Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mama Hokey

above - Mama Hokey is in the middle. taken in Kenema in 1970

in this photo taken at Bitema Nongowa Mama Hokey is standing 4th from the left with white head dress. Susan is also in picture. The Bondo Devil is present also. Taken in 1969

Mama Hokey Kemoh lived across from us on Dama Road in Kenema. She was a tall woman by Sierra Leone standards or at least I remember her as such. Thin and regal she came from a small village in Mendeline called Foindu Nongowa. I remember that she told me that she had lived for a time in Freetown but this was long before we knew her. She told me of a son who had been in the United Kingdom for 10 years but never spoke of her husband. There are these gaps in what I knew about her. In Kenema she was head [Sowei] of the Bondo Society in our area. In those days she owned the residence at what was then #55 Dama Road. In this residence she kept quarters for herself and rented out rooms to others including the Garloughs, schoolboys Senesi Edward Lahai, and Momo and Mansaray Vandi, and to others including Pa Karanké and his wives Wuya and Salimatu. By Sierra Leone standards Mama Hokey lived well and was probably wealthy. She was certainly very highly respected by many as she seemd to be the leader of a group responsible for the organization and running of the area women's society and was in control of one or two Bondo spirits. With us she was inclusive and in time became someone who I visited daily and talked to her about local matters. Her Bondo involvement was something she was quite modest about at least with us. My sense was that she was pleased with my interest, she was pleased that I enjoyed seeing the Bondo when it was out, and listening to singing when people might do so. But there was a boundary in this regard. When events warranted it, she would send someone to let me know that something would be happening in the area (or nearby in Foindu or in Tokpombu) that might spark my interest. She let word out that I could take pictures of what might be happening. Although explanations of what was going on were occasionally provided, many times I had to just cope for myself and try to just observe and then make sense. I certainly became appreciative of the Bondo music, the beautiful Bondo spirit (a/k/a Bondo Devil) with its black raffia clothes and black, beautifully carved helmet mask. I do not remember the devil making any noise as it traveled about with attendants - but there was a certain respect when it was in the area. The devil could be joyous and might dance with other women when it was out. At other times it might float about the area with little fanfare. It was Mama Hokey who was in some way in control of these spirits. She became a close friend of ours during our Kenema days.
There are two stories that I will mention. The three school boys who lived in her house - Senesi Edward Lahai, Momo Vandi, and Mansaray Vandi at one point started to teach me Mende expressions - as I was attempting to improve my speaking ability. One of the expressions that they taught me was (unbeknownst to me) a very rude and vulgar expression which they had told me was a "greeting." My first chance to use it was one night on visiting Mama Hokey and what I remember was the silence that initially followed, a silence that was deadly, followed then by Mama Hokey getting up and going into her quarters, only to return with a thin stick. The boys who were by then all squirming on the veranda were then given several wacks each with her stick as she yelled at them for deceiving me. She was furious and in public yelled at them to never do this again. The devilish schoolboys stood there and took their punishment. At some point later on the boys and I could laugh at their educational endeavors - although, for Mama Hokey the vulgarity that they taught me was embarassing and horrible.
The second story concerns our leaving Mama Hokey to return to America. She was aware that I had befriended a well-known area carver named Su Gande (Boackarie Gande) who lived on the east side of Kenema. I had commissioned him to do a few carvings of the helmeted Bondo masks for me and he made me three classically beautiful masks. Susan and I decided that as a parting present we would give one of these to Mama Hokey. For her these were functional and would be used. For us - although I prized their beauty - they would be pieces of furniture. It was during our last few days that we gave her what was the most artistically carved one. This would be used and incorporated into another devil and we felt good about that. I do remember Mama Hokey coming up to our house (this was the only time she ever did so) to thank us.
I have been told that Mama Hokey survived the War and at least in 2001 was still alive although reportedly blind and living back in Foindu Nongowa. I have had no recent word about her. To this day I have a great respect for her - she was a very distinguished person and someone whose friendship we valued highly in our Kenema days.
update: in 2010 I was informed that Mama Hokey had died. Reportedly she went back to her village (Foindu Nongowa) in her last few years. Although blind in her last few years she lived out her last few years in Foindu where I am sure she was cared for quite well. A woman that I looked up to in my Peace Corps years - Mama Hokey was incredibly good to us in those years. The head woman in the area Bundu, she provided me with a wonderful glimpse of her life and of the Bundu, and included us in a number of the public demonstrations of the Bundu and allowed me to take pictures of amny of the events. She was a proud woman, very much respected, and very much feared.  

No comments: