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"War Drummer"

Cane juice.

That’s the key.

And the key to cane juice is the root. If you combine both in a bottle for about a week, then drink the boozy potion in the early afternoon, you can beat on a big log well into the night and through the dawn without feeling silly at all. Which is what the Grebo “krin” drummers do every year during week-long war dances to commemorate a 1910 battle between the native Grebo tribe and the Americo-Liberian settlers. Apparently, the Americo-Liberians wanted the southwestern Grebo lands to complete the map of their expanding country. The Grebo people did not agree with that plan. They said, “No!” Quite loudly, apparently, and a jungle war began.

This whole thing started about 200 years ago upon the founding of Liberia in 1822 and eventually through an internationally recognized independence in 1847 with the help of the American Colonization Society, a private, United States-based group formed to study the growing challenge of freed slaves in the United States. Their solution; send them back to Africa. Something about best intentions.

And of course, those best intentions went sideways. By 1923, as noted by Liberian scholar and politician Abayomi Karnga, the status divisions among the Liberians eventually evolved into a hierarchical caste system with four distinct orders. At the top were the Americo-Liberian officials, the same ones on a land grab in Grebo country, consisting largely of lighter-complexioned people of mixed black and white ancestry. They originally arrived from the United States in the early 1800s. They were followed by darker skinned Americo-Liberians, consisting mostly of laborers and small farmers. Then came the recaptives, also known as Congos, who were rescued by the U.S. Navy while aboard U.S.-bound slave ships and returned to Liberia. And at the bottom of the hierarchy, the indigenous African Liberians, my friends of the Grebo tribe.

This history is an interesting and complex tale, but enough history. This is not a history blog. It is a photo-adventure-tell-stories blog. Let’s leave it to say that eventually the Americo-Liberian officials won the day and the brief jungle war with the Grebo tribe, and the Grebo lands became the southeastern part of new Liberia. It was the descendants of these same Grebo people that welcomed, and eventually accepted me into their world upon my sudden appearance in the village of Krohnowodoke (K-town) a mile west of the mighty Cavalla River in 1983. I lived with them for two years.

My arrival was supposed to be a bit more organized. Peace Corps had it covered, so I was told four days earlier when I departed Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. It took those four days to navigate the ruts, washouts, roadblocks, and checkpoints to drive from Monrovia to K-town in a vehicle erroneously called a “money bus.” The contraption I rode in was not worth any money and it was certainly not a bus. It was a test. Everything in the Peace Corps was a test; a diabolical design to crush you every day. Thirty-eight years later, it is the only answer that makes sense to that extreme, gaga time called Peace Corps. The whole thing was a test. The “money bus” dumped me at the side of the road. Backpack, mattress, bucket. A few other essentials. The Peace Corps epic began with no introduction, no fanfare, no welcome sign.

One year later, I was four or five shots into a cane juice and root bottle, down on one knee and trying desperately to focus the Nikon F2A on the two krin drummers before I fell over. Somehow, I got the shot.

Not sure what the two drummers thought about this situation. The village had come to accept me and but for a few gaffes during my first months in K-town, I was in pretty good standing. Good enough to be invited to the dance. So when invited, dance, damnit.

The expressions here are priceless. Proud, I would say, but very wary, maybe suspicious and they did not stop to pose. They kept playing while I fiddled with the focus; the deep rhythms of the hollowed logs pounding loud and steady, a sound that is heard for miles. This was their job. They were the village drummers. Their lean, stout arms clearly attesting to their years at the krins. Their intentions quite serious. There was a dance going-on and the drums kept the dancers on beat. White man with camera be damned. Play on men.

The beat of the krins captured the men, women, and children of K-town. In long rows they formed, mostly bare foot. Some worn, Chuck Taylor low-tops, no shoelaces. Some blown out rubber flip flops. Together they sang and stomped to the beat, the red dust of West Africa rising about their legs. A dance trance. I stashed the camera and joined the dance line. We stomped forward in rhythm, each dancer moving independently, but also with a purpose, held together by the steady pounding of those hollow logs. Someone gave me a palm branch, which I tucked into by pants. Camouflage? Certainly no one could see me now. Perfectly hidden among the dancers, the dust, the song, and the drums. The Peace Corps man, veiled behind a palm leaf, mixing it up with the Grebo tribe of K-town, commemorating the final battle that ended the Americo-Liberian wars. Not a situation you think about every day.

The dance, not me, went on for the next three days. Drummers exchanging sticks without pause. Cane juice flowing. I lasted about two hours that afternoon and dragged my sorry ass back to my hut. Another year would pass before I saw this photo upon returning to the States. It remains a favorite. I look at it and can hear the drums, hear the song, feel the heat of that dusty afternoon.

And I can taste the cane juice. Something I would rather not do again, but it’s part of the memory. Because it is the cane juice.

That’s the key.

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