TUGBAKEN.........  What could top an historic night in Tugbaken?  I’d suggest a day of welcoming from the Grebo community.  The village had a chief, but it was his superior, the clan chief who took charge of the ceremony.  Yes, there was kola nut, pepper, water and alcohol.  On this occasion, I knew I could pass on the alcohol.  It meant a little more for everyone else and nobody was offended.  One would think that a second kola nut session was sufficient, but it wasn’t over.  The clan chief very formally presented me with a white chicken feather.  It’s what you do in Africa.  Honored guests are presented with chickens.  I was only given a feather this time because the little critter was already simmering in my meal of cassava leaves.  In my six years of living in Africa, I’ve seen lots of people receive chickens.  However, this was my first time.  I didn’t mind the honor without holding the actual bird.

I’ve always tried to be kind and generous, but I’ve never been able to out-give Africans.  This day was no exception.  You might think two kola ceremonies might be one more than necessary.  You would be right.  And, that was before I found out about the third kola ceremony. 

Yes, there was a third ceremony.

A fowl greeting with kola nut, pepper, water, alcohol and a feathered friend or two.

This time it was with the elders from my village of Tugbaken as well as from the neighboring village of Parken, just three minutes away.  There was more singing by delightful women, more kola nut, more pepper and more alcohol.  The clan chief was seated next to me until a local politician showed up.  He was higher in the pecking order and he very gladly translated as the village speaker proceeded with the ceremony (and he drank my alcohol). 

I thought things would wind down as I finished the kola nut, but it was actually just getting started.  The men of the two communities had a live chicken to present.  Two chickens in one day!  As far as I knew, that was just unheard of.  I was told to accept it with both hands and hold it to my forehead to receive the blessing.  It was actually a rooster.  It was explained that you give roosters because they are the first noise you hear in the morning.  If you receive a rooster, others will listen to your wisdom just as they listen to the rooster way too early in the day.

Kola nuts were from the men.  Peppers were from the women.  Since the men presented me with a rooster, the women were not going to be outdone.  I’ve never heard of anyone getting two chickens in one ceremony.  But, I just collected my third rooster of the day.  And, as unbelievable as it may sound, there was more.  They had to gown me.  I received a large African shirt with matching pants made from traditional country cloth.  And, you don’t receive such a gift without wearing it.  I was ushered to my home to change clothes.  When I stepped out of the house, fully adorned with the matching hat, the women of the community sang as they escorted me back to the celebration.  Before the meeting was over, I was formally introduced to every elder and community representative.  I loved the kindness and generosity.  However, under the excess layers in the African heat, I was a sweltering, soaking mess.

Elders of Tugbaken and Parken

Their final gift was an African name for me.  My friend Daniel’s African name is Karpeh.  So, my African name, similar to my African brother’s, is Karpehyee.  Its translation is “peacemaker”.  I thought that was especially appropriate since I met Daniel when I was a Peace Corps volunteer.  I suggested I should add an African middle name, Nyepluh.  Everyone laughed when they heard a white man say the Grebo word for “white man”.  But, since it was what many people called me that anyway, I thought it might as well be official.

Three kola nut ceremonies, three roosters and an African suit.  All welcoming should be done.  It just wasn’t the case.  Daniel said I needed to go to the neighboring village of Parken for my fourth kola nut ceremony.  It didn’t matter that I just had a joint Tugbaken/Parken welcoming for kola nut ceremony three.  There were more people in Parken awaiting a visit from the white man.  And, at every ceremony, they mentioned how surprising it was that a white man would be such a good friend with a Liberian.  It just didn’t happen.

Kola nut ceremony number four was in the home of the local chief.  It had more women singing, percussion instruments and some fun dance moves.  Fortunately, none of them involved me.  The village elders showed up wearing lappa skirts, dress coats and a variety of hats, all inspired by the style sense of one of Liberia’s early presidents.  At the end of the ceremony, each time, I told the people in Grebo that I accepted their welcome.  Of course, I don’t remember any of those African words whispered to me.

A musical welcome to the home of Daniel and Teresa
After the ceremony, I visited a local school.  We were trapped there for a while during a rainstorm.  When we were finally free to go, it was suggested that we go back to the chief’s home in Parken.  I didn’t realize that it was for kola nut ceremony number five.  That’s right – five, count ‘em, five kola nut ceremonies.

This occasion was hosted by the people of Yourwarken, a village about a half hour away.  They heard of my visit.  Everyone far and wide heard about my visit!  One chief walked two hours to meet me.  It appeared all the villagers wanted their chance to meet the white man in their midst.  There was kola nut, pepper, water, alcohol and my fourth chicken of the day.  I asked a couple of the chiefs who were especially kind to me if they ever heard of that.  Nobody had.  I can’t imagine ever being so welcomed again.

To end every ceremony, the tradition is to ask about the guest’s mission.  I explained about my murals with the U.S. Embassy and the hope to help stop stigmatization of Ebola survivors.  When that project was over, my next  mission was to find my long lost friend Daniel.  I knew I had one friend in the Deabo region.  I never expected that I would have so many new friends in such a short time.  Now, I had a new mission.  I wanted to return home to tell friends in America what it really means to welcome a visitor.  Nobody can welcome a person like the Grebo people.  The word needed to be spread.

Consider yourself informed.
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Copyright 2016 by Phillip Martin All rights reserved.