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The Brown – Bannie – Boe Saga and Bassa Culture

By Pianapue Kept Early   
In recent news reports (as recent as August 10, 2012), Senator Bannie of Rivercess County and Representative Byron Brown of Grand Bassa County are at bitter odds concerning the marriage or dowry of one of the Representative’s sisters, Cecelia Boe (Bannie).  This sister, Cecelia Boe (a second cousin of mine on my father’s side), has not been buried, and her deceased body is still at a funeral parlor in Sinkor, Monrovia.

I have neither met Representative Brown nor anyone on his team of the anti-Bannie Burial Plans, nor have I met or talked to any on the other side, the pro-Bannie Bannie Burial Plans.  I briefly spoke with Alexander, a brother of Cecelia, and he was only announcing to me of her (Cecelia’s) death.  But by the time he called me here in America to briefly talk to him on my cell phone, I had read the whole story concerning Cecelia’s death, without realizing that the woman whose death news went viral –face book and other Liberian news outlets – was my second cousin, Cecelia Zeahwon Boe, aka, Zaan.  She had a twin sister named Baryo.

The Brown-Boe side is demanding from the Bannie side a marriage to the deceased before burial arrangements are concluded.  Meanwhile, Bannie is saying he cannot marry a dead woman, no matter what.  Both sides are claiming that their actions are in accord with Bassa culture or Liberian Law.

Whatever each side’s argument is, none is showing respect for the deceased, something that Bassa people uphold over laws, whether traditional or western, regarding marriage.  In Bassa culture, marriage is formal.  I will summarize the practice here in context of the *Brown-Bannie-Boe saga*.

When two persons are in love, they first engage (*ba-sohn-koen*, literally, “*hang hand (on) shoulder* or to *put one’s hand on the shoulder of another* ”).  This act is making it known to all that this is the woman I want to marry.  (Proposal for marriage is never from the woman, only the man).  When the engagement takes place, both families agree to the understanding that the two are formally engaged, and no one else should or can intrude, or interfere in their love affair.

In Bassa this engagement also called, ‘*kahn gbo-won whea*” (literally *close door-mouth road*, or *closing the door to entering the woman’s heart, or closing the entrance to her heart for other suitors*).  *Kahn gbo-won whea* is the formal indication that the couple, now engaged, will agree to “close the door.”  The heart belongs to the two, even in cases of more than one wife:  relationships are between two persons, even though the family is involved.  The engaged couple will be faithful even throughout marriage.  On this hope of faithfulness to each other is the bedrock for the engagement/marriage.  In the marriage ceremony, after the dowry is paid, and both uncles[1]<>(of wife and husband, who serve as spokesman for each side) speak, the couple is married.

But Bassa culture also provides room for engagement without marriage, and endorses common law marriage.  This is the relation that Senator Bannie had with my cousin, Cecelia (Zan).  She was one of four wives that the Senator ‘married.’  And in order to formalize marriage to Cecelia, my cousin, he will have to do so for his first wife.  If he has not done so for the first wife, he cannot do so for any of the wives that come later, even though they are his legal wives through common law, which does not always require a formal marriage, as described earlier.

The family of Cecelia is claiming that there may have been foul play in how their sister died, and this marriage to her, even while she is dead, is necessary.  Traditionally, if she is not buried and there is a marriage discussion going through the ceremony posthumously, it will reveal who “killed” her, or who is responsible for her death.

The family apparently is not satisfied with how their sister died, and therefore is making this demand – albeit horrible.  Both sides, Cecelia’s family, and the Bannie family, can claim some right here, because each is in the right, according to Bassa cultural practice.

The family of Cecelia can make such a claim or demand only if one of Cecelia’s sisters had been married to Senator Bannie, and had died “mysteriously.”  If Cecelia married the same man and dies in a “mysterious” manner, then the family can make such a demand to force the husband, in this case, Senator Bannie, to marry their other sister, whether dead or not because it is his “fault” for her death.

