Ethnic Origin

Origin of the Dey

According to legend, a man called Baa Gaa Volen Bili was the father of the Deys; he had two sons, Baa Gaa Gao and Baa Fai. Baa Fai was the first Propro Kan of Gawlon, or the original grand Master of the Dey degree of Poro.

These ancestors lived on Bilisue, or Cat Mountain, which is today Maban Point on Cape Montserrado; it is said that wild cats lived in this region until twenty years ago.

Baa Fai had a son called Baa Jiiwa, who went to Gawen and founded Dian Town; the place he settled in is known as Dian Kambele. The Maban, a Bassa people on the eastern side of Monrovia, also originated on Cat Mountain.

This legend, which locates the Dey’s place of origin as being on the very coast, suggests that they and other members of the same maritime linguistic group came to the Grain Coast by a water route.

The Dey have well-formulated fishing methods and are related to the Kru, Bassa and the Grebo peoples by language: they are thought to be a western extension of the Kru group. They Dey have been on the coast for several hundred years, but the date of their arrival is uncertain.

Development of salt manufacture by the Dey brought them power, wealth, and a series of wars with neighboring groups, particularly the Gola. As a result of warfare and intermarriage with such groups the Dey have lost much of their original strength and identity, but those who remain are vigorous and progressive and have learned to reap their harvests on land as well as from the son.

The late Elder Bala Setuma, a renowned leader of the Bolon Society, once summed up his philosophy of religion in this manner:

“Koon mae bolo men ji ko se kpela bele?”

“Has a belief ever came to a people who were not non-believers?”

That is, any religion finds fertile ground in a land which lacks religion. In this he alluded to Christianity and Islam, the only two great religions with which he was familiar. Either of these two religions, he asserted, might be right; and perhaps both were wrong.

God, whose existence Bala Setuma did not doubt, had his own standards by which to judge the merits of such religions; but the standards he used were wrapped in mystery and speculation, and in their arrogance with Christians and Moslems interpreted their own standards as being those of God.

God might consider the Christians were wrong, or the Moslems wrong, or both; and if he, Bala Setuma, subscribed to one of those religions he might identify himself with a lost cause.

Therefore he preferred to be neutral, locking to his own heart to find what truth he could; and he was prepared to be judged accordingly.


How Hare Asked God for Wisdom

Hare went to god to ask for Wisdom.

“I am a small animal,” he said, “and in the forest are many animals larger and stronger and fiercer than I. Therefore I must have wisdom if I am to survive, and I beg you for this gift.”

“I will see to it,” said God; “but you must do three things. The first thing you must do is to bring me two of leopard’s teeth dripping with blood.”

“I will try to do this,” said Hare, and he hurried off wondering how this thing might be done. He invited Leopard to dinner that night, and late in the evening when Leopard yawned Hare said:

“You have very beautiful teeth, Leopard. No other animal has teeth so long and strong and white as yours.”

Being vain, Leopard opened his mouth even wider, and as he did so Hare picked up a club and hit Leopard in the mouth. Two teeth fell out. Hare snatched them up and ran away before poor Leopard could recover; he went back to God and gave Him the two teeth, dripping with Leopard’s blood.

“Only a wise man can take two teeth from a living leopard,” God declared. “The second thing you must do is to bring me the most poisonous snake in the forest.

Hare hurried off wondering how he could capture the most poisonous snake in the forest. He cut a long straight stick and put marks on it, then went around the forest measuring animals. Some of the animals thought he must be a little mad, but he did not mind. The most poisonous snake in the forest saw him doing this and asked:

“What are you doing, Hare?”

“I am measuring all the animals. God has asked me to find out who is the longest animal in the forest.”

“I think I am the longest. Measure me.”

Hare placed his stick beside Snake. He tied Snake to the stick at each end and in the middle, and said:

“You are the longest animal, Snake. I will take you to see God,” He carried him to God.

“Well done, Hare,” said God. “Only a wise man could have brought me the most poisonous snake in the forest. Now you must bring all the little birds. That is your last task.”

