I Married My Anthropology Professor
In the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. During our 41 years together, we had three boys and traveled numerous times to Liberia, living in his village upcountry for a year in the 1980s. After his death in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief. Below is an excerpt from that book describing my first trip to his remote village being carried in a chief’s hammock over the Kamboi Mountain range in Liberia.
Getting Ready to Go Over the Mountain
The next morning, the town chief rounded up four hammocks to use on the fifteen-mile trail over the Kamboi mountain range. We used two since Ben and Sandy insisted on walking.
Our carriers loaded up. Bengie again rode on a young man’s shoulders. My stomach was queasy as I lay in the hammock listening to scolding monkeys and strange bird calls in the towering trees. An hour later, one of the men suggested, “Ma, let the carriers rest a while.” I got down and walked the well-worn path, carefully stepping over tree roots and rocks. We proceeded single-file through valleys and rainforest, up slopes and steep inclines, winding our way over the mountain.
Suddenly we heard a roaring crack overhead. Sandy barely had time to lunge forward. I stood frozen in fear as an enormous tree branch thundered to the ground between us, raising a cloud of dust as it bounced, pounding the ground. Everyone stood still, staring in silence. I caught my breath, feeling God’s protection. Both of us could easily have been killed.
Weak from diarrhea, I walked slower and slower until one of the men said, “Ma, I think you should get back in. You’re slowing us down.”
I gratefully obeyed. At each stream, I climbed out and walked the log bridge with water rushing below, encouraged by a steadying Mende hand. At the edge of a swamp rice farm, we came upon clusters of reeds, towers of bamboo, and the oldest cotton tree in the area, the air underneath its crown cool and fresh. I had to back up a ways to get it in my camera lens. The Mende man standing in front of its trunk looked like a speck.
The Challenge of Driver Ants
I was walking the final two miles when we came across a column of driver ants—the African species of army ants—crossing the trail. I bent down and noticed that the ants at the outer edges linked themselves together, forming a border. Those in the center raced in one direction. I was captivated by the column, which was about three inches wide, until a young Mende man warned, “Don’t get too close or step on them. They’ll swarm over you. They’ve found a dead animal.”
The Return Trip over the Kamboi
That night it poured. The next morning, it took forever to assign baggage carriers for the trip back over the Kamboi range. The light-skinned Mende woman walked up and said, “What farewell gift do you have for me?” I thought fast. Reaching into my purse, I gave her my small pocket mirror. I was relieved that she was pleased by it.
As we were about to leave, a group of elderly women scolded me in Mende, “You are taking our husband away too soon! We haven’t had a chance to sleep with him!” When Ben translated in my ear, I stood there speechless while he laughed and hugged each one. He teased me about it, saying it was the only time he had ever seen me at a complete loss for words.
I had put up a good front considering my culture shock. The truth was, I was eager, more like desperate, to leave that “other planet” and get back to civilization. The anticipation of my return to Monrovia so energized me that I walked almost the entire way back over the Kamboi range, amazing even myself.
More Driver Ants
That time when we encountered the ants, they were scattered, running wildly in circles. A young man said, “They’re looking for food. Even the boa constrictors search the area before they swallow their prey. If they don’t, the ants eat them alive as they lie there, unable to move. Jump over them as fast as you can. Pat your pant legs so they won’t travel up your clothing.”
Sandy and I quickly obeyed. We thought we had made it until Sandy screamed, yanking frantically at her blouse. One had bitten her breast. When she pulled it off, the body snapped, leaving the pincers and head, twice as large as the body, in her flesh. She quickly pulled that out too.
Crossing a Raging Mountain Stream
The rain the night before had turned the mountain streams into raging torrents. At one point we encountered a log bridge that had washed out. The men helped Ben and Sandy, the rushing water rising to their chests. When my turn came, a man, smaller than I, squatted for me to sit on his shoulders. I reluctantly did so, holding my breath as he edged down the steep bank and into the water.
Those on the opposite bank watched tensely. As the water rose to his shoulders, he struggled to keep his footing with the strong current buffeting us. I sat still, knowing I would drown if he fell since I couldn’t swim. At one point he stumbled, but he managed to regain his footing. We finally reached the other bank, where a multitude of hands grabbed us and pulled us up. The men sighed in relief, especially Ben. Once again, God kept me safe.
For the rest of my adventures, read Beyond Myself.