“Our stories have been carried across oceans to reach you”
In the mainstream films we are used to, stories rarely begin with “once upon a time, four African women were giants” and they soothed the wild beasts of war with their influence and their music. There are no fairy tales with heroines named Fatu Gayflor, Tokay Tomah, Zeye Tete and Marie Nyenabo; no magical land called Kendejah where songs and dances and community are crafted and nurtured; no scenes that depict how these heroines risked themselves and their art by demanding an end to the destruction of their people and their home; asking soldiers and warring factions to sing, pray and cease—to lay down weapons and tribalism and embrace peace.
We live in a world where giants quietly go about their lives in a strange new country, making a living out of what small thing the new land has to offer them; miles and years removed from their homes in Liberia. We, kinfolks and strangers, mothers and sisters, brothers and fathers, sons and daughters, dwell among these women, not really knowing the core of them, not knowing the enormity of their stories until we receive a gift. The gift is an invitation to come see a film, to come bear witness, to come share a meal, to come and hear them in full color, in moving picture; to come and affirm their history projected in front of us, captured forever on screen. So we arrived. We gathered and ate, and watched and asked questions and cried and most of all, we knew we could never ever again say, we didn’t know—we don’t know them.
We discover that the documentary is more than a movie, it is an homage to girlhood and womanhood and personhood and survival. Through the four women, it says, Because of the War, several detours were taken, but we are here now and our stories have been carried across oceans to reach you. It is so full that it can’t be contained in one song or dance or one drum beat because we have traveled through many lives to arrive here. The women tell us, our stories have a beginning and many endings, and you must be prepared to hear to them all.
1. They Came From Kendejah
Let’s consider the young women of the past and the thread that connected them. Most were part of a culture troupe that had spent years practicing and honing. When did they know they were artists? How did they know they would reach beyond their familiar surroundings to touch thousands, and through their actions, decades later, impact thousands more? Who considers the African girl in a place where so often patriarchy reigns? How does a girl know not just what to be, but who to be?
In Loma, in Krahn, in Gio, their youthful songs knew no tribes, no demarcation, no border, no separation. They were once girls who simply wanted to be artists.
Photo of the Girls of Kendejah
Royal crowns plaited
Narrow strips of hair
Rows of corn
Turned generous roads
Parted by knowing
A bevy of beauties
Limbs like water
No end, no beginning
Waves of sepia and ebony bodies
Wrapped and adorned in country cloth
Ebbing and flowing to melodic beats
A praise dance
A marriage song
New moon and harvest gathering
Summoning of Paramount Chiefs
and the nation’s President
Curtsying queens and First Ladies
Our girls of Kendejah were there
Faces like mine
Mimeographs of brown skin
Symmetrical peaks of cheeks
Directing the camera’s lens
Before the flash and click
We see a command
A warning in their eyes
Get This Right
They are saying
My sisters and I are tall
We are expansive
We are more than this canvas behind us
This frame is a holding place
We will expand it
Let this image say that
Do not tilt us
Do not trap us in your story of us
We are not contained
Tell them that.
We are expansive.
2. War—Screening with 12th District Police Officers
With steaming plates of jollof rice in hand and bites of rice bread, the audience of blue shirted officers reflect on and discuss the film. The strength of the women and their survival are the memories they are choosing to hold on to, are the parts they want to keep near as they go about their day policing the 12th district neighborhoods where other Liberians, mostly resettled, live, where Liberians who are piecing their lives together post war know about loss and survival. The officers now know what was sacrificed, what was endured and what will leave lingering scars for generations to come.
The officers now understand the necessity of respect and regard and with deep admiration they speak about the importance of sharing and informing and educating. In the women’s songs and stories, there is a lesson on humility, horror and history. One achingly speaks about losing a child, another laments the loss of innocence, and all of them mourn for a homeland that was so different before the war.
Someone speaks about the war they face each day on the streets of America, especially the war their young men and women face at the hands of the police. One of the women says to the officers, now that you know us, you will stop and think before you assume the worst about us.
