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Friday, November 11, 2011

PCV in Africa

Stories I remember as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV)
 In Ghana West Africa.

My first night in Ada-Foah was interesting. There were three PCV teachers, a British VSO, and an African student living in one house. I had a corner room near the road. Shortly after we had all gone to bed, I heard gunfire! And shouting of a lot of African voices. The mob was moving nearer, but no one else in the house was alarmed by this, so I decided that the best thing to do was to keep my head down to avoid being hit by any stray bullets. I didn’t know what I would do if they came into the house. The gunfire and shouting mob moved passed us and diminished, and I finally fell asleep. The next morning was bright and calm as everyone was stirring, washing up and getting ready for breakfast. We sat around the table as though nothing unusual had happened. I finally had to ask what the ruckus was all about. Everyone looked around with bewildered looks, until Bob Demule, our senior PCV of one year, said “Oh that might have been the funeral procession for a fetish priestess who had just died. They fire black powder muskets (no bullets) to ward off ghost and evil spirits.” I realized I had a lot to learn.

After we got settled in, and learned our teaching assignments, we started walking around the village. Bob led us to the main store and bar, where we would eventually make a habit of going to sit at a table, and drink beer, and talk. The nights never seemed to cool off due to the high humidity, even though the temperature seldom rose above 80. Since we were only 800 miles north of the equator, the sun rose at 6am and set at 6pm all year round. We only had kerosene lamps for light at night. So it was difficult to do any reading after sundown, because the lamps only increased the heat.

One evening we went into the bar and there was a surly, burly looking man sitting at the center table, the one we usually sat at. He was brafuno (white man) with red hair and ruddy complexion. Since he didn’t look too friendly we sat at a side table. After a while he spoke to us and asked us if we swam in the river. We told him that we didn’t, and he said that he saw white people swimming in the river and he just wanted to let them know that there are barracudas in the river. He told us that he was off of one of the fishing trawlers.

Another time, I was walking around the village looking at all the old buildings. Many of them were made of brick and mortar back in the colonial days who knows how many hundred years old. It was a Sunday morning, no one around, when a yellow taxi (of all things) sped around in a circle and stopped in front of me in a cloud of red laterite dust. The driver’s door opened and a huge African got out. He was wearing a cloth toga and had a large scar on his left cheek. I wondered if I was trespassing on sacred land. He walked around the rear of the car and as he approached he held out his hand and with a big grin he said, “Brafuno, welcome to Ada”!

Our house was made of concrete blocks, sturdy but rustic. We had a two burner gas stove and a kerosene fridge. We drew water from a well using a bucket on the end of a rope. We had a wash room for bathing, using a bucket of water. The bucket held about two gallons. For a toilet, we had a small room that was about five feet square and the toilet was a mahogany box with a hole on top covering a bucket. There was a small door to the outside behind the bucket, and each night the “night-soil man” would come by each house, with a much larger bucket which he carried on his head, and dump our bucket into his bucket. When his bucket was full he would carry it down to the beach and dump it into the surf. I understand that the job pays about two shillings a day; the equivalent of a quarter.

Bob Demule taught French, I taught math, and Tom Ramonda taught science. I envied Tom for having his own science lab; in fact it was in a separate building. He had the students develop the habit of bringing in specimens to display in the lab. One evening there was a knock on the door, and some students were there with the badly mangled body of a rather large snake, and asked if Tom would like to have it for the science lab. They explained that a workman had aroused this black spitting cobra from under a pile of bricks, and the cobra had fired a spray of venom in his face. Although they killed the snake by throwing bricks at it, without the anti-venom, the workman would lose his sight. So they cut off the snake’s head, and told Tom he could have the body for free but would have to pay five pounds for the head to help pay for the anti-venom. Tom declined on both counts. The only other snake I saw in our village was a little brown snake slithering across the road in front of the jeep. I stopped the jeep, got out and chased the snake with a stick. It ran into a hole under the roots of a dead tree, and I couldn’t persuade him to come out. Richard, the African teacher who was riding with me, was very upset with me for even stopping. His attitude was that all snakes are dangerous period, and if one bites you, you will die. I told him it was just a harmless little brown snake and not one of the poisonous kinds. Later that year during the Christmas break, some of us stopped in Kumasi and visited the Kumasi Zoo. At the park entrance there were two large glass cages containing a large number of green mambas, which are very fast, very aggressive, and very poisonous. They were a slithering mass of chartreuse colored snakes. To my great astonishment, one of them was brown, just like the one that had crawled across the road in from of the jeep.   

My next snake story was in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. During the summer of 1965, I decided to vacation in East Africa. Since there were no direct flights to Kenya, and after stopping to refuel in Nigeria, and the Congo, I stayed overnight at the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. I hadn’t counted on it being in the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere; the bed at the airport was very cold,  and I felt like a poor little humming bird with the blood being sucked out of it by a praying mantis. The following morning I flew on to Salisbury and decided to stay for a few days. I asked the cab driver to take me to the Peace Corps Hostel, but he said there wasn’t one so he took me to the YWCA,which seemed to be the watering hole for all expatriate travelers. One morning while I was sipping a beer and chatting with a young missionary from the Congo, another man sat down at our table, introduced himself as a snake handler from South Africa, and invited us to take a tour of a nearby snake farm. Having nothing better to do we joined him. The snake farm was more like a reptile zoo, composed of several glassed in cages holding a large variety of snakes. One cage held several types of cobras. The black spitting cobras were in a separate cage. As I watched them, I noticed a pair of perfect circles of venom that had been sprayed on the glass right in front of my face. At that point I was very thankful for the glass that separated us. With the exception of the spitting cobras, he would step inside the cage and bring out individual snakes for us to photograph up close. When he opened one of the cages I heard the familiar sound of rattlesnakes. When I asked him what they were doing with rattlesnakes, since they are not native to Africa, he said “Oh we collect snakes from all over the world.” As he stepped inside, the rattlesnakes moved as far from him as they could get. He was covered with the scent of the other snakes and they were terrified of him!

In the next cage there was a large dead branch and a large gray snake lying as still as the branch. He told us that this is a black mamba. Fast and very aggressive it is the only snake that will attack a human without provocation. Its bite is called “the kiss of death”. He unlatched the door and at each pause he watched the snake for any sign of movement. He opened the door a few inches and paused, a few inches more and paused, cautiously put his left foot inside and paused. The snake did not move. He opened the door a few inches more and paused, he moved forward and put his weight on his left foot, with still no movement from the snake. At that point he wisely retreated and closed the door.

He then took us to a concrete pit. It was about fifteen feet deep and just wide enough and long enough to house a gigantic twenty-five foot Nile crocodile. With a long bamboo pole he began lightly tapping the croc on the head. As he tapped, the beast became more and more agitated. He told us to keep watching, and finally in a monumental fit of rage the croc roared and leapt to within two feet of the top of the pit. The roar sounded like the sound effects for a movie of two prehistoric monsters doing battle.  

The next morning I flew to Nairobi Kenya.      

©Harold Gower
July 20, 2010