Jarkaken is a small town in River Gee County, Liberia. This settlement is built on a series of foothills. When I was growing up here in the 1980’s, a regional census group wrote a number on my father’s door. It was #334. I did not understand what that meant. I was too young at the time to care or investigate. As I grew older, however, I learned that our house was the 334th building in the town. A lot has happened since the census. There are more new housing units in the town, and Jarkaken is a bigger town now. Its residents proudly proclaimed it a city.
I was born in 1972 in Pueken, an agricultural settlement just a few miles outside the “city” of Jarkaken, Liberia. It is approximately 10 miles outside Jarkaken. In 1975, my dad decided to relocate to his newfound land just minutes from Pueken, another farming settlement. But he didn’t relocate until he discussed his intent with Oldman Welley Chea, the man who founded Pueken. When he told him the news, the Oldman did not stop him. My dad built a single-hut settlement about a 15-minute walk away, and he named it Wodayken, which translated into, “a peaceful relocation.” It took a while to get used to Wodayken or simply Woday. It was here where I had spent much of my early life. The relatively young settlement did not have its own fruit trees. It did not have the oranges, pears, bananas, coconut, and pineapples among others that we were used to in Pueken. So we had to go back to Pueken with baskets every time we wanted fruits.
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We did not visit Jarkaken frequently. Our trips to Jarkaken were often situation driven. We came to town in the case of a death within our family. We celebrated some national holidays in town. We came to town whenever the township commissioner called folks to clean around their homes and the entire community. We came to town to observe other traditional or cultural events, too. But of all the special situations that lured us to town, Kla-nynomo-saju, a bizarrely named celebration, which literally translates into “cut through a women and retrieve the child” (as in cesarean section), was my favorite. The only people who “called” the dance were men who had too much and wanted to be known as philanthropists. I remembered two men from Jarkaken who had the guts to call the carnival. Mr Albert N. Dweh sponsored it and Oldman Duah Wesseh sponsored it too. In fact, Mr. Wesseh sponsored the one I remember well in the early 1980’s. People from all works of life came from all the communities around Jarkaken, including Putuken, Klaboken, Bleteken, and Geeken and assembled in Jarkaken for nearly two weeks in order to participated in the festivities. The program went very well, which meant that very dedicated people had devoted maximum time into preparing for the get-together.
A few weeks before the celebration actually kicked off, several women from each of the extended families within the town of Jarkaken raised lots of money by selling vegetables and other yields from their fields, such as rice, cassava, okra, eddoes, potatoes, pineapples, and others gains. They sold the stuff at the region’s central market, which was located in the main-road community of Putuken. They used the funds gathered from the sale and bought some flamboyant clothes. The colorful clothes from Putuken along with variants of local clay were used, as the tradition went, to cross-dress young men during the celebration. There were several extended families within Jarkaken, including Boquior, Magwulu, Dowao, Teatypoo, Ponwaeon, Kaytia’o, Bonyonpoo, etc. The women groups from each of these large families gathered at their family headquarters, if you like, and dressed up their young there. Then they walked the young men to the center of the town (Di-sle) where all types of drums were being played. It was always a great sight to see the young adults as they walked in cadence ever so slowly from various family centers and eventually merged in the town center. They came to the town center in style by walking on clothes, as their feet were not supposed to touch Boqutoe’s red clay. Touching the ground would have been an embarrassment to their family females, whom –as a matter of ritual—were expected to layout a chain of clean clothes for the men to leisurely walk on. They didn’t touch the ground. We saw their female fans helped laid a stripe of clothes along the trail that came to an abrupt end at the center of the town. The clothes the men walked on were similar to the ones they wore. As the young men walked on the clothes, their female fans loudly offered them what seemed to be unwanted admirations because the men didn’t smile back to their admirers. They didn’t even answer or talk back when their fans called out their names.
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Because of the hills in the town, one had to stand at a certain point to see some of the events unfold. For example, those who had their houses between the foothills had to move to hilltops for better view. And where else was better than the view around Mr. Wilson Swen’s house? This location was one of several places used as observation points because it was located on the peak of the foothill called Boqutoe. With all the bushes neatly cut around the town, it was a spectacular view. An observer here saw nearly 70% of the site where the events were taking place. So it was this point that saw an increase in the number of thrill-seekers. From there, we saw dazzling blend of colors as young adults between the ages of 18 though 24 customarily suited up as intrepid cross-dressers who imitated their favorite female models. It was fascinating to see how the people dressed up. Everyday between the hours of 10am and 3pm, there was always something going on that was worth watching. There was always a line of cross-dressed matching males either creeping towards Duah Wesseh’s house or on the way to the center of the town, which the locals called Di-sle.
