I Married a Liberian Chief

In the 1960s, as a white college student, I married my anthropology professor, who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. In the course of our 41-year marriage, we made numerous trips to Liberia, including visits to his tribal village of Vahun upcountry in Lofa County.  In 1983-84, we were in Vahun doing lay missionary work, and I lived as a white woman in Liberia.

Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

White Woman in Liberia – I Needed Help

From the minute we arrived in Vahun, it was blatantly obvious that I couldn’t manage the household on my own. Patrick arranged the hiring of three fourteen-year-old boys—Moses, Timbeh, and Salia. For a US dollar a week, they worked Monday through Friday. Their first chore was to fill the two oil drums in the house by carrying buckets of water on their heads, making numerous trips to and from the swamp well in the valley, a hundred yards away. After that, they wiped the living room, kitchen, and hallway floors and swept the bedrooms. They danced while doing their chores when we played White Woman in Liberia - Anita Dennis in village with woman“Electric Boogie” or “African Typic Collection” on our battery-operated tape player—turning up the volume to share with our neighbors, which resulted in an instant audience of kids.

Mende/Liberian English Banter

Their Mende Liberian English banter endeared the three helpers to me, giving me a glimpse of their culture as I listened while they worked. They teased each other about their girlfriends, with Moses telling Timbeh, “Your girlfriend is looking like dry stick.” Timbeh quickly retorted, “Your girlfriend’s head looking like Landai’s own.” (Landai is a masked being with a ferocious face.) Saliah usually chimed in, saying, “Your girlfriend got big stomach,” and everyone laughed.

White Woman in Liberia - "The Help"I made notes of their colloquialisms. One day, they told Ben Jr., “What you say, Boss Man? This place is looking cold [There’s no action here]. Leggo [let’s go] walk-about.”

When I fed them, they told each other, “Eat your rice and gris [greens],” and, “Drink your Dutch Baby [bottled milk from Holland].”

During arguments, they jested, “You’re giving me hard time,” or “I’m going to frog [flog] you.” When upset, it was, “Don’t humbug me, man. Move behind me [Get out of my way. I’m angry].” Sometimes they asked, “Why are you vex with me?” or they said, “Don’t abuse me [hurt my feelings].”

I was happy when they told me, “I enjoy [like] you,” or comforted me with, “Let me sorry for you.”

Our Mende Cook

For our Liberian chop [food], I hired Patrick’s thirty-year-old daughter, Miriam, because I didn’t know how to prepare it and it was time-consuming.

I paid Patrick’s wife, Nancy, to wash our laundry in the Mawa River, laying it on the grass to dry. I sorted it, folded it, and put it away each Friday when she delivered it. I paid both women ten US dollars a week.White Woman in Liberia - Woman in Vahun Cooking

I wrote to Mom and Dad, “You’ll never get your money’s worth out of soap or deodorant as we do here. The smell of our laundry pile would knock you down. Hand washing’s hard on elastic, so the boys have ‘pin and wear’ underwear and shorts. Please send some Sears Best men’s and boy’s briefs.”

I was helpless without Nancy, Miriam, and the boys, so I appreciated what they did. In like manner, they relished the income. Weekends were quiet without them.

In a favorite photo, Nancy and I stood by the town hall with our arms around each other, smiling—quite a contrast in sister-in-laws.

Different Household Chores from Living in America!

Anita at table with two kidsThat year, I didn’t iron, wax floors, vacuum, dust baseboards, or wash mirrors. Instead, I sprayed mattresses for bedbugs, fried popcorn in palm oil, brushed down spider webs every week, spread clothes on the grass to dry, kept a tight lid on sweet things, and sifted weevils out of rice, spaghetti, and flour before I used them. Many of the people thought I didn’t do anything because I stayed in the house so much, but by the time I walked to someone’s farm, I was exhausted from the heat.

Our Love Story

After my husband died, I wrote our love story to honor him and tell how God worked in our lives. For more of the story and mine as a white woman in Liberia, read Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.                                                                                              Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine Dennis