote part of town, near a dump, when a pack of dogs materialized. There were seven or eight of them, and they weren’t the lovable pooches of one’s childhood, but miserable, vicious curs. They approached within 30 or 40 feet and began to growl and snap at me, lunging and retreating as if straining on a leash. Only they weren’t leashed, they were dangerously out of control, testing my resolve, which was shaken. If they should attack, I’d have nothing to defend myself with. How the hell was I going to get past them? I had to advance – the dogs were blocking my way. So I picked up a few rocks and hurled them in their general direction and yelled and stomped my feet, trying to match their feral quality, and they slunk off, snarling as they retreated.
When I got back to Karnplay a letter was waiting for me. It was from Katie, a volunteer I had met in Monrovia during one of my training sessions. Katie was an art history college graduate from Ohio. She was short, dark, pretty with soft oval features – round eyes, cheeks, body. We had seemed to hit it off, I thought, and I promised to write. She promised to read. When I first got to Karnplay, I wrote that I’d love to come visit her in her upcountry house. She was a teacher in Kakata, a village in Gbonga County, 50 miles southwest. To my astonishment, I got a letter back. Can you come? The invitation was like water to a man dying of thirst. I wrote back accepting the offer, and made plans.
The trip took five or six hours, involving a taxi to Sanniquellie, bus to Gbonga, and another taxi to Kakata. The roads were dry and dusty. I got to her village in the late afternoon and had the driver drop me off in front of her place. It was a solid house, a teacher’s house, with reassuring bric-a-brac from Africa as well as Midwest America – wall hangings, masks, family photos, famous Western artwork. Wow, nice, I said. We went for a walk through the village, which was maybe 8 or 9 blocks altogether. It had a communal feel, the huts were tidy and the people friendly. We waved to villagers as we walked by; she seemed to know most of them, had been teaching there for a year, and liked it a lot. We went back inside. Her houseboy served dinner and we talked some more. After dinner, when the generator shut down for the evening, she lit candles and we drank wine. It was a perfect evening, and yet when the time came to top it off, I couldn’t make a move. It just didn’t seem right in the way those things do – or don’t. We said goodnight and I curled up in my sleeping bag on her couch. I don’t recall being disappointed; it seemed like we had gotten off to a good start on a relationship. My timidity seemed prudent, maybe even romantic in a way.
Next morning as she served breakfast, I pointed to one of her framed prints. “I love your paintings. Especially that one, the Gauguin.”
“It’s not a Gauguin, it’s a Rousseau,” she said. “Rousseau looks a lot like Gauguin.”
“You sure? I’ve seen Rousseau’s paintings, and this looks like a Gauguin to me.”
“Absolutely,” she said, with some finality. After all, it was her print, and she was the art history major. I knew that made sense, but for some reason, instead of agreeing, which would have been the prudent thing to do, perhaps driven by the same pint-sized, tin-pot ego that compelled my father when he was 17 to tell his high school principal he wasn’t fit to be the school janitor, I held firm.
“I’m pretty sure it’s Gauguin,” I said. “I’ve seen it in my art history class, and maybe in the Louvre too.” I tossed this off trying not to sound condescending – it was true, I had seen it in the Louvre – but she took it amiss. We didn’t pursue the point, but clearly the exchange left a bad odor that poisoned the atmosphere, like the smell of dog shit on someone’s shoe. After breakfast there was more talk, but now it was desultory. And then it was time to go. That was it. She walked me to the cab stand and waved goodbye. Damn. How did that happen, I asked myself as we pulled out of town. But it was just of a piece with my current mood and luck.
A few weeks later, my outlook still foul, I made another trip to Monrovia, on the pretext of some official business. The real reason was to try to celebrate my 24th birthday and New Year’s Eve in company. I certainly didn’t want to be sitting home alone in Karnplay.
But despite the scattering of festivities and people, I felt insecure and isolated. My closest companions remained confusion and anxiety, a sense of personal worthlessness and drift, compounded by my lack of what I perceived as even one good friend in the whole of the country. It was an empty birthday celebration, worse, a reminder of how little I had accomplished in the last few months, or for my whole life, for that matter. Here I was in the heart of darkness, and I’d discovered the darkness was in me. Maybe that’s what Conrad had meant.
