Once Upon West Africa is a collection of fifty Liberian folk tales that I collected as a Peace Corps Volunteer decades ago. None of the stories end with the words “and they all lived happily ever after.” The tales I collected as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia frequently taught a lesson where the evil, rotten, nasty person – usually that old trickster Spider – gets it in the end. They are stories that deal with right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice. It is a rare story that has anyone living happily ever after – especially the one who needs to learn the lesson.
The Peace Corps is called the “Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.” It was hard not to love the time I spent collecting African folk tales. I traveled across Liberia, eating and breathing a lot of red dust along the roadsides, to compile these stories. I wore out the bottom of my seat while riding in the back of crowded pickup trucks and also wore out my tape recorder in the process. In addition, I stayed in little villages, made new friends, connected with friends of friends and recorded stories at police checkpoints, in remote villages and under the starlight. I also had malaria four times and multiple motorcycle wrecks (some minor and a few major).
Over the years, I’ve edited, re-edited, added to and revised the tales. And, a year or so ago, I illustrated them as well. They’ve just been sitting around, gathering dust inside my computer and waiting to be discovered. Recently I met LeRoy Boikai in Columbus, Ohio, of all places. He couldn’t believe the treasure I’ve been sitting on. Along with the Village Improvement Project, LeRoy wants these stories in the hands of the one and a half million students in Liberia. That’s a big dream, bigger than I ever imagined. I believe he’s going to make that happen.
In recent weeks, we’ve passed the stories back and forth, editing and re-editing. Through this extensive work of editing the book, I had to expand 32 stories. Fortunately, it really made them a lot better as well.
I don’t know what happened to most of my friends and storytellers during the civil war. I probably never will. However, my best friend, Daniel, was a refugee in the Ivory Coast for several years before returning to Tugbaken, the village where he was born. He has rebuilt his life there and serves as a local teacher and principal. I can’t wait to give copies of this book to his students. These children are the hope and future of my Sweet Liberia.