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Farewell to Martha Mlah Nyanfore

28 September 2016 at 01:33 | 3467 views

Farewell to Martha Mlah Nyanfore

A tribute to an unknown African Princess

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore ll, USA.

We love and like the depiction of African royalty in African movies. We admire the display of wealth, power, majesty and the honor and respect the kings and queens received from the people. Olu Jacobs is one of my favorite actors, with his powerful and distinguished voice and physical stature. While in reality some Africans of royalty live well, others live in poverty. Some do not know of their nobility or care less about it. They struggle to put food on the table and to care for their family.

If you live in a society or country like Liberia, which in many instances disregards traditional culture and marginalizes traditional people, the condition could be worse. Mentioning your royalty as a poor person would be greeted with laughter. In Liberia even some educated people do not believe that the country ever had kings and queens. To many, the history of the land started with the coming of the ex- slaves or settlers from America in the early 1820s. The settlers and their descendants defined the culture and the history of the land.

Martha Nyanfore’s life typified the above condition of poverty despite a noble traditional background. She was born in Liberia, West Africa, 61 years ago. She was one of the eight children of James B. Nyanfore, a young man who in the early 1940s left Grandcess, a village in Liberia to Monrovia for education.

The father was a quiet man, very private and did not tell his children of his birth. He was an honest man with high integrity; he studied hard and finished college with distinction but died young and penniless. Four of his children died in a similar fashion too.

On June 9, 2016, Martha died poor like his parents and other siblings. She was my sister. Reflection on her life is also telling the story of my family, the history of my village and my people. This history and genealogy helped shape her life and personality.

Martha was buried on July 9, 2016. On the 11th, two days after her burial, we held the family hair-cutting ceremony, a traditional ritual involving a call to the ancestors and appeal to the universal God for his blessing and protection. An elder administered the ritual. The immediate family hairs were slightly shaved from the front and back. The entire event lasted a few hours.

In the past, in the village, the event lasted longer. Three to four days after the burial the traditional hair-cutting was conducted. The entire hairs were removed to officially begin the mourning of the deceased. The mourning could last six months, during which time the family wore black clothing. At the end of the six months, another celebration was held to remove the black and thus ending the mourning.

Tradition says that the spirit of the deceased lives around us during the first six months and leaves us and enters another phase in the external world. Fifty or more years after the burial, the deceased becomes an ancestor. Many African traditional cultures share this belief.

I have attended many family hair-cutting ceremonies, starting from that of my mother. I did not attend daddy’s funeral because he died in Cape Palmas, in another city in Liberia when I was a little boy and mama did not have money to take us there.

The hair-cutting for Martha was special. The Grandcess people in Monrovia sent a representative named Kai Nah to the occasion to pay homage and tribute to our sister and moreover to pay for the hair-cutting of James Nyanfore’s children. He presented LD$2000.00, an equivalent of US$21.00 to the family. I was happy, because in the past the Grandcess people as a group did not show up at the burials of my other siblings.

But I remembered though, when daddy graduated from Cuttington College, the Grandcess people in Monrovia had a celebration for him and put on him an African gown, country cloth, as we called it in Liberia. Daddy was looking more handsome. He was looking like a prince or king as we see in African movies. He was talking powerfully, moving, speaking Kru and dancing too with the beats of the drums. I never saw daddy being that happy before.

Mr. Kai Nah then narrated daddy’s family history at the hair-cutting. Although as an adult I have researched the story when I was a student in the US, I was glad that the story was told for the younger generation, particularly Martha’s children and grandchildren to know.

Mr. Nah began that the Dagbayonoh family is the largest family or one of the largest families in Grandcess. The history of the family started with Dagbayonoh, a woman who came from Picaninnycess, or Gbeta, a nearby village, to Grandcess, another village. She could not give birth in her village. An oracle, whom the parents had consulted, advised that she be taken to Grandcess, there she would meet a man and they would have two sons. One would become a king and the other would be a wealthy man. Dagbayonoh was secretly taken to Grandcess. The two villages were not on friendly terms. They were constantly at war with each other. According to the story, she met Jappah, son of Teah Jlay.

And it came to pass that Dagbayonoh and Jappah had two sons. The first was called Nyanfore and the second was named Nimely. The boys grew up like ordinary children, engaging in wrestling, hunting, fishing and participating in Bor, a para-military group, which prepared young men for defense and leadership. Bor members also performed war dances at occasions and was led by the borbee, group father or head.

