Memories of Liberians Telling Stories

By Dr. Angene Wilson

We had been teaching at Suehn Industrial Academy as Peace Corps Volunteers for less than a month in September 1962 when we wrote a letter home about some of our students coming to visit us one night to tell us riddle stories. At the end of a story each person had to give an answer.  The most logical or clever was right.  One story was entitled “Three Pipe Smokers,” and we retold it in the letter home.  You will have to go to the end of this post to see the answer.

 “Once upon a time there were three pipe smokers and they were walking to another village. One man had a pipe and one man enough tobacco for one pipeful and the third man had a match.  When they stopped to rest, they all wanted a smoke.  The first man said, “I have a pipe but no tobacco or matches.”  The second man said, “I have a match but no tobacco and no pipe.”  The third man said, “I have a match but no tobacco and no pipe.”  So they decided that they would pool their resources and they would have enough for one pipeful.  So they filled the pipe and the man with the match lit it, but he was very greedy and he smoked it half-way down.  Then he gave it to the man with the tobacco and he smoked down to almost ashes.  The third man was vexed, but the second man gave him his pipe.  He took just one puff and the tobacco was gone.  He said to the other men, “It was my pipe but I never got any enjoyment out of the smoke.”  They said, “But you get the ashes.”  He was still vexed and so he pounded the ashes out of the pipe and when he did so, a great city arose from the ashes.  Each man claimed to be chief of the city.  Who should be chief?   

 The student who told that story was Alfred Boymah Zinnah Kennedy (deceased) who became our Liberian “son.”  Forty years later when Alfred was studying for a master’s degree in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky after the outbreak of war forced him to flee from his job as Manager of the Butaw Oil Palm Plantation, he had an opportunity to tell another story.  At the African Student Association Africa Night in 1992 he was the animated storyteller of “The Princess Who Wanted a Perfect Man.”  The newspaper report about his storytelling that evening led to several requests from schools for the “Authentic African Storyteller”.

Of course, Liberians tell and act out stories in their indigenous languages, too.  From the early 1960s, we remember Ma Becky (deceased) who would visit us from across the road with her Ritz Cracker tin and, for some rice to fill it, would tell stories in Gola to us and the small boys.  We did not always understand her combination of Liberian English and Gola, but we understood that we were to echo “time” when she began “Once upon a time,” and we knew she was telling a story that included a canoe when she pantomimed paddling the canoe with the umbrella she often carried.

 One more memory: As part of teaching African literature in the seventh-grade class, English teacher Jack asked seventh graders to act out the Greedy Spider Story.  As we wrote in a description of our Peace Corps experience for our college alumni magazine, “The Greedy Spider wanted to go to two feasts so he had each party tie a rope around his waist and asked each to tug the rope when their feast was ready.  Unfortunately, both tugged at the same time and now Ambullah who plays the spider writhes as his waist is squeezed to the narrow waist of the spider today.”

“The answer:  The man with the pipe because he has the ashes.”

Angene and Jack Wilson, Peace Corps Liberia 1962-64

1 Comment

  1. Everett J. Clark on May 25, 2019 at 9:27 am

    Thanks LeRoy,
    By accident I stumbled upon this article which attracted my attention in no small way because everything was so familiar from my childhood days spent at Clarke’s Corner, Suehn in the household of Mr. & Mrs. Ned R. Clarke, my Uncle and his wife- “Teacher” Louise Clarke.
    I turned 6 years in December of 1962, and remained there for most of my elementary and high school years. I do remember especially the basketbal legacy left behind by Jack Wilson at Suehn Mission. I also have vivid memories of Alfred Kennedy and his fixation on agriculture in those years which eventually propelled him to be among the top. But most of all, I recall the many folktales, wise sayings and riddles which we all learned from the common folks. Today in Liberia that legendary Spider Story has spawned a whole new series of stories labelled as such because they seemingly have no ending and in which invariably spider never dies
    Thanks, LeRoy for stoking my memory of my early years.

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