I Married a Mende Man
In the 1960s, as a white college student, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. Below is an excerpt from our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief, which I wrote after he died.
I Discover He’s a Poro Graduate
Poro first entered my life when I discovered my new Mende/Gbandi husband was a graduate. The telltale sign was the scars running along his spinal cord on both sides and up across his shoulders. As a twenty-two-old Midwesterner, I was baffled and asked what they meant. He would only tell me that during the 1930s and 40s, Poro was a 4-year training session for boys in the Mende and Gbandi tribes. Sequestered in the bush, they were apart from their families as they learned all the skills necessary for marrying and providing for their family. Experts in each field were brought in from various villages and learning was based on the oral tradition and memorization.
Of course, this peaked my curiosity rather than sating it. “Tell me more,” I said.
He replied, “I can’t. No woman can know what goes on in Poro.” Of course, this made me even more determined to learn, but he quashed it by refusing to talk about it any further.
I Learned More When I Edited His Book
My second brush with Poro occurred when I edited my husband’s book on his Gbandi people, a tribe adjacent to the Mende with similar customs. I learned more about the memorization of grasses and trees, farming methods, ancestors, history of the tribe, etc. I found out that my husband’s mother had graduated at the top of her Sande class, the female equivalent of Poro. My husband graduated at the bottom of his class simply because he only attended one summer rather than four years.
He insisted Poro wasn’t truly a secret society since every man attended it. Sande was equally secretive from the men. So…I didn’t learn the secrets of either since I couldn’t speak Mende or Gbandi and talk to the women.
My Son Enters the Secret Mende Poro Society
My husband was the descendant of a powerful Mende chief, Ngombu Tejjeh and named after him. When we lived in my husband’s father’s village for a year in 1983-84, my oldest son, also named Ngombu Tejjeh, decided he wanted to attend the Poro then in session. There was great debate over whether this “half-white” young man could attend, but the issue was settled by his name, “Ngombu Tejjeh.”
It was scary to think my sixteen-year-old son would be sequestered in the bush and I’d know nothing of his activities for three weeks. I knew my husband wouldn’t knowingly put our son in danger, but anything could happen.
The climax came at graduation as I shuffled in the line with the women in celebration. When it came time for Landai, the masked being of Poro, to appear, we women and children were kept in the huts and not permitted to look. After his
arrival, Landai forcefully strode around the village, his machete sticking out of his raffia skirt.
My husband was beaming with pride as our son was allowed to sit on the skirt of Landai during the graduation – an honor given as a descendant of Chief Ngombu Tejjeh.
A Poro Man at Michigan State University
Our son kept the secret. At Michigan State University, in the common shower, a student asked him about his scars on his back, “Hey, Ben. Are those scars from back surgery?”
Ben simply said, “Yeah.”
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt you had no control over it whatsoever? Been to Africa? Let’s share….