Actually, in a western legal sense, Cecelia’s family could not hold her husband Bannie criminally liable for her death, but they could do so in a civil situation.  This is the situation the family of Cecelia seems to be applying in the traditional Bassa legal sense.  But this has a down side.

The husband’s family, including children born to the couple, Bannie and Cecelia, is saying that they will not engage in marrying a dead woman. Traditionally, this is correct, because there is no ethnic group or people where a living person marries a dead person.  In fact, Bassa people honor this worldwide tradition out of traditional norms, or out of common sense.  Neither can the Brown/Boe or Cecelia’s family force this marriage, because if they were displeased with the husband for not marrying their sister, they should have said so while the sister was alive.

I am not sure whether Senator is/was married to a sister of Cecelia’s, and Cecelia followed in her marital footsteps.  The refusal on the Senator’s part also shows that he is being simply logical, because it is unheard of for the living to marry the dead.  This is not in disrespect to Bassa culture, but in acceptance of common sense.  The Brown/Boe family had Cecelia’s life time to have encouraged or persuaded the Senator to “marry” my cousin.

If we had said something during her life time, and even if the Senator had refused, he still cannot be made to marry the dead woman, because that is not an expectation Bassa people have normally.  Moreover, no one can be forced to marry another person, whether dead or not.  Even arranged marriages are not achieved with force.

Another fact on the Senator’s side is his children with the deceased.  Since the children of my cousin are taking on their father’s side, the family should let their wishes be heard, and not drag them in court proceedings or traditional council meetings.  There is something the children may know that the rest of the family does not know.  Since they are with their father in this, it will make sense for this tradition to be honored by her family.  Let the children’s mother be given the burial she deserves.

The dilemma for both groups is that they have been so bitter with each other, that they cannot sit down to reason, even as Christians, fellow Bassa people, and as Liberians.

There is a need to have this resolved.  The poor woman needs a decent burial.  What will not burying her do for the family?  Do they wish their sister not be buried because someone living refuses to marry her?  Not burying her until she is married to the living just doesn’t make sense.

Regardless of what the family feels about Senator Bannie now, Cecelia, in her death should not be disturbed.  It is like going to bed with people around your bed playing or beating drums, while you’re trying to sleep.  The person will not sleep, and if she did sleep, it will not be in peace.  The deceased woman is lying in a coffin, in a cold morgue, and is waiting to be buried.  Meanwhile, egotistic men cannot let their anger go, to bury the dead.

I guess both groups have forgotten that the Bassa people say, “*Bea po wudu been, wheh beoi ke zah- chen.*” Literally, “Let us bury, before we talk the palaver.”  It could also mean, let us have a common ground, before going into discussion.  In this context, it should mean, “Let us bury Cecelia, before we talk about her marriage to Senator Bannie.”

There are more contextual meanings we can draw from this Bassa parable.  If both families – the Brown/Boe/Zeahwon and the Bannie Families – could let their selfish pride be put aside, they could bury the woman – their sister and wife/mother – it will suffice for them because they will be honoring the dead.  To the Bassa people, and to Liberians, the dead human being is more important than the rules governing marriage.  Cecelia deserves a decent burial, not confusion.

Pianapue Kept Early is a Bassa man in America.  He is second cousin to Cecelia Boe Zeahwon Bannie, the deceased in question in this matter.  My reason for writing this article is to encourage both parties to let God take control of their situation, as they bury their hatchets and bury Cecelia.  After her burial, they can resort to their unnecessary hatred and envy for each other, forgetting that through Cecelia, they have become one family, and it will never change their relationship.  The two families should come together for the sake of Cecelia, her children, and God.  But apparently, none of them is thinking of that.*
*[1]*<> * The term uncle is used here loosely, because the advocate of each family is represented by an uncle.  It may or may not be a biological uncle.  *

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