The two brothers were respectively called Dagbayonoh Nyanfore and Dagbayonoh Nimely, “children of the visiting woman” to denote their mother’s history, as a Dagbayonoh, meaning “visiting woman”, though her birth name known in her village was Juah. Sometimes, the children were called Jappah Nyanfore and Jappah Nimely as reference to their father. In the Kru culture, usually the men take their mother’s name while the women take their father’s name.

As prophesied, Nyanfore became king and his brother Nimely became head of the military. Nimely also became a wealthy man. Nyanfore was king from 1901 to 1908 during the presidency of Garretson Gibson and of Arthur Barclay in Liberia. He died in office. He and his brother died together shortly after a tribal war between Grandcess and Picaninnycess. There are many and different accounts regarding the King’s death, according to research.

The king had many children, including Prince Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore and Princess Nyanfore Boyonoh. The Prince’s children included Mrs. Mary Nyanfore Wilson, known as Nyanfore Jawlo, Sarah Nyanfore and James Nyanfore, his youngest child, who also Martha’s father.

The Prince later became a Methodist pastor and was called Samuel. Princess Boyonoh gave birth to Jestina Doe, Juanna Passawe, and Ben Wolo, Sr. The princess’ grandchildren include Gloria Juah Doe, Tonia Passsawe and Charles Wolo.

Nimely’s children included Nimely Nah (James Nimely) and Doe Nimely. Nimely Nah became superintendent of Grandcess under President William Tubman’s administration. Nah was also a wealthy man like his father and owned many properties. Some were leased by the government. Doe Nimely settled in America in the early 1900s. His grand and great grandchildren live in the US.

Although the names Nyanfore and Nimely were the given names of the two brothers, as time went by their respective children used the given names as their surnames, which their descendants carry today.

The Dagbayonoh family extends into Picaninnycess, where the matriarch, the king’s mother’s parental family resides. The family includes the Mentees and the McClains. Other family members live abroad.

Daddy was the father of Boyonoh, Kiah, Gbeh, James, Nimely, Kronsiayon, Marylue, Martha and Comfort. He named each one of us after a family member and gave us African names. He did this so the name of the member would be remembered and still alive. He put the family first instead of his personal glory.

For instance, he named Boyonoh after his aunt, Princess Nyanfore Boyonoh. Marylue Mary, after his sister Mary Nyanfore. He gave Marylue a Kru name, Yonohnennudah, “woman does no task”. He named Martha after his mother, Princess Martha Nyanfore. He gave Martha a Kru name Mlah, meaning blessing, because her birth was to bring blessing to the family. He named me Kiah, Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore, after his father. It was daddy’s dream that Martha and I would become the father and mother of the family in the future.

I did not realize this dream until I left Liberia for the US as a teenager for school. After I graduated from college I tried to send for Martha so we could prepare for the task. She refused; she was not interested in coming to America. I was disappointed, but she had given birth and was concerned about her children. She gave birth to Geraldine Tulay and Richard Howard after completing high school. She named Geraldine Munyan, meaning go forward in Kru. The children, now adults, were helpful to her. I assisted her and my other siblings also.

Things got better for her. She started a prosperous business in Monrovia and was doing great. However, the fourteen year civil war and its aftermath in the country affected her business financially, she never recovered until her death.

Martha and I had a special bond. We were the only children left of daddy in Liberia. She and I struggled to bury sister Gbeh last year, 2015. Gbeh too was living in abject poverty in Monrovia. Gbeh died in my house and I watched her take her last breath.

Gbeh knew a lot about daddy. She was with him in Cape Palmas, Liberia during his illness. I used to blame him for not openly telling us of his family background. But on the other hand, it was better that he did not. People would have laughed at us publicly; they would not have understood that he was of royalty and yet he and his family were poor. In fairness to dad, he did in his own way informed us about his family: when he sneezed, he would say:

Dagbayonoh Nyanfore, Nyanfore Kiah, Kiah Nyanfore, Dogbwo Klogba.

We would laugh and say.

