Amazons of Dahomey | lifestyle


ABOMEY, Benin – Your step-grandmother was able to remove a man’s head with a curved blade. She could climb a wall of thorns. She devoted her life to defending the king.

These details – all true, said the older woman – ended up in the notes of foreign explorers. But they failed to capture the whole story.

Nanlèhoundé Houédanou wants people to know more about the Amazons of Dahomey, the only documented female army in modern history. Researchers have spent decades scouring European and West African archives to create a portrait from the records of French officers, British traders, and Italian missionaries.

But a crucial piece of the Amazon heritage has been lost to the erasers of time and colonial rule: their humanity.

“My Amazon was gentle,” said Houédanou, who at 85 years old is one of the last people on earth to grow up with it. “She was known to protect children.”

History is often told through the lens of conquerors. Generations of American school children learned more about the “discoveries” of Christopher Columbus in the 15th century than about his record of indigenous slavery. Great Britain described its takeover of a famous West African kingdom in 1897 as a “punitive mission” and glossed over the mass theft of priceless bronzes.

After France conquered what is now southern Benin in 1894, colonial officers disbanded the territory’s unique force of warriors, opened new classrooms, and made no mention of the Amazons’ curriculum. Even today, many in the country of 12 million people know little about their ancestral mother.

“The French made sure that this story would not be known,” said the Beninese economist Leonard Wantchekon, professor of international affairs at Princeton University. “They said we were backward, they had to ‘civilize’ us, but they ruined opportunities for women that were nowhere else in the world.”

Now a team of Beninese researchers are working to recreate the narrative. For the past three years, historians at the African School of Economics, a private university founded by Wantchekon near the capital, Cotonou, have tracked descendants of Amazons across the country.

Her goal is to collect local memories for a book that can be taught in schools – to present a three-dimensional view of the real Amazons. Only 50 of the women are said to have survived the two-year war with France. The last one died in the 1970s.

Finding their grandchildren has proven increasingly difficult over time. Unlike the letter-writing Europeans of yore, West Africans preferred oral tradition and passed stories down from generation to generation. Not much is documented about the Amazons after the war.

“These stories die with people,” said Serge Ouitona, a researcher on the project. “The Amazons were powerful. They had influence. But after the colonial conquest, everyone stopped talking about them.”

AN ORAL TRADITION: Nanlèhoundé Houédanou, 85, speaks about her step-grandmother Nafivovo at village meetings. Danielle Paquette / The Washington Post

The skill of the Amazons

For at least three centuries, the Dahomey Kingdom was a West African power that drew comparisons with Sparta. European visitors raved about their fighters: They-soldiers. Medusas. Maid warrior.

The name that has remained in modern Benin: Amazons.

“Whatever the exploits of the Amazons among the ancients, this is a first in modern history,” wrote Archibald Dalzel, a British administrator in the region, in 1793.

A French official later called Dahomey “certainly the only country in the world that offers the unique spectacle of organizing women as soldiers,” according to American journalist Stanley Alpern. The French publisher Larousse declared women “the only known historical Amazons”.

Their origins are unclear, but historians say the Amazons were likely rooted under Queen Hangbè, who ruled alongside her twin brother in the early 18th century and maintained an entourage of female bodyguards.

In the mid-19th century, Dahomey boasted thousands of female troops trying to overtake rival kingdoms. When clashes did occur, it was known that victorious forces forced their enemies to work or sold them in the slave trade.

Amazons began training when they were girls: swinging blades, loading flintlock muskets, climbing thorny barricades. They drank imported brandy and beat out songs of war.

The tradition ended with the invasion of France. In view of the defeat, wrote a French general, the women had “shown great courage,” said Alpern.

Nearly 2,000 Amazons died in the slaughter, historians estimate, and the 50 survivors disappeared into a transformed nation. Only a trace remains in Abomey, the former capital of the kingdom.

A pair of artisans in King Glele’s reconstructed palace – each of the 12 kings of Dahomey built their own palace – sew banners of Amazons who carry rifles, fight men, and clasp severed heads.

A rusty sign across town informs viewers that there is now a Catholic church on the site of a former Amazon camp.

And paint is peeling off a statue of a warrior in a neighboring village. Visitors have to wade through chest-high bushes to reach them.

Keeping the story alive

At community meetings, Houédanou speaks of her step-grandmother: Nafivovo, the warrior who made okra soup for hungry children.

Tall and wiry, she ended up in the village of Nangahoué after the war, collecting palm oil for money before marrying Houédanou’s grandfather. The couple shared an adobe house that is now home to their relatives and neighbors doing hip-hop on the radio.

“It’s my job to keep them alive,” said Houédanou, who was sitting in the doorway of the house. “I’m one of the elders in this village, so it’s up to me to teach the young people their story.”

Her seniority gives her the floor when people gather to discuss big issues – elections, drought, the pandemic – and she tells stories about Nafivovo. It’s hard to get the teens to care, she said, so she tries to keep it entertaining.

“With songs of war,” said Houédanou. She broke in a tune: We are proud children of the kingdom. We will defend it.

Houédanou was a teenager when the Amazon died. Memories arise when she smells a certain mustard spice. Navifovo cooked for neighborhood children. They ran to the house when they were in trouble.

“Her parents couldn’t beat her here,” said Houédanou with a grin. “Even before we started talking about ‘human rights’, Navifovo didn’t allow it.”

She laughed.

“Everyone knew the old lady would win the fight.”

A penchant for guns with bare hands

Adana longed for the battlefield. Housework is not for her, she told her grandchildren. She would rather ambush an enemy. Playing around with their bare hands, their favorite weapon. The musket was taking too long to load.

“She told me how she used to strangle people,” said her granddaughter, 72-year-old Ayebeleyi Dahoui. “She used her long nails.”

She clawed her fingers.

“Like this.”

Dahoui was around 12 when she first heard the war stories. Her grandmother urged her to join the military one day if she could. Adana’s Mind Battle Provided Life Lessons: Be Patient. Stay calm. Act consciously.

The Amazon taught self-defense to her grandchildren when they hit puberty. Dahoui never used the stranglehold, but she internalized a sense of readiness.

One day after she had children of her own, she went to a market with them and had an argument with a woman about who would buy the last of the ears of corn. The woman attacked Dahoui. Their babies were screaming. So she hit the enemy with a ceramic bowl.

“I might have run away,” said Dahoui, “but Grandma taught me to stand up for myself.”

A rejection of gender roles

Detohou village had no tobacco before the Amazon emerged.

After surviving the battle with France, Yaketou rejected gender roles. She scorned household chores that women normally undertook to build a grain empire.

Yaketou knew where to find the smoking plant – Dahomey had sacked her town years earlier and then turned her into a warrior. Your old neighbors had it. So she went off.

“She was very enterprising,” said her step-child, 73-year-old Dah Djika Dégbo.

Dégbo was young when she died – maybe 5 – so his memories of Yaketou are fuzzy. But he remembers growing up with pride: his grandfather married an Amazon. Her sack of tobacco seeds became a business that occupied other women.

Dégbo’s grandchildren in law works in retail.

“This is her legacy,” he said.

Yaketou struggled to get pregnant, so the family built her a concrete fertility temple on the outskirts. When this offering to the gods did not produce a baby, Yakouto shifted her focus to caring for girls.

These days, the younger women in the Dégbo area are leaving the village in search of a better job in the capital.

He attributes the influence of the Amazon.