I Married a Hereditary Mende Chief

Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

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. I learned a lot about Liberian Mende history!

We Wrote a Book Together

We Wrote Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia together about the effect of racism in Liberia comparing it to racism in America (which also details some Liberian Mende history).  Below is an excerpt from that book in his words:

Liberian Mende History – My Husband and the Slave Trade

As a boy, I learned that my last name “Dennis” stemmed from the transatlantic slave trade. My father told me that Slaves to Racism Book Coversome of our Mende people in West Africa had been taken into slavery in America. In Richmond, Virginia, the two Dennis brothers became Free Negroes, each owning three or four slaves themselves. Duriong the 1800s, they returned to Liberia, freeing their slaves and taking them with them. One of the brothers remained on the coast in the capital, Monrovia, as an Ameico-Liberian. The other, knowing his Mende ancestry, traveled to the area where the Mende live in Liberia. There, he was accepted as a descendant of someone taken into slavery from the line of the great Mende chief, Ngombu Tejjeh.

Visiting the Grave of Ngombu Tejjeh

I wrote our love story after he died in 2009. Below is an excerpt from that book in my words:

Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine DennisAs we approached Ben’s father’s village of Vahun, we heard celebratory gunfire. Everyone in our party picked up the pace. Suddenly a large crowd of men enveloped me, shouting with joy. I was rushed and swept along with them to a half-walled gravesite, covered by a corrugated roof, in the center of the village. The air inside was stifling from the afternoon sun, and the men crowded around me. Ben stood over the grave of his ancestor, Ngombu Tejjeh, weeping. I longed to wrap my arms around him, but I couldn’t say or do anything.

Outside, around a hundred people stood reverently watching, yet filled with excitement. It was clear they were enthusiastic to see Ben. A week earlier, word had gone out that the son of Ngombu Tejjeh was coming home after twenty-three years away. The crowd was larger than usual since Mende relatives from Sierra Leone traveled there to see the return of their “native son.”

In rapt silence, every eye was on Ben as he poured a large, expensive bottle of gin on the grave, gently coached in the ritual by his brother Patrick. More tears and ceremony followed. As the elders standing with Ben began to leave, I realized how much his people meant to him—and he to them.

My Husband’s Confusion

When Ben came into the room, I said, “I saw you weeping at the grave.”                                                                          

He said solemnly, “I remembered my father coming to the village and the horn blown for Ngombu Tejjeh along the way. I miss them all so much. I’ve come home, but they’re no longer here to share it with me. My only comfort was the old women who remembered me as a boy, hugging me afterward and rejoicing.”

“Who was in that grave? Your father?”

He said, quietly, “I don’t know.”

“And that grave here at the commissioner’s house where they say ‘Joe’ is buried—is that your twin brother?”

“I don’t know that either.”

I sensed his anguish, suspecting there would never be answers for the unknowns. A friend once told us, “Anita, your identity is very strong even though it’s limited. Ben, you have a rather broad but vague identity.” It was true. I quickly learned that Ben’s chief personality trait was his multiple identities. Not only was he related to two tribes through his mother and father, but he also had close ties with the elite Americo-Liberians through his father’s government work.

However, he didn’t know the exact Western name his father went by, suggesting “Ngombu Tejjeh Dennis.” I found it strange that he knew few details of his father’s life: how his father became a Dennis, how he attended Oxford University, and what work he did for the Liberian government after they returned from Germany.

 

His Personal History Was Vague Compared to Mine

In time, I discovered his network of contacts ranged far and wide, but unlike me, he had no real roots. There were gaps in his background. He told me that all Mendes living in Vahun and all Gbandis in Somalahun knew exactly how they were related to everyone else. He didn’t. His “brothers” in both Vahun and Somalahun were his closest relatives, but they were not “same mother, same father”—a distinction made because of multiple wives. In the African extended family, male cousins on the father’s side are brothers, while male cousins on the mother’s side are nephews. Ben assumed that all of his brothers and nephews were somehow related to him. Since he was expected to know, I think he was embarrassed to ask.                                   

This was hard for me to fathom since I knew every aunt, uncle, and cousin on both sides of my family. He explained it, saying, “The problem is, I never grew up there. I was always coming and going.” It also made sense when he said he never knew the exact rituals of his tribal culture or the deep meaning of the Mende parables.

A Descendant of Ngombu Tejjeh

One thing he was sure of—he was a descendent of the great Mende chief Ngombu Tejjeh. He said that during the 1800s, that chief was responsible for Guma District in Lofa County remaining within Liberia’s border when the British in Sierra Leone tried to extend their territory southward. In fact, “Guma” in Mende means “I have been able to keep it.”

The next morning, I learned more about Chief Ngombu Tejjeh as the elders sat talking and Patrick translated. A brave warrior, he was so strong he used his sword with one blow to split in two anyone who defied him. In fact, his personal power made tribes in the area cohesive. His horn, made of a large elephant tusk covered with deer skin, was blown to announce his arrival in every village. He had a hundred wives, and whenever he traveled and saw a comely girl, he gave the command and she was brought. I was shocked to hear men exulting about such ruthless power. Ben saw my face and offered to take me on a tour of the village.

Benjamin Dennis Gowned

Protecting the Land for the Heirs of Ngombu Tejjeh

When we arrived back in Monrovia, the news of Ben’s arrival had spread like wildfire. At Etna’s house, twenty-five Mendes crowded into her parlor, most of them sitting on the floor. Ben described his business plans and the importance of protecting the land for the heirs of Ngombu Tejjeh. He emphasized that it would take work on everyone’s part. The visitors nodded in agreement.

what culture am I - man playing drum in village