I Married an African Chief

As a white college student in the 1960’s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. On his mother’s side, he was a member of the Gbandi tribe. In the course of our marriage, I visited Mende and Gbandi villages, especially Somalahun, his mother’s village.  He was very close to his Gbandi grandfather, Morlu, and his uncle Komah. Although he grew up in Berlin, Germany, he spent his summers in Somalahun and Vahun, his Mende father’s village. He told me all about 1930s Gbandi history.

Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

1930s Gbandi History: Writing Stories About Racism

After 30 years of marriage, we wrote Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia about the effect of racism in West Africa, comparing it to America’s racism. In it, my husband described his boyhood visits to Somalahun.  In 1973, he had written a book about the Gbandis – The Gbandes: A People of the Liberian HinterlandBoth books describe Gbandi tribal ways during the 1930s. During my husband’s visits to Somalahun, he joined the boys on storytelling nights in which each tale brought an important moral lesson.

The Gbandes Book CoverStorytelling in the Oral Tradition

Below is an excerpt from Slaves to Racism: In his words:     The elders passed on the knowledge of the past through the oral tradition. Before tribal languages were written, the oral tradition in Africa passed on skills and information from one generation to another. This, of course, required intense memorization of genealogies and the tribe’s history, as well as expertise in farming techniques, hunting, weaving, etc.

Storytelling aided memorization, vital to the oral tradition. Each of the four clans of Gbandeland had a “great” storyteller respected for his ability to perform, as well as a “grand” storyteller over the entire tribe.On nights of the full moon, teenagers stayed up all night telling stories, boys in one circle and girls in another. Each circle had a few elders who observed and gave Slaves to Racism Book Coveradvice. The younger children learned by listening.  Each story had to be told in exact detail with the correct voice and gestures. If the storyteller missed a single detail, someone else jumped up to correct him. The new storyteller started at the beginning until he made a mistake and someone else jumped up.

Riddles were challenging. One of the older boys said, “One man said to another, ‘I’m faster than you are.’ The other said, ‘Oh, no. I’m faster.’ They were walking along when they came to a log bridge. As the first man started across, he slipped but took off all of his clothes before hitting the water. The other man behind him caught his clothes before they hit the water. Tell me, who was faster?” Since the old people knew the answers, they liked to tease the teenagers.1930s Gbandi History - Elder Gbandi Man

Some riddles were accompanied by a man playing a stringed instrument. When someone was close to guessing the answer, he played fast. If not, he played slow. An elder began by
giving a clue to the story. Someone would guess, “It’s about a woman…,” pling, …pling…”It’s about a mother,” …pling, pling, pling!  “It’s about a head wife,”  pling…pling…”the second wife” …pling, pling, pling! This went on until the guessing was exhausted. Then another clue was given until the story was complete or the riddle solved.

Uncle Komah sitting on benchSpider’s Always Getting into Trouble

Each story, legend, or riddle had a moral lesson. The tribe’s two most important values were honesty – the basis for trust – and sharing – so vital in a self-sufficient society and economy. My favorites were about Spider who was always getting into trouble. Of course, Spider was a rascally imaginary insect who was always trying to satisfy his greed and deceiving others to get what he wanted.

“Poor, Blind Spider”

Spider lived in a village that didn’t have enough food to eat during dry season. One day, he heard that the next village had lots of food and the people there were very hospitable to the handicapped. On Spider’s way there, he stopped at a nearby rice farm and took out one of his eyes and hid it in a leaf. Everyone in the village felt sorry for Spider and gave him food. This went on for three days,1930s Gbandi History - Two people working in village until a little boy in the village got curious and followed Spider home. He secretly watched as Spider put his eye back in. The next day, the boy
hid and waited for Spider to take out his eye. After Spider left, the boy soaked his eye in hot pepper juice and put it back into the leaf.

When Spider came back and put in his eye, he yelled, “Oh! Oh! What happened to my eye? Isn’t this the way it goes in?”  As Spider yelled in pain, the boy quickly called the villagers. They said, “Spider! Is that what you were doing?”  Everyone int our story telling circle laughed and the elders told us, “It’s not good to cheat.”

1930s Gbandi History - Gbandi Girl“Why Spider Climbs the Wall”

When Spider and Dog were guests at a dinner, Spider looked at dog and figured his mouth was small because he could only see Dog’s nose. So Spider decided to take a walk and told Dog to go ahead figuring there would be plenty left when he got back. When Spider returned and found all the food gone, he assumed Dog had given the food to someone and began beating him. Suddenly, Dog opened his large mouth, “WOOF!” Spider became so frightened, he climbed the wall and remains there today.

“Why Spider has a Tiny Waist”

Spider heard there was going to be a very big feast in two neighboring villages on the same day. Not wanting to miss either one, he fastened a very long rope around his waist and gave one end to a boy in one village and the other end to a boy in the other village.1930s Gbandi History - Hut in Village

He told each boy, “When you hear the drums begin signaling the feast, pull me there so I won’t miss any food.” However, the drums sounded at the same time and the boys were equally strong. They pulled so hard, they almost cut spider in half and he never got to go to either feast!  And that’s why he has a small waist today.

And so spider’s deception and greed kept getting him into BIG trouble!

Our Love Story

After my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story – Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine Dennis