There were other activities besides the pretty dressers. I saw people dancing and eating specially prepared foodstuff. There were plenty of social gatherings around the town. Some people even played magic. I particularly remember a magician from the neighboring town of Putuken who played dead. He was placed on a cleverly fashioned bamboo platform called “kugbati” and carried around the town by strong men. Many older people told us that the man had truly induced his own death; they claimed the man on the platform was decaying, and some claimed to have smelled him. I don’t remember the smell, but many people said with strong convictions they were actually horrified by the odor from the self-induced dead. They gave credit to the magician’s juju, Liberian for the herbs used to provoke any magical or miraculous outcome. The man later resuscitated from his self-induced death.
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Another reason we came to town from Wodayken was “to see Christmas”—that’s the literal translation of the Grebo phrase “A mi Clisenmonsen jeba, or “We are going to see Christmas.” Christmas was a must-see thing. As a child who led a simple life, I really did not care much about Christmas. I just wanted to go to town and wear my long kept (stored) “new clothes” and eat lot of special foods. You see, whenever we got new jeans or trousers, our mother used to cut them and made shorts out of the lower pieces. The ones she fashioned herself were for everyday use. The original top was for special occasions, like Christmas, New Year, July 26th, etc… Before I was old enough to remember any celebration, I was told that Oldma Elizabeth Snoh Winn, my stepmother, used to put my older siblings to some test during the Christmas season. I guess she just wanted to find out whether or not they were truth tellers. For your information, they weren’t truthful at all. She used to say with strong pseudo (false) – confidence and conviction, “Look, there goes the Christmas over the horizon!” The kids claimed they saw it, too: “Oh, there it is!” She did it to me too, and to those under me. You can call it a family Christmas tradition. Perhaps it was her attempt to actualize the phrase “we are going to see Christmas” or just to find out our integrity or maturity levels.
New Year celebration was a special time for us kids. We came to town to have a good time. We added a year to our age on every New Year day; birthdays didn’t matter to us. We also liked this celebration because, like Christmas, it was celebrated in the church. There were many churches in Jarkaken. They included but not limited to the John Choloplay United Methodist Church, the Church of God in Christ, the Hallelujah Church (held at Oldman Saykpa’s home at the time), and of course the Assemblies of God Church. Each of these churches –with the exception of the Hallelujah Church that celebrated a little different from the others –had coffee, tea, hot chocolate, bread, cookies and more food for the celebration. As children, we would go to the several churches and eat their foods. In the early morning hours, say around 5a.m., members of the several churches came together. They usually formed up at the intersection of a cross-town road and its arm, which passed through the homes of the Rev. Luke Gbye Cojolo and Oldman Charlie Wah. Members of the several churches yanked palm and other small tree branches, and, as a matter of tradition, replicated the famous jubilant events around Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey.
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This was nothing out of the ordinary. It was an acceptable practice that was well liked by the people. It was customary practice; it was an expectation. They carried the stuff around the town shouting and singing traditional, seasonal songs, like the ever-present “Wa-yon penly nul neye’e nya!” or “the Savior you are looking for is ahead of you!” Another song instigated the sexes into mild and harmless verbal quarrels. The men sang “Bobo nynoh nu jaley ku” or “stupid women brought evil into the world” while the women sang the opposite version, “Bobo jbejlu nu jalay ku.”—“Jbejlu” means “men” in Chedepo, the variety of the Grebo language spoken in and around Jarkaken. The dance in the streets continued until say around 7a.m., and then the branches were smashed into the streets, littering the streets with leaves and palm branches. The smacking of tree branches in the streets signaled the end to the dance; it was then time for cooking, eating and dressing up the kids. This was yet another favorite because I got to wear my long-kept special clothes.
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Honestly, I didn’t take church that serious when I was growing up. I only liked the songs and—in the case of Christmas or New Year—the food and new clothes. One of my favorite churches in Jarkaken was the Liberian Assemblies of God, the mother of all the churches in the town. It was my parents’ church. Even though I was the English choir director at Wiah Tai’s Church of God in Christ, which later became Baptist under Mr. Elijah Slobert and Rev. Jacob Nyenpan, I still managed and spent a great deal of time at my parents’ church. Many comedians, like the Tanyon family, went to the AG Church. Their father, the late Rev. Timothy Peppeh Tanyon, and the Rev. Amos Jarbo were assistant pastors under then senior pastor, the Rev. Jimmy J. Teh. I used to befriend the Tanyons, especially Pua Tanyon, Nyondo Tanyon (then the town’s goal keeper during soccer matches), Tanyon, and Monday Tanyon. They were by far the town’s best comics by any standard of measurement in my opinion. Their jokes were usually downright very funny. They had both clean and not so clean jokes, I must add. It is fair to say that the Tanyons were one of the stimuli that lured me and other Jarkaken residents to LAG.
