Peace Corps Writers
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Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience Helebu

A folktale retold
by Michael O’Neill (Sierra Leone 1978–82)

Michael O'Neill

As a community development field worker in Sierra Leone I developed extensive relations among the Mende people in scores of villages throughout the Eastern and Southern Provinces. Upon entering a village for the first time, I made a habit of inquiring as to the history of the place. I often asked the local people if they could explain to me how the village got its name.
     Once, while responding to a request for assistance to build a grain store, I had occasion to travel to a village named Helebu. In response to my usual inquiry, the elders described the turn of events that resulted in the village’s strange moniker.
— M. O'N
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MANY YEARS AGO an offshoot settlement of the chiefdom headquarters town, Futa Kpeje, had been established near the site of present-day Helebu by a clan of earnest farming families. The place quickly gained renown for the bountiful harvests of rice, vegetables and fruits produced from its farms and orchards. Each harvest season merchants from distant chiefdoms made their way to the village market to buy up the cornucopia of local produce. As the crops flourished, the people prospered. Then, one year when the rains had come with propitious timeliness and the sun coaxed nature’s capricious bounty, just as the golden rice grains swelled upon bowed panicles and plump vegetables ripened on the vine, disaster struck. A rampaging elephant appeared without warning romping through the village farms, uprooting trees and damaging crops. The villagers’ vain attempts to drive away the rogue beast — fencing the area at great expense and backbreaking labor, setting up a constant din of drummers, or dispatching a battalion of young men with slings and stones — utterly failed as the elephant returned again and again to wreak havoc in the farms and orchards that surrounded the village.
Unable to rid themselves of this monstrous pest and fearing that their entire harvest might be lost, the village elders determined to summon a famous hunter from the remote forests to the east. As was the custom of the time, they first sought permission from the Paramount Chief to engage a man possessing such awesome powers. This done, the elders sent forth word of their dilemma and the need for the great hunter’s services through the channels known to the shamans and herbalists, witch-finders and soothsayers. As they waited for a response, the elephant continued to roam unchecked devastating the carefully tended farms. Hope for a profitable harvest dimmed with each passing day.
In the gloaming of bleak twilight, as the elders reclined in low-slung hammocks passing a calabash of palm wine from hand to hand and bemoaning their great misfortune, a silent figure mysteriously appeared in the village. He was an altogether fearsome figure decked out in a kola-dyed, knee-length, country-cloth ronko robe, dangling cowry shells and leather fetishes and other paraphernalia of the hunters’ trade. He cradled an antiquated shotgun in the crook of one arm. With his free hand, he flicked an elephant tail whisk at unseen gnats. The hunter strode to the center of the village, crouched on his haunches and surveyed every corner and shadow with wary predator’s eyes. The elders bestirred themselves to welcome the renowned stranger. He stood erect, oblivious to the chatter of interested onlookers who had begun to gather at a safe distance, as if responding to a secret clarion, to ogle at his ominous regalia and assure themselves that this great man would surely rid them of the accursed beast. The elders and the hunter repaired to the chief’s compound where the customary greetings were exchanged, terms negotiated and retainer paid. The hunter prepared at once to seek his quarry.

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