I Married a Liberian 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.  In 1983-84, we lived a year in Vahun doing lay missionary work, which included experiencing the rainy & dry season in Vahun.

Anita and Ben Wedding Photo

Wedding photo

Dry Season in Vahun

The dry and rainy seasons in Vahun each had their benefits and challenges. In that mountainous area, temperatures varied during dry season, with mornings foggy and cool. From ten o’clock on, it was hot. Joe’s and Peter’s jeans quickly became cutoffs. At night, the thermometer dipped into the fifties. Since we kept the windows open, I was thankful that Allen and Mary Lou had left their sleeping bags.

The dry season, from November to May, had low humidity but a scarce water supply. The only thing hardy enough to grow then was cassava, which sprouted even if the stalks were tucked into a thatched roof. The other downside was the red dust from the Harmattan wind over the Sahara Desert, which covered the mountains with a haze. It settled on everything, including our jalousie window slats, parching our throats and lungs. Nights were stunningly clear. I stood in our backyard and marveled at the pristine sky filled with myriad dots of white light. It reminded me of Psalm 8:3—“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers …”

A Cyclone Ushers in Rainy Season

That year, the rainy season arrived with a bang. I had just finished cleaning the fridge when dark clouds rolled in around 5:00 p.m. As I walked into the kitchen to wash the dishes, a strong rush of air from the open window pushed me backward. I stared in disbelief as I saw a cyclone heading straight at me; I watched it disintegrate the shed holding our gasoline barrels. It then ripped the metal cover off of our generator and veered into the valley behind our house, sweeping away our palava hut as if a giant broom sent it flying.

Dry Season in Vahun - In front of our house in VahunI ran into the living room to see water pouring in under the front door. The porch was full of water, and a piece of our roof had blown off. I grabbed a broom and swept the water out the front door. Checking the closet, I looked up into the sky.

Two women screamed as they approached our house. Ben and I rushed outside and asked, “What’s going on?”

Momo, who joined them, said, “A house fell down.”

The cyclone not only damaged our house, but it also ruined three others, blew the roofs off of three more, and swept away two kitchens and two other palava huts. Our neighbor suffered the worst destruction; his house was demolished, except for the walls. Thankfully, he and his family were unharmed. In Vahun, relatives and the church community served as homeowner’s insurance and the Red Cross. Ben gave him fifty dollars to buy corrugated sheet metal to replace his roof. We knew the townspeople would help him reconstruct his home.                                                             

Dry Season in Vahun - The BoysBen Jr. was so weak with malaria that he never budged from his bed during the entire ordeal. Everywhere, people ran around shocked and crying. A man brought us a frantic six-year-old boy with a gash in his head who was screaming because he couldn’t find his mother. We bathed him and dressed the wound, trying to comfort him. He didn’t fully calm down until his mother ran in and wrapped her arms around him.

A wall fell on a woman, breaking her thigh and her baby’s foot. Momo offered to take them to Yandohun to visit the man who set bones. Ben had seen the man earlier demonstrate his ability by breaking a chicken’s leg, immobilizing it, and then snapping it back in place, with the chicken running off as if nothing had happened.

The woman was in such pain, I don’t know how she remained conscious as she bounced in the vehicle over Kamboi. On top of that, the clouds rolled in again. We prayed for the rain to let up, for their sake. Cambui was treacherous, and night was approaching. When we heard the rain had stopped and they had made it safely, I breathed, “Thank You, Lord.”

Our Palava Hut is Rebuilt

Things gradually returned to normal. Two days later, four men arrived to repair our roof; and a week later, they rebuilt our palava hut. I showed my gratitude by preparing my Western specialty—spaghetti. I was puzzled when the men smiled and tasted it but said they were full. I found out later that my spaghetti looked like long worms to them! I was embarrassed, wishing I’d asked Nancy to prepare something.

The Beauty of Nature

During the rainy season, from May to October, water was abundant, but with it came high humidity. The rainfall was so plentiful that fences made from tree branches grew shoots, tendrils, and leaves. You could almost watch the lush foliage growing as it baked in the morning sun and soaked up the afternoon rains. Nancy did our laundry early in the morning, so it had time to dry on the grass.

Dry Season in Vahun - Upcountry LiberiaEveryone planted gardens. Plots had already been marked out for the new rice farms—the land cleared and the fields burned for planting. People were puzzled when they saw me running outside with my camera to capture ominous, but magnificent, cloud formations, or snap pictures of glorious rainbows. Showers were warm, unlike Michigan’s cold spring rain; the air was fresh and sweet after a downpour. Seeing the white mist rising from the lush green valleys was to watch the exquisite hand of God.

The beauty of nature made me ache for the peace, safety, and familiarity of my home in Michigan. One night, I awoke and the village was lit by a full moon, as bright as day. The absence of sound, except for the insects, was deafening—something one can only experience in such a remote place. My family was sound asleep, as was everyone else. I walked out the back kitchen door and stared at the moon. Such beauty; such longing for home.

For the Rest of the Story

Read Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chiefour love story.

Beyond Myself Book Cover by Author Anita Katherine Dennis