Adventure in Liberia - Welcome again, and again, and again, and again

My motorcycle taxi driver knew my friend Daniel and knew exactly where to go once we reached his village of Tugbaken.  But, honestly, in a cluster of twenty thatch-roofed homes, it wasn’t going to be that hard.  An unscheduled celebration began the moment I arrived.  Village elders showed up, representatives of various village groups were present, but most touching of all were the women.  About a dozen of them sang and danced for at least fifteen minutes.  I only knew one word in Grebo.  But, after a while I recognized that they sang “aweeoh” or “thank you”.  They were giving thanks for my safe arrival in their village.

Daniel said they all heard the announcement on the radio that he had a white man friend in Zwedru.  He told his neighbors that I was going to visit.  However, many of them never truly believed what he had to say until I showed up and stumbled off the motorcycle.  Yes, let the celebration begin.

If you are really welcomed in a Grebo village, there is protocol to follow.  And, it involves kola nut, a bitter nut with all kinds of ties to family ancestry.  Believe me, protocol was followed!  I’d never felt so welcomed in all of my travels.  At least 40 people crammed into the home as soon as I arrived.  I have no idea how many more were outside.  So, at least a fourth of the village showed up to make me feel at home.  And, when you’re at home in Tugbaken, you are given kola nut from the men and crushed hot peppers from the women.  The first is bitter and the second one burns.  In both cases, you’re going to need something to drink.  I was given water, alcohol, and a dilemma.  I’d only had bottled water the entire time in Liberia.  I knew this water wasn’t from any bottle.  Also, I don’t drink alcohol, but I certainly didn’t want to offend this group.  I quenched my thirst and washed down the bitter taste of the kola nut with the well water.  And, I took one sip of the alcohol.  I feared the fire of cane juice (distilled sugar cane juice), which I can barely tolerate.  Instead, it was anise flavored pastis.  It was actually good, which pleased all my hosts.  But, I kept to the sip.

I felt completely welcomed.  However, my hosts told me that this was just an informal welcome ceremony.  The real welcoming would happen the following day.  I didn’t know what to expect.

A steady stream of visitors passed by throughout the day and evening.  The list included local chiefs, village elders, friends, family, and a whole lot of curious children.  The person I remember most is the village historian.  He informed me that there had been a lot of white men come to Tugbaken with their NGO projects.  However, I was the first white man to ever spend the night.  I had no plans to make local history when I came to River Gee County.  It happened anyway.

What could top an historic night in Tugbaken?  I’d suggest a day of welcoming from the Grebo community.  The village had a chief, but it was his superior, the clan chief who took charge of the ceremony.  Yes, there was kola nut, pepper, water, and alcohol.  On this occasion, I knew I could pass on the alcohol.  It meant a little more for everyone else so nobody was offended.  One would think that a second kola nut session was sufficient, but it wasn’t over.  The clan chief very formally presented me with a white chicken feather.  It’s what you do in Africa.  Honored guests are presented with chickens.  I was only given a feather this time because the little critter was already simmering in my meal of cassava leaves.  In my six years of living in Africa, I’ve seen lots of people receive chickens.  However, this was my first time.  I didn’t mind the honor without holding the actual bird.

I’ve always tried to be kind and generous, but I’ve never been able to out-give Africans.  This day was no exception.  You might think two kola ceremonies might be one more than necessary.  You would be right.  And, that was before I found out about the third kola ceremony.

Yes, there was a third ceremony.

This time it was with the elders from my village of Tugbaken as well as from the neighboring village of Parken, three minutes away.  There was more singing by delightful women, more kola nut, more pepper, and more alcohol.  The clan chief was seated next to me until a politician, higher in the pecking order, showed up.  He translated as the village speaker proceeded with the ceremony and just as gladly, he drank my alcohol.

I thought things would wind down as I finished the kola nut, but it was actually just getting started.  The men of the two communities had a live chicken to present.  Two chickens in one day!  As far as I knew, that was just unheard of.  I was told to accept it with both hands and hold it to my forehead to receive the blessing.  It was actually a rooster.  It was explained that you give roosters because they are the first noise you hear in the morning.  If you receive a rooster, others will listen to your wisdom just as they listen to the rooster way too early in the day.

Kola nuts were from the men.  Peppers were from the women.  Since the men presented me with a rooster, the women were not going to be outdone.  I’ve never heard of anyone getting two chickens in one ceremony.  But, I just collected my third rooster of the day.  And, as unbelievable as it may sound, there was more to come.  They had to gown me.  I received a large African shirt with matching pants made from traditional country cloth.  And, you don’t receive such a gift without wearing it.  I was ushered to my home to change clothes.  When I stepped out of the house, fully adorned with the matching hat, the women of the community sang as they escorted me back to the celebration.  Before the meeting was over, I was formally introduced to every elder and community representative.  I loved the kindness and generosity. However, under the excess layers in the African heat, I was a sweltering, soaking mess.

Their final gift was an African name for me.  My friend Daniel’s African name is Karpeh.  So, my African name, similar to my African brother’s, is Karpehyee.  Its translation is “peacemaker”.  I thought that was especially appropriate since I met Daniel when I was a Peace Corps volunteer.  I suggested I should add an African middle name, Nyepluh.  Everyone laughed when they heard a white man say the Grebo word for “white man”.  But, since it was what many people called me that anyway, I thought it might as well be official.

Three kola nut ceremonies, three roosters, a new name, and an African suit.  All welcoming should be done.  It just wasn’t the case.  Daniel said I needed to go to the neighboring village of Parken for my fourth kola nut ceremony.  It didn’t matter that I just had a joint Tugbaken/Parken welcoming for kola nut ceremony three.  There were more people in Parken awaiting a visit from the white man.  And, at every ceremony, they mentioned how surprising it was that a white man would be such a good friend with a Liberian.  It just didn’t happen.

Kola nut ceremony number four was in the home of the local chief.  It had more women singing, percussion instruments, and some fun dance moves. Fortunately, none of them involved me.  The village elders showed up wearing lappa skirts, dress coats, and a variety of hats, all inspired by the style sense of one of Liberia’s early presidents.  At the end of the ceremony, each time, I told the people in Grebo that I accepted their welcome.  Of course, I don’t remember any of those African words whispered to me.

After the ceremony, I visited a local school.  We were trapped there for a while during a rainstorm.  When we were finally free to go, it was suggested that we go back to the chief’s home in Parken.  I didn’t realize that it was for kola nut ceremony number five.  That’s right – five, count ‘em – five kola nut ceremonies!

This occasion was hosted by the people of Yourwarken, a village about a half hour away.  They heard of my visit.  Everyone far and wide heard about my visit! One chief walked two hours to meet me.  It appeared all the villagers wanted their chance to meet the white man in their midst.  There was kola nut, pepper, water, alcohol, and my fourth chicken of the day.  I asked a couple of the chiefs who were especially kind to me if they ever heard of that.  Nobody had.  I can’t imagine ever being so welcomed again.

To end every ceremony, the tradition is to ask about the guest’s mission.  I explained about my murals with the U.S. Embassy and the hope to help stop stigmatization of Ebola survivors.  When that project was over, my next  mission was to find my long lost friend Daniel.  I knew I had one friend in the Deabo region.  I never expected that I would have so many new friends in such a short time.  Now, I had a new mission.  I wanted to return home to tell friends in America what it really means to welcome a visitor.  Nobody can welcome a person like the Grebo people.  The word needed to be spread.

Consider yourself informed.