Hare built a strong cage and went to the little birds.

“Snake says he is going to eat you all tonight,” he said.

“I have made you a strong house. Sleep in there, and you will be safe.”

The little birds believed him, and fearing Snake they all slept in the cage that night. Hare closed the door and took the little birds to God. God smiled.

“Hare, any one who has as much wisdom as you have needs no more. Therefore go back to your place, and never ask for wisdom again.”
Hare had been too clever, as people sometimes are.


The Deadly Oracle

The Chief of the land was Ozeky, and his daughter was the wisest of all women. Her name was Tua, and she knew all things and such as the breadth of her wisdom that she became an oracle. The Chief announced that any man who asked a question which she could not answer would be given half the chiefdom; but if the question was well answered he would die.

By river in this land a woman lived with her three sons; they were poor, and rarely had enough to eat. The oldest of the three sons said:

“Mother, I go to win half Chief Okaku’s chiefdom; I shall ask Tua such a question as even she can never answer.”

“My son,” she said, “think well before you go. Wiser men than you have died already.”

But he went. He said to Tua:

“What causes Nefegboi, the yard snake, to bite a man?” The meaning of this was: What is the common cause of a man’s misfortune? Tua answered him:

“Because Nyimi, the black snake, hangs something on that man’s throat.” This meant: Because a man is often betrayed the loose tongue of a friend.

The oldest of the three sons died. The second son them came and said:

“Before God we are fools. What causes the vanity of men?”

Tua answered him:

“Tintala the cricket depends on heat to give a Bolon cry, and all heat comes from God.” The Bolon cry is a signal used by the Bore Society; and the answer meant: Men depend on emotion when they boast and man’s emotions are made by God. The question had been answered and the second son died.

The youngest of the three sons then begged his mother that he might go to Tua, but she would not let him go.

“If you want to be killed I would rather see you die before my eyes,” she said, “thank think of you lying dead in a distant place.”

He begged her day and night for permission to go to Tua, and after man weeks she grew weary and resigned to his early death.

“If you must go, my only so in, then go, but unwillingly I say it. Your brothers have died and so will you, and there will be nothing left.”

She made dough from crushed corn and cooked it with strong poison, and gave it to him for food along the way; for she would rather bury him herself than have him die in a distant place. The young man set out with his dog, and when he came to the river nearby he sat down to wait for the ferry-canoe to come. He took out the corn cake and gave a piece to his do. The dog ate, and died.

“Dead?” the young man muttered. “Is this an omen? It would seem to be an evil one.”

He put the dog in the river. An eagle flew down and alighted on the bloating body. Bird and dog drifted down the river out of sight. The young man went to Tua, and he said:

“Dough killed dog, and the dead carried the living. What does this mean?

Tua considered the question for three days, and could find no answer. The third son lived, for the death of his dog had saved him. Chief Ozeky gave him half his lands, and he mourned his brothers but lived in peace and plenty with his mother until she died.


How a Fisher Boy Became a Chief

A fisherman called Nagu lived near the sea with his wife, and they had a son called Bai. Bai was their only child and they loved him with all their hearts.

When Hungry Season came Nagu went forth each day to fish in the sea from his canoe, for at this time there was little food to be had on land. There came a time when he fished for many days and caught no fish, and his family was starving; but once he knew not other trade he kept on fishing, hoping that his luck would change.

One weary day when he had fished for many hours in vain he began quietly weeping. A mermaid swam close to his canoe.

“I have heard you weeping,” she said. “What is your sorrow?”

“Bad luck is with me, and my family starves,” said Nagu. He was not at all surprised to see a mermaid. He would have been astonished if she had been a fine fat fish.

“What will you give me if I change your luck?” she asked.

“Anything you want.”

“Will you give me the first creature who comes to meet you when you reach the shore tonight?”

“That will be my little dog,” Nagu thought to himself. The dog always ran barking down the beach to greet him. He was fond of the animal.