The comics claimed one Oldman Isaac Young, a senior member of the church, had a special window seat at the church. No matter how late Mr. Young came to church, he was sure to claim his seat, and it didn’t matter who sat there before he had arrived. Perhaps Mr. Young preferred the window seat because from there he overlooked his yard. Whatever the reason, Mr. Young had the tendency to drive away people from “his seat.” One day, while pastor Teh was preaching, Mr. Young fell fast asleep, according to the clan of comics. Mr. Young had his head on the window frame. A comic claimed he moved stealthily to the window and gave the old man a hard-hitting blow to the head. The comic then hurried away to the other side of the building. He then went to another window to watch Mr. Young’s reaction. In pain, Mr. Young jumped up and politely asked the pastor to pause. Then he called the audience attention by using the universal “Praise the Lord!” before he started to swear in Chedepo. He was quoted as saying, “Mo nyua kor mo kpunor’a dlo se jlo’a e del dibamu! Konbo sie momonor mo! Bo sme’aa klee chi’a be teta wanley! Paisor, E wele! ” Translation: “The person that hit me will not eat anything from this year’s harvest! You will die in your sleep! Snakes and other predators will eat you alive. Pastor, I am finished.” Mr. Young sat down on the very seat where the hit to the head had occurred, which had triggered the swearing. He again signaled the Pastor to carry on preaching. Some people continue to say it really happened, and this tale is passed on the new generations who also believed it had happened. Perhaps it day really occurred, but I know it originally as joke or contribution from the sons of Oldman Timothy Tanyon.
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I became a young comic myself, as I grew older. At a funeral service for Rev. Tom Wion, a veteran AG preacher and a community icon, I called Oldman Borbor Gegba Wiah Toe’s teacup a “bowl.” I waited for a break in the song, and yelled out in Grebo, “Gegba Wiah, ne tea cupor wo bolo,” which translated into English as, “Gegba Wiah, your tea cup looks like a bowl.” That got me in a lot of trouble. Unlike professional comics, like the Tanyons, I did not get away. I said it and stayed at the same location. So it was an easy fix. Everybody around me knew I said it. Well, I got better over time and even rose close to the ranks of the Tanyons.
There were many other reasons why we came to town from Wodayken. They included reasons such as going to school, preparing for [or observing] traditional rituals, special celebrations, death and other tragedies in the town, etc.
I must add that it was fun most of the time to come to town. When my brother Taynue and I were sent to town to prepare for the all-male ritual. We joined other all-male kids in Jarkaken in order to kick off the pre-societal norms that eventually led a child to adulthood. We the Kids had to meet certain fundamentals or prerequisites before being abducted into the actual ritual. Part of that was team building and learning to be responsible, such as being able to account for our subordinates.
There were three children groups that were known in Chedepo collectively as “Conjlopo” or “easily infuriated people.” Some called them “generations” too. They were grouped by age; that is, age was the primary determining factor for placement within the groups. Whenever there were any doubts about someone’s age, they used to go to that child’s parents for guidance.
Traditionally, the first stage is known as “Swanynekpi,” literally, “chicken’s pup.” The kids in this group are typically from the ages of eight through ten. Besides sounding off during singing, this group has no other constructive contribution to make to the whole body; they just give the older generations, who must to look after them, additional burdens. The second stage is known as Gblipo. It is for kids from ten through twelve. This group is junior to their most senior group. The senior generation, which runs the whole show, is known as Dawu. Ages twelve through fifteen are typically found in this group. It is at this age that the kids are inducted into the ritual.
But induction doesn’t happen as fast as one may think. It is a dreary and unhurried process. To officially get into the ritual, the kids must have a name. Dawu is a general name for every kid group at that stage in life. To get a name, members of Dawu alone (if all goes well) must go to the oldest man in the town and ask him for a name that is specific for their group only. In many cases, the names are retrieved from moribund generations, such as those whose entire membership have died out. Sometimes, the oldest man uses his discretion and he may even coin or arbitrarily create a name. As a procedure, to get a name, Dawu is required to have formations for several weeks, if not month(s).
