Liberia: ‘Powerful Female Paramount Chiefs’ Taking Lead
Monrovia – Mamatouma Siryon is a female Paramount Chief of Salayea District in Lofa County. This county, which is on the northern-most end of Liberia and on the border with the Republic of Guinea, is intrinsically traditionally male-dominated in leadership.
One would wonder why a female is serving as a Paramount Chief in Lofa County, which has some of the strict cultural norms that subject women to the background, while men dominate.
In Liberia, a paramount chief is the most important chief or head of other chiefs. Most of these traditional chiefs are males.
In additional to her gender, Paramount Chief Siryon is not also formerly educated.
“I did not want to agree, because for women to be Paramount Chief in Lofa County, it is not a small thing. But I thank God that everything is alright now. The men, who I used to fear, are even the ones closer to me now because of the way I can hold them. I did not look for leadership; people looked for me to make me their leader; I am just depending on God. This is how I am surviving in Lofa,” says Mamatouma
Mamatouma once served in a lower chieftaincy position as just a town chief of Bayaqueh for four years. She followed in her grandfather’s footsteps, who also served as a chief of the same town above for many years.
Paramount Chief Siryon is just one of few ladies, who saw themselves climbing into what was once believed to be male-dominated terrains, during the reigns of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s and Africa’s first democratically elected female President.
But this rise in women’s leadership in traditional setting, might hit impediments. Since the George Weah-led administration ascended to state power, some of the women chiefs were stripped of their titles and replaced by men.
One case is Madam Jebbeh Sornoh, former Paramount Chief of Grand Cape Mount County. She was replaced by Momo Massaley, who is now the present Paramount Chief.
Mamatouma became paramount chief because of her hard work when she served as town chief. She was recommended to hold the paramount Chief position.
“The way I hold the people good in my grandfather’s town, is why they recommended me to be Paramount Chief and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed me seven years ago,” she said.
In an exclusive interview recently after a women’s leadership workshop held in Gbarnga, Bong County, by the Gbowee Peace Foundation, Mamatouma unveiled what she thinks is the secret of being a good ‘servant of the people’. She stressed rendering ‘fair’ judgment among disputing parties and showing respect for the others.
“I can judge palava (dispute) between boyfriend and girlfriend, to either get back together or to part if one of them says they do not want their friend again. If it is a divorce case, I can forward it to the court. But I can judge community farm land palava, and make peace among bitter enemies. Everybody will be happy going home, so this is why my people love me,” she said.
Chief Siryon has a lettered clerk, who helps her formally communicate her thoughts and interprets some of the traditional decisions, formally.
Presently there are nine chiefs and nine commissioners in Lofa. Chief Siryon has a partner, who is a commissioner and the two women working along with their 16 male counterparts in Lofa. She is encouraging other women to step up to be chiefs, too.
“I want to tell other women to not be scared of the men; we must respect them as they do likewise to us, too,” she concluded.
Like Mamatouma, Paramount Chief Mary Larteh of Jorkolleh Chiefdom, Jorkolleh District, Bong County, who attended the Gbowee Peace Foundation program in Gbarnga, also said being a female paramount chief is not easy but she as fought to stay at the top of her game.
“There are many challenges as a woman paramount chief, but I do not bow to the men’s demands. I am the head of all of the 14 paramount chiefs in Bong County. I have been Paramount Chief for over five years. Former President Sirleaf’s leadership made us women brave to take leading roles in the society. We can compete with the man,” she said.
Paramount Chiefs Siryon and Larteh are regarded by some to be the “most powerful women” holding higher traditional positions, that was once a male-dominated club.