It all came crashing down after midnight. I don’t remember where I was at the time, but somewhere during the evening someone produced some powerful hashish. I knew I shouldn’t smoke – drugs and depression don’t mix well – but my best impulses and protective defenses were down. Stoned on hash and heading back across town by cab to the Peace Corps apartment, I saw the presidential palace. The distant mansion seemed menacing and symbolic, with its broad lawns and iron gates, symbols of corruption and power, surrounded by miles of slums. I felt a darkness spreading within me, a mood of desolation and despair that I had rarely known before, a mental weight matched now by a physical presence, as if my body couldn’t contain the bulk of my depression.
It was late when I entered the apartment where I was staying. My mind roiling, the heat stifling, I couldn’t fall asleep. I rolled around in bed for an hour or two, studying my anxieties like a hobbyist. Nothing made sense; it was all a morass. Desperate now to make a connection, I got up and went into another bedroom on the pretext of needing to get something. My training colleague Gary was sleeping. I made enough noise to wake him up. “Hey, what’s up?” he said half-asleep, and I mumbled an apology. He sat up in bed, opened a pack of cigarettes, snapped one out and lit it. We began a long conversation. “Have you heard?” he said. “I’m going home.” His draft board in Berkeley was calling him back for a physical. We knew Peace Corps didn’t in and of itself constitute a military deferral. Still, it was unusual to be called home midway through an assignment. Just my luck, he said. Can’t you appeal, I asked. He had already tried that, and run out the string. He could only continue to appeal in person back home.
Though I hadn’t foreseen it, discussing his draft problem was a patchwork antidote to my depression. It got me out of my own head and into the more congenial role of being a sympathetic listener to someone whose problems, on the face of it, were worse than my own.
As we talked I was gripped by a curious self-awareness. Instead of the usually healthy ego, more or less integrated and cohesive, I was aware of two parallel and antithetical forces at work, competing fiercely to dominate my consciousness. One was the thing that approximated my mental terror. It was sinister and devious, writhing and seething with turmoil and confusion like snakes in a pit. Mounted against this id was the super ego, the so-called rational mind, orderly and tidy, engaging pleasantly in conversation and clucking in sympathy at a companion’s dilemma. Of course, it’s perfectly normal to think one thing and do or say another: that’s how liars operate. Normal also to be “of two minds” about something. But never before had I been so aware of how at war the two sides could be, and how crucial the outcome. In the first few minutes I was afraid the monster would prevail, and I would start to sob or jump up and start shrieking, “I can’t take it anymore!” until the only recourse was to be led away. But the mere act of providing sympathy to a fellow troubled soul was a balm for my own torment. The rational mind took control and eventually banished the thing to its shadowy corner, where, at least for the moment, it could rage on without preoccupying me.
Gradually, I grew tired, and with my demon effectively bottled up – at least for the night – I excused myself and went to bed. I never said anything about this to Gary. To this day he doesn’t know the role he played saving me that night.
Next day I decided, on an impulse, to give it up, to return home. As bad as terminating early might be, it was better than hanging on and doing nothing, overcome by the black dogs of anxiety and depression. There was one more chance that something could be salvaged, however, if only I could get a reassignment to a more populated area and do something I was better suited for, like teach. But when I checked that afternoon at the Peace Corps office, I got an answer right away: no openings. In fact, I was told, PC Washington had decided the Liberian contingent was too large and would be reduced through attrition. A teaching reassignment was out of the question. I informed the PC office that I would wrap up my assignment as soon as they could manage the paperwork, and returned to the apartment where I was staying with ambivalent feelings of relief and failure. What happened next almost made the survival issue moot.
Someone suggested we go to the beach. As a strong swimmer who had grown up doing pool and lake laps at summer camps in Vermont and Maine and body surfing along Long Island’s Jones Beach and swimming off the Chicago shoreline in Lake Michigan, I loved the water, the rougher the better. Monrovia’s beaches were challenging even to strong swimmers, however, because of the narrow continental shelf along West Africa. That meant the crashing Atlantic surf and fearsome rip tides hammered away right at the beach’s edge, without having a longer ocean shelf over which to play out.
