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 our 41 years of marriage, he took me to Liberia and we lived with our three boys in his remote tribal village for a year. After he retired, we wrote a book together on the cycle of racism in Liberia, called Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia. Below is an excerpt from that book in his words:
A Few Tribal People Make “Good” in 1940s Liberia
Peter Bono Jallah is a classic example of a native who made “good” in Monrovia. He was the son of Chief Jallah, a powerful Loma chief. He received his elementary education at the Bolahun Holy Cross Mission. After his father died at the Bolahun Hospital, Peter went to live in Monrovia. He lived with his older brother George, who was a houseboy for the Cooper family.
Peter lived in a dingy little storeroom on the ground level. It had barely enough room for a small wooden table and a bed. After his daily household chores, he spent most of his time studying.
Peter had high expectations. He was the son of a chief. His Loma people expected much from him. In addition, he was living with a prominent Americo-Liberian family. Peter was very disciplined and good at memorization, the traditional method of learning. A professor at Liberia College mentored him and he graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
Jallah Appointed Justice of the Peace
Peter was a workaholic who became one of the most successful lawyers in Monrovia. When Tubman appointed him justice of the peace, all native cases in Monrovia were assigned to him. His courtroom was always packed so he handled cases “quick, quick” without a jury. He didn’t want drag things out to milk people like the Americo-Liberian lawyers and judges did.
Natives considered him fair and just. He was “their man.” He spoke English with a strong Loma accent. People from the (now) Lofa County gravitated towards him.
Most cases involved woman “palaver” in which a woman called her lover’s name and he had to pay her husband a fine. A typical day in court went like this.
A Loma man who brought in his wife and another man, told Judge Jallah, “Judge, this man fuck my wife.”
Jallah pounded his gavel, “Come to the bench, right now. Everybody listen. You don’t speak that language in my court. You just say it be woman palaver.”
“Eh, Boss, I beg you, oh. It be woman palaver. And this man here, he do it!”
“How do you know? Tell me the whole thing.”
“Judge, I tell you the truth, oh. You see this woman? It be my woman. And it be he, my wife call his name. I no lie, oh. Woman, talk for the judge now. It be he you told me …” “Remember! Say woman palaver!”
“Oh, Boss, it be he.”
Jallah said to the woman, “Is that true?”
“Oh, Judge, it be true, oh. I no fit for tell lie. He did. Ask him.”
“O.K. Sit down.”
Jallah said to the accused man, “Get up, man! You hear, eh? Look the woman in the face.”
As the man did, Jallah said to the woman, “Say it again. It be he make the woman palaver with you.”
“I no for lie. It be he.”
The man looked puzzled. But before he could say anything, Peter said, “You guilty. Pay woman palaver.”
“But, boss, I don’t have any money.”
Jallah said to the husband, “How much you want for woman palaver?”
“My woman be fine, fine. Oh, too fine. Plenty fine, oh. Look at her.” He shook his head and said, “I think ten dollar not be too much.”
The man said, “You speak right. Your woman too fine. But I go fish and catch nothing. Please, I beg you, oh, make five dollar. I go pay this before moon finish.” He agreed on the day he’d bring the money to the judge.
Jallah said, “You bring five dollar and you bring all together eight dollar – three dollar for court costs. So, go. Fish, now. Finish, go!”
Jallah told the bailiff, “You see this man. Go find his house. You go there on the appointed day. If he don’t pay, you bring him here. Five dollar for husband and three dollar for court costs.”
Jallah told the man, “If you no pay, we go find you. You go to jail.”
Peter became prosperous. He charged fines in each case and he had a large volume of work. He built a house on Camp Johnson Road. He later bought the adjacent property and built two more houses. As a result, the area became known as “Buzzi” or Loma Town. For the first time, the Loma people had their own area in Monrovia.
Peter’s houses cost more in materials than labor. Loma and other natives from Lofa County helped build them. Some were carpenters and masons working to pay off court fines.
Even though Peter was very successful, he never felt socially comfortable with the Americo-Liberians. He met with them for business matters, but he didn’t attend many parties. He knew that some Americo-Liberians in Monrovia, and some educated natives made fun of the way he talked and ran his court.
He married an upriver Americo-Liberian woman from the town of Virginia, which was unusual in those days. Since the upriver Americo-Liberians were uneducated, it was an honor for her to marry a judge and live in Monrovia. Peter’s three sons were well educated in the United States. His oldest son graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in chemistry.
A Visit with Jallah in the 1970s
During the 1970s, I visited with Peter in his office in the Interior Ministry Building. He said, “B.G., you’re getting old. What are you doing?”
“I’m in school teaching.”
“Oh, boy! We have to make Lofa strong. That’s where all the brains come from.”
Our Love Story
After my husband died in 2009, I wrote our love story to honor him and tell how God worked in our lives.