“Conquer or Die Trying.” ~ Motto of the Gbeto.
NTOABOMA — This story is not for the juvenile, neither is it for the faint-hearted. This is a story about warriors and blood and gore and women whose strength is equally frightening and exhilarating…
I remember watching her dance. In a move so elaborate, she tossed her sword and shield. Whoever she was fighting, her imaginary enemy, was struck down with the slashing swoops of her sword tumbling in the air. She picked up a rifle. Now she mimed holding a rifle because abruptly she shouldered and fired, reloaded her imaginary arm and fired again, imitating the sound of a salvo, all the way while on beat with the Gbe marshal arts rhythm, Atsiagbekor.
Her name was Mawi. She was not too tall, nor excessively muscular, but of course she was a beautiful woman, although just as old as my great grandmother. In Gbe, Ma-Wi translated as, “I, Will, Kill.” How she inherited her name is not very well-known except that she was born into a long line of warriors from Abomey. She was enlisted into Béhanzin’s Army in 1891 at the tender age of nine. Her great grandmother – a direct descendant of Houegbadja, founder of Dahomey – belonged to an elite club of hunters, the Gbeto who later became an elite infantry brigade of warriors.
Certainly Dahomey was noted for its women hunters. Indeed, the Gbeto comprised of several battalions of female hunters. In the 1850s, a French naval officer named Repin reported that a group of twenty Gbeto had attacked a herd of forty elephants, killing five tusked mammals at the cost of three hunters gored and trampled. The Gbeto chose to honor their heritage by naming their first battalion in the Kings Army the Elephant Terminators – Terminators for short. A second, more terrifying Gbeto battalion featured the elite of the elite: the Reapers, women who ditched their carbines and swords and chose to enter battle armed with nothing – no shields, no breastplates, nothing – but razor-sharp three-foot machetes that they wielded, one in each hand.
So imposing and minacious were the Gbeto that even when Mawi passed away, she wasn’t laid in state like any of the other dead who boys like me often saw when we sneaked into wake-keepings ceremonies for fun; sword in hand over one shoulder and a carbine on the other, she was upright on her feet as if ready for battle. The breathtaking image stuck with me. I remember tolerating numerous nightmares of that haunting image, for fear that if I stirred in fright, I would be kicked out of my great grandmother’s bed.
More petrifying than the imagery of Mawi’s funeral ritual was the story of her birth and baptism in the shrine of her great grandmother. At the age of seven Mawi was held over fire, and her own mother bellowed and made her swear that she would never be a friend of the French. “I swear as soon as age will permit. I will use fire and sword to arrest the destiny of the French,” she promised. “The French shall never have dominion over me or any part of our lands – over my dead body.”
Before 1891, Ntoaboma was not beyond the reach of the Gbeto. That is how Mawi’s mother met my great grandmother’s cousin. That is how Mawi became friends with my great grandmother. Mawi’s mother, a high ranking officer in Glele’s Army enlisted about the same time that my great grandmother’s cousin also enlisted. I understand they were great friends, not that members of the Gbeto weren’t instant comrades by consecration; this was, however, organic – I fathom – especially after one, I am not quite sure which one, saved the other’s life in one of Dahomey’s several attacks on Abeokuta. At the age of six I pretended I understood nothing. I usually stayed behind in my great grandmother’s living room after meals. That is how I came to know about Mawi, or rather, how I came to know Mawi’s story by eavesdropping.
I recall, from my great grandmother’s living room, Mawi recounting her mother’s exploits during one campaign in 1890 in which the Gbeto, some 4,500 strong at the time (the Gbeto later reached over 7,000 thousand warriors), attacked a state under French suzerainty. The Gbeto were always a terrifying sight—immaculately disciplined, barefoot and bristling with swords, carbines, cleavers, clubs and knives. This particular story had been told many times over by Mawi whenever she visited. Nonetheless, there was always something refreshingly bloodcurdling about the re-telling of the story that my great grandmother listened as if she had never heard it.
Anyway, the French governor of this town the Gbeto attacked tried to forfend panic by assuring the chief and the inhabitants that the French would barge in to protect them. Quite the contrary, the Gbeto assaulted the walls, set the city on fire, and rushed into the governor’s palace and beheaded him. Later the Gbeto found the chief clutching the tri-color French flag, screaming, “This will protect me!” Mawi’s mother approached and asked: “So you like the tri-color?” He replied in the affirmative. She shrugged. “Your choice.” At Mawi’s mother’s signal, one of the female warriors beheaded the chief with one blow of her sword. The Gbeto forced his wife to wrap up the severed head in the French flag, then delivered the bloody head still wrapped in the French standard to their Queenmother in Abomey.
A fearless general, Mawi’s mother commanded the Reapers Division – imagine a special force within a special force – of four hundred women armed with gleaming three-foot-long razors, each wielded two-handed and capable of slicing a man clean in two.