“Well, he said reluctantly, “I will do that.”

The mermaid disappeared, and thereafter every time Nagu cast his net he snared a multitude of fish so that his canoe was soon quite full. He rejoiced and set out for him home, and when he drew close to the beach his son came down to meet him. Bai, his only son. Nagu remember his promise to the mermaid, and his heart was sick with despair. That night when his family was feasting happily he could not hide his grief, and was obliged to tell them of the promise which he had given in return for the load of fish.

“If you go to the mermaid, son,” he said, “she will destroy you.”
“Then I will leave the coast,” Bai said. “I will go out into the world and se what fortune life holds for me.”

“My blessing goes with you, my son. Be careful crossing water, for the mermaid will not rest until she gets you.”

Bai set out into the world next morning. He traveled far. Whether than cross broad rivers he kept among the mountains, where the rivers are young and clear and hold no secrets. In the high place he came upon an eagle, an ant and a lion who were quarreling over the body of a deer. They saw Bai and said to him:

“Man, please divide this deer for us. We can reach no agreement.” Bai gave the red meat to Lion, the offal to Eagle and the bones with their sweet marrow he gave to ant; and the three of them were pleased.

“You are good,” said Lion. “Take this claw of mine. If you should ever find yourself in danger just say ‘from a man to a lion,’ and you will become an eagle.”

“You are kind,” said ant. “Take my blessing. If you ever wish to be a small, small thing just say ‘from a man to an ant,’ and you will become an ant.”

Bai traveled on until he came to a fair country, and here he entered the service of the Chief as a herdsman. In this land there dwelt a monster, and the only way to keep it from destroying towns and crops was for the Chief to give one of his children to the monster every month. No mere man could kill the monster, and the people of that land now lived in fear, for the Chief had but one child left. She was the best and most beautiful of his daughters, and as she was his favorite he had kept her while he could.

Bai changed into an ant. He drew close to the monster and asked:

“Mighty monster, is it true that no man can kill you?”

The proud creature laughed. “Who wants to kill me must climb Garto Mountain and kill a lion, when catch the eagle there, and bring the eagle’s egg and burst it on my head.”

Bai went away and considered this: and when he saw the Chief’s only remaining child was the most beautiful young maiden he had ever seen, he made up his mind. That night he entered her room as an ant and then resumed his normal form. She was astonished to see him there, but since he was a handsome youth with gentle manners she was not alarmed.

“Why have you come?” she asked. “My father must not see you here, or he will kill you!”

As he gazed upon her beauty he fell more and more in love; and she, in turn, was drawn strongly to him.

“Next month you must die,” he said, “Unless the monster is somehow killed; and I possess a secret whereby he may be killed. Give me strength to do the things which must be done.”

“How shall I give you strength?”

“Give me your love, and I shall not fail.”

She looked into his eyes, and was content with what she saw. She rose and went to him. “I give you my love,” she said. “Be strong, be brave; I know you will not fail.”

In the morning Bai changed to an eagle and flew to the summit of Garto Mountain; and there he changed into a lion. He met a lion there, and they fought; and after several hours of savage, snarling battle Bai found that he had won. He rested for a while and bathed his wounds; then he changed into an eagle and flew into the sky to fight the eagle he saw there. Three times this eagle better him to earth; each time Bai remembered the love which the daughter of the Chief had given him, and found it cried out:

“Ho, monster! I come from Garto Mountain, where I took an egg from the belly of an eagle, and now I am about to throw it on your head!”

The monster ran round and round in the forest trying to escape, but Bai dropped the egg on his head and destroyed him.

Bai wedded the Chief’s daughter and inherited rich lands, and sent for his own parents to come and live with him. But the mermaid still searches for him, and this is why sometimes a handsome lad who goes to sea in his canoe does not return.


The Forest Can Talk

Two hunters went into the forest one night with spears, and a burning branch to give them light. They went to a place where animals came at night to drink, hid themselves in bushes and put out their fire stick. They held their spears in readiness and listened intently. In a little while they heard an animal say:

“I smell hot charcoal.”

