Chapter 9: Crazy Flumo Shakes My Hand… and Ankles

A typical Liberian shop on Gbarnga’s main street in 1965.

A new day did manage to happen, as they always do. Jo Ann and I promised to make it a good one. Her job was to mount a ferocious counter offensive on the bug-a-bugs and cockroaches. Sam was coming early with a broom.

My job was to walk the quarter mile to town, buy five gallons of kerosene, find the most toxic bug spray known to humankind, and scavenge anything available that resembled food.

I added alcohol to the list.

But first I needed to replace the malarial pond residing in our front room. I grabbed the offending bucket and tossed the stagnant water onto a plant. “Waste not; want not,” my mother would have urged even though it was in the middle of Liberia’s rainy season and the plant had already received half of its annual 170 inches of rain.

Now I was ready to tackle the well.  My family had one when I was growing up. It came with a cover, a high-pitched whirring pump, and a holding tank. Except for power outages, we could depend on it to magically deliver water day in and day out.

Our well in Gbarnga was an unprotected hole in the ground waiting for someone to fall in. Next to it I found a frayed rope. I tied it to the bucket’s handle using a Boy Scout bowline. Then, making sure I had a firm hold on the end of the rope, I tossed the bucket into the dark hole. Kersplash! I gave it a shake so it would tip over and fill.

A five-gallon bucket of water weighs 43 pounds. By the time I yanked it over the edge, I had a new appreciation for modern technology… and for the Volunteer who had left the original bucket in our house.

I delivered my burden to Jo and started for town. Half of Gbarnga was standing along the road staring at me. I smiled and waved a lot, like a princess on parade. They smiled and waved back.

Soon I came to the town’s main street. Open-air shops lined the dirt road on both sides. At first, they looked the same: white washed walls, red tin roofs, dark interiors, and faces staring out from inside. Then I begin noticing differences.

Several were fronted with crumbling cement steps that had long since given up any hope of connecting to the eroded street. One featured a crocodile skin nailed to the front post, its tail dragging in the dirt. Another had brightly colored shirts and shorts strung up like Christmas ornaments. Two or three were obviously makeshift bars, no more than holes in the wall with planks doing the honors. An ancient Liberian ‘Ma’ came staggering out of one with a half-pint bottle of gin clutched in her hand. She noticed me, hoisted her bottle in a toast and took a swig.

A few shops were larger and resembled country stores filled with the minutia of daily life. Pale-faced Lebanese leased the shops. Lebanese made up the majority of Liberia’s middle class but were not allowed to own property. I was headed for a shop that Sam had recommended.

A group of men stood idly in front of the store. Had folks known I was coming, I would have sworn it was a reception committee. It’s show time went reverberating around my skull. I put on my best Peace Corps smile. One of the men stepped forward to greet me. He was barefoot and wore a tattered shirt, tattered shorts and a big grin. His hand shot out.

This is it, I thought, my first official Liberian handshake. We had started practicing in San Francisco. The shake begins as a normal handshake but ends with you snapping each other’s fingers. An audible snap signifies success. It isn’t easy at first. If the person is really happy to see you, he may go through the process two or three times.

(About the time the snap becomes second nature, it’s time to go home. Then you have to unlearn the process. Your American friends look at you strangely when you snap their fingers. At least my conservative Republican father-in-law did. But back to Africa.)

We shook; our hands parted. Snap! It worked. All of the men beamed and I beamed back. Their official greeter grabbed my hand again. Snap! Another success and more beaming. And again. Then a fourth time.  Nobody had mentioned four times to me and this time the guy wouldn’t let go. The men were laughing out loud now.

My hundred-watt smile became a twenty-watt grimace as I politely tried to retrieve my hand. No luck. I steeled myself, gave up any pretense of being polite and yanked. My hand pulled free and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It lasted as long as it took the guy to drop to the ground and wrap his arms around my ankles. By now the other men were all but rolling the street.

I had become prime time entertainment, the George Custer of Gbarnga.

I might still be there if the cavalry hadn’t arrived.

It came in the form of a handsome Liberian man in a well-tailored suit. He appeared on the scene and gave Flumo a healthy kick in the butt. Flumo let go.

“Hi, I am Daniel Goe, Vice Principal at Gboveh High School. Welcome to Gbarnga.” he introduced himself.

We shook hands in the old fashioned way as Daniel explained that the man who had his arms wrapped around me was known throughout the Country as Crazy Flumo. I wasn’t the only person to receive his attention. Once, Daniel told me, Flumo had thrown himself down in front of Vice President Tolbert’s car and wouldn’t move until the VP climbed out and gave him five dollars.

I later learned that a tall Texan Peace Corps Volunteer had walked several yards down the main street of Gbarnga with Flumo tenaciously attached to one leg. I’d gotten off easy. Having met one of Gbarnga’s true characters, I was about to meet another.