I Married a Mende Man
During the 1960’s, I married my anthropology professor. He was a hereditary chief of the Mende tribe in Liberia, West Africa. Rice remains the staple food of Mende life. On our honeymoon, Ben told me, “I want you to prepare rice very day. A Mende man hasn’t eaten if he hasn’t eaten rice, regardless of what he’s snacked on”. He then proceeded to teach me to cook rice and farming in Liberia. I had grown up on the farm eating meat and potatoes.
A Visit to His Remote Village
When I visited and lived in his remote tribal village during the 1970’s and 80s’, I learned how farming in Liberia is done in a tropical setting without machines. In Vahun, the men harvested rice on land that still had some tall trees standing on it – communal land that was rotated each year. In contrast, my father’s land had been cleared. He farmed 400 acres of good Ohio soil with all kinds of equipment and the help of my brother.
Hard Working People
I witnessed the fact that Mende men and women are hardworking people. At 5 am each morning, I watched them walking by my front door heading out to the rice farms while it was still cool. Dry rice farming in Liberia utilized the skills and labor of everyone in the village except the old and the very young. As a result, each person in the village and indeed the tribe had a prescribed division of labor. Several months before rainy season, the men marked out their plots in areas of regrown foliage – ideal crop rotation.
Preparing the Land
Together, the men took turns helping each other cut down the small trees and tropical bush leaving it dry for a month before rainy season, which began in June. Taller trees were left standing. Then, they worked together burning the dried foliage. Fires were controlled because lush greenery wouldn’t readily burn. It was exciting to see the men working and watch the flames shooting up consuming a dry palm tree in an instant.
Young men broke up the soil by hand with handmade hoes – back-breaking work! Women worked together planting the fields and in some cases, resetting small rice shoots. As the rice grew, they weeded the fields together, visiting as they worked.
Farming in Liberia
Men built platforms in the fields and young boys went out early in the morning to drive the rice birds away with their slings. Men and women harvested together, cutting each rice stalk with a small knife and tying the stalks in small bundles, which were loaded into baskets and trays and carried into the village.
Storing and Preparing the Rice
Rice was stored in the attic of the mud block hut. The reason for cooking fires in the center of the huts was for the smoke to filter through the raffia roof to keep the mice away. In late afternoon, I saw women and girls pounding pestles into large wooden mortars to remove the husks from the rice as they prepared for the main meal of the day.
My friend, Kpanah, demonstrated the art of simmering rice over a fire. She knew just how to shift the log underneath to spark up the flame or pull it back if the rice was boiling too rapidly.
Preparing meals was time consuming and the Mende people ate the freshest food in the world. With no refrigeration, each meal was made from scratch. Therefore, vegetables were gathered daily – animals killed and dressed. The seasoned stew made from this meat and vegetable combination was poured over steaming rice and oh, what a feast!
Our Love Story
My Mende husband died in 2009. I wrote Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief to honor our love and preserve his memory.