Friday, November 28, 2008

Spirits (Devils) - a view from the outside

click on images to enlarge

the wild dancing of Goboi

My interest in Mende culture ran the gamut from its hauntingly beautiful music, to its art, and including my interest in its spirits. I found the language difficult but did manage to learn a number of phrases. The spirits were numerous and the ones that I became most familiar with were the secular ones. The one that I saw most often in our area - the Bondo Devil - was the woman's society spirit. This one seemed to come out when the society was most active, and was always accompanied by attendants. I found it the most interesting. Its wonderfully carved face and head [helmet mask] were combined with indigo dyed palm raffia to make a very distinctive appearance and presence. There were many more however that seemed to come out at times of celebration, national holidays, and at times when important people would visit our area. The ones I saw seemed to be ones that were amusing to people. Some such as Goboi (see photo above) would move about in a frenzy of spasmodic activity, again with attendants who seemed to flame this frenzy. This frenzy would be interspersed with short periods of inactivity. Some of the spirits such a Falwi would be accompanied by attendants who played the Jeke or hollowed log with slits in it that when struck with wooden sticks would beat a rhythm and sound. Falwi was also accompanied by drums. There was Jobai - a devil in natural colored raffia and a cylindrical, multicolored head - this devil would/could collapse on itself and flatten to the ground like a pancake to the amusement of the audience. I found all these spirits fascinating and my neighbors would let me know when they were out so that I could go see them. The local people called them devils. The more politically correct term is probably spirit. Since we lived in Mende country these were the devils that I was most familiar with. In times of celebration many spirits would be out and about, each directed by people who seemed to both enjoy, and take seriously, their tasks and responsibilities as related to getting the spirit around town. I do not remember that there was a spirit that made its own noise. But each one had their own behavior. Many times they served to keep large audiences in control. If there was a visting Paramount Chief or perhaps even the Prime Minister visiting it was not unusual to see many different spirits out and doing their thing. It was not uncommon in those circumstances to be walking on the street and pass by a spirit headed in the other direction. Sometimes if I asked to take a picture I would give the attendants "a dash," or tip. Other times there was no such need. In my experience the women's Bondo devil was the one I knew most about. The men's Falwi, Goboi, or Jobai I learned how to identify but was able to learn little about them. They seemed - at least to me - to be more secular in their function but perhaps some of my Mende friends will be able to correct me/or add their thoughts in this regard.

1 comment:

CCES said...

pThoroughly enjoying reading through your memories. We are very involved with the rebuilding of Panguma. While we were last there, we were treated to dances by both the Women's and the Men's society and their respective "devils." We were encouraged to throw money to the dancing devils. It was explained to us that the money would be held in a pot in the society, then if a man or woman in the village had a need, they would be able to approach the society and make a request for aid.