Members must attend and learn team building. If a Dawu member doesn’t show up for a formation, his buddies (friends) have two choices—go and get him or levy a fine. Every day’s formation ends with the cooking and eating of all the collected fines from members who did not attend that formation. Fines include bananas, cassava, plantain, eggs, palm nuts, fruits, and more. Money and domestic animals are not levied as fines at this stage; their adult counterparts are the ones who collect those kinds of fines. When they have had enough formations, learned team building, known each other well enough and had cooked their last fines at the center of the town, it was then time to go to the man and ask him for a name. He usually gave them a name, but not until he was convinced the kids were ready to be inducted into the society. He could turn them away to go and have more formations, if he so desired. A name for Dawu is one of the elements required on the passport to adulthood.
In 1980, when we first came to Jarkaken to attend school, it was a bittersweet experience for all the village kids, including my brother Taynue and me. The sweet part: Whenever one was slated to go to school in my father’s house, it meant he or she was a grown-up, essentially old enough to hang out and also eat with the big folks. He or she wasn’t little anymore. Instead of being bathed by the grownups, he or she could shower by himself or herself. It also meant he or she was going to start wearing shoes on a full-time basis, not just on special days. It also meant leaving the mat and ascending to a bed with a two-inch-thick mattress pad. They had now graduated from waking up early in order to watch the farm for pests, like birds that unearthed germinating rice seeds. For school, we used to come to town on Sunday and stayed until after school on Friday. We returned to the village on Friday. The bitter part: Upon arrival, we were deemed strange to the town, and we especially seemed very peculiar to the kids we met in the town. We were unfamiliar people who spent the bulk of our lives on the outskirts of Jarkaken. Many of us actually grew up on farmlands around the town. For this reason, the children who lived in Jarkaken when we arrived there referred to us as ‘just-come‘ who had absolutely no ownership right to the town.
That bothered us a lot, and to add to that, the town kids fixed their eyes upon us everywhere we went and called us uncivilized people. In fact, the town kids were willing to fight us if we didn’t leave town. We were told where we couldn’t go within the town. And if we insisted and hung out at those off-limits parts within the town, the kids threatened to strike and start a chaotic fight or brawl with us. We were not intimidated by their threats, though. Fresh from the villages, we didn’t need those parts of town. Because we did not have anything to do within those places they declared off limits to us, we simply stayed either within our houses or quarters and didn’t bother visiting their off-limits areas at all. But that didn’t stop the town children from picking on us; they continued to find faults with our presence and pressed harder and harder in order to set new and imaginary boundaries within the town. They absolutely had no respect for us.
It was a very tough predicament in which we found ourselves, and we desperately needed a solution. If it were up to some of us that wanted no conflict with the town kids, we would have settled for a retreat to the village. But no, it was not up to us to make such a decision. Our parents made the decision for us to go to town in order to attend Kaytoken Junior High School. So we had to do whatever it took to satisfy our parents’ wishes and stay in the town for school. Initially, one of the possible solutions we proposed to the town kids was to make friends with them; after all, they were the self-proclaimed owners of the town. For the town kids, such a scheme was an end product from mindless thinkers; they refused to consider the idea of making friends with uncivilized villagers. What else could we do now? We had to fit in with the town kids. To do that, some grownups advised us to fight the town children one on one. But my brother Taynue and I had an issue with that way of seeking a compromise. No, let me set the record straight here. We were not cowards, but one-on-one fighting was something our father, Mr. Josiah S. Winn, was totally against. Before we came to town from Wodayken Village, we got a strong dose of advice from him. It was the same advice he had passed on from Kpadeh and Mantee, our brothers before us. “Look out for one another,” he said. “If someone, anyone for that matter, touches one of you, jump that person. Whatever it costs, I will pay.” He wasn’t a violent figure, but he overprotected us and thus sounded a bit aggressive.
Until the appeal for compromise with the town kids, which later followed by a proposed physical confrontation, we hadn’t fought anyone. We even missed the first opportunity we had to double-team on Dakpaye Toe, our extended cousin who hit Taynue for having no “red marks” on his midterm report card. Dakpaye didn’t understand why he had failing marks but Taynue didn’t have any. For Dakpaye, he couldn’t find what the logic was in the school’s decision to give him failing marks. He didn’t hold back his tongue. Dakpaye explained what he believed was his justification or reason for smacking Taynue: “I am older than all of you, and they gave me reds but this stupid Taynue has got no reds.” It didn’t make sense to us, so we told on him. We could have beaten him if we wanted to, but the dread that he could revenge later by beating us individually made us to change our minds. We didn’t fight him at all. The grownups we told only laughed at the circumstances around Dakpaye’s actions, but he was never punished for such actions. They said Dakpaye was too naïve about the school’s grading system. And that was it.
