|Susan with Mama Hokey (right) and Mama Hawa (left) at Dama Road in Kenema Town - c. 1970|
photo © by Chad Finer
|Bondo activity at the village of Foindu in Nongowa Chiefdom c. 1969-70|
photo © by Chad Finer
Early in our days in Kenema we were befriended by a woman who lived across from us - a woman who it later turned out was the head of the local (Kenema area) Bondo or secret women's society. Although I never really knew her exact age - in those days she was probably in her late 40's. Regal in her behavior and presence, Mama Hokey commanded respect due to her position in the women's society. She was the leader who led the training of young women to be wives and to be mothers. She was responsible for calling the Bondo Society into action. She was in charge of the Bondo spirits (or devils - the icons of the Mende Bondo Society. Tall and stately - she spoke with authority, and when she spoke others listened. She feared no one, but others showed her utmost respect. To some degree she kept her history to herself. I did learn that she had a son who went off in the early 1960's to study in the United Kingdom. I was never to meet him - and she talked of him rarely. Mama Hokey never talked to me about her husband. Whether he had died, or was living elsewhere was never clear. She had lived briefly in Freetown in the 1950's. Given that we lived so close it became easy to pay her a visit and to sit and make small talk on a regular basis. She learned of my interest in learning about Mende ways and this was perhaps the most influential aspect of why we got along. Proud of her heritage, and incredibly knowledgeable, she saw to it that when there were public Bondo displays and activities in the area then I would be notified. And during the so called Bondo season there was an abundance of Bondo activity all around us, and in nearby villages. In her modesty she never let on (at least to me) her leadership position - but from my observations it became obvious that she was in charge. Correctly so I was never made privy to the secret activity of the society - this would have been blasphemy. But I was invited to observe the public activity including the numerous times that new initiates came out of the bush to parade about, the numerous times when Bondo women might be out and about doing their activities, and of course, the numerous times when the actual devil would be out in our area - parading about. Local villages nearby us such as Tokpombu, Bitema, Gbenderoo, and Foindu (all in Nongowa Chiefdom)were, in addition to Kenema Town (our neighborhood there) were the places that most of the activity directed by Mama Hokey seemed to be located. I'd grab my cameras and put them in my red travel bag that I had acquired, and head out hoping to capture a few images. One camera (Pentax H1a) held black and white film, and the other (Nikon FTn) held either color slide film (usually Agfa)or color negative film. The Nikon had a built in light meter that was helpful. The Pentax required a hand held light meter.
So off I'd head - on foot out to one of the villages nearby with my red camera bag over my shoulder. For some reason - perhaps it was Mama Hokey's influence - folks let me into their villages and let me take pictures. To some degree it was because people knew that I often returned and gave people pictures of themselves. But, given that Mama Hokey was so influential - my guess is that she had spread the word that I might be coming by - with my camera - and that it was OK. So periodically I was notified and was lucky to be able to head to these villages, many times with my friend Patrick Garlough (he rented a room in Mama Hokey's house. In the villages the women were very kind to me. As they went about their public activities they were very willing to include me in the activities. When the traditional activities would be ongoing they would allow me to go about photographing what was going on . At times they would even stop and formally pose for me. When the devil would be parading about - its attendant would stop and allow me to get it and the attendant to pose. I never had any problems trying to document what was happening - and this allowed me to feel welcomed. Clearly, I was a remote figure in all that was going on about me - but I wanted to learn, I wanted to see what was allowable, and I felt a need to take pictures of the events surrounding us. For me - these traditional Mende events were both beautiful and mysterious. And here I was - a foreigner and a white man - being given both the permission and the privilege of seeing it all. I was not unique - as there had been many others like me who for whatever reason had been able to learn of Mende ways firsthand. What I was was lucky enough to have been able to be there and learn. I was very fortunate.