A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
“I hope they send you to the armpit of the world!”
So responded my Russian language and history professor, Andre de Saint-Rat, when I told him that I had just turned down my highly-prized Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to join the newly established Peace Corps.
I’d spent the past year as his teaching assistant and he had spent much of that time helping me to get the fellowship. So I knew he wouldn't be happy with my decision.
That was midway through 1961, just after creation of the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy. The program was seen as an exciting initiative, an attempt to broadcast the best of America by sending U.S. citizens to third-world countries to serve as teachers, health workers, farmers, and community organizers.
My girlfriend, Lois Loesch, and I volunteered right away. Then, after we both received a letter of acceptance to teach in Liberia, we got married. If we both were doing this, it had better be as a couple.
By September, 1962, we had completed intensive training at the University of Pittsburgh and were on our way.
Among the first Peace Corps groups in the world, we were the first sent to Liberia, a nation of 3 million people on the West Coast of Africa and about the size of Ohio.
We had never before left the United States, and had to request special dispensation from the program's director, Sargent Shriver, before we could board an airplane. That was because the FBI had photos of us marching in demonstrations. And when we landed, our security clearances still were suspended temporarily, but the top Peace Corps official in Liberia solved the problem.
We were assigned to work in Tappita, an inland trading town. and knew how fortunate we were to be in Liberia. It had been established by freed American slaves and declared independence in 1847, making it Africa’s first and oldest modern republic.
Yet, a full century later, the interior of the country remained as untouched and representative of old Africa as any other place on the continent with more than 30 languages spoken.
English was allegedly the "lingua franca," but it was an English patois melding ante-bellum Southern speech with Bantu tonality.
“Do you have some for me?” was rendered as “Ma pa deh?”
“I’m only going for a while; I’ll be back” became “Way sma’. I go-come ya.”
In addition to trying to learn Liberian English, we were picking up the barest Gio language -- such as “U do mehn?” (Where are you going?) and “Yuwo piiyeeh.” (I’m going to work.).
Tappita had about 1,000 -1,200 residents and the town sat in a mountainous rainforest. Most of our students came from the Gio, Mano, and Gbi tribes. A smattering were Krahn, Kpelle, and Malinke members.
For the first year, we were the only Peace Corps volunteers in Tappita. In fact, there were no other non-locals at all except for a handful of Lebanese traders operating roadside shops and some U.S. missionaries on the periphery of the town. We had minimal contact with the Americans, who referred to our public school as the "devil school" because we taught science.
Local people were understandably curious about us -- how we dressed, what we ate (mostly local, super-hot foods like everyone else), whether we were capable of doing physical labor or had any idea how to survive in this tropical area, teeming with organisms large and small eating each other and us. No veil hid disease and death.
The outside world? We relied primarily on whatever we picked up via shortwave from the BBC World Service or Radio Brazzaville in French. On occasion, we could catch the Voice of America in special (very basic) English and a couple of Liberian stations.
So our information and perspectives were largely limited to Tappita except for letters that were weeks or even months apart.
And when it came to getting around? We walked, a lot. To school. To shop. We even walked 30 miles through rainforest to visit a student's home village.
If we needed to travel to Peace Corps headquarters about 200 miles away in Monrovia, the capital, we could take a "money bus."
That's what people called the Renault-built lorries circulating around town for hours, with the drivers waiting for an over-full complement of people, children, chickens, goats, sacks of rice and suitcases bursting from windows, sides and tops.
There was no guarantee of arrival.
Our school had been built by local people. On the first try, they taxed themselves with help and support by a tribal chief to raise money and hire a contractor in the neighboring country of Côte d’Ivoire. He took their money and disappeared.
Undaunted, they raised the money once again. This time, they carried the materials -- on their heads -- for the entire 200 miles from the coast. To say the least, our students were motivated.
If nothing else, our two years in Tappita taught us that ingenuity is the key to getting things done.
We lived in a house rented by the Peace Corps. It belonged to a Liberian teacher who was away on leave. The place was relatively opulent for the backcountry, with a tin roof and mud-and-wattle walls set on a concrete slab.
It also happened to sit on a colony of driver ants, so we never had to worry if crumbs of food were left on the floor. Ants would gnaw passageways through the concrete and take everything away overnight.
And although driver ants generally are well behaved, they can clean out entire villages when they decide to swarm. One night, our ants swarmed; fortunately, we had students in our house as usual to study by kerosene lamp and they told us to run a line of kerosene oil on the ground around the house. That sent the ants elsewhere.
Our next door neighbor, a man named Tarpole, owned a Ford F-150 truck and made his living with it -- hauling goods to local shops from Monrovia. One day, I told him that I'd like a lift on his truck the next time he went to Monrovia.