How do I know of the gleaming three-foot-long straight razors? Two graced the walls of my great grandmother’s living room in remembrance of the only Gbeto member, and the only Reaper for that matter, that this side of my family could recall. Mawi came back to Ntoaboma exactly because of this – to pay her special respects at the shrine of my great grandmother’s cousin, Adesi, who passed some thirty years since.
A cloudless sky lingered the morning of her visit, but by afternoon the sky teemed with heavy clouds. A looming downpour was evident. As the rains poured, she recounted the exploits of another battle in Abomey. Her eyes glistened and became sullen intermittently as she told the story of Dahomey’s maneuvers against French terrorists and their Yoruba mercenaries in Abomey.
The Gbeto of Dahomey were not the only imperial martial women of their time. Across Africa there were at least a few contemporary examples of successful warrior queens. Yaa Asantewaa of the Asante Kingdom was a delightful example. But the best-known was probably Nzinga of Matamba. One of the most important rulers in 17th-century Angola, she fought the Portuguese, quaffed the blood of sacrificial victims and kept a harem of sixty male concubines, whom she dressed in women’s clothes. The Gbeto were unique in that respect – just imagine over 7,000 Nzingas marching on your town!
If you were some ordinary conscript soldier hanging out around your barracks and you saw the Gbeto suddenly charge in your direction, screaming the war chants of their Mothers, with their muskets barking fire and their signature double-edged three-foot-long machetes gleaming light in your direction, you had one fleeting moment to overcome your crippling panic, defend yourself or set pace and run. Because if you didn’t, and I mean if you failed to run away, they would club you unconscious with a musket butt, drag you back to Abomey, chop off your head in one swing, boil the skin off of your decapitated face, and then use your skull to decorate the royal palace.
As the rains cleared and the lightning that brought deafening thunders subsided, the sun glimmered once more. The sand started to dry again. Then a reverberation of the Atimevu echoed in the compound of our family house, right outside the double doors that led into my great grandmother’s living room. The toning rhythms cast a shadow of a special event. Immediately, we knew my grandfather and his colleagues were getting ready for a full-dressed Astiagbekor performance that evening.
Mawi lifted her ailing body up from the armchair and picked up the two fighting swords my grandmother kept on her wall. My great grandmother followed in suit as if to provide Mawi with some ameliorating support for her rickety body. But to my great grandmother’s surprise, in tune with the reverberating rhythm, Mawi marched rather jauntily outside, lifting her knees for the very first time since I laid eyes on her. I followed too, wondering what was happening.
Out there my grandfather saw her for the first time that evening. No greetings were exchanged by mouth. Only by sight. Then my grandfather sounded his talking drums. It was a special rhythm that day. I had never heard it before. But the seriousness with which he played it could only mean it was reserved for extraordinary people. His rhythm acknowledged a warrior. Recognizing its significance, his colleagues sat up as commanded to greet a revered general.
The sounds of Atsiagbekor (a Gbe marshal arts rhythm) blurted out after the initial talking drum remarks.
Mawi had already straightened up, her face gingerly transfigured. She marched proudly. I was stupefied as my grandmother began to drift aloof, away from her. The sudden change in demeanor was abrupt and everyone’s face contoured the change as Mawi moved into the center of the compound.
As if still a member of the Gbeto, and considering an advance in silence, reconnoitering, she became transfixed on an inside wall on the compound. This was her first obstacle—an Atakpame wall with a pile of bramble branches, bristling with needle-sharp thorns, forming a barricade that prevented stray animals from tampering with last season’s harvest. She rushed furiously at the sound of a changing pace of Astiagbekor, ignoring the wounds that the two-inch-long thorns inflicted.
In a move so profound she scrambled to the top of the wall, turned around and jumped back down, simulating a hand-to-hand combat with an imaginary defender. She fell back, scaled the thorn wall a second time, then stormed into our small silo and dragged out an imaginary “prisoner.” She swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the head off the trunk of the prisoner. She then squeezed the blood off her cleaver and in a charged appellation to the Gods, swallowed it.
This was my first introduction to martial arts in general. More, this was the first and the last time I would see a unique fighting art performed with such prickling intensity and immaculate accuracy.
The drummers maintained a sturdy stoic Astiagbekor rhythm as Mawi began to prepare for her next maneuver. At this point the rest of the family gathered around clapping in tune with the rattles.
This was when I jumped onto the stage. This was when I seized my moment.
Mawi lay down on her belly and crawled on her elbows, both swords in hand, as if she was getting round a wall. She dropped the sword in her right hand, and in one quick move she picked up a shield – now she imagined a shield in hand.
