The Woman Wore No Underpants; A Tale of African Justice

(This is the second in a series of blogs where I recognize the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps by writing about my own experiences as a Volunteer in Gbarnga, Liberia, West Africa, 1965-1967. Here I tell about a trial by ordeal that could have happened in a medieval court.)

The Sassywood Man, a tribal judge in rural Liberia, obtained his name through use of a poisonous drink infused from the bark the Sassywood tree. The accused person was invited to take a sip. If he died, he was guilty. No DAs, lawyers, judges or juries were required.

Since modern society frowned upon trial by survival, the Sassywood Man had come up with new ways of determining guilt.  As it turned out, the father of one of my students was the local tribal judge and my ex-wife and I were privileged to witness an actual trial.

It started with Amani coming to our house at two in the afternoon on a blistering hot Saturday in the middle of the dry season. His father was about to start a trial. Would we like to see it? Absolutely, there was no way we would miss the chance. As we trudged east across town through the dust and stifling heat, Amani provided background information.

The plaintiff’s wife had come home in the evening after a hard day of selling oranges at the market and told her husband that three men had accused her of not wearing underpants. This was serious slander. The husband had filed charges against the men through Liberia’s western-type court system.

But there was a potential glitch: what if the men knew something about his wife’s behavior he didn’t? Perhaps his wife was lying to him. If he lost the suit, he would have to pay all of the court costs plus he would be subject to countersuit.

He decided to hedge his bet by taking his wife to the Sassywood Man first. If he found she was lying, the husband would drop the charges.

We arrived at court (a round hut) and were rewarded with front row dirt seats. Jo and I asked Amani how to address his father and he told us to call him Old Man, a term of respect. So we did.

Old Man didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Kpelle but there was much smiling and finger snapping. We were delighted to meet him and he was equally delighted to meet his son’s teachers.

After the greetings were complete, Old Man began preparing for the trial. The first thing he did was to ignite a roaring bonfire, just the thing for a hot afternoon. About this time the husband arrived sans wife.

“Where’s your wife,” Old Man asked as Amani translated.

“She is being brought by her family,” the husband replied.

‘Being brought,’ it turned out, was a conservative description of the process. She was being dragged and appeared ready to bolt at the first opportunity, which she did. The woman was half gazelle; my greyhound of childhood days couldn’t have caught her as she leapt off down the trail.

For everyone involved, it looked like a clear case of guilt. But the trial was still going to be held. I asked Amani if it was being carried on for our benefit but he explained it was legitimate for the husband to sit in for the wife.

Old Man disappeared into his hut and came out with a wicked looking machete, a can of ‘medicine’ or magical objects, a pot of mystery liquid and a pot of water. He promptly shoved the machete’s blade into the fire. Next, he dumped his can of magic objects on the ground. Included were two rolls of Sassywood leaves and several small stones of various colors and shapes.

“Uh-oh,” I whispered to Jo Ann. “Are we about to witness something here with the Sassywood leaves that we would just as soon miss?”

But Old Man had a use for them other than ingestion. He asked the husband to sit down on the ground opposite him and place one roll of the leaves under his right foot. He placed the other roll under his. Both men wore shorts and had bare feet. It appeared we were to witness a trial by osmosis.

Next Old Man arranged his magic objects and proceeded to mumble over them like a priest preparing for Communion. Once the appropriate spirits had been called, it was time for mystery liquid. A generous amount was rubbed on each Sassywood leg. We were ready for the truth.

“If the knife is cold, the woman is lying,” Old Man declared dramatically as he pulled the glowing machete from the fire.

He took the “knife” and rubbed it down his leg. It sounded like a T-bone steak cozying up to a hot grill. But Old Man grinned. The knife was cold.

The husband was next. His leg appeared much less optimistic. It was, in fact, preparing to follow his wife’s legs lickety-split down the hill. Only a firm glare from Old Man made it behave. The machete sizzled its way down the shinbone and a look of surprise filled the husband’s eyes. The knife was cold; the woman was lying.

We had to be absolutely sure, however, so Old Man shoved the machete back in the fire. This time he rubbed water up and down his and the husband’s legs instead of mystery fluid. He then rearranged his magic rocks and commenced mumbling over them again. After about fifteen minutes he was ready for the final phase of the trial. He yanked the machete from the fire a second time.

“If the knife is hot, the woman is lying,” he instructed as he reversed the directions.

“Ow!” he yelled and jumped back as the machete appeared to graze his leg! The knife was definitely, absolutely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, hot.

This time Old Man couldn’t even get near the husband’s leg since the husband had cleared about ten feet from a sitting position and was strategically located behind a tree. The jury had returned its verdict; his wife was lying and he would drop the charges. He didn’t need his leg torched to prove the point.

NOTE: Before writing this blog, I looked up Sassywood on the Internet. Only recently has Liberia ceased issuing licenses for Sassywood Men and apparently several people were killed in 2007 while undergoing trials by drinking Sassywood tea.

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