“You’re always smelling something,” said another.

The two hunters flung their spears in the direction of the voices:

But when they looked they found they had only spared two trees. They marveled that this be – for surely it had not been the two trees which they heard talking.

They heard the voice again, as soft as a baby’s sigh:

“If you listen, you can hear the forest talk.”

And of course you can.


The Antbag and the Hunter

There is a little animal called Antbag who lives in the palm-nut tree. It has a long tail and a round body, and rolls up into a tight round ball when an enemy approaches.

One day a hunter went out to hunt meat, and he took his hunting dog with him. The dog had bells tied around his neck and the ringing of the bells would show which way the dog was running in the forest: for the hunter was a suspicious man, and did not trust his dog.

When the dog spied the Antbag up in the tree he barked and barked and rang his bells, calling to his master; and the Antbag became afraid and rolled itself up into a ball. when the hunter came he glanced up into the tree but could not see an animal, for the Antbag looked like a bunch of nuts; and he scolded the dog, called it a fool, and went to hung in another place.

But the dog continued barking, and another hunter came; this second hunter gazed long and carefully into the tree, then saw the Antbag there and shot it. He gave the dog his share and went away; and the dog rejoined his hungry master with a belly-full of meat.

Senseless men will often scorn the sense of faithful friends.


The Terrible End of Catfish

Catfish and Rice Bird were once firm friends. One day Rice Bird said:

“I just saw a farmer cut a hole in the top of a palm wine tree, to catch wine in a bowl. Let us go and steal some.”

“It would be nice,” Catfish agreed, “I am tired of always drinking the same old thing. But you know I cannot fly.”

“I will lend you feathers,” Rice Bird said.

He gave Catfish almost half his feathers, and they managed to fly up to the top of the wine palm, where they drank wine. Then Catfish returned to the river, and gave Rice Bird back his feathers. Thereafter they would fly up to the palm and drink whenever they wished.

There came a time when they drank too much. They became very, very drunk, so drunk that they could hardly move, and while they were lying in the bowl the owner of the wine came. He began to climb the tree.

Catfish and Rice Bird stopped their singing and listened. The farmer climbed closer. They became scared. Rice Bird knew that he could not fly now with only half his feathers, for he was too foolish and full of wine: so he pulled his feathers from Catfish, despite the tearful protests of his friend, and managed to flutter away.

Poor Catfish lay there helplessly in the bowl, sobbing and sobbing. The farmer found him there, and was so astonished to find a fish in his wine bowl at the top of a palm that he almost fell down again. But eventually he just shrugged, carried Catfish home and put him in a pot to cook.

As Catfish was cooking he sadly sang a song: “Sometimes a friend does not intend to help one faithfully. Those with such friends will meet their ends and terrible ends they’ll be.


The Maiden Who Wedded a Sea-Demon

Old men tell of a noble chief who possessed a daughter of surpassing grace and beauty, and called Tola. She was a maiden both talented and fair, as lovely as a rising moon and tutored well in wifely skills, as was the custom of those times; but, over-proud of her perfection and deaf to her father’s wish, she refused to marry any many with a spot or blemish on his skin.

Her father sent messengers and envoys to countries near and far, searching for a perfect man to mate his perfect daughter; from far and near came princes, chiefs, the sons of chief’s, great warriors and youths of noble birth to suffer close inspection and in turn be turned away. Many tried to hide their defects but in this they failed: for Tola had a devoted brother, as warped and ugly as she was beautiful, and out of love for her he would change himself into a fly and spy the imperfections of her suitors.

She refused them one and all, for all who came had scars, or moles, or wounds, or warts, or other and worse things. And the rat of unrequited love gnawed the hearts of those who saw her.

A demon who dwelt in the ocean depths heard of Tola’s exceeding loveliness, and made up his mind to have her. Using gentle and fine persuasion he borrowed the soft and flawless skin of the Sea Goddess herself, and with a long canoe fully laden with such treasures as pearls and precious shells and pounds of gold he journeyed to the shore.

