Why an interest in the Bondo?
My work as a Peace Corps volunteer in up-country Sierra Leone involved both teaching in a secondary school, and living in a rural community on the outskirts of Kenema, the headquarters of the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone. My weekdays were spent teaching general science and mathematics, and coaching netball. My free time was spent trying to get to know the area where I lived. My neighborhood was very typical.
The daily rhythms of life took place here just like anywhere else – folks started their day at sunrise, went to work whether it was to local industries or to their farms – made meals – took care of their families – and worried about local and national politics. On moonlit nights they sang wonderful songs on their verandas. At night there was darkness and quiet. Throughout my time in Sierra Leone I was usually out and about with my cameras, and when neighbors allowed me, I took pictures. At our home I made a dark room so that I could process the black & white film, and make copies for gifts.
I think it was about a year before word got out about my photography and my neighbors began asking me to take their pictures. In those times it was not unusual for neighborhood friends as well as strangers to come by, dressed in their best, to have me do a portrait. I suspect that many of those pictures are still in their possession.
In the process of establishing this local photo reputation, people also got wind of my interest in learning about Mende culture. It was this, that led folks to let me know when there might be traditional activities in the area. This ran the gamut from the making of local cotton textiles (called country-cloth) to the activities of the local area secret women’s society called the Bondo.
Across the road from us lived our neighbor Mama Hokey Kemoh, who as time went on, we were to learn, was the head of the Bondo. This traditional women’s society was active during the dry season (December through March). It’s icon – the Bondo Devil (or spirit) became of special interest to me. First off it was unusual in appearance with a wonderfully carved, shiny black helmet mask – a somewhat amorphous body of indigo dyed raffia – and usually accompanied by 1 – 2 attendants. There were other traditional ‘devils’ that were controlled by men. But The Bondo Devil was solely a women’s spirit – and as such was very unusual. There were no other women’s spirits (with masks) in West Africa.
So – in our area, when Bondo activity was out and about, neighbors would let me know, and I would be out to see the goings on and document it with my camera. And as folks became more comfortable with my presence and reputation, they allowed me to see activities in local villages and to take the pictures. Bondo activity was not my only interest, but it became a wonderful chance for me to observe activities that were clearly very important to women growing up in up-country Mendeland.