Madam Yoko, also known as Soma, was a prominent Sierra Leonean leader and a key figure in the 19th century who at the and of her life was alienated by her own people for betraying her own kind by aligning with the British.
Born in modern-day Sierra Leone in 1849, she was initially named Soma. However, her name was later changed to Yoko upon her initiation into the Sande society—a secret women’s initiation group spanning Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. This society guides girls into adulthood through rituals encompassing singing, dancing, education on medicine and childbearing, and instruction on roles associated with being a wife and mother.
Married thrice, Yoko’s political journey began with her third husband, Gbanya Lango, a powerful war chief who hated the British. One time during a conflict with the British, Gbanya was arrested and Yoko was able to get him out by making a personal appeal to the governor. This marked the genesis of her political ascendancy.
After Gbanya’s release, he recognized Yoko’s value in diplomatic missions, utilizing her skills to engage with the British. Yoko’s role in securing Gbanya’s freedom and aiding him in wealth through farming elevated her status. Following Gbanya’s death in 1878, Madam Yoko succeeded him, becoming the “Queen of Sennehoo” and the Paramount Chief.
While in power, Yoko strategically used alliances, notably with the British, to unify the Kpa Mende, gaining control of fourteen chiefdoms.
Her influence extended through the Sande society, a women’s initiation group, employed as a tool for forging alliances.
Madam Yoko’s role in the Sande Society was not merely ceremonial; she strategically leveraged it to build alliances. By initiating young women into adulthood and showcasing them as both entertainment for British officers and potential wives for influential men, including native officers of the Frontier Police, she effectively strengthened connections and broadened her political influence.
Aside from her ability to make alliances, it is said that Madam Yoko was extraordinarily strong in battle. She reportedly utilized nearby rivers as a defense system and wielded a sword against her enemies. Additionally, she occasionally manipulated the British into dealing with adversaries she couldn’t overcome independently.
In 1896, the hinterland of Sierra Leone became a British protectorate and a law was put in place ordering all chiefs to collect “5-shilling hut tax on every house in the land”. While some chiefs like Bai Bureh unsuccessfully resisted British power in the Hut Tax War, Yoko never criticized the hut tax; instead she ordered her subchiefs to pay the new taxes. Facing rebellion, her people accused her of betraying her own kind by aligning with the British. The discontent escalated to the point of attacking her palace, leading Yoko to seek refuge in a police barracks.
Yoko’s loyalty to the British, however, did not go unrewarded. Queen Victoria eventually recognized her with a silver medal for “faithful service to the monarch and the royal family.” This recognition, while prestigious, further fueled discontent among her people, and further alienated her from the people she led.
Despite the prestigious recognition from Queen Victoria, Madam Yoko’s rule became increasingly tenuous. The once-respected leader found herself facing internal strife, with her subjects questioning her allegiance and leadership.
The culmination of these challenges led to a tragic turn in 1906 when Madam Yoko, confronted with persistent opposition and unrest, took her own life. With no direct heirs, her brother Lamboi succeeded her, inheriting a legacy of political acumen and controversy.