When she heard another rich and handsome man had come to ask her hand, Tola sent her brother (as a fly) to see if this new stranger had spots, or sores, or birthmarks. Her brother found the stranger preparing himself to meet the chief, dressing himself in costly clothes and ornaments and anointing himself with the fragrant juices of sweet herbs.

The fly buzzed around and around, searching the suitor’s ears and legs, belly and chest and back for even the smallest blemish; but the skin of the Sea Goddess had none, and in deep wonder the ugly brother returned to his sister to report.

“O Sister,” he announced, “this stranger’s skin is perfect. There is no pimple, spot, or any mark. His skin is whole and pure, and beautiful to see!”

“Then he is the first, “ she said, and calmly added: “I shall marry him.”

But her brother was wise beyond his years, and devotion for her sharpened his natural wit.

“Beloved sister,” he began, “take care! Take time! There is something strange about this man I cannot yet define. He has an evil air. I feel he is —.”

“Be quiet!” she commanded with quick temper. “Who are you to judge a perfect man, or speak against him? A crooked, twisted, hare-lipped creature such as your should learn to keep his place. And besides, “in wistful and more gentle tones, “I have been maiden long enough.”

The demon from the sea entered the Chief’s great court, splendidly dressed and bearing find presents for the Chief; and sadly the old man listened to the young and handsome suitor. At length he said:

“O man, it seems to me you are a fine and worthy fellow; but my daughter will not have you. She is a proud and disobedient girl, and nothing I can say will help you. She will not marry you, or any other man.”

But at that moment Tola came, straight and slender as a palm, exquisite as a dewdrop flaming with dawn’s early light.

“O Father, who is this man?” “He is a prince from a distant land, my daughter, come with the finest gifts and asking for your hand.”
When she saw the demon to be more than twice as handsome as those who came before, her heart was made light with sudden love and she said at once:

“Then give my hand, O Father, and let him marry me!”

The Chief rose from his seat in joy to embrace both his daughter and the demon. He shouted for his heralds, and proclaimed a Day of Days. He seated the stranger at his side and sent urgent messengers through the land to lesser chiefs to attend a Week of Weeks; the city dressed in gaiety and splendor for a festival surpassing any festival which ever went before.

From towns and villages men came with gifts, hunters searched the forests for red meat, palms were tapped for wine, great cooking fires appeared and the leading dancers and musicians of the land were summoned to perform.

Thus it was that the lovely Tola was married to the demon from the Under Sea. And her ugly brother grieved alone, and wondered what it was which made him grieve.

Now, some men lie and others shuffle words, but this I say in truth: the joyful Chief gave the married couple one whole river with its valley, cattle and goats which ten men could not count, and not one town but two whole towns of servants.

And yet in a week and a day the pair departed on their journey to the stranger’s ‘distant land’.

They traveled down to the coast and entered the demon’s long canoe, with silver and gold and treasures which the Chief had given them; and as he paddled to sea with his bride the demon sang a song:

“Pa Ma wei lei, ma ya pa; Pa Ma a li e!”

The name of the demon was Pa Ma, and the song he sang was:

“Pa Ma is going , going far away; Pa Ma sings farewell, forever!”

And every time he came to the ‘wei’ part he paddled more strongly, as people do, so that the canoe sped swiftly and more swiftly out to sea.

When they were far at sea and winds began brushing water from the waves, he said magic words and the ocean opened to them: much to Tola’s horror and despair the canoe descended rapidly to the gloomy world of the Under Sea . . . and there, long frightful shadows and slimy things which crawled and slithered, the demon shed the soft skin of the Sea Goddess.

He was hideous to look upon, a scaly thing with cruel eyes. Tola shrank from him in fear and disgust and tried to run away: but with scabby claws he seized her, dragged her to the entrance of a silent cave, and into the dismal shadow-world inside.

