The Origin of the Mah and the Gio

They sat in a round thatched house in Gbloyi town, hard by Liberia’s northern border; outside twilight was knitting the shadows into night, and inside the house firelight lacquered the arms and faces of a wise old man and a youth. The old man was Bai Tee, the oldest living member of the Mah group (commonly called Mano) and Keeper of the Banner, lean and stooped with age but a study of natural dignity and full with the richness of his years; he gazed into the fire and as memories crowded in upon him his slow words tolled the knell of years gone by. Konmah, a young, vigorous College student proud of his Mano ancestry, listened carefully and translated.

“We came,” the old man said, “from the northeast; from a far, far place which men now call Sudan. Perhaps four hundred years age, or five — no one really knows — there was a town up in Sudan called Beainfenten, and this was the town from which all Mano people came. In this town there lived two brothers who were strong warriors, and who therefore were respected by all men of that place; their names were Nyan and Sae.

“Men loved Nyan, although he was not rich; but even though was rich few men loved him well. Many strangers came to visit Nyan, and for the necessary feasts he would take cattle from his brother, and kill them; and Sae was vexed. Often and often Nyan took Sae’s cattle, so one day Sae told his sons to go with slaves to a certain far place, cut down the high bush there, and build a town; and this was done. Sae went to live with his wives, and his sons and their wives, and his slaves and their wives, in this new town.

“Nyan could now find no cattle to kill for the strangers who came to visit him, and he wondered what he should do. In his town of Beainfenten there was a man called San, and the family of San was also richer than Nyan’s own family. Nyan traveled to the east to a certain Wise Man, bearing gifts, and asked what he should do in order that his family might become richer than the Sans. The Wise Man said that he must sacrifice the leading member of the Sans, and only then would his family become richer.

“When Nyan returned to Beainfenten, Son of the San family asked him what the Wise man said, but Nyan did not want to reveal the answer at that time. He said:

“I must make a sacrifice. The answer is in me and concerns you, but it will not come out on my tongue just now.”

San said: “Give me one ram, and then make your sacrifice!”Nyan then took San into the forest to a lonely place, and the two men sat to rest in a shelter beside the path.

“O Nyan,” San asked, “what is the sacrifice you must make?”

“I must kill you, O San. That is the sacrifice.”

“I have lived, I am old, I must soon die: to kill me is nothing. Before you kill me, O Nyan, you must promise me that your family will always honor and protect my family, and your sons and their sons must see to it that my descendants never live in poverty, shame, or danger.”

“I agree,” said Nyan. “It shall be so.”

The old man then arose, took off his robe and said it on the ground, and he lay on it. Nyan killed him. He placed San’s head in a bowl of brass and carried it to Beainfenten, and there San’s family assembled and dug a grave in the center of the town. San’s head was buried, and precious stones were thrown on his grave; Nyan killed four cows and gave a feast for the San family, and ever since that day the Mano people have honored and protected his descendants.

“While those things were happening Nyan’s brother Sae had fallen sick in his town. His sons went to a diviner to ask what should be done, and the diviner said that Sae should make a sacrifice with four kola nuts. These nuts could not be found, although people searched in many places, until one of Sae’s sons went into the forest to hunt. While there he saw the hole of a possum (giant rat) and dug; he found and killed the animal, but also discovered four whit kola nuts. He took the nuts to Sae, who made sacrifice and became well. Sae therefore said to his family:

“The four white kola nuts from the possum’s hole have saved my life. the possum has been killed; let the animal be buried, and let no member of our family ever kill another possum.”
“His wish is honored to this day by his descendants.

“Thus there were at that time the families of Nyan, Sae, and San living in their town, and when Nyan and Sae were old with grandchildren a certain thing took place:

“Sae had three grandsons called Lomia, Zama, and Sanben, and he had also one granddaughter. Lomia became a great warrior and leader, but he broke one of the secret Poro Society’s laws, and people demanded that he be killed. The wise man and tribal elders all decreed that Lomia should die, but Sae was not willing that this should happen, and planned his grandson’s escape. When a meeting was held so that the matter could be discussed, Sae concealed Lomia where the young warrior could see and hear, discover his danger, and escape.

“Lomia fled that night, with his two brothers and his sister; other members of his family also went with him, and slaves his grandfather gave him. He decided to travel south and west in search of rich new lands, and adventurous young men of the San and Nyan families went with him. It was a strong and warlike band equipped for war which marched southwest from the Sudan; and many were the battles which they fought. They overcame the Ge and enslaved them, and brought them down to a river which was the Mani River of today. Here they fought and defeated the local people, and Lomia built a town called Napa (“Na” means my father, “pa” means town) near Mount Nimba.

“In time they crossed the river and build a town named Gumpa after Gum, who was Lomia’s favorite wife. This town is the important frontier town of Ganta today; it is the oldest town of the Mah, the traditional axis of defense and attack and the core of commercial enterprise.

“The San family settled in Sanniquellie; the descendants of Nyan keep their ancestor’s promise, and at any time a San man may enter a Mah house to find food and shelter. The Mano people will not permit any of San’s descendants to be hungry, in danger, or in shame. The remnants of the Ge, whom Lomia’s people had enslaved and almost absorbed, branched off to find land of their own and became the Gio. The Gio, Ge, Gwei, Gbe, Da and Ngere are all the same people.

“Lomia had a son called Fynia. Fynia was the boldest warrior in the land, and although in those days great warriors were natural tribal leaders he had no wish to sit in council — he preferred to fight. He became general of the Mano army and built a town called Gbloyi, this town is which we sit, commanding the road south southwest to the Kpelle. The Kpelle was a powerful neighboring people; fierce fighting persisted for many years between the Mah and these neighbors. With the aid of Sanbeh, Lomia’s brother, Fynia enslaved many of the Kpelle, and the descendants of these slaves now live on the eastern edge of Gio land at Tappita.

“Fynia’s son was another warrior-leader, called Membiasagbli. He was so fierce he would kill any stranger who entered Mah land, and many and great were his victories in war.

Membiasagbli is buried in Gbloyi town; a tall tree grew out of his grave, and all important local meetings are held under this tree, for any talk made under this tree is always sure of success.”

WRITTEN BY: Patrick