What they don’t talk about is trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health and the impact that severe, persistent violence can have on a group of people. War is only the beginning someone says in the film, it’s all the things that come after, all of the things that one must do to piece together a life in its aftermath; but first, says another woman, you must understand the war.
This is What War Did
it ate up our country;
took sloppy greedy bites,
left crumbs and shells and scraps;
like temperamental electricity,
and a hallowed wasteland.
war munched on our country
it fattened the coffers of the big men,
gave them a new dusty playground
called abject poverty and fatherless daughters
and they passed their commodity among one another,
girls as tender as 13 and 14, supine on king size beds
war ravaged our country
entire families it gobbled up
and education too it chomped on
swallowed the doctors and professors
digested knowledge, rituals and traditions
chewed through the leaves of all the books
left us bloated illiteracy, unemployment and mortality rates
war slaughtered the industry and
drained our cupboards of compassion and humanity
dried the well of common sense and empathy
masticated the vigor of our youth
war reduced us
spat us out scarred
and left us mere vittles,
left us scarce rations
to recall a glorious past.
3. We Are Each Other’s Keepers—Screening with young Liberian American Women
Nervous laughter, warm embrace—we sit together to view our sisters on screen. But before, we make small talk; we speak about hair and food and fabric and how “it na’ easy” here for us in America, trying to make it in spite of what Sister Lucille Clifton said in her poem, won’t you celebrate with me, that everyday something has tried to kill us and has failed. When the lights dim, we are drawn into the lives of the four women, three of whom are beside us, breathing the same air, sharing the same space. We hear about it all. Everything they are and were and still hope to be is exposed on film. How they came to know that they were chosen to carry the tradition, how they found family and fame, how everybody knew their names and they reigned, it was all there and we puffed our chests in pride for our sisters.
Also in that same room, we cried together. We heard from our sisters about how one day, the sky opened and rained a hail of bullets and pain down, it tore into them—a gaping wound that threatened to silence them. But they are artists and they broke the day with their anti-war songs, made clouds of dust with their dances. When the lights came back on, a palatable sadness filled the air. What can we do now the young women wondered, how come no one taught us these stories? Why is our narrative limited to struggle? What are the stories of overcoming and jubilation? To the women they said, we will not forget you and we thank you for your stories. Then they asked a favor—teach us, bring us together like you once did. We need you to continue so that we can all go on. We are all in this place together, a generation apart, but very much the same.
The women spoke about betrayal. How a whole community have let their artists languish in near poverty. How America has taken on a a mean facade in recent years and a community needs to be there for its people. A community needs to nurture, protect, teach, hire, support and love its artists and its women. Now more than ever, Liberian people must love one another, they said, it is urgent.
The woman spoke about working multiple jobs to eek out a living. The opportunities are few and the wages aren’t sustainable. How can we go on from here? Who remembers our sisters? How can we carry a tradition and create a legacy if you have no resources, no community of believers who cradle you, who cradle the art of music and peacemaking? We have no answers, but we know that it begins with never forgetting and it continues with passing it on.
We are all trees here—poem for those who find themselves in this new place
They are talking about us mother
it’s us they’re talking about father
us three Sipo trees
one bent, with a third leg, a walking stick to steady,
another gaunt with gout and an eyelid that droops
and me who has swallowed this entire country
and now know its hypocrisy
we are the enemies
that’s what their placards say –
we watch it on television
the fat red face ones
the stringy hair ones
the ones in suits and pulpits
in schools and offices
with badges and gavels
the ones we feed and clean for
the ones we bathe and toil for
the ones with violent pens
the ones with sewn lips
the placards do not discern
our army of accusers
have knighted a new leader
he is a bloated finger pointer
he has carved an I on our foreheads
I for in my country you will never be safe
I for ignoring that I snatched this land from others
I for I have invaded and ravaged your home land
and I won’t let you rest in this stolen land
I for Immigrant
and all of us are lumped as one
all of us are trees in this woodland
and every day somewhere in this place there is someone brandishing an axe.
There is someone chipping at our base
There is someone wanting to topple us.
