British Museum blog

The spirit of Sierra Leone in London

Sowei mask naming ceremonyPaul Basu, University College London

The latest Asahi Shimbun Display Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone opened to the public this week. The display is the most recent outcome of collaborations between the British Museum’s Africa Programme and various partners including the Sierra Leone National Museum, the Reanimating Cultural Heritage project based at University College London, and members of the Sierra Leone diaspora community in the UK.

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

The particular object in focus in the exhibition is a wooden helmet mask associated with the female Sande society. It was collected in the 1880s by Thomas J. Alldridge (1847-1916), whose entire career was spent in Sierra Leone, first as a trading agent and subsequently as a British colonial administrator. Alldridge, who travelled widely throughout the region, wrote two significant books about Sierra Leone, The Sherbro and its Hinterland (1901) and A Transformed Colony: Sierra Leone as it was and as it is (1910). Alldridge had a particular interest in native customs, cultural practices and masquerade traditions, and especially those associated with what were then described as ‘secret societies’ – chiefly the male Poro society, and its female counterpart, the Sande society. He wrote about these extensively in his books, assembled a large collection of local artefacts, and took some of the earliest photographs we have of traditional Sierra Leonean life. In 1886, Alldridge collected a number of objects from the Sherbro district of Sierra Leone specifically for display in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London that year. The mask on display in the British Museum was one of them, and to the best of our knowledge this is the first time it has been on public display for over 120 years.

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Typical of collectors of his day, Alldridge recorded very little information about the mask. It was described in the lurid language of the time as ‘one of the most prominent Fetishes worshipped in [the region]’. In fact, as visitors to the exhibition will discover, such masks were – and continue to be – regarded as manifestations of particular spirits who act as guardians and teachers of the Sande society. They are mediators between the human world and the world of the spirits. Like people, every mask/spirit has a name and an individual personality.

In preparation for this display we worked closely with members of the Sierra Leonean diaspora community in London. On 16 February 2013 visitors to the British Museum were treated to a rare opportunity to see a special performance of the ndoli jowei, the Sande masquerade, to celebrate the opening of Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone.

During initial meetings with the Sierra Leonean community, the women were concerned that the mask to be displayed had lost its name. They proposed holding a special ceremony to give the mask a new name and, 127 years after originally entering the Museum’s collections, to formally present the mask to the British Museum on behalf of the Sande society.

The ceremony took place in a private room at the British Museum on 23 January 2013. The women were dressed in white and had white clay daubed on their skin as is customary in the Sande society. Accompanied by the shegbureh, a shaker made from a gourd surrounded by a network of beads, the women sang traditional Sande songs and danced around the as yet nameless mask. The participants then surrounded the mask in silence as the head woman addressed the spirit of the mask directly. After pouring a libation, the naming itself took place. Four cowrie shells were thrown to determine the name. If all four land the same way up, this is a sign that the spirit has accepted its name. After numerous attempts, the mask accepted the name Gbavo (meaning ‘to attract people’s attention’, ‘crowd-puller’ in Mende). A celebratory song was then sung in praise of the mask.

The mask is received by the British Museum

The mask is received by the British Museum

The next part of the ceremony involved the newly-named mask being presented to the British Museum. Accompanied by more singing, the mask was wrapped in white cloth, lifted onto the head of one of the participants and carried to a female representative of the Museum’s Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, also dressed in white. The mask is presented three times. Only on the third presentation is the mask received. Having accepted the mask, the Museum representative then stood at the centre of the women, while they danced around her, singing a farewell to the spirit: Oh Gbavo, Ggavo ma kɔlɛ ma sina fɔndei ta ngaye ta yi ma ju nga li nya ye [roughly translated as Oh Gbavo, when we separate tomorrow, tears and sweat will mingle and run down my face].

It was a privilege to be able to witness something of the spirit of Sierra Leone in the singing, dancing and traditional customs of the women gathered in this room in London. The ceremony was also an important moment in the ‘biography’ of this mask – another story to add to the others that we explore in the exhibition itself.

Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone is on display at the British Museum
until 28 April 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

To find out more about Sierra Leone, please visit www.sierraleoneheritage.org

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  1. Bjoern says:

    In the article you say: “It was a privilege to be able to witness
    something of the spirit of Sierra Leone in the singing, dancing and
    traditional customs of the women gathered in this room in London.”

    I was surprised to see that the discussion of the customs of the Sande
    society does not include reference to FGM, when this practise is
    widespread, and information is readily available.