The opportunity came early the following morning. I sat in the middle between Tarpole and his assistant, then we were on our way -- without any chickens or goats.
It was rainy season, when the downpours around the middle of every day were enough to drown a frog.
When the rain came that day, Tarpole’s truck sloughed along on the muddy, rutted road until we reached the first bridge to get us across the St. Johns River. But there was no bridge to be seen.
The surging water was so high that the bridge was completely submerged. People were crossing the river on a raft attached to a cable.
“What do we do?” I asked. “Head back?"
Without replying, Tarpole stopped the engine. Then his assistant motioned me out and he calmly began pounding rags down the carburetor and up the exhaust pipe.
Meanwhile, Tarpole retrieved a coil of heavy rope in the truck bed, tied it to the front bumper, and paid it out to the raft landing.
As I watched, Tarpoleput the rope on his shoulder and stepped onto the raft. His assistant also climbed on. Not sure what to expect, I jumped on too.
As the raft was going across, Tarpole kept paying out the rope. When we landed, he and his assistant hauled the rope "upriver" until it dipped into the current, straight across from the marooned truck.
They told me and everyone else available to begin pulling the rope. Across the way, the truck inched forward, nosing into the flood and onto the submerged concrete bridge.
People began a work song while hauling the truck, which was sinking more and more deeper until it finally disappeared under water. But people kept hauling and singing.
All at once the cab top broke the thick torrent, then the hood, two-thirds of the way across. The haulers raised their voices and they redoubled their effort until the truck rolled clear on our side.
Tarpole untied the rope and opened the doors to release all of the water filling the cab, while his assistant pulled the rags from the carburetor and exhaust pipe.
In we climbed. The seats still were wet. I saw Tarpole crank the engine for a minute or two until it finally caught.
On to Monrovia.
I looked over at Tarpole as he was nonchalantly gnawing on a chicken bone, which had been in his lunch sack.
All in a day’s work.
There were other occasions when I saw that ingenuity was the key to getting things done
Our school principal, David Dwanyen, assigned Lois to teach "elementary" language arts and appointed her chair of the school regulations committee. I put elementary in quotes because most of the students were our age and often had families of their own.
In addition, Lois started a school/community newspaper as well as a girls track team and sponsored the school soccer team.
Dwanyen's teaching assignments for me were science and mathematics for grades seven to nine. I could do that. I’d been a math major in college.
A few months in, I got a bright idea. So-called "New Math" was the rage back home. Instead of using conventional rote formulas, teachers were trying out the notion that students could grasp mathematics better if they derived the principles themselves — like a detective story.
Educators began designing some classes with non-decimal mathematics — number systems that didn’t count by tens. The thinking was that students would see that counting by tens was
arbitrary, that any number base would work the same way.
Everyone would find later that it was disastrously ineffective, but who knew then?
I got the bug, and contacted Harvard University's department of education. It had produced a set of textbooks that was getting particularly good reviews. Within a few weeks, we received all the material and I began to teach my 8th graders how to use base-seven math and numeric logic—counting by sevens rather than tens.
“Piece of cake," I thought. "I’m working with a 'tabula rasa' here. A clean slate. Should go swimmingly."
And it did.
I should note that most of my 8th grade students were more than 20 years old. About three weeks later, one fellow raised his hand in a tentative manner.
“So prof,” he began, “We have to take a national exam to make 9th grade. This isn’t getting us there.”
I adjusted. We’d do regular math twice a week and New Math the other three days. I promised they'd all pass the national exam.
After the vacation break, we gathered to share notes.
Everybody had passed the exam. Hooray!
A particularly bright teen-ager, David Boahndao, held up his hand. He wanted to share a story about the job which he had during school break. He was working down the road as a clerk at a British sawmill, where the cutting and stockage were always measured in feet and inches — twelves.
Thinking it would simplify things to calculate in base 12, David created two extra symbols to count in 12s and went to work.
Much simpler. A few days later, David's British supervisor looked over his shoulder and saw his odd-looking calculations.
“I say, what are you doing there?”
“Oh, I’m using base-12! Feet and inches, you know. Makes it lots easier.”
He gaped. “Base 12? Where did you ever learn that?”
“Oh, they teach it in my school down the road,” he replied.
About 200 miles into the rain forest of West Africa.
Stephen Hirst has written books about his experiences with the Peace Corps and native Americans.
Since the Peace Corps began in 1961, more than 235,000 volunteers have served in more than 140 countries. Most of them have had assignments in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Caribbean areas. A majority have been white and less than 50 years old.