No one knows the exact date of her birth but historians say that it must have been around 1849 in a small village not far from Tiama in Sierra Leone. Madam Yoko, originally known by her birth name Soma, was initiated into the women’s society, the Sande, also known as Bundu in Mende. Among the Mendi, almost every female is a member of the Sande. After Christmas, girls at about the age of puberty enter the “bush” and often remain there until after Easter and the beginning of the rains, according to historians.
They learn the Bundu or Bondo law, the ritual dancing, and all that will prepare them to become wives and mothers in society. Yoko became well known as an excellent dancer after being initiated into the women’s society where she acquired the name Yoko. After a first marriage that didn’t last, she got married again to the chief of Tiama, Gbenjei, and even though she was barren, Gbenjei made her his head wide.
When Gbenjei died, Yoko then married Gbenjei’s friend Gbanya, who was the chief of Senahun to the southwest of Tiama. She became involved in local government issues and even helped secure the release of Gbanya when he was detained by British colonial officials. Yoko went directly to the Governor to appeal for her husband’s release. The governor was moved by Yoko’s “beauty and feminine graces” that he got her husband released.
By and by, Gbanya used his wife Yoko in diplomatic missions to the British and to other chiefs and that made her very popular in many areas including Freetown. When Gbanya died around 1885, Yoko later became queen of Senahun and she used her friendship with the British to gain control of Kpaa Mende, forming a confederacy. History says that she brought the Kpaa Mende region — now made up of chiefdoms — under her control not only with the help of the British but also through alliances and warfare. With the help of the British, she also destroyed her main political rival, Kamanda, in the late 1880s.
While expanding her territories thanks to protection given by the British, she started her own Sande bush, where she trained some of the best young girls from Kpaa Mende and married them off to chiefs or men who would help her in her moves to expand.
Yoko also helped put an end to the 1898 hut tax war. The rebellion started after the “hut tax” the British imposed in 1893, commanding Sierra Leoneans to pay for the right to live on their own land. Many ended up working as laborers to pay for this tax. Yoko ordered her people to pay the tax but the sub-chiefs refused and rebelled. Yoko had to take refuge in the police barracks amid attacks by her own people.
She would later rule as a paramount chief in the new British protectorate until 1906 when she passed away. Sources say she committed suicide because she saw nothing good in her new role and was perhaps “bored”.
“At the height of her authority she deliberately committed suicide because as she told her attendants just after drinking poison she had enjoyed to the full all that life had to give, power and love and now that old age had approached found that it had nothing more to offer her,” Sir Harry Luke, an Englishman who arrived in Sierra Leone as A.D.C to the Governor, Sir Leslie Probyn, wrote.
Even though Yoko used the British to rise and gain control of her territory, she never welcomed missionaries and never converted to Christianity, interestingly.