Monday, November 24, 2008

In Jail (briefly)


While in Sierra Leone I became an avid collector of textiles (country cloth and garra cloth), some carved wooden statuary, and other local crafts which I found interesting. My Mende friends wondered why I collected these "furnitures," as they called it. I found their functional art beautiful and surprisingly modern in its abstract design. They thought only in terms of its functionality and puzzled by my interest. The man whose photo is below is named Su Gande [Bockarie Su Gande] and he was a master carver who in our area was best known for carving the wonderful Bondo masks - the helmet type masks which when incorporated with black-raffia were the spirit of the women's secret society. In the picture in the background to his left is an unfinished Bondo mask. He is working on a game best known as warri. I had commissioned him to make this for me. Su Gande always said that when he carved the masks their image would come to him in a dream. It was nearing the end of our second year when I discussed with him my desire to obtain a nomoli - a stone figure that farmers found in their fields when preparing their farms. These soapstone figures were used to bring luck with the rice growing - and probably had come from an earlier area culture. He told me that in his village - near Panguma - someone he knew had such a nomoli. He informed me that if I was willing to travel with him to his village I could negotiate with the man about buying it. He informed me that his village was 26 miles by bush trail off the main motor road. It was soon  that we left by public transport on this trek. It was nearing the end of the dry season. After a long trek by this bush path we arrived at Su Gande's village (the name unfortunately escapes me). I remember two distinct happenings in the village. The first was that there had been a petty theft in the village sometime before my arrival and that in the central barrie the "big men," were having a trial to determine the guilt or innocence of the person in question. She was given the chance to admit her guilt but did not. A "swear" was thrown down on a special stone that was in the area and this soon was followed abruptly by this woman having an epileptic seizure. She was guilty. The second experience was negotiating with Su Gande's friend for the nomoli. He had it wrapped in a rice bag and when he pulled it out I was ecstatic. It was just what I wanted - I had never seen one so perfect. We reached a price and it was mine and off we went back on the bush road to the main road. However I was in for trouble as we walked out. Near the end of this trail I was stopped by a soldier who asked me what I was doing in this area. The area was near, but not in the diamond digging area of the Sierra Leone Diamond Corporation. I informed him that I was a Peace Corps volunteer, showed him the nomoli that I had obtained, and even showed him my Peace Corps pass which I had been given in exchange for our passports - our passports were kept for us in Freetown. However for this soldier - it didn't matter that I was traveling in the area legally. This was near the government diamond digging area and despite the fact that I had my pass he was taking me in. His English was hard for me to understand so we conversed in Krio. He became agitated and finally told me, to the horror of Su Gande who was watching this all, that I was detained and he was taking me to jail. Off we went to what best can be described as a very small, musty smelling cell, in which there were perhaps 10 or so other individuals. And it was there I stayed for a very long three additional hours while Su Gande looked on in horror from outside the cell. It was at this time that the soldier's superior came into the office outside and I heard him ask the soldier, "why is the Peace Corps in jail?" The soldier gave him some lame explanation at which time the superior officer told him to get me out of the cell immediately. I was free. However the detention had delayed our return home by at least 4 hrs (more like 6) and when we reached the main road transport home was limited as it was getting dark. Finally, with nomoli in tow, a lorry came and Su Gande and I headed back to Kenema - some 20 miles away. I remember arriving home late - perhaps 9pm and told Susan of the day's excitement and of course showed her the nomoli.

Su Gande


nikiibu said...

Su Gande (could it be Sowo Gande, So' Gande, in rapid, spoken Mende?) is a very interesting name, and it makes perfect sense given his trade. So, as you may know, refers to a Sande 'devil', or an elder of the Sande Society. Gande is the mystifier(from the verb kande-to baffle or mystify). In that case, your friend was just bragging about his abilities to mystify even those who dealt in mysteries.

Chad Finer - said...

Thanks for this explanation. I was always puzzled by this man's name but unfortunately at the time I did not ever ask him more about it. I do remember however how very much he was respected with many of his neighbors being quite deferent to him.