When lightning struck a mud hut here 23 years ago and killed an old man, Gbonwea's chief did what any responsible official in this devil-worshiping region would do. He called in a specialist.
The lightning doctor, a sorcerer from across the snake-infested swamps, came at once. He promptly planted a sacred cottonwood seedling beside the chief's palaver house and barked out three magical antilightning commandments that were to be obeyed forever.
Do not pour cooking oil on a fire, he said. Do not walk into the village carrying a bunch of coconuts. Finally, the sorcerer warned, no Gbonwean ever again should chew Chiclets gum.
The sorcerer came and went. So far, so good. The sacred cottonwood is thriving, shading the chief's palaver house, and no one has been killed by lightning.
But in Gbonwea, a rice-farming village of 600 inhabitants swallowed up in the dead-green West African bush, people remember the sorcerer's edicts, and they still shy away from Chiclets.
For this village lies in the heart of a region where magic, perhaps more than in any part of Africa, controls the way people live.
Liberian authorities in the coastal capital of Monrovia, about 220 miles southwest of here, have been trying for more than 140 years to assert temporal hegemony over the sorcerers, the masked devils and the secret societies that are both religion and government in remote villages like Gbonwea (pronounced bon-way-a).
In a nearby town in the 1930s, the government court-martialed and shot 50 members of the secret Leopard Society, whose "heart men" specialized in killing people and cutting out their hearts and other organs for use in religious ceremonies. The prodding of government and of generations of American missionaries has all but eliminated these violent practices.
But about 65 percent of Liberia's 2 million people continue to believe in traditional religion. Thousands of rural Liberian boys and girls are sent off every year to "bush school," a rigidly secluded kind of summer camp where they are circumcised by "devils" and taught how to farm, dance, fight and use herbal medicines. They also are indoctrinated in traditional religious beliefs.
"The devil has the largest percentage of believers; the Christians have much less," said David Menkua, 37, a bush-school graduate, father of 10 children, husband of two wives, head schoolmaster in Gbonwea and heir apparent as village chief, a position now held by his uncle. "The devil is the only thing we believe in, and when we sacrifice to it, it will help us."
Time and outside pressure have mellowed the sacrificial appetites of Gbonwea's devils. Menkua said the blood of a sheep or goat, instead of a human, is now a respectable offering to a devil being asked to rid the village of illness. Women, once killed if they accidentally caught sight of a devil's mask, now are let off with a fine.
Devils in Liberia, it should be pointed out, are not devils in the Christian sense. Rather, they are believed to be benevolent spirits who live in the bush and occasionally come into a village -- in the form of a costumed man (often the village blacksmith) with a devil's mask -- to solve problems.
Menkua said a devil last helped out Gbonwea by settling a fight that broke out after a recent soccer match. He said the devil, a village man who by donning a mask had merged his soul with that of a peacemaking spirit, simply presented himself to the brawlers and they went home.
Besides being in the heart of Africa's devil country, the bush around Gbonwea also is notable as the home of about 20 species of the world's most poisonous snakes.
There are green mambas -- slender, blindingly quick day-glow-green snakes that hang around in trees and, according to one snakebite book, "have an extremely virulent nerve poison, which can quickly lead to an emergency situation." There are spitting cobras, creatures five to eight feet long that, when provoked, stand up, spread their hood and spit venom, aiming for the eyes. And there are Gaboon vipers, rather stout and stubby creatures with lovely pastel coloring, an unearthly hiss and a venom that attacks nerves and destroys blood vessels.
Snakes (and snakebites) are so much a part of Gbonwean existence that they, like devils, long have been incorporated into the village's social fabric. Snake societies, amiable clubs somewhat akin to Rotary or Kiwanis, meet regularly in the village for drinks, singing and seminars on snakebite treatment.
Unlike the fanatically secretive organizations that deal with devils, snake societies welcome outsiders. So an American reptile merchant who lives in Monrovia recently drove out to Gbonwea, along with two reporters, for a look at the snakes, a taste of village life and news, if any, of the devils.
October and November are snake-catching time in the Liberian bush. In that two-month interlude between the rainy and the hot seasons, snakes like to get out, wiggle around, eat rodents and, occasionally, bite people. Snake society members have their best luck catching snakes this time of year, and Charles Miller III, the Monrovia snake merchant, has his best luck buying them.
