I Married a Mende Chief

Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

As a white college student in the 1960’s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which we published in 2009, he shared his tribal childhood in Liberia, West Africa (as well as the importance of tribal reconciliation).  Below is an excerpt from that book in his own words:

Traditional Tribal Values During the 1930’s & 40’s

During the 1930’s & 40’s, Liberia’s sixteen tribes were self-sufficient in-groups that were distinct and divided. Because of colonial arbitrary boundaries, tribes had connections across the border – the Mende, Gola, Killi, and Vai in Sierra Leone; the Kru and Mano in Ivory Coast; and the Loma Kpelle, Mandingo, Mano, and Gio in Guinea.

Slaves to Racism Book CoverMy Mende and Gbandi tribes are representative of traditional native values. They were face-to-face, communal societies, where everyone had a place in his family and society based upon a complex kinship system. Family was everything. Everyone wanted a large family so they could have the largest rice farm. Families practiced their religion and solved their problems together through tribal reconciliation.

The tribes mainstay was equity and sharing. Prestige was based on how much you gave away, not on how much you accumulated. A chief had little more in material goods than the rest of the village. His status derived from his large number of wives and children.tribal reconciliation - a hut in a Liberian village

Since tribes were self-sufficient, natives were interdependent. A native never saw himself apart form his tribe or its interests. His goal was to see his family and tribe succeed. While he was a “slave” to his tribe, his tribe was equally a slave to him. Anyone’s crisis or problem was everyone’s. Natives were irrevocably linked to their tribe and supported by it, whether or not they succeeded.

Tribal Harmony and Unity – A Necessity

For the tribe to succeed, there must be harmony among the members. Subsequently, there was a kinship system of age hierarchy in which the elders and older members of the family were always listened to and respected.

tribal reconciliation - group of children and women gathered in a Liberian villageTribal Reconciliation – The Mende Way

During the 1970’s, I was traveling through Mende territory in Sierra Leone. When we arrived in Kailahun, I could sense the tension. Someone explained that there was a great conflict between the two oldest sons of the paramount chief. I learned that the chief’s oldest son had taken over his father’s responsibilities since the chief was quite old. The younger son, who had been educated in Freetown and had become a
doctor, hadn’t shown the proper respect to his older brother. It was a serious rift and the younger brother had just arrived home that day.

The next day, the whole town was abuzz. People were gathered at the village meeting house. In front of them sat the older brother in a large, traditional chair befitting a paramount chief. The younger brother had arrived day before in a shirt and tie. Now he was barefoot and wearing a traditional Mende shirt as he slowly walked to the meeting house. People watched him in silence as they stood or sat on benches in front of their huts.tribal reconciliation - photo of Ben & Anita in front of a crowd

It was midday and hot. At the meeting house, even the children were quiet in the tension of the moment. The younger brother walked over to his older brother and got down on his knees before him. He lay prostrate with his face to the ground. He put his hands on his older brother’s feet and said, “I beg you.”  Throughout this, the older brother never looked directly at his younger brother. Instead, he scanned the faces of the crowd before him that was counting on him to accept this appeal.

After a long pause of silence, he tapped his younger brother’s shoulder as a sign for him to get up. The younger tribal reconciliation - group of children and women posing for a picture in Liberian villagebrother rose slowly to his knees. He looked up into his older brother’s face and for the first time, they looked at each other. Everyone was frozen. The older brother again tapped his younger brother’s shoulder, pulled him up, and the two embraced weeping.

The village exploded in relief and rejoicing. Everyone hurried to prepare a feast. The men played drums. The women sang. Unity and tribal reconciliation had been restored to the chief’s house and to the Mende of Kailahun.

Our Love Story

After my husband died in 2009, I wrote our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief to honor him and tell how God worked in our lives.Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine Dennis