Africa Badass women History

Life in colonial Vai country (according to Fatima Massaquoi)

It seems every couple of years a book about an African woman who lived in such-and-such historical era is released (usually leading to me screaming and freaking out then buying the book). The Autobiography of an African Princess is one such book published in 2013.

The African Princess here, Fatima Massaquoi was born around 1904 in southern Sierra Leone where she spent her early infancy. She later moved to Liberia where she started school, then moved again to Germany when her father Momolu Massaquoi was appointed Liberia’s consul general. She began writing her life story in 1939 as a class project while studying at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

But this post isn’t about Fatima and her contributions to Liberia’s development, all that will come later, this post is essentially me gushing about what Fatima’s autobiography tells us about life and living in that part of world in the early 20th century. I mean the food, the fashion, the cosmetics, the methods (or lack thereof) of time keeping, writing, her warrior grandmother, travelling…Fatima went into great detail providing a perspective that is usually ignored in African histories. Her autobiography was likely written with a Western audience in mind. I mean she took her time explaining things and trying to address biases. For example, here’s what she wrote about the custom of eating with fingers,

“We ate out of one dish as was the custom, and it came with rules, similar to the Western good and bad table manners. People must wash their hands first before eating, collecting the food from the bowl with the hand. The food must be in the middle of the four fingers and the hand must not be pushed too far into the mouth. It is quite an art. I sometimes wish I could see the person accustomed to eating with a fork and knife try it.” (p 41)

Fatima also made sure to mention what she saw of the love her mother Massaa Barlo had for father where even after Massaa divorced Momolu, she refused to marry. There are lots of other fascinating morsels, like when Fatima’s maternal grandmother died her body was opened up to find out evidence of “witchcraft”. If that doesn’t sound like an autopsy I don’t know. I’ve read of similar habits in the Benin empire. More below.

Vai script
Vai script

Vai script
Vai has its own writing script which was developed by Dualo Bukele, a Vai spiritual chief, and later completed and compiled by Momolu Massaquoi. The Vai script is a syllabic script that can be used to write any language. Dualo Bukele was apprenticed to an Islamic priest where he learned the value of writing. Later in life, he saw the hand of a spirit writing letters and their meanings in the sand in a dream. When Dualo awoke, he wrote down the signs he remembered. He shared this initial development with Vai elders and in this manner the Vai script was born.

Separation of the sexes
Among the Vai, the men lived by themselves and entertained in their homes while women lived in surrounding houses. Tasks were divided along the lines of sex. Fatima writes

“For, a remnant of the ancient African spiritualistic religion holds that only the women and the earth are sisters, since they are the only two that are capable of reproduction by nature. Since the female species and the earth are sisters, they are therefore sympathetic to each other, and only what the woman sows can grow abundantly. Not that what the man sows will not grow at all. But it will not grow in abundance.” (p 33)

There were also “secret societies” where each youth were initiated and trained to become respectable adults. The Poro for men had a youth aspect where boys learned to construct houses and huts along with the art of farming, iron smelting tool making, herbal medicines, dance, storytelling, chivalry, the art of war and so much more.The equivalent for girls was the Sande society where the girls learned arts and crafts, spinning cotton into yarn (men do the weaving), cooking, singing, dancing, fishing, making nets for fishing, learning herbs names and uses, how to take care of babies, how to make cosmetics and of course how to care for future husbands.

New Sande initiates at an ndahiti celebration on the outskirts of Bo, Yambama, Sierra Leone. Photo by Rebecca Busselle.

Different kinds of towns
The Vai had several kinds of towns. There was town proper which was the seat of leadership and the place for meetings and festivals. Then there were half-towns which were not permanent settlements but were occupied by farmers. Half-towns could grow to become towns if the land was fertile enough however if the opposite occurred, they would be abandoned in search for other land to till. Villages were where crops were grown and were usually accessed from the half-towns. Although villages functioned as farms, processing of food produces was done in the half-towns. Crops such as cassava, sweet potato or banana were grown in smaller quantities around the town proper in gardens or orchards. Women went to the farm daily but Fatima wrote that she would often get bored there and sleep when it was hot.

The staple food for the Vai is rice and according to Fatima, “any African or Vai girl more specifically, around six years of age, can cook rice”. Rice was eaten with vegetables and sauces that are still eaten today. Fatima made special mention of the artistic manner in which Vai women served dishes. Using rice as an example, “a woman puts the hot rice in a bowl, wets a spoon with water and presses it lightly to make it stick together. It is then turned upside down on a plate to look like a hemisphere. The rice crust, brown in appearance and flavorful in taste, is placed on the side of the rice..The sauces…are placed either separately or over the rice” (p 46).

Sauces described include palm butter soup and several palaver sauces. Of course fufu had to be mentioned. Breakfast was typically yams, sweet potatoes or plantains roasted in ashes. When they are not roasted, they are fried or boiled. She also made mention of a “bread” made with ground and roasted rice and roasted peanuts pounded together (this reminded me of dankwa) and oranges stored in the attic over a fire till their skin becomes dark and black making their juice concentrated.

Several pages of Fatima’s autobiography are dedicated to hairstyle.

“Dressing hair is done by all women in the community. They do their hair mutually and one rarely ever does one’s own hair. it is a long and laborious procedure. One has to lie or sit so long and undergo the combing of the hair.”

Hairstyles include diamond braids which I guess are typical single braids. Also fashionable was to braid the hair over something stiff in a style called the jojo. Hair decorations included using a gold plated feather. This was stuck in the hair to show out after the head was covered with a scarf. A long wooden pin served as decoration for everyday use. Fatima wrote that it could take several days to put hairstyles up and when the hairstyles are done, the Vai woman “takes great care to ensure the style lasts long, even if she has to sleep on her face.” (p 52)

I was excited reading this recipe for a creme used by Vai women that was apparently so effective, it lasted all day (and left perfume on the hands of a colonial stooge after shaking the hands of Vai women)

“The grease around the kidney of the cow, sheep, or goat is taken, cut into very tiny cubes and placed into a bottle and tightly stopped. Several days later, the juice of some aromatic plant is squeezed into it. Again it is tightly stopped up. Sometimes plam kernel or coconut oil is added, and the whole mixture is placed in the sun every day to allow the grease to melt thoroughly. After several other days, cinnamon and other sweet smelling seeds are added. Every day, when the sun is not very hot, the bottle is placed in the sun. This procedure is continued until all the ingredients have become one, and several months later, the people may then start using it. White clay, found on the shores of streams and swamps, which is often used for whitewashing houses and huts is also sometimes applied” (p 52)

Lipsticks were dark blue and black as well as eyebrow pencils, and teeth were cleaned with charcoal, ashes and rattan. In Vai country, people could be seen brushing their teeth all the time because having bad teen was a bad as being ill. Then regarding baths, Fatima saw “no one in our town who did not take a bath, morning, noon or night.” (p 53). Baths were taken in the kuuwu which was a bathhouse with buckets of water.