When we got to the oceanfront I swam out a hundred yards or so to ride the waves back to the beach. My companions lay down to sunbathe. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, not a cloud in sight. There were miles of glinting, fine-grained sandy beaches at our disposal. Liberians are seemingly averse to the ocean, for some reason, and tourists (of which there were few) usually avoided the rough surf. So I might have been alone in the water; certainly no one was within shouting distance when a huge wave came along and rolled me over, then another. I had misjudged the frequency of the waves and worse, found myself being pulled down by a fearsome undertow. I scrambled to get to my feet but the vicious undertow sucked me down. I tried to get my head above water only to be smashed by a third wave, and then a fourth and a fifth. With the breath knocked out of me, sucking water instead of air, I was aware as I somersaulted underwater that I might have only a few seconds left. With a final desperate effort I managed to clamber to my feet and stand up. I braced myself and withstood the onslaught of the next wave. From the beach I saw several of my companions looking anxiously in my direction, and I waved to them I was OK. Hurriedly I made my way ashore.
It was time to get out of Liberia, before a snake or a wave or my own fearsome depression reared up and did me in.
Only two things disturbed my leave-taking. When word got out that I was terminating, it was as if I had just won the lottery. Well-meaning glad-handers crowded around. “Hey, too bad you’re going home” and “How come you’re leaving? You just got here,” were the two most common comments from my Peace Corps companions. I thanked the former and finessed the latter, responding with the half-truth that my assignment upcountry wasn’t a good fit and re-assignment wasn’t possible.
Curiously, I found that I resented everyone’s effusive well wishes. Where were these people when I needed them, when I craved companionship and pined for friends and maybe a lover or two? Now it was too late, and their genial assertions of concern and regret twisted a knife into my fragile ego. I was committed to leaving, and these well-wishers only made it harder.
Still, even with the African belly, isolation and loneliness, drift and confusion, my time there was memorable. Many years after I left Liberia it endured a hideous civil war, which wrought enormous death, misery and destruction. Young men and even boys were conscripted by warring sides, armed with rifles and machetes, and encouraged to run amok. Tens of thousands of people were killed and mutilated, and whole generations were desperately scarred. The death toll has been estimated as high as 250,000, out of 3 million people, or one-twelfth the population. The equivalent toll in America would be 40 million dead.
Then a few years after a peace was brokered, the Ebola virus struck West Africa and killed thousands of people before public health efforts beat back the disease.
It was a terrible one-two punch from which I’m not sure the country has yet wholly recovered. I’ve been tempted from time to time to go back and find out. Maybe in so doing I could contribute a little to the country’s restoration, in exchange for the time I spent there uselessly spinning my wheels. It would be interesting to see Wonlay again, and visit Saniquellie and Karnplay, and perhaps even assure the Snake Society chief that despite my big mouth I had managed to stay alive.
In any case there was an important lesson from my Peace Corps experience that unfortunately I did not draw from my last weeks there, a lesson that took me many years to appreciate. Wherever you go, if you treat people well, they are likely to be there for you when you need them. I felt lonely and depressed. But with some patience and a willingness to reach out, I probably could have salvaged my time there and made of it something fine and memorable.
Still another lesson: you can make up your own lessons, and draw on them as needed. Had I decided that my friends were out there, had I been able to admit I needed help, and been willing to solicit it, things would have been different. Instead, I only learned from the lesson that said when you’re hurting, quit. Wrong lesson. But the choice of lessons is always ours. Choose wisely.
Very well written. Both a travelogue and self-analysis, honestly described.
I LOVED this story and was so pleased to be able to read some of your work. I don’t know why I never have before. Thanks for sharing it so publicly on Facebook. Looking forward to reading more of your work soon.
Uncle Les, I must stop now because the tears aren’t appropriate at work. Your writing is incredible, and I apologize for not reading it sooner. So powerful – I truly felt like I was there with you (Not in the outhouse of course. That would be wrong!) XO Marla
Les, just finished reading this splendid piece. Brought up a lot of my own life experiences, which weren’t the same as yours but somehow touched me in similar ways. I wish I had the ability to synthesize and articulate as you so beautifully do.