What is he saying? We would ask with amusement. It was funny, so we thought as kids. Well, dad was communicating with his ancestors. Traditionally, he was identifying himself and his ancestors. The first name, Dagbayonoh Nyanfore, was that of his grandfather, the second, Nyanfore Kiah, was his father and the last was his, Kiah Nyanfore, (Kiah’s son Nyanfore). He ended with his grandfather’s title, “Dogbwo Klogba”, meaning Warrior- King in Kru. We did not know then. We were neither interested nor proud even if we knew then.

Mother knew. When I accompanied her to the market as a little boy, Grandcess people at the market would dance around me and would sing praises. I would run to her hiding behind her and holding her lappa.
Do not run, do not be afraid”, she would say, adding,

They are praising your ancestors through you”.

I did not know. I did not know she was telling about me, about my family, about my people and heritage.

Daddy never stopped talking about Grandcess. Grandcess is located in Grand Kru County, the Southeastern part of Liberia. Grandcess is a coastal land facing the Atlantic Ocean. It has light brown pristine beach sands with coconut and palm trees. It is located on the West by Picaninnycess, on the North by Barclayville and on the East by Garraway. Early European traders and adventurers in the 1700s named it Grandcess, meaning big kinjah or big basket used to carry malagueta peppers. They also named Picaninnycess, meaning small kinjah. Grandcess was a major producer of peppers and a key trading center on the coast, exporting peppers and rice to Europe.

Grandcess was a major port for recruiting ship crews or seafarers. The area also was an educational center due to the settlement of Methodist missionaries in 1889 and the establishment of the Catholic mission in 1916 with a Catholic school. Grandcess became part of Liberia in 1850. Prior to that, it was an independent entity with its own political administration. The municipality, known as “civilized town”, was beautifully built with brick houses, fine streets and a cemetery with tombstones.
Grandcess has a grassy landscape like a golf course and the main street extends from the municipality to the airfield. A secondary street or road runs from Nimely Nah’s compound down to the ocean, showing the sea waves and giving a spectacular view and scenery. Uncle Nah also built a house near the beach facing the Atlantic. Sited on the ocean, less than a mile from the shores, was a big rock forming an island, which in the days of old, was said to be a sacred place where the leaders met during crisis. President Edwin Barclay was impressed with Grandcess when he visited the area. Upon his return to Monrovia, he addressed the Liberian legislature praising the beauty of Grandcess.

From the 1700s to 1917, Grandcess was ruled by kings. The elders from the various pantons or clans selected the kings. The elders served as council, advising the king and acting as legislators, similar to present days lawmakers. Being a king in traditional Africa was not about having money or wealth as it was or still is in the West. It was largely about good leadership and care for the people and the kingdom. It was about integrity, good judgment and rule guided by customs and traditions and with the belief in the heavenly creator and in the spirit and soul of the ancestors. In Grandcess, a king could rule up to eight years according to data. He was also influential in the economic development of Grandcess.

Ronald Davis’ scholarly work on the Kru revealed that King Nyepan, who succeeded King Nyanfore, wrote a British shipping company requesting the firm to send ships to Grandcess for the employment of the residents. He signed the letter as “King Nyepan and his chiefs”. Nimely Nah, mentioned earlier, headed the delegation, which presented the letter together with a gift from the Grandcess people as a gesture in support of Britain’s role in World War 1. The London Times published the letter in 1915.

By 1912, under President Arthur Barclay, citizenship of Liberia was extended to the native majority, even though the country became independent over 60 years prior.

With this extension, by 1917, leadership of the hinterland or the rural area fell under the control of the central government, abolishing the rule by kings to that of paramount chiefs. But their citizenship came without voting rights during that period and it brought the imposition of taxes on the impoverished natives. The denial of voting rights, together with unfair taxation, imposition of custom duty-fee, existence of social injustice and encroachment on native land resulted in native revolt against the central government. Specifically, the Kru stated in their complaint, “We pay canoe tax, poll tax and other taxes, but we get no protection, no justice, no benefits”.

As indicated, the above period ended the rule by klogbas in the administration of local jurisdictions. In 1946 under President William Tubman, the natives gained voting rights, which in many respects, minimized native-settler conflict or polarization. The president also stopped the 40-mile boundary law that restricted natives from coming to the cities inhabited largely by the settlers, self-named Americo-Liberians. Tubman’s action encouraged rural-urban migration, village people migrating to the cities.