    I quote from “Sierra Leone: Report on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
    or Female Genital Cutting (FGC)”
    (http://www.refworld.org/docid/46d5787cc.html
    [accessed 20 April 2013]):

    “Practice: Type II (commonly referred to as excision) is the form of
    female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting (FGC) widely
    practiced on women and girls in Sierra Leone. It is generally
    practiced by all classes, including the educated elite. Sierra
    Leoneans who live abroad sometimes bring their daughters back to
    Sierra Leone to participate in initiation rites that include this
    procedure. Type II is usually carried out within a ritual context. It
    is part of the passage from childhood to womanhood.

    “Incidence: Some estimates place the percentage of women and girls in
    Sierra Leone who undergo this procedure at 80 percent. Others put the
    percentage higher at 90 percent. All ethnic groups practice it except
    Krios who are located primarily in the western region and in the
    capital, Freetown.

    “Attitudes and Beliefs: The customary power bases of women in Sierra
    Leone lie in the secret societies. Women who administer puberty rites
    are revered, feared and believed to hold supernatural
    powers. Membership in these secret societies, including Sande and
    Bundo, lasts a lifetime.

    “Groups of girls of approximately the same age are initiated into these
    societies. Part of the ritual is the cutting. Girls initiated together
    form a bond and this sisterhood lasts throughout their lives. The
    girls take an oath that they will not reveal anything that happened
    during the puberty rite.”

    Regarding taking girls from the UK to Sierra Leone for FGM, see the UK
    government policy “Ending violence against women and girls in the UK”
    (https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-in-the-uk,
    published 26 March 2013, access 20 April 2013):

    “The Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Act […] makes it illegal to
    practice FGM in the UK, makes it illegal to take girls who are British
    nationals or permanent residents of the UK abroad for FGM whether or
    not it is lawful in that country, makes it illegal to aid, abet,
    counsel or procure the carrying out of FGM abroad, has a penalty of up
    to 14 years in prison and, or, a fine.”

    In Sierra Leone, children are not protected by the law against FGM:

    “Sierra Leone has ratified a number of international conventions
    condemning FGM. Among these are the Convention on the Elimination of
    All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the UN
    Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The African Charter on
    the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Maputo Protocol on the
    Rights of Women in Africa which is a protocol to the African Charter
    on Human and People’s Rights, have been signed but not yet ratified.

    “Due to massive resistance a clause in the Sierra Leone Child Rights
    Act explicitly protecting children against FGM had to be withdrawn
    from the final version in 2007.” (Female Genital Mutilation in
    Sierra Leone,
    http://www.giz.de/Themen/de/dokumente/giz-fgm-EN-sierraleone-2011.pdf
    [accessed 20 April 2013]).

    IRIN humanitarian news and analysis (a service of the UN Office for
    the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) reports:

    “In the absence of a law in October 2012, eight of the country’s 14
    districts signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) criminalizing
    FGM/C among children – Western Area Rural, Western Area Urban, Bo,
    Kambia, Port Loko, Pujehun, Bonthe and Kailahun. But despite this MOU,
    the practice continues in many of these districts. This is partly due
    to the strength of `soweis’ – the heads of secret societies that girls
    enter upon undergoing FGM/C – who depend on performing FMG/C for their
    livelihoods, sometimes earning as much as US$200 per child.” (SIERRA
    LEONE: The political battle on FGM/C,
    http://www.irinnews.org/report/97066/SIERRA-LEONE-The-political-battle-on-FGM-C
    [accessed 20 April 2013]).

    Could you comment as to whether this issue had been considered by the
    curator (and other collaborators of the exhibition), and, if so, what
    their view is?

    Like

    • Bjoern

      Thanks for your comment

      The issue of FGM in relation to the initiation practices of the Sande society was discussed widely within the Museum and outside with members of the Sierra Leonean diaspora in London, members of the Sande society, and partners in Sierra Leone in preparation for this display. Although the focus of the exhibition is not on the Sande society we felt it was important to set the mask within its historical context and therefore included textual information and images that refer to the structure and role of the Society and the place of the ndoli jowei within this Society. The decision was made to include reference to the practice of female circumcision (and to describe it in this manner) as a part of the initiation process for young girls. We also stressed that the issue of circumcision is currently generating considerable debate in Sierra Leone and beyond.

      We also worked with women from the Sierra Leonean diaspora community who were not Sande members to present this sowei mask to a group of young people (some of Sierra Leonean heritage) where the issue of FGM was openly addressed and discussed. This Talking Objects project resulted in a film which is available for viewing on the Museum’s website.

      Julie Hudson, British Museum

      Like

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