In a swirling move with both feet lifted off the ground, she became erect, twirling in the air. Her cloth swung off laying bare the rest of her attire—bodice and an elaborate pantie. One of my aunties rushed and removed the cloth from the ground in an attempt to clear the space. Mawi was unfazed that she was now half naked. She contoured her body in a tiger jump maneuver and slammed her back to the ground. Not a grin on the face of this old lady.
Mawi was, for some reason, transfigured. Literally.
My grandfather played another break, and then another. The rhythm inched up in tempo. The syncopation reached a height, a crescendo.
Mawi leapt, pounced on another imagined enemy. She rolled on the ground in a furious hand-to-hand struggle and trampled the foe. With one hand she pinned him to the ground, and with the other she reached for one of the gleaming three-foot-long straight razors and stabbed the illusory foe with a painful shout – Ororeo!
Ororeo! “Hey!” the drummers responded in tow. Ororeo! Hey!
Her cries betrayed her effort, her age. She made a cutting gesture and stood up brandishing her trophy – a head. She shouted, “Frenchie!”
At this point, I was fully consumed with the syncopating melody of Atsiagbekor. Although at the gentle age of six I had no idea how to perform these moves, although the center of attraction here was this transformed, transfigured old lady into a fighting machine, I held my own nonetheless on the dance floor. I hopped on stage, a boy, just a child, mimicking every move Mawi made.
All the while my grandmother and the rest of the family stood shouting appellations and clapping to the tune of the rattles. Their arms undulated in praise for this old lady. In my mind I felt accomplished. I had shared this rare stage with Mawi, the woman about whom everything I came to know about her seemed stupefying.
My grandfather and the drummers inched the tempo, up and up and up again. I danced, changed every move in suit with Mawi. I also pinned my enemy to the ground. I stood as she stood. I brandished the head of my foe as she did, in admiration of her graceful movements.
In a sudden shift, Mawi intoned a song of victory and danced to a changing beat of a melodic Astiagbekor. Confused, I stood motionless – unsure how to adapt to this new tempo. She sung:
“You don’t kill me; I kill you. My name is Mawi. I am the Roaring Night. I have descended from Adagama. I have descended from Houegbaja. I am the daughter of Kenefia. The granddaughter of Mawi. My Mothers hunted this forest for millennia way before me. My name is Mawi. I am the Roaring Night. I am a Gbeto. This is my forest. And my daughters will hunt it with their daughters long after I am gone. The blood flows; You are dead. The blood flows; We have won. The blood flows. The French are no more.”
Suddenly she stopped in a daze. Her body bent, hunched over. How old she seemed now, older than before. She turned, faced me and started towards me with hesitation in her step. She knelt, hugged me as the rhythm wound down.
I could feel the palpitation of her heartbeat. I could smell her sweat – her old, sweet sweat, her distinct old lady lavinda. I could feel the heat oozing out of her ears with mine. My heart, too, raced to beat in unison with hers.
“MAWI!” my grandmother exclaimed. Mawi was a former warrior of the famed Gbeto, a supreme warrior who never surrendered. The French, the Frenchie, and their marauding mercenaries from Abeokuta and beyond never defeated her. They never overcame the Gbeto. The Gbeto remains an indomitable force – forever cast and hewn in stone.
She embraced me in a tight hug, as snug as an old lady could muster at her ripe old age, as if to hold me away from beckoning French terrorists. I could feel it. I could feel her frustration, her defeats, her pain. But I could also feel her resolve—that one day, a much finer fighting force of Dahomey’s women would rise again, if not from Ntoaboma from anywhere in our lands, and correct every wrong and enact their revenge on the Frenchie and their collaborators.
For Mawi, although the battles may have ended some many decades ago, she continues the war in her head. She still fights in spirit. She never forgets. She will not give up.
Never. Over her dead body!
The Gbeto fought bravely, battling the French in twenty-four pitched battles between 1890 and 1894.
As she held me, it was as if this was her time to hold me over that fire in the same way she was once held over it. As if to make me exclaim to Shango by force and with conviction: I shall never be friends with the French!
In that embrace, it was as if the entire account of the only all-female front-line combat corps in modern times flashed across my mind. It was hard to believe that I was held by a member of the Gbeto, the toughest women who tenaciously dedicated themselves by training, by ritual and by consecration into ruthless instruments of battlefield destruction. These were the machete-wielding, musket-slinging Reapers who were rightly-feared throughout the Western African coast for well over 250 years. Not only for their fervent devotion to battle, but for their utter refusal to back down or retreat from any fight unless expressly ordered to do so by the Mother of their King, the Queenmother of Dahomey.
Although we may yet live in an Africa so emasculated and so dominated by both internal sellouts, reprobates, coons, shaitans and an external marauding force of gluttonous petty thieves, I will always remember that earnest embrace from Mawi – the last of a dying breed of warriors who defended our lands. I, too, believe the battle never ended. I, too, I have received that message she passed to me in that warm, sweaty embrace, loud and clear:
Never. Over my dead body