The late Father Thomas Hayden of the Catholic mission had documented Grandcess klogbas and paramount chiefs, showing the years served and the pantons of the leaders. The document was collected from vary sources and was published by the Liberian Studies Association headquartered in the US.

The Nyanfore-Nimely family is of the Nitieo Panton that is considered an offspring of the Nyapo Panton. Leadership of Grandcess was rotated among the 8 original pantons, who founded the area. It was said that all Grandcess lands, except one area, were family lands purposely for farming. The residential land comprised the big town, Klofue. The municipality or the new town was established later.

By the 1940s Grandcess experienced a mild out migration, thanks in part to the abolishment of the 40- mile law mentioned above. Like most rural communities, many young people from Grandcess left for Monrovia, the capital city, for education and for greener pasture. Some left for the city by way of Grand Bassa County and Rivercess County. Many stayed in urban Bassa and Rivercess and made the areas their permanent settlements. Examples of the individuals who stayed were the Seekies and the Broplehs. The latter is a direct descendant of Dagbayonoh Nimely. Some settled in other countries, including Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, USA and UK. Some also worked in the Royal Navy.

The Grandcess people, called the Sikleo, are of the Kru tribe, a semi-bantu people considered part of the Kwa linguistic group. Linguistically, the Kru speaking family entails the Bassa, the Grebo, the Krahn, the Sapo, the Dei and the Kru as a tribe.
As a tribe, the Kru are divided into dakos or sections, including Sikleo, Gbeta, Jlokqwa, Jlao, Niffu, Boo and Karboh. The Kru, called Krao in the Kru language, live in West Africa in Liberia particularly and in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria. They were warriors in the past. One great Kru warrior was King Sokwalla, who is said to have ruled a large part of Coastal and Eastern Liberia, then called Grain Coast in the 1530s. Another warrior was Juah Nimely, “the wonderful Nimely”, who fought and died for justice in the 1930s.

The Kru do not like people take advantage of them. In their reaction to disadvantage, others unfortunately have branded them negatively as just “fighters” or “troublemakers”. People also misinterpreted Kru culture of age- grouping of big brotherhood called “byebee”, in which older members become big brothers to younger or junior members. For instance, a boy of 15-20 years old becomes big brother to 10-14 years old boy. The byebee protected the smaller brother and served as a role model. But others, who did not understand Kru tradition, viewed byebee negatively as big-stupid, uneducated, tough-looking and low-class. Regrettably, this stereotype affected some Kru youngsters growing up in the cities up to the 1970s. Generally such stereotype and cultural negativity forced many other tribal youth to deny their ethnic background for acceptance into the Western culture and society of the settler ruling class. They were ashamed speaking or did not care learning their native languages.

The Kru men are generally fishermen. They were also seafarers. Some served in the Royal Navy during World War ll, 1939-1945. Because of their work on ships and their adventure, many have travelled over the world and have settled and helped build communities outside of Africa. Poet Maya Angelou acknowledged the contribution of the Kru in her poem, “On the Purse of Morning”, which was read at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.

I give this historical and cultural review in part to refute the thinking that Liberia and Liberians of culture have no traditional value and contribution worthy of pride. And another part is to state Martha’s roots and give homage to our traditional culture and heritage. Martha Mlah Nyanfore was part of that culture. It was in her DNA. She was a Dagbayonoh Nyanfore, a Kiah Nyanfore and James Nyanfore. No one could and can take that from her. Though she, her other siblings and forefathers are no longer with us physically, their spirits live with us. We will always remember them. We will cherish them.

Back to dad’s migration and history, that is also a part of Martha’s history.

As stated earlier, daddy left Grandcess for education in Monrovia. In the city, he first resided in Old Krutown, now part of West Point, where Sister Boyonoh was born. Later he settled in New Krutown after the government broke down Old Krutown about 1945. I was born in New Krutown. He then moved to Claratown, where he built a house and my younger Sister Gbeh and Brother James were born. Martha and my other two sisters, Marylue and Comfort and brothers Nimely and Kronsiayon were born in Suakoko, Bong County when daddy attended Cuttington. Boyonoh, his first born, went to Sierra Leone as a little girl. She was the first of the children to live and school abroad. We spoke Kru at home and out. Father encouraged us to be proud of our ethnic background and to be fair and honest.

In and out of school campus in Suakoko, daddy was an advocate, standing for rights and justice, standing also for his principle and for what he believed to be true. He refused to accept the notion that African culture and people were inferior to Whites.

