I went to Liberia with the Peace Corps right out of college with a BS in biology expecting an assignment teaching science. After some training I was assigned to teach at a school in the small rural village of Jorwah located in the Guinea Highlands.
These are photos of the town and people of Jorwah, and the faculty and students of the school. Click on the small pictures to view a larger gif.
The power plant lasted a month. Someone forgot to check the oil. The clinic had a hi-tech operating room, but it was useless without electricity, and supplies of anasthetic and even alcohol soon ran out. The Egyptian doctor who was working off the cost of his medical education for his government couldn't take it, and he left three months later.
The Chief's Wife (159k)
Students from many different tribes came from all over to attend the school. The people of Jorwah were of the Kpelle tribe, but there are 16 different tribes speaking 16 different languages in Liberia. So classes are taught in English, the only language they have in common. There were classes for grades 1 through 8. I was the only teacher for the 7th and 8th grades, who shared the same room, and I taught Science, Math, Geography and Reading. There were no textbooks. I wrote lessons on a blackboard and the students copied them down in their notebooks. This is where I learned to teach, and I was fortunate to have students who so desperately wanted to learn.
Jorwah Town (132k)
When I arrived in Jorwah I wondered why, with all the land available (Liberia has enough land for everyone to farm - no one was starving to death there), the houses in the village were all built so close together that they were almost touching. I could hear everything that went on in all the houses around me.
The Next Town Down the Road(122k)
Of course I was missing the point. It was not a village of thirty families - it was a village of one family. Everyone was intimately aware of what was going on in everyone else's life. Everyone participated in everyone else's life. When a couple had a fight, everyone gathered around and took sides, offering their opinions and participating fully in the domestic quarrel. When there was a full moon, everyone gathered in the large open space in the middle of town, a few boys began to beat on drums, tin cans, pots and pans, whatever, and everyone danced. When there was a good crop, people from neighboring villages were invited and there was a party.
Pounding Rice in a Mortar (162k)
I never locked a door, yet the people of Jorwah would not have dreamed of stealing from me. The people there were the most honest, most gentle people I had ever lived with. If I walked by a doorway while people were eating, they never failed to invite me in to share their meal. And they never asked me for anything except that I teach their children.
Two on a Mortar (147k)
I envied the life of babies in Jorwah. They spent most of their day tied low-slung on the backs of mothers, sisters or aunts, constantly in contact with other human beings. And most of the work being done while they hung around was the swaying or shaking of pounding rice in a mortar, winnowing the chaff from grains of rice, cutting weeds in the rice fields, chopping firewood - and all of it accompanied by singing in two and three and four-part harmony in syncopated rhythm.
Winnowing the Chaff (138k)
There was a Christian (Baptist) church in town with about ten members (every Sunday you could hear the drumming of the flock - drumming instead of singing). I woke up for a few minutes every morning at sunrise when the moslem prayer was recited for the ten or so moslem families in town. But most of the people of the Kpelle tribe are animist, and they come of age when they join the secret society . There is one for men and one for women. Every few years the secret society initiated a new group of young people into the rites and responsibilities of adulthood. I know very little about it because no one would answer any of my questions. I stopped asking questions when I learned that the punishment for speaking to an outsider of the secret society is death. The secret society is no joke. One result of the fact that no European country ever colonized Liberia, other than the complete absence of roads and other communication upcountry, is that the traditional religion is entirely intact and very powerful. When I came to Japan I recognized the designation of sacred trees and stones, and there is still a strong acceptance here of the presence of spirit in all things.
Baby Brother (119k)
I was made aware of the existence of the secret society when I first came to Jorwah to live. One night, perhaps one or two in the morning, I woke to hear the sound of a man's voice singing in the rainforest behind the village. Echoing through the trees, the voice continued, coming closer and closer. Before long I could hear the feet of a solitary man dancing as he sang, and the feet and voice began to circle the house I was sharing with the Liberian teachers at my school. I had heard stories of the 'devil' who heads the secret society, although this was a name bestowed upon the shaman by the Christian missionaries trying to stamp out animism and attract converts to the dying god's religion. And I had been told that one should never attempt to see the secret society's devil. As steeped as I had been in Western rationalism, that night in that small West African town I was too scared to move a muscle. After half an hour or so the dancing, singing devil disappeared back into the forest.
The Faculty of Jorwah Jr High (164k)
The next morning I innocently asked my neighbors, and then my students, what was that singing about? Who was that singing outside my house? Singing? What singing? No one had heard it, nor would anyone tell me anything about it. I later learned about the devil from books, and read that I had probably witnessed a rite of passage making an outsider part of the community, preventing the ill effects that anything from the outside can bring when allowed inside. Serving the same function as salt in the genkan, or horseshoes above the door.
Jorwah Junior High (135k)
My students ranged in age from 14 to 35. Few of them had the luxury of continuing their education uninterrupted for more than a year before returning to the farm for a year of work to save money for the following year's education. Coming from an oral tradition, where stories and the knowledge they contain are school and education, they had an amazing memory and understanding of the little I had to share. Concepts like snow and atoms were abstract in the extreme, but they had a faith in what I had to say that made me more careful when I was inclined to speak surely and confidently about anything which I had not experienced first hand.
Cooking for the Picnic (123k)
Some of the photos I've include here are from the graduation picnic my students planned at the end of my second year in Jorwah. They had worked hard after classes every day in the school rice field. They cooked a great pot of rice, and another of goat stew in the forest outside of town. Afterwards we all walked up to the upland rice fields of the chief's son, who graduated in my class, to take group pictures in the sun.
Graduation Picnic (123k)
Class Picture (129k)
Class Picture (141k)
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