Now we were told to fight in order to be accepted because those who said they owned the town wouldn’t let us get a stay-here-for-free pass. Because we had a parental mandate to go to school, we had to stay in the town. Also, since peaceful negotiations failed, we had to fight the town kids in order to stay or be accepted in the community of Jarkaken. This meant that Taynue and I had to ignore our father’s advice to “jump” any one who touches one of us. We would have loved to double-team on the town kids, but there were rules we had to obey. We couldn’t just get up and whack them because they called us funny names, such as the infamous “farmerjlu paso’u pini,” which translated into the village kids that eat not fully formed bananas. We didn’t like the phase at all. It was a very demeaning phrase, which had occasionally been around for a long time; however, certain adult instigators within the town had actually helped to popularize it.
One of the instigators that promoted the infamous phase was Mr. Sam Swen Quayee, Oldman Wemon Quayee’s son. Several years before we enlisted into the town’s all-male ritual, we interacted to some great extent with Mr. Sam Swen Quayee. He was intrigued by the presence of children around him, but ironically he was also a notorious figure who instigated quarrels amongst the kids that made it their daily task to go everywhere he went. He actually had strong affection for induced animosities amongst the several kids. Nevertheless, the children in Jarkaken could not have enough of him; they simply loved him. It was very hard to find Sam without any children in his presence. It was amazing how strong the children’s bond was to him, especially when one considered the age gap between them. Sam was a full-blown adult, but that didn’t deter us. We interacted with him from 1980 (the year I started school) until 1985. That was at least five years of on and off fun with Sam. He had to be in his late 20’s in 1985. By that time, many of the kids in my group essentially had outgrown whatever fascinated them about Sam and had disbanded shortly before we were inducted into the local all-male ritual in 1985.
Sam used to coach many children into fight sessions. Many of the fighting happened between the children who commuted to school from the several villages around the town and the kids that actually lived in the town. The fights, according to Sam, were to determine who owned the town, if you like. We sort of expected the fights because our older brothers—Kpadeh and Sayjolo—told us about them. So, whenever we came to town, we were not entirely surprised when Sam assembled us at a certain location. He was sure to pick a quiet and less human-traffic place. Sam used to tell us what the gathering was all about. He would brief us, “This is your chance to prove that you own this land,”—meaning Jarkaken. The town kids saw us as “just-come” with no inherent rights to the town of Jarkaken. They saw us as second-class citizens in Jarkaken because we spent the bulk of our early lives on farmlands around the town. That was why they called us very demeaning names. Sam told us we could reclaim some legitimacy or rights by entering into fistfight with the kids in the town. While some of us knew that it was a typical behavior of all children, no matter where they lived, to try to claim their long-held territories whenever new kids came to such neighborhoods, it was rather absurd how the town kids, influenced by Sam, used to treat us.
They used cleverly chosen “smart curses” on us. At first we acted as if we were not irritated by their lack of good manners. However, when they intensified their behaviors by extending their curses to our parents, we the village kids refused absolutely to tolerate those kinds of attitudes. These acts were sufficient for some quick-to-attack village kids to, well, attack the town kids. Remember, Sam Quayee used to establish mutual agreement before the fight sessions. He made sure the kids understood why they were fighting each other. It was about pride in themselves, their village friends, and their village. It was about a right to the town; in other words, the village kids had to literally fight to win their citizenship in Jarkaken.
As soon as Sam was confident the kids understood the rules of the fight and that they were fighting selflessly to glorify the places they represented, he was then ready to trigger main events—the actual physical contact part of the provoked confrontation. He used to pick up sand or dust –whichever was available—in both hands. The kids that came from the villages were on one side; the town kids were on the other. He would draw a line on the ground with his foot about five feet away from the kids and say, “If you believe you have rights to the town, cross this line.” Usually, a town kid who was ready to fight would jump across for his team. Then a village kid would follow suit. Sam would then get between the two kids and hold out his hands as if he were a live cross. Palms facing upward to retain their contents, he would say, “Who will be the first to waste his friend mother’s soup?” Before the word soup, an eager kid would slap or kick off the sand in one hand. This is an insult to the other kid’s mother; he too would slaps off the contents in the other hand or simply jumps right to fighting the other kid. Usually, the winners were the village kids.