Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Rites of Passage

“It’s a radio, Uncle”, Emmanuel said with such confidence that I second guessed myself. I was walking home from church in Senahum with a couple of the boys from our children’s home and as we approached Ngolala the sound of music and singing floated through the air to meet us. We had had an interesting morning, arriving into Senahum to find the church service forgone in favour of a brief time of prayer before everyone headed off to the more important work on their farms. My initial discouragement at this was however somewhat eased by the warmth of the welcome offered by the village Pastor and enjoyed by myself and my boys – a little tour of the village was given and we headed homewards with coconut milk dripping down our chins from the fresh jelly (immature and therefore full of glorious, sickeningly sweet, liquid) delights that were cut for us. But as we approached Ngolala village, where was this music coming from? “No, it’s not. No Emmanuel, that’s people singing.”

Stepping into the village we were met by a group of ladies dressed in the usual colourful combination of African lappas and headscarves with the globalised spin of second-hand American t-shirts, singing and dancing from house to house. A man was sitting on the ground nearby under a thatched shelter with his back against one of the four stick columns of the structure and I asked him what the celebration was for. I was informed that these women had just come back from a nearby village where they had left the village’s young girls to be initiated into the women’s secret society, called the Bundu society. This would be the first of a handful of chance encounters for me with the Bundu society’s initiation rites, a process so prevalent in Sierra Leone that the UN estimates that over 90% of the country’s female population has in fact been circumcised, or mutilated (depending on how emotive...or some would say wish your argument to be), a key aspect of these rites.

I had heard a story some days before of a young girl being effectively kidnapped by members of the society and forced to go through the initiation rites because her mother did not have the money to ransom her or bail her out. The society’s “devil”, (think traditional masquerade for now and we’ll get to witchcraft in a minute), had passed through the child’s village, singing and dancing and encouraging the girls to follow it like an African pied piper until they were in the bush and away from the protection of unwilling family members. This tale seems somewhat strange, mostly because it usually costs families money to have their kids initiated. That is why these activities begin shortly after the rice harvest. What certainly does happen however is that extended family members make the necessary arrangements for a child to be initiated against the parents’ wishes - so you get stories of girls going to visit Granny for the holidays and being whisked off in to the bush.

The “devils” themselves are objects of fear and so control. “Thing fearful”, people say about both the Bundu “devil” and even more so the “devil” for the Poro society, the men’s secret society. For about a week in January the Poro Society devil could be heard marching through the village groaning and moaning fear in to the hearts of the uninitiated populace and maybe in to those of initiates as well, though I have been told that the “devil” only visits homes to which he has been invited. A great deal of the fear comes from the association that the “devils” and the societies as a whole have with witchcraft and the occult. In a culture very sensitive to all things demonic (“The Little Mermaid” is looked at with a scowl and branded an evil water spirit) it is hard to ascertain what the truth is...and they aren’t called secret societies for no reason...and though I heard one person comment that their experience in the bush had not, visibly at least, involved anything of such darkness, it seems more than likely that in amongst the time spent training girls how to cook and boys how to hunt there is also some ceremonial stuff that plays with juju and the spirit world. Whether you believe in such things or not is to a point immaterial – people here believe in them and that gives them power. The fear is real, the control and power undeniable. And of course for the girls, though I am led to believe that for the most part they are oblivious going in, there is the sceptre of circumcision.

Just after I walked through a singing Ngolala we had planned to take a team of Americans to one village where we have a church but unbeknown to us until the last minute the Poro society was beginning its initiation rites there on the same day. The team was packed in to a van and on their way when they were stopped by the women who had left the village to let their men get on with their secret business. They turned back and, after a lot of dark jokes about what might have happened had they gone to the village made by nationals at the white folks’ expense, spent their day at another village instead.

At the end of January I was at our roadside office when a parade of people passed. The procession made its way forward amidst Mende songs and dancing with the general ruckus punctuated by celebratory shrieks. Four little figures were being held high on shoulders with coloured cloths covering their faces. The girls were being brought back from the bush and amidst the kinetic frenzy of the procession only they were still. What were they thinking? Were their little bodies sore? How would they look back on this time when they were older? I have little inkling of the answers to these questions. At the time the procession passed, a number of our kids were up at the store beside the office, helping their aunties collect the weekly supply of food for their houses. They stared at their culture as it moved past them, moved without them, and again I asked myself questions I did not have answers to. It seemed like they had a sense of fearful fascination. Like when you watch a scary movie that you don’t seem quite able to turn off. But what were they really thinking? Were they relieved that that would not be a part of their lives? Did a part of them wish they could go and join the dance, to follow the pied piper?

At the beginning of March I visited Mary in her village to check up on her progress after a recent serious health problems (though not directly related to what went before), and as I walked home with a friend we made our way through Ngolala and again music could be heard long before we entered the village. This time though it was more than a few ladies singing. It was a whole village (and plenty of others from surrounding villages) celebrating and when the excitement reached a fever pitch it sounded like you were standing around the corner from a sports stadium. Everyone, including the black Bundu “devil”, was gathered at an open area in the village, circling young women with straw skirts and chalked up faces dancing to the rhythm of drums. The Bundu initiation rites were finally completed and this was the party. Young men trying to look impressive wearing American style clothes and black shades, held up branches with money skewered on the ends and called for more. Everyone cheered and clapped and sang. A party that would be remembered. I said hey to a few friends I saw here and there and smiled at but left unanswered questions of “How do you see the culture?” A lady I know and her friend drunkenly danced around my colleague and I when we started to make our way home demanding that we pay them 1000 Leones (About 20p) if we wanted to leave. Our pockets were empty so they had to dance back to the party empty handed. And so we left. The next day the party continued and the girls who had been initiated would then be dressed up in all their finery and would travel to the homes of relatives and friends. In Freetown I saw a few girls at this stage getting their pictures taken in the street. I had asked a friend if they were heading to a wedding.

Also, at this stage girls can be given in marriage to elders in a village. Significantly, she is then the elder’s financial responsibility and when she truly comes of age he will take her as his wife. I know a lady who was given to her husband when she was 12 and when he already had four other wives. She is the only one that now remains. The multiple wives means multiple children (I know one man with two wives who have given him 17 kids) and a huge financial burden which in turn leads to families being willing to give a few of the girls over to early marriage.

And so life continues in Sierra Leone. A man grunts with something like contempt curling up the sides of his smirk. “These days the boys are in and out of the bush in no time. I was there, naked, for a year!”

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