I Married an African
As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. After 30 years of marriage, we wrote together Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia, which was published in 2009. While writing that book, I learned more than ever before his Mende heritage and about traditional tribal life.
During the 1930s and 40s, Liberia’s sixteen indigenous tribes lived upcountry from the capital, Monrovia. For the most part, they were minimally affected by the Americo-Liberians, the ruling group of settlers from America, through the Frontier Force, a military police-keeping force.
1. Tribes were Self-Sufficient
At that time, tribes were economically self-sufficient and interdependent within the tribe. They produced their own foodstuffs and had little need for goods purchased by Liberian money.
2. Tribes were Group Oriented
Because tribes were self-sufficient, they were dependent on everyone cooperating within the tribe. It was the group that was most important rather than the individual. In their communal life, individual privacy in the Western sense was not something valued or practiced.
3. Elaborate Kinship Structure
Within each tribe and village, the elaborate kinship structure determined one’s role within the family. Marriages were arranged and men had as many wives as they could support. Children were critical for survival. If a man died without offspring, his brother married the widow and any children that resulted were descendants of the dead man. One married into a family.
A man’s hut was surrounded by the huts of his wives and children. Siblings were sometimes characterized as “same mother, same father.” Your position within the family determined your obligations to others in the family as well as your rights – what others owed you.
A man’s brothers were considered fathers; a woman’s sisters, mothers. A man’s sisters were aunts and a woman’s brothers, uncles. These obligations were strictly adhered to. For example, a man’s nephews could take any of his private possessions. At the same time, he could order his nephew to do anything for him.
4. Pure democracy
Mende and Gbandi communities were small and every man had his say no matter how long it took in village meetings. The women had their groups and leadership as well as the men. The woman leader would report to the men their wishes and they were taken seriously.
5. Cooperative Competition
Because tribes were interdependent, every individual wanted to excel within the tribe for its benefit as a whole. Men cooperated competitively for the best family, the best farm, etc. It was one for all, all for one. By the same token, the individual was supported by his tribe. If he was in trouble, his tribesmen came to his aid.
6. Strong Social Control
Because cooperation was critical, these societies of strong social control had a hierarchy of age-related authority within the family. In multiple wives, a man could marry the younger sisters of his first wife who became the head wife. There was a strict division of labor – men’s work, women’s work. Men played certain musical instruments; women as well.
Justice was strictly enforced. The highest crime was lying because it eroded trust within the tribe which was essential. Next was stealing and rape had the severest penalty – being burned alive. Masked beings were social control officers. No one dared to cross them. Chiefs could be rebuked by a masked being chosen by the elders.
7. Common ownership of Land
Land was communally owned by the tribe. Crops were rotated and farmers marked their farmland surrounding the village year by year. Huts were owned by family. Personal possessions included farm tools, clothing, etc. Sharing was essential. During the 1970s & 80s, when I visited Liberian homes and complimented decorative items in their home, upon leaving I was presented them as a gift. When I realized this, I stopped.
8. Respect for Elders
In a non-literate society, knowledge was passed down through the elders. The old people possessed all the accumulated skills and information which they taught each new generation. In the oral tradition, the history of the tribe was memorized. This memorization was aided by teenage storytelling sessions during nights of the full moon. If any detail of the story was missing, someone else jumped in the circle to take over.
9. Traditional education
In the Mende and Gbandi tribes, values and skills were passed to each generation through the Poro school for boys and the Sande school for girls. Young teenage boys were sequestered within the forest for four years away from their families to be trained everything they needed to know as men. Girls were sequestered for three years. When these teens graduated, they were considered a full-fledged member of the tribe and ready to marry.
Experts were brought in from other villages to teach skills in farming, hunting, and the environment – what types of grasses and plants could be used and how, etc.
10. Traditional Religion
Ancestors were considered intermediaries to the Creator of the Universe. They were appealed to with sacrifices for Ngawoh to be merciful to them and bless their endeavors.
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. It tells a lot more about us!