© by Chad Finer
In this photo taken in our neighborhood at 55 Dama Rd in Kenema - Bonya carries her baby (named Hokey). Taken on the veranda in the front - Hokey "kpokpoi" is the little girl to Bonya's right. Bonya was a beautiful Mende traditional singer. I spent many a night - sitting either on this veranda or sitting on the one in the back of the house, listening to her sing wonderful Bondu songs. She would be the leader in the sings and the women who took part would respond to her leadership with beautiful harmony. Although I did understand some Mende - most times the words had to be translated for me - although this was not something that I often requested. For me it was the mesmerizing sound, the beautiful harmony, and since nights were dark (only at times lit by the moon) it was the romance of the environment - being so far from home. On occasion there would be rain coming down on the tin roof that would add to the patina. My neighbors knew of my love of their music and their culture. They knew how much I enjoyed listening to their singing - and as a result we were often called to come and be with them during the "sings." These sings (as they called them) came with little planning - as best as I could tell. There was always a background hum of music that permeated the West African day. There was always a background rhythm that made the day that much more tolerable. Days were hot and often wet (dry season was hot and as it progressed - days became increasingly humid; rainseason was incredibly wet) and the climate thus was harsh. Brushing a farm was hard work when it was all done by hand from the clearing with your machete to the planting of the rice seed which not only included broadcasting the seed but also scratching it into the upland soil (in those days the Mende did not like growing rice in the swamps). But with it all there was a beat - a rhythm - even when rice had been harvested and was being readied for dinner in the mortar and pestle. I was always aware of this undercurrent of cadence. And when song came it came with beautiful sound - a beautiful and wondrous harmony - and was something that I awlays looked forward to.