World's First First And Forgotten All-Female Army, The Amazons: More Than Just Warriors
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
The Kingdom of Dahomey, today known as Benin, was a West African power that drew comparisons to Sparta. The European world gushed over its army consisting of all female fighters, the Amazons.
When France invaded the Kingdom of Dahomey, over 2000 Amazons died valiantly in battle, with only 50 remaining, the last of the Amazons passing away in the 1970s. The French set up schools in the region, the curriculum never mentioning the Amazons. Many residents of Benin today are not even aware of their history because of this, with many shrines laying in ruin and old training camps turned into sites for catholic churches.
Today, the descendants of the Amazons are sharing their real-life stories in an effort to humanise their vilified and forgotten ancestors.
The warrior who fed hungry children.
Nanlèhoundé Houédanou, 85, speaks at village meetings about her step-grandmother, Nafivovo, the warrior who fixed okra soup for hungry children.
Tall and wiry, she landed in the village of Nangahoué after the war and harvested palm oil for money before marrying Houédanou’s grandfather. “It’s my job to keep her alive,” said Houédanou. “I’m one of the oldest people in this village, so it’s up to me to teach the young people their history.”
Houédanou was a teenager when the Amazon died. Navifovo used to cook for neighbourhood kids. They ran to the house when they were in trouble. “Their parents couldn’t beat them here,” Houédanou said, grinning. “Even before we started talking about ‘human rights,’ Navifovo wouldn’t allow it.”
A proud warrior and mother
Ayebeleyi Dahoui, 72, says her grandmother loved battle. Adana preferred fighting with her hands, she told her grandchildren. The musket took too long to load.
Housework was not for Adana, she’d rather be ambushing an enemy. Tussling with her bare hands, her preferred weapons. Dahoui was about 12 when she first heard the war stories. Adana thought battle imparted life lessons: Be patient. Stay calm. Act deliberately.
The Amazon taught her grandchildren self-defence. One day when her granddaughter was in the market, a woman attacked Dahoui. Her babies were screaming. So she bashed the foe with a ceramic bowl.
An entrepreneur and inspiration
Dah Djika Dégbo, 73, in the southern Benin village of Detohou. His step-grandmother, Yaketou, was a former Amazon who brought the tobacco crop there after surviving the war.
After surviving the battle with France, Yaketou rejected gender roles. She spurned domestic chores that women normally shouldered to build a crop empire. Yaketou knew where to find the plant for smoking. Her old neighbours in a distant village had it. So off she walked.
“She was very enterprising,” Dégbo said, recalling growing up with pride. Her sack of tobacco seeds turned into a business that employed other women.
These days, the younger women in Dégbo’s orbit have left the village for the capital, seeking better work. He credits Amazon's influence.
History is written by the victors, and suffered by the losers. But the losers may not be forgotten if they are valiantly remembered and inspire those alive today.