I Married a Mende Chief
In the 1960’s, 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 (where I became a Mende white woman named Baindu).
Accepted into the Mende Tribe in 1972
In my book, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief, I tell about being accepted into the tribe. Below is an excerpt:
Late that afternoon, the men gathered in front of the commissioner’s house to tell Ben the news since he had left. Every death that had occurred in the past twenty-three years was solemnly announced, including the funeral payments made by neighboring villages.
Patrick and Ben’s “older brother” Brima took turns doing so by nodding and saying, “It is so.”
Afterwards I was accepted into the Mende tribe. In a small speech, I was named “Baindu,” which means “gracious one.” In fact, the Mende town chief was gracious when he said, “We don’t look at a person’s skin; we look at their heart.”
As an official wife in the tribe, I was presented with a handmade rattan stool the women used in the hut. Sandy was equally honored as my older sister. A Mende woman announced, “Now you must learn to spin thread to make a gown for your husband.” Sandy eagerly attempted it and did pretty well. With the greatest pressure on me, I was so nervous I botched it; the women laughed in a good-natured way. I was not only discovering my husband’s tribal identity, but I had acquired one as well—Mende woman and “chief’s wife.”
Patrick said, “Come with me. I’ve got something for Bengie. He’s a chief, too, you know.” This led to one of my favorite photos—Bengie in a tiny chief’s gown standing in front of a hut, beaming at his mommy.
Each time Ben walked around the village, he had to greet everyone, asking how each person was. Patrick stayed by his side, helping with the language. He was fluent in English since he had served as a police captain in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a former British colony.
I became curious as elderly women walked up to Ben, calling him “My husband.” I whispered in his ear, “It looks like every woman in this village is married to you.”
He smiled with his usual charm, teasing, “A chief has many wives.”
No White Woman Named Baindu!
Several years later, on our way to Vahun, the driver of the Land Rover stopped at a juncture in the road for gas at the small station there. A ten-year-old tribal boy ran up to my front passenger window as we pulled up. Lifting an egg carton tray, he said, “Ma, boiled eggs, ten cent, ten cent. I give you salt in a paper.” Glancing at my tie-dye outfit, he continued eagerly. “What’s your name?”
Assuming my Mende identity, I said my new name: “Baindu.”
He looked puzzled and then smiled.
I walked into the forest bathroom behind the gas station and overheard him tell his friend, “You see that white woman over there? Her name is Baindu.”
The friend said, “Aww … ain’t no white woman named Baindu
We were about to leave when the two boys ran up to my window. The egg seller said, “Ma, what’s your name?”
With a broad smile, he elbowed the other boy in the ribs and said, “You see?”