While nobody I spoke to in Liberia had heard of Prof. Logemoh, who we saw last week, everybody seemed to have heard of Madame Suakoko, the female chief and warrior. Paul Julien was invited to visit while passing by:
‘A young man in wide Mandingo dress suddenly appeared in the doorway of my hut. His cloths, though from inland weave, were well taken care of and the man was even wearing sandals from a Sudan make, which is rare in the interior. Everything pointed in the direction of this man being a Negro from an upper class background. Half a dozen slaves followed him. To my surprise the young man knew a few English words. I let him in, gave him a stone pipe as a gift, some tobacco and a crate to sit on. He then signaled his slaves and said ‘The queen sends you this for your supper, extends her greetings and asks whether you would pay her a visit.’ He added that she is very old. The slaves came in and put the queen’s gifts in my hut. First of all there was an immense pumpkin, so heavy that a man could barely lift it. Then there was a chicken, a clay pot with rice, radish, banana, cassava, ettos (a kind of grey root that in taste reminds me of our potatoes) and boiled maize, a dish that is always part of my African menu. Another black man brought a large calabash with sour palm wine. For a while I more or less conversed with the young prince – he turned out to be a grandson to the old queen Suakoko – and we made the appointment for him to take me to the queen’s compound after sunset.’
And so it happened.[…] We arrived at a big palisade wall with a small gate, blocked by a heavy door made of one piece of wood. After that another door, so low that I could hardly enter even when bending down, gave access to a courtyard where a herd of goats tried to run off in the darkness. After that we passed other obstructions and courtyards until we finally seemed to enter the space where Queen Suakoko resided, when two squatting figures rose from the darkness without producing a sound and stopped us. The prince exchanged a couple of words with them and I was allowed to enter. Behind this gate a small open square, with in the middle a roof made of palm leaves, rested on four poles in what was actually no different from a big kitchen in the interior. A fire was burning under the roof and a big piece of goat on a rattan string was roasting above it. A large amount of Negroes, all dressed in robes, except for the women who from the waist up are naked, sat close to the fire since the night was chilly and it was drizzling. Close to the fire, only dressed in loincloth the old queen Suakoko lay down on a mat. She may have been 70 years old. Upon my arrival some children started to scream, but Suakoko wasn’t moving.
The old empress, who in these days in Liberia held a very powerful position, was blind. Her grandson told her I came. Suakoko uttered some sounds.
‘Oelele asks what you brought for her.’ “Tell Suakoko that I brought a lot of tobacco”, and I asked Moses, who came with me but had to wait at the gate, to pass the packed tobacco. An approving mumbling went through the entourage around the fire. Suakoko touched the tobacco, a much desired and expensive commodity in the interior, deemed too expensive to smoke by many who powder it and eat it in small amounts. The tobacco was instantly divided in two parts. Suakoko put one part underneath her pillow. The other part was divided further among the entourage, which again resulted in approving mumbling.
‘Suakoko very old’ said her grandson and showed me the wrinkled skin of his grandmother. ‘Suakoko blind’. “I can tell”, I answered. ‘Oelele lies next to the fire all day and sleeps there too’. That message was the intro to a question because suddenly the prince said ‘Oelele asks whether you brought Jenever (Dutch gin)’. I saw that the queen was listening attentively and was very disappointed to hear that I was not carrying gin. I could have added that I knew that a couple of crates of gin would have literally solved all of the problems I could haven encountered in the heart of Africa, but that I didn’t feel the urge to advertise this highlight of Dutch culture, that is an utter delight under the population of the dark continent. My visit didn’t last long. I was preparing to leave. ‘When you return please do not forget to bring plenty gin for Oelele’, asked the prince to very modestly add to that ‘plenty money for me’. “I hope to remember”. And thus I returned to my hut, easing all the court’s babies that found shelter behind their mother’s back all the while.’
This whole story makes me ask questions about the nature of history and the importance of facts versus story. The ‘Queen’ Suakoko that Julien meets is not the hero that is remembered. The recently opened Mme Suakoko Memorial Centre has a plate next to its door. On it the year of death is 1927 but Paul Julien visited her in August 1932 during his first and only time in Liberia. Does that make the plate worthless? Should we distrust the story?
Next week another story, related to the Leopard Society, will bring us related issues when thinking about history as we can and cannot know it.
About Paul Juliens:
Paul Julien (1901-2001) was an anthropologist from the Netherlands who traveled through Liberia in 1932. Andrea Stultiens (1974) is a photographer and researcher from the Netherlands. As part of her PhD-research she tries to connect the past that was documented by Paul Julien to the past as remembered in Liberia and the way it is connected to the present. Julien’s photographs are part of the collection of the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam.
From July 19th till August 19th 2014 Julien’s photographs and the film he made will be on display at the National Museum. Leading up to this some of the stories are shared in History and Us columns. Comments are most welcome on [email protected]