4. To Own Your Power
The heroines in this narrative prance in colorful lappa suits and dresses—floating from one engagement to the next. They smile from the inside, from their core, and the glow is warming. They are movie stars and film makers. They are speakers and facilitators. They are event planners and hostesses. They are writers and producers. They are powerful and they know it.
Because of the War, we can name and acclaim these four African women—Fatu Gayflor, Tokay Tomah, Zeye Tete and Marie Nyenabo, and never forget.
Say her name
Say her name
Let it slide out of you like consecrated nectar
Say her name like a supplication
Let it grace your lips like sacred psalms
Say her name like a proclamation
In every line, you gotta’ decree her
Say it like that rhythm in her hip
all mysterious and mesmerizing
Say it like that crown atop her head
Bejeweled and Bad assed
Adorned and decked out
Like your parched throat
Been quenched with her water
Like your feverish brow
Been cooled with her breath
Builder of people and places and possibilities
Fixer of wretched, wounded and wayward
Lover of men of women of babies of beauty
Owner of joy and peace and her – self
Generator of protest and justice and fire
Say her name like a mantra
Over and over until the breeze chants it back
Over and over
Until she ceases to be called out of her name
until she can freely claim what is hers
until her body is not a political agenda
until her sexuality is not wanton fodder
until her intelligence is not marginalized
until her color is not snubbed and slighted
Until she stops getting less wages
Until she is no longer called
poor, low class, no class, no count
Say her name until there is no more
She’s good for a woman
She’s smart for a woman
She’s acting like a man
Because she’s glorious
Because you bask in her awe
Because her light breaks through the dusk
Because her dawn is a morning song
Say her name
Over and over
Until this world bellows it back
Until it bends knees in homage
Until it graces our lips
Like a supplication
Like a sacred psalm
5. Remembering Tokay Tomah
One of the women left us too soon, unexpectedly, gone from us,
but she is captured and held forever in time and space.
Something has been left behind for her children and grandchildren to witness.
They will know the velvet of her voice.
They will see her mouth singing sweetly
and relish in her determined and mesmerizing dance.
They will know her voice called for disarmament and the people listened.
They will know her heart called for change in her Liberia.
They will know that she was here and she left her mark.
They will know that the great Tokay Tomah lived!
sounds like a lullaby –
we sing your praises.
each day you are a sweet
melody in our mouths.
We thank you for the magic and memory.
We applaud you for your artistry.
We celebrate you for the lessons gained.
In your peacekeeping efforts,
You were a shield on stormy days
A life line in troubled waters
A balm when the pain was too much
Tough talk when there was doubt
Soothing serenade when no words needed to be said.
Sweet woman of Liberia,
A feast for the eyes
A precious prize
A rock of strength
Queen of Soft and tender
You reign in our lives.
You have been our music
in forever rotation
in all our days we are missing you.
All of the women spoke about wanting to give back, wanting to remember that despite the war, they survived. They acknowledged that now they have a beautiful memory in the form of a documentary. A documentary that was so lovingly put together. A documentary that held them and their narrative in a powerful and compassionate way so that they could tell their story.
Every viewer said thank you, said that this film needs a wider reach, bigger audiences and should be used as a tool to teach and inform, to share and to enlighten. Because of the War has many audiences yet to discover. It will touch more Liberian youth and young adults, police officers, neighbors, friends, strangers and kinfolks for years to come. The women didn’t want anyone to forget that they survived because of love and faith, because they love their people and their homeland enough to say, we can do better and be better. In every complex human story of struggle, there is also beauty and triumph—there is always a balance.
We made the perfect challah and palm butter in the coal pot,
turned small talk into meaningful conversations in the palaver hut,
made a familiar song out of the rain drops tapping on our zinc roof,
All this we have not forgotten.
Uniforms were starched and pressed, and in school we never doubted ourselves.
Jobs were scarce but fathers always left in the morning to go there.
The war was bloody, but we cleared the remains and wash away the residue.
All this we won’t forget.
Forgive us our distance.
We are coming back to you one day.
We are hoping to bring something to show you
that our leaving wasn’t all in vain.
We are coming back
for good, for only good
we will come back.