The school administrators and foreign professors, while praising him for his intelligence, were unhappy for his stance. They threatened to expel him from school.
Daddy’s advocacy was the side of him that he did not show as a young man in Grandcess and in his early days in Monrovia. There he was known as an easy going guy. As I grew up, I admired and appreciated him more. I admired his principle and style, He never told people that he was a prince or boasted of his royalty. He was neither about promoting nobility. Instead, he demonstrated the dignity by his honesty and integrity in his relation with people. Martha and the rest of us inherited this principle from him, a gift of legacy worth more than a crown, money and power.

As said also by the late Steve Jobs, one of the World’s billionaires, that while money and material possession is good, you cannot take your wealth with you when you die. What counts and matters in life is your relation with people, your love for family, friends and neighbors. “Treat everyone well and stay friendly with your neighbors”, Steve’s last words before he died.

Martha was friendly and loved people. She was an active and official member of the Victorious Faith Ministry, a neighborhood church, which I think she helped found. She lived few feet from the church in the Battery Factory neighborhood for over ten years and had a good relation with her neighbors. The pastor of the church preached at her funeral that she was not dead, has gone to be with God, creator of the universe. Her son Richard remarked at the occasion that death is an appointment of which time we do not know. We can be prepared by also being good to our family, neighbors and fellow citizens. Martha had asked me to build a house for the family whenever possible. She did not request for a house for herself, but for the family, showing love for family. It was my plan and desire, however, to help build a house for her. I regretted that I was unable to do that. I am sorry. I am also sorry that she and my other late siblings did not see Grandcess, the land of our forebears.

Daddy loved all of us his children. But Martha was his favorite. She was “his mother”, and of course, she was the blessed child. Martha attended Lotts Carey Mission, a private boarding high school in Liberia. She lived with uncle Richard Kpan, Ma Juah’s brother. He sponsored her high school education. Daddy was still ill and could not help.

Having being raised by a family member, Martha, as a girl, did not know some of her siblings. She told me of her first time meeting brother James. They did not know each other and were riding a passenger bus in Monrovia. James, with some friends, was singing and making noise. Martha told him to stop the noise and stop disturbing public peace. She and James got into an argument. When she got home, she narrated the incident to her uncle and added;

The boy whom I argued with looks somewhat like me; we have some resemblance.

James had felt the same way after the argument. Fortunately, few days after, she and the uncle saw James unexpectedly. When she pointed James out, the uncle said,
“But that boy is your brother”.

James and Martha hugged each other and cried with joy. God truly “works in a mysterious way”. They had respectively told the story many times.
Martha was an embodiment of father. Particularly, she had his eyes. She certainly fulfilled his dream. Besides carrying for her own children, she became the mother of the family. James’ children, Kronsiayon and Kiah, before coming to the US to be with their father, lived with her. She was their mother. Moreover, she became the mother of Marylue’s and Comfort’s children.

Martha’s death was a blow. Now she is gone, Boyonoh is the only sister left of the children. In 2014 and 2015, Martha, Gbeh and I survived Ebola in Liberia. But few months after the epidemic, Gbeh suddenly died. We were heart-broken. She died when I was ill and was not working. Nevertheless, we managed to bury her. Her life was also a sad one: she lived in an old rundown zinc shack, a one room structure with six children in New Krutown, I wrote of her condition in an article entitled, “Who or What Killed My Sister in Liberia?”

Now Martha followed. Like Gbeh, she never begged for help or looked pitiful and destitute. She stood her ground on issues just like daddy. She stood with me during my illness and cooked for me. With all the deaths, things have not been easy with us. However, we shall rise again in Jesus name. Our children’s children shall lead the way. They shall pass on the legacy of dad. They, together with other concerned Liberians, will fight poverty and stand for rights and justice and create a society where all Liberians will live a better life. And when that happens, Martha’s spirit and of all those gone before her would smile and would say,

“Thank you”.

At Martha’s funeral I said goodbye, farewell. Yes though she did not have money and lived in poverty, she lived with dignity, self respect and love. She lived with principle, honesty and integrity. She was an African princess. I will miss her dearly. I will always remember her!

May her soul rest in peace and may it lie and sleep in the bosom of our ancestors.

Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II lives in Washington, DC and can be reached at