On a research trip looking at the work of Dutch amateur anthropologist and photographer Paul Julien, I [AS] stumbled upon the story of Madame (or Queen as Julien calls her) Suakoko. It meets a lot of interest with the people I am sharing Julien’s work with in Liberia. I translated the radio lecture that Julien delivered in 1933 telling the story of him meeting the prominent female chief August 1932, which was probably not long before she passed on. The translation is undoubtedly far from perfect since I am not a native speaker.
‘January 22nd, 1933
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the centre of the black Republic lies the village Suakoko; the area is rather busy, because the big forest path that ranges from Kakakta, in the south, to the north-east passes it. Suakoko is a big village. I counted about 200 small huts, cylindrical structures with a cone shaped grass-thatched roof.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and despite the hour the village was full of life and activities.
I was given a small square clay building, within the governmental compound by the chief to spend the night. Nearby women were pounding cassava, in exactly the same way rice is pounded in our Indonesia.From further down in the village the flapping of a weaving loom operated by a Kpelle weaver sounded.
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. He was followed by half a dozen slaves. 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 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 first walked through the village covered in darkness where from all the roofs, or better still, through all the roofs,smoke was rising. Here and there a dog was barking and in the surrounding trees and on the roofs crickets gave a deafening concert that in the forested areas in Africa accompanies nightfall and is sometimes so loud that it makes conversation impossible. 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 it even when bending down, gave access to a court yard 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 within 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 was there. 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 to expensive to smoke by many who would 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 wasdivided further among the entourage, which again resulted in approving mumbling.
‘Suakoko very old’ said her grandson andshowed 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 ‘Oeleleasks 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 have encountered in the heart of Africa, but that I didn’t feel the urge to advertise this highlight of Dutch culture, that is considered to be an utter delight within 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 babies present, that found shelter behind their mother’s back all the while. That night I had an adventure in Suakoko that was scary to such an extent that it made me curse the moment that I decided to go to Africa without weapons. But it would take to long to share that story.
Three days later we reached Gbarenga. Gbarenga is a big economic hub, where for the first time the influence of the Mandingo’s from the Niger basin can clearly be noticed. It covers a vast area between low hills and with a developing activity one wouldn’t expect in central Liberia. Gbaringa is the seat of a District Commissioner (D.C.) from the government in Monrovia, Mr. Ross, for whom I carried a letter from the president giving him the assignment to assist me in my mission. It had been difficult along the way to get access to the materials needed for my blood research, so any assistance was more than welcome. It was a nice coincidence that it happened to be a market day and Ross, de D.C. went to the market with me asked the people to squat and addressed the population, helped by an interpreter.
‘A powerful witch-man came to the village,a sorcerer, a big medicine man. Tomorrow 8 a.m. all those suffering from pest, all the lepers, all those with Yawa should come to the courthouse to be examined and give blood. I hurried to whisper in the commissioner’s ear that I would prefer healthy people.The man had obviously misunderstood and took me to be a medical doctor.
The messenger screamed ‘The healthy should also come, women children all should come. The whole village should come.Understood?
A loud applause was the result. Early the next morning I was busy preparing. Eight a.m. there was nobody there, nine, nobody, quarter past nine the D.C., growing nervous, sent out a group of messengers to force the people,with violence if need be, to the courthouse. It was all in vain. The village was completely deserted. De whole community fled into the forest, and I may add that they didn’t return before I left. A couple of days later I traveled onward from Gbaringa.’
The images are photocopies from a book that I don’t know the title of, but is part of the collection of the smithsonian. The digital file was given to me by Franklin Siakor who is trying to write the history of Madame Suakoko based on various oral sources.