I Married a Liberian
As a white college student in the 1960’s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. After three boys and twenty-four years together, Ben retired from the University of Michigan-Flint, and we moved to Florida since there was a civil war in Liberia and we couldn’t go there. Below are excerpts in my words from our love story (and personal recollections of the two Liberian civil wars), Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.
Our Son, Peter, Visits Vahun
Our youngest son, Peter, returned from a trip to Liberia during a law internship at New York University. Reporting on his visit to Vahun, he told Ben, “Dad, you wouldn’t recognize the place. The old landmarks are gone. Everything’s completely different.”
He handed Ben a cassette tape he had made as the people of Vahun described what happened to them. A few minutes later, I walked into Ben’s office when I heard him sobbing.
I said, “Why are you crying, honey?”
He said, “My people are telling me the names of everyone who was killed.”
All I could do was put my arms around him, holding him as he cried, knowing nothing could assuage grief like that.
The Two Liberian Civil Wars
Chaos and anarchy continued in Liberia, with news of more atrocities filtering into the American news media. From 1989 to 2003, there were two Liberian civil wars with an interim peace of three years between 1996 and 1999. In the process, two hundred thousand people were killed and half of Liberia’s 2.5 million population was uprooted.
Somalahun – Ben’s Mother’s Village
It was one anguish after another for the people of Lofa County. We heard that government troops had burned Ben’s Gbandi mother’s village.
Vahun – Ben’s Father’s Village
For Vahun, Ben’s Mende father’s village, its easy route to Sierra Leone became its curse, as marauding troops were fighting civil wars in both countries. By God’s grace, the white missionaries were on furlough when the first war broke out in Liberia, the mission house being quickly looted by rebels in the area. In 1993, Ben Jr. called from Harvard. “Dad, have you seen the latest New York Times? There’s a picture on the front page of refugees in Vahun. There’s supposed to be 50,000 of them in the area.” The mission house, with its adjacent airstrip, became the headquarters of the UN relief agency, with refugee tents lining the airfield.
Everyone in Liberia had a war story from those civil conflicts. We received a letter from the Peace Corps volunteer in Yandohun who had gone native, which read, “We always prayed to just be left alone. The worst sound was a car arriving in town or a couple of gunshots because that meant soldiers. A sick feeling came in our stomach all the way up to our throat.
“The rebel commander, called Death Squad Morris, walked up to me pointing a gun. He made me sit on the ground with my hands on my head and told me, ‘Your own (life) finish today. What do you have to say for yourself?’
“I replied with all the faith I could muster, ‘If God says it’s my time, then it’s my time.’
“My youngest wife broke down and screamed, ‘Oh, Selle! (his Gbande name) Don’t talk like that!’
“Death Squad Morris ordered me and my son, Kenny, to go with him. When he shot twice at a chicken and missed, my wife thought he had shot us both, but God spared our lives.
“Every morning, there were at least three dead children on the road. They had spent months hiding in the bush, eating wild yams and sleeping in the wet and cold. I know a lot of people died from starvation because so much food was looted by rebel troops.”
Friend of Doe?
Everyone in Liberia had a war story from those civil conflicts. At a dinner in a Liberian home in Ft. Myers, Ben and I met a dean at the University of Liberia who told us what happened to him. One Sunday, as he was coming out of church, a soldier recognized him and said, “Arrest him! He was Doe’s teacher!”
He was taken to the home of an Americo-Liberian who had been murdered and his body dumped in the nearby well. Along with four others, he was locked in the bathroom, where he prayed and tried to give them courage.
One of the men, who had served as a policeman under Doe, had his elbows tied tightly behind his back. He was delirious with pain, the thin twine cutting through his flesh. Although the dean was handcuffed, he managed to give the man a cup of water from the toilet tank. After drinking it, the man cocked his head and threw his body into the tub headfirst, trying to break his neck. Unable to succeed, he yelled in agony, “Kill me now! Don’t wait! I can’t stand anymore!” A rebel soldier strode in and dragged him away. After several gunshots, it was quiet.
The next day, someone saw the dean and told the soldiers, “Why’d you arrest him? He’s a big man. Let him go!” Immediately he was lifted up, unshackled, taken to the bathhouse to wash, and given food. He said, “In the course of one day, I went from impending death to respect and honor. I can never forget the horror or my rescue.”
He concluded by saying, “The losses of the war have been staggering for the university. All of the microscopes used in the science labs are gone. The natural history museum on campus is no more. The academic records were scattered. Everything’s destroyed. There’s nothing left.
In 1996, a peace agreement ended the first civil war, and Charles Taylor was elected president in 1997. Two years later, the second civil war—a horrible free-for-all—broke out to topple him. Monrovia swelled to twice its size as 500,000 people fled there for safety. Ben and I watched on television as Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets evacuated 26 Americans in helicopters from the US Embassy to Freetown, Sierra Leone. A crowd of Liberians had laid the bodies of their loved ones outside the embassy, begging the United States to intervene.
My Husband’s Dreams Shattered
My husband had such dreams for Liberia and doing all he could to help his people. Instead, in his retirement, he faced the tragedy of Liberia’s implosion upon itself. Americo-Liberian oppression couldn’t last forever. I, too, love Liberia and I want the best for my adopted country.