Nights passed. Night succeeded night, for in the Under Sea there are no days, there is not sufficient light. The daughter of the noble Chief existed in mortal fear of the sly demon, and of the shadowy Shapes which watched her every move. Her one friend was the mother of the demon, who one day said to her:

“Child, you are both beautiful and tender-hearted; what are you doing here? Why did you come? My son is cruel and wicked, even more so than I: many are the girls he has lured here from the land . . . and he has destroyed and devoured them all. Surely this will be your fate. I fear for you!”

From this moment the poor bride lived in hourly fear of both; she wept, she sobbed, she prayed, she would not eat; and then, after days of sobbing, weeping, praying, and not eating a fly buzzed gently by her face.

A fly? But there were no flies in the Under Sea. She ceased weeping and looked up to find her ugly little brother standing by her side. Her eyes grew wide in wonder and delight.

“Oh, beloved brother! Oh, how did you —?”

“Hush, let us waste no time,” he urged her. “I traveled with you in the canoe, for I feared something evil might happen to you. I have discovered the demon’s magic box. The canoe is waiting. It is time to go!”

She rose and went with him. Hand in hand they ran through dark tunnels curtained with waiving seaweed, through rocky places where sea-animals on thin legs clicked and scuttled, and past the gaping mouths of caves, and came to the canoe. Her brother had stolen the demon’s box of magic secrets, and now as they sat in the canoe he said certain magic words and the canoe bore them up to the ocean surface.

They paddled to land singing the demon’s song backwards, and every time they came to the ‘wei’ part they paddled more strongly than before, as people do, so that the canoe sped swiftly and more swiftly to shore.

So it was that they made their way back to their own land, where they were received with treat rejoicing. The Chief’s family held a long and happy palaver and Tola married a loyal and devoted warrior of her father’s choice. She bore many sons; and she loved and respected her ugly, twisted little brother for the strength of his heart and the power of his chivalry.


The Two Cripples That Decided to Commit Suicide

In a village there dwelt two young men, one of whom was blind and the other lame. As champions in adversity they would sit together in the market place and beg for food; but the more fortunate villagers ordered them to leave and find their living in another place.

The blind man used his sound legs to carry his friend into the forest, and the lame man used his eyes to direct his companion along the road. When hunger came to them the lame man saw a bowl of palm oil in a tree, and instructed his blind friend to climb up and steal it.

The blind man climbed the tree and took the bowl, but fell with it, so that the two men were soaked in the stolen oil: and they discussed what they should do.

“If people find us they will kill us,” said one, “for we have stolen oil.”

“It is little difference whether we are killed or starved to death,” observed the other.

“Ours will be a cruel and bloody death,” the first insisted, “if people find us here.”

“Then since we must die anyway, let us drown ourselves.”

They both agreed to this, and went down to the river. When the lame man saw the dark and uninviting waters he felt afraid; but he also saw a large stone at his feet, and said to his companion:

“I will be the first to jump into the river.”

“Well and good,” the blind man said. “I bid you fond farewell; we will meet in heaven or in hell.”

The lame man then took the heavy stone and threw it in the river. There was a loud splash, and then silence. The blind man waited for some time, and a thought came to his mind: ‘when a man drowns in a river one usually hears the sounds of struggling; yet I have heard but a single splash. Has my friend jumped in, or did he only cast a stone? I do not wish to die alone.’

Now, the Spirit of the River was looking on this scene with some amusement, but neither of the men could know this. The blind man heard a slight sound at his side, and beat in that direction with his stick. He hit his friend.

They started fighting. They rolled about upon the river band, scratching, hitting, kicking, biting, till dust arose in clouds and small creatures fled in dear. The River Spirit laughed and laughed, for such a thing he had not seen in years: and with a word he gave the blind man sight, and healed the lame man’s legs.

When the two men realized what had taken place they were once more friends; they returned to their village and labored side by side for a whole year. The fruit of the labors they offered as a giant sacrifice on the river bank, and lived in happiness and wealth until they died.