I Married a Gbandi Man
As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my college anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. On his mother’s side, he was Gbandi. In 1973, he published The Gbandes: A People of the Liberian Hinterland, about his mother’s people. In the 1990s, after thirty years of marriage, we wrote together Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, about the effect of racism in West Africa, comparing it with America’s racism. Although my husband grew up in Berlin Germany, he spent his summers in Somalahun, his Gbandi village, and Vahun, his Mende village. In Slaves to Racism, he described his Mende and Gbandi 1930s African childhood. In his words:
Justice in the Mende and Gbandi Societies in the 1930s – Lying
In Mende and Gbandi society, lying was a very serious crime because it led to a loss of trust threatening to destroy the community from within. Whatever someone said in private or in a group was assumed to be the truth. Even so, in order to maintain confidence, everything said in village meetings was confirmed in the presence of everyone.
As a boy, in my Mende village of Vahun, I was standing in a group of men who used “jepe gutio” (short talk). Several of them had seen a young man doing something wrong but he had refused to admit it. They wrapped his wrists with palm fiber woven into a cord. They put a stick in the cord between his wrists and turned it to make the cord tighter. The Mende believe that a man can bear pain when he is innocent. If he’s guilty, the pain makes him confess. The young man winced with pain and suddenly cried out, “Yes! I did it! I did it!”
As soon as he confessed, the cord was loosened, but not removed until he explained why he didn’t admit what he did. He then asked for forgiveness promising to always tell the truth and the matter was permanently settled. The men walked away and nothing was ever said about it again. There could be no lingering blame in a society where everyone was interrelated and lived their entire lives in the same village.
Stealing was a punishable crime. I was playing with the boys in Vahun when we heard a commotion and ran to see what was going on. We passed women sitting by their cooking fires and they tied up their lappa skirts and ran with us. In the town square where everyone had gathered, we saw in the center of the crowd, two men from another village sitting quietly on the ground. Someone said, “The rogues are here!”
Next to the young men were two rattan carriers full of food. The women put one hand on their cheek as a sign of grief and told them, “Are you people crazy?”
Someone said, “You all wait. Let the chief come.”
When the chief arrived, he asked the young men, “Did you eat of the things on the farm until you were satisfied?”
“Then why did you take this food to carry with you? Put them in jail.”
A three-foot log was attached to one of their feet, secured by an iron loop around their ankle. A small rope attached to both ends of the log allowed them to hobble around while they stayed in the town hall. Each day, they were brought food and only allowed to leave to go to the bathroom, bathe, or do assigned community work. Their first assignment was to clean the grass from around the town hall. As people passed by, they made a face and sucked their teeth at them in disgust.
When I got back to Vahun the next summer, I said, “What happened to the rogues?”
A man told me, “They live here now. They’ve built a fine house. When they come in from their rice farm, you can talk to them.”
As soon as I saw them, I ran up and said, “Are you the rogues?” They laughed and hugged me. My uncle said, “Don’t call them rogues anymore. They’re a part of Guma now.”
Rape – The Most Heinous Crime in Gbandi Society
The most serious crime was rape, which carried the most severe penalty. In my Gbandi village of Somalahun, when I was seven, I was scratching my grandfather Morlu’s back and we saw a group of boys playing rough with some girls. Morlu scolded them.
After the children ran away, Morlu paused, putting the fingers of his hands together. He said solemnly, “Gongoli, don’t ever play with a girl like that. You can’t understand now but a man can love a woman and hate her at the same time. He can force her to do something bad that she doesn’t want. When you finish scratching my back, I’ll show you a place where this act of love and hate was punished.”
Later that afternoon, he took me to a small clearing near the village and told me, “A young woman named Korpoh was washing clothes by herself in the area of the creek reserved for women. When the sun was directly above, a young man grabbed her and took her into the bush and did something very bad to her. She ran naked and screaming into the village, her hands over her head in terror. The women ran to her. She wept as she told them, ‘Kwaoifi did this to me.’ They knew exactly what she meant.
“The men blew the village horn and beat the drums summoning everyone. Kwaoifi was quickly caught. Korpoh pointed to him and said, ‘He did it.’ Kwaoifi’s father was so angry, he had to be restrained. The people said, ‘Let Kwaoifi talk.’
“Kwaoifi said, ‘I did it, but I’m so very sorry. I want it finished. I don’t want to live out this day.’
“The punishment for this was being burned alive. Where we are now standing, the men of Somalahun piled up firewood brought by the people from near their huts. Because it had to be shown that Kwaoifi’s parents agreed with the punishment, they were the first to bring wood. The men soaked the wood pile with palm oil. After Kwaoifi laid on the wood pile, they poured palm oil all over his naked body. Then they quickly built a frame of wooden sticks over him. Kwaoifi’s parents shook their heads back and forth as they walked up and lit the fire with a small torch. They quickly turned and walked away in sorrow with the others back to the village.”
Our Love Story
When my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story – Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.