Like most everything else of interest in Gbonwea, snake-catching and buying go on at night, after the stupefying heat of the day has drained away. The writer V.S. Naipaul noted in an essay on Ivory Coast, a country whose border is just 20 miles from this village, that the African night raises the curtain on the world of "spirits and magic and true gods."
On a recent Saturday in high snake season, with the snake merchant in town and the promise of his hard currency in the air, Gbonwea transformed itself in the passage from day to night.
In midafternoon, with flat white sunlight baking the hard-packed dirt yards between circular mud huts, most Gbonweans sat quietly in the shade, sweating. Little girls, bellies distended from worms, sucked their thumbs while their mothers and older sisters braided and picked lice out of their hair. Guinea fowl and chickens leisurely pecked the dirt and each other. Goats, pigs and dogs slept, as did the village chief, who had a touch of malaria. In the surrounding bush, cicadas whined like high-voltage power lines.
By midnight, however, Gbonwea was jumping. The encircling bush was alive with fireflies and bird calls. Outside the hut where the snake merchant had set up shop a hundred or so villagers gathered to clap hands. Two 12-year-old girls, with palm-leaf skirts, bells on their feet and faces white with chalk, undulated to the pounding of drums.
Beyond the kerosene lamp-lighted circle of dancers, a score or so of snake-sellers stood quietly in the shadows. With writhing bags of reptiles at their feet, they waited their turn to bargain with the snake merchant.
Inside the hut, Miller, 35, red-bearded and corpulent, a Long Island-born Yale graduate with a degree in anthropology, sat on the edge of a squeaking steel-spring bed, chain-smoked cigarettes, sipped 150-proof cane juice and made his usual offer for a cobra.
"I have only one price. No talk, $22.50, that's the price," said Miller, who has been buying snakes in Gbonwea since 1978. He sells them to zoos and snake buffs in the United States.
"Twenty-three dollars," insisted Mor Bin, a chief from nearby Gayelay. His cobra, shiny, black, about eight feet long and thumping around in a box at his feet, was bigger than most of the cobras sold in Gbonwea. Mor Bin argued for an appropriately bigger price.
"No. I have one price. If I pay you $23, everybody else will give me a humbug," Miller said. Mor Bin took the $22.50 and left the cobra.
While the people of the Gbonwea area are more than willing to make money off snakes, enthusiastically welcoming Miller and the skittish hangers-on he sometimes brings to the village, they maintain a reverence for the creatures, which are linked in their traditional religion with the powers of the devils in the bush.
A zo, a traditional holy man in the Liberian hinterlands, a man known both for his contact with devils and his air of unflappability, often is adept at handling snakes.
Yosn Peter is Gbonwea's top snake zo. In his hut hangs a framed certificate from Liberia's Local Government Ministry that states: "The holder of this certificate is fully and officially authorized to practice herbs as he has been properly tested and found to be qualified as such."
Peter makes his living treating snake, scorpion and spider bites, as well as by selling snakebite medicine. His medicine, the ingredients of which, he says, "can't be exposed," is made from roots and herbs he gathers from the bush. Late at night, around midnight ("so nobody can see"), he mixes up the medicine and stores it in deer horns, which he sells for $15 each. For personal treatment, he charges $75 for a snakebite, $10 for a spider bite, and $5 for a scorpion bite.
A snake zo, Peter said, sometimes has to demonstrate in public the utility of his medicine. He says he occasionally allows a snake to bite him, rubs his medicine on the bite and does not get sick or die.
"You know, seeing is believing," he said, although he would not allow one of Miller's big cobras to bite him.
According to "Poisonous Snakes," a snakebite pamphlet written this year by Alex MacKay, head of the herpetology department of the National Museums of Kenya, nothing neutralizes snake poison other than a serum derived from the blood of animals immunized against that specific poison.
MacKay acknowledges, however, that when the amount of poison injected into a snakebite victim is less than lethal, traditional cures (of the sort Peter sells) "can often do wonders" by calming victims down.
Menkua, the man who one day will be the chief of Gbonwea, is the best educated, most well-spoken person in the village. He graduated from high school at the nearby Garplay mission. More than anyone in the village, he talks of the need for electricity, for a medical clinic, and for completion of Gbonwea's unfinished new school.
He sees no reason, however, to stop believing in the spiritual power of devils and snakes. Without a snake society, he said, he never would have been born.
"I am a snake baby. My parents could not conceive a child for many years. Then my father was advised by a snake zo to join a snake society here in Gbonwea. Before long, I was born."