Sierra Leone Antiquity

Madam Yoko


June 1885 to August 1906.

One of the highlights at the opening of Sierra Leone’s first Museum on the 10th December 1957, during Sierra Leone’s first Festival of the Arts Week, was a 25 in. silver statuette (on loan) of the late Madam Yoko of the Kpa Mendis. This was presented to her for services rendered by a grateful Government in 1906 and bears the following inscription.

Her life spanned the very difficult and eventful period of transitIon here, when the old order was giving place to the new and the old system of intertribal and internecine wars, led by warrior chiefs, well-illustrated in the “Caulker Manuscript” (Sierra Lecme Studies, old series, vols. ix—x), and culminating in the Bai Bureh War or Hut Tax Rebellion of 1898, was giving way to the new and more ordered system which started with the inauguration of the Protectorate in 1896. The former treaties, with subsidies between powerful chiefs and the British Government, intended to suppress the slave trade and to keep open the main trade routes to the Colony, had by the time of her death in 1906 been replaced by a settled government with the opening up of the country.
   Her rise to power had been greatly influenced by two factors common to everyday life in Mendi land, political and sociological.

In the first place, there is no “Salic Law” among the Mendis, and there have been many lady chiefs, styled locally as “Madam”. In the recent past and at the present one can call to mind the following “Madams”: Fangowa of Wando, Caulker of Shengeh, Humonya of Kenema, Gpanda Gbello of Leppiama, Nancy Tucker of Bagru (Sembehun), a succession of Messis of Messi Krim, Woki of Blama (Gallinas), Ella Kóblo Gulama of Kaiyamba (Moyamba), and the greatest of them all, Yoko of the Kpa Mendi Confederacy.
   The second factor is the existence of the widespread Women’s Institution or Society, the Bondu or Sande, and this is especially strong in Mendi Land. Like all primitive societies this society has its Medicine and rituals carefully hidden from the menfolk and through which the women in their own sphere wield almost as much power as the men; all men from the lowest to the highest chief fear and respect the Bondo Medicine and obey its ruling. If there is any infringement they come under the sway of the Bondo medicine, and can only be “washed” or freed by making propitiatory ceremonies as directed by the Soweh or head of the Society.
   Every female is a member of the Sande and soon after Christmas, the girls at about the age of puberty enter the “bush” and usually remain until after Easter and the beginning of the rains. Hereafter initiation they learn the Bondo law, the ritual dancing and all that will enable them to take their place as wives and mothers in the local Society at the cultural level at the time. In fact, this is the equivalent of a boarding school and is the only training and discipline they receive before becoming adults.
   Dancing plays an important part in the curriculum and the Bondo girls are much in demand at all local ceremonies (deaths, marriages, gathering of chiefs, entertaining of important strangers, etc.). Some girls are more proficient than others and these stay on in the “dancing” for many years and the best become as famous in their land as the Pavlovas in Europe.
   The exact date of Madam Yoko’s birth is not known but it must have been in the mid-Victorian era; she died at Moyamba in 1906.
  She was born in a small village not far from Tiama then, as it is now, a very important Kpa Mendi town. In due course, the family went over to Tiama and she was initiated into the Sande Society and soon became a very good dancer and in a few years the most famous. She then married the chief of Tiama. This chief was very friendly with Gbanya the chief of Senahun to the south-west of Tiama. When her husband died his great friend came over from Senahun to Tiama for the funeral ceremonies. At their conclusion, Gbanya asked the deceased’s family for something to take away in the memory of his friend. The family asked him to make his choice and he chose Yoko; so Yoko went with him, taking with her some of her people, including her brother Lamboi, who on her death succeeded her as Chief at Moyamba.
   About this time as the wife of a senior chief and for her prowess as a dancer she started her own Sandi Bush and it became famous in Mendiland, so much so that mothers strove to get their daughters into Yoko’s Bush, and, at the height of her fame when she ruled all the Kpa Mendi, to enter her Bush was locally the equivalent to being “Presented at Court “. She selected all the best young girls for her Bush and then disposed of them in marriage to the leading men who would help in her own advancement.
   At that time chiefs were sometimes shy of going in person to meet high officials from the Government and Chief Gbanya would send his very efficient and favorite wife Yoko to represent him and so in time she became well known over a wide area, and also in Freetown. Chief Gbanya was a firm ally of Governor Rowe as shown by the help he gave in the capture of Caulker and others in the Kingboro War.
   When Gbanya was dying, Parkes told Sir David Chalmers he had asked Rowe to make her chief after his death and Rowe did so.
   After Gbanya’s death, about 1885, Yoko (exercising to the full her diplomatic gifts and political acumen and continuing a firm ally and supporter of the Government in Freetown, especially at the time of the creation of the Protectorate in 1896, and the subsequent Hut Tax Rebellion of 1898 and its aftermath) steadily enlarged the extent of the territory she ruled, so that soon after her death the unwieldy Kpa Mendi Confederacy had to be broken up into its original fifteen separate chiefdoms. She had other consorts after Gbanya’s death; one of the most powerful being the late chief Thomas B. Caulker of the Bumpe section of the Caulkers.
  She never had any children and was very highly thought of and at times mentioned in dispatches by the Governors she came in contact with, namely: Rowe, Havelock, Hay, Flemming, Cardew, King Harman, and Probyn. She also had a great deal to do with J. T. Lawson whose official title was Government Interpreter, and his successor, J. E. C. Parkes, who became Secretary of Native Affairs, dealing directly with the Governor and carrying out all duties now exercised by His Honour the Chief Commissioner from Bo.
In conclusion here are two appreciations of Madam Yoko. The first is that of J. E. C. Parkes, a Sierra Leonean and Secretary of Native Affairs, who, in his evidence before the Chalmers Commission in 1898, said: “She is a remarkable woman; it is due to her force of character.”
The second is Sir Harry Luke, an Englishman who arrived in Sierra Leone as A.D.C to the Governor, Sir Leslie Probyn in l908, two years after her death and while the memory of her was still fresh. In the first volume of his Cities and Men, he writes: “There was the Mendi chief Fangowa of Wando and most important of all Madam Yoko of Kpa Mendi. By sheer ability and force of character, this resolute little woman had built up in the formative years of the country the biggest chiefdom in the whole Protectorate. Madam Yoko was not only a sagacious chief but a woman of a mentality unusual in members of a primitive race. At the height of her authority, she deliberately committed suicide because as she told her attendants just after drinking poison she had enjoyed to the full all that life had to give, power and love and now that old age had approached found that it had nothing more to offer her.”
(Note: the Kpa Mendi Chiefdom under Madam Yoko extended from Bauya in the West to Tabe in the East, and from the Timne chiefdoms in the North to the Banta and Shebro chiefdoms in the South.)

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