I mentioned that Peace Corps dropped me off in Kpagouda with a thin foam mattress. What I failed to mention was that they gave me a small kerosene fridge as well. Before I had the sense to turn this expensive luxury into a closet, I made ice for a while. Kodjo, my neighbor/helper, had never seen ice before. So I handed him a piece. He screamed as soon as he touched it. Then he flung it away, sure it had burned his skin.
When he saw that the ice created neither a burn mark nor any lasting pain, he grabbed another piece. This one he put into a bottle cap so he wouldn’t have to hold it. He ran out of the house and up the street saying he wanted to terrorize his friends. “They’ll think that I’m a devil with this new burning/non-burning thing,” he shouted as he left. He returned within minutes in shocked puzzlement. “How did you do that?” he demanded. I asked him to clarify. He showed me the puddle in the bottle cap, saying, “You know. You turned the hot rock into water when I left.”
And in the spirit of sorcerers, one more gris-gris story comes to mind. This was Thanksgiving, my first year. The US Ambassador had invited the volunteers to dinner at his home in the capital. But I was newly at post and it was a long haul back down to the coast. It was also the same day as a nearby ‘sorcerers’ event’, that took place once every five years. So I decided not to go to Lomé for the Ambassador’s Thanksgiving party. I went to the Kara gris-gris festival instead.
The hippie heyday was behind us in the late seventies, but some vestiges of it remained. In particular, pot use had bloomed, spreading its literal and figurative seed. Its roots were well planted and wide spread. The industry was even alive and well in Togo, as we found the first night we arrived. We smoked so much that our associate director told us that if we didn’t stop doing drugs he’d throw the whole lot of us out. Somehow, the admonition was not enough to create much behavior change.
My friend John was as much of a toker as I was. And he too had decided to forego Thanksgiving in the capital. He decided to join me at the gris-gris festival instead. A neighboring UN volunteer came along as well.
We got to the hill where the gris-gris practitioners display their skills to one another. John asked us if we wanted to get stoned. The UN guy signaled that he didn’t. Looking at all the bizarre sights, I decided not to as well. I was afraid that adding the incoherent fog of marijuana to the scene might be a little more than I could handle. It was, for me, a rare exercise of self-restraint.
We watched wizards dance wearing nothing but beads and bands and body paint. They had live toads stuffed head first into their mouths. The fogs kicked like they wanted to crawl all the way down the sorcerers’ throats. There were others who pierced their bodies with needles, knives, and lances. They drove these objects through their cheeks and through the loose skin of arms and thighs. I walked around completely straight seeing sights that made me feel like I was stoned out of my mind.
A few days later the merry-makers returned from the capital. They told me that a group of volunteers had gathered for a Thanksgiving pre-party. The party included pot in smokable form as well as some baked into brownies. As the party broke up, someone snagged the brownies. They brought them along to the Ambassador’s where they ended up on the Thanksgiving desert table. What happened after that has since become Peace Corps legend. In fact, I continued to hear the story told in different Peace Corps offices for more than twenty years.
An unsuspecting volunteer took a brownie off the table thinking it was a regular desert. She ended up so stoned that she stripped naked on the dance floor. She shimmied and shook her way up to others there and ranted about how much she wanted to have their babies. The young woman was psycho-vac’ed the following day.
There was an immediate investigation into how the brownies got to the Ambassador’s in the first place. It soon implicated more than twenty volunteers. The policy technically called for their dismissal, but many argued that the program ramifications were too great. So the administration settled for letters swearing they would not use drugs again.
Now back to the UN volunteer who had gone to the festival with John and me. He ended up making a big deal about John’s lighting up when he next saw our Peace Corps Director. The leadership decided that, while they couldn’t lose twenty volunteers, they could make an example out of one. John was the only person to get thrown out of Peace Corps for Thanksgiving drug use that year.