When former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf dedicated the Chief Suah Koko Center for Rural Women’s Empowerment in 2014 to provide micro-finance credits for rural women, it was the first time female chief Madam Suakoko was being so highly recognized.
Suakoko or Suah Koko, believed to be the first woman Liberian tribal chief who lived between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contributed immensely to the making of the Liberian nation.
At a time when women in the society were kept as mothers and housekeepers, Suakoko lived above such cultural norms, ruling a chiefdom in the northeast and northwest of Liberia, including land within modern-day Bong County, which was governed from her residence at Suakoko, a town named after her.
A brave warrior who became the first woman paramount chief in the Central Province, of which Bong County is a part, Suakoko was a symbol of national peace. According to Liberian media Daily Observer, “it was she who persuaded her tribesmen and women in the Jorquelleh and other regions of what is now known as Bong County to become part of the Republic of Liberia. This paved the way for other interior peoples to join the republic.”
But this didn’t come without several battles. Before granting accession of the territory she ruled over to the Americo-Liberian government, she fought many battles against the Liberia Frontier Force.
It is documented that during the period of annexation by the Liberian state (1900–1920), she “faced a difficult choice between collaborating with the central government based in the capital city of Monrovia, which would lead to the effective loss of Kpelle independence, or risking annihilation at the hands of rival Kpelle warriors.”
Born in the 1880s and having excellent diplomatic skills, she eventually entered negotiations to provide her land to the Liberian government. Her land provided strategic access to other regions of the hinterland, and she supported the central government to advance its territorial and political gains, by providing logistics, intelligence and hospitality, according to a profile of her by Angie Brooks International Centre.
Liberia was established on land acquired for freed U.S. slaves by the American Colonization Society, which founded a colony at Cape Mesurado in 1821. In 1822, tribal people, including the Bassa and Kpelle, began resisting Americo-Liberian rule and fought the central government over the ownership of land.
Persuading her people not to fight the Liberian government, the diplomatic tie Suakoko established with the government did not only end the various hinterland tribal wars but also “opened up the northwestern and northeastern parts of Liberia,” writes liberianhistory.org.
The Liberian government and church missions subsequently expanded education opportunities to central Liberia and the descendants of Suakoko granted more than one thousand acres to Cuttington University which hosts the Chief Suah Koko Center for Rural Women’s Empowerment.
A remarkable woman who has the town of Suakoko named after her, Suakoko’s father died while she was a child and was raised by her mother. A member of the popular Sande School, a traditional institution for young girls and women in Liberia, Suakoko would grow up to have a tremendous influence over her people.
Her town Suakoko was originally called Nyalinsue before she migrated there alongside others while fleeing violence from her home in Gbansue Korlorkwe, Zota District, Bong County, a chief elder of Suakoko District in Bong County, Sulunteh Yeibah recently narrated.
He said Suakoko, traveling with others, asked elders of the Nyalinsue area for a piece of land to cultivate a cassava and plantain farm in order to feed her followers. The elders granted her request and in subsequent years, her followers also made their own farms. Eventually, these farms developed into a village in what would become known as Suakoko-Ta, meaning Suakoko Town.
Men from Nyalinsue and surrounding areas further married from Suakoko, said Yeibah.
Later becoming the only female indigenous ruler in the country, Suakoko, between 1926 and 1927, supplied porters to the Harvard Medical African Expedition, “an eight-man venture sent by Harvard University for the primary purpose of conducting a medical and biological survey of Liberia.”
It is recorded that without her permission and generosity, the Harvard expedition could not have traveled further to areas like Gbanga and beyond.
Having entered Suakoko, expedition leader Dr. Richard Strong wrote: “This town is presided over by Suah Coco, a woman, and it bears her name, she being the chief of it, as is the case of many of the other interior towns” noting that “she sent me by her grandson a good-siz´d chicken and some native rice” and “promised me porters for tomorrow. She told me frankly she could not get them today, as she has to collect them from surrounding villages, which are far away. She has sent me a squash for our dinner.” (Richard Pearson Strong, Richard Pearson Strong Diary: September 1, 1926 Part II)
In 1929 when she was appointed a paramount chief, Suakoko, who had knowledge of medicinal plants and oral traditions, had to rule through her grandson as she was almost blind.
Before her death in the 1930s, she remained a strong ally of the government in the interior, according to reports, and contributed to the setting up of some institutions of national importance, including the Central Agricultural Research Institute, the Phebe Hospital which trains nurses, and the Cuttington University College, all located in Suakoko.