With George S. Khoryama……..
Culture is defined among other things as “the customs, institutions and achievements of a particular nation, people or group,” The manifestations of culture vary from country to country; people to people, group to group. It distinguishes the history, life and practices of a people and nation from others, howbeit with some similarities here and there. Culture showcases the sacred values, pedigree and precedents of a people and nation. It invokes a spirit of attachment and belonging to one another, to one’s roots and environment, almost always guarded against alterations and foreign influence. Nations, governments and peoples come and go only to be supplanted by others; whilst culture is passed on from generation to generation without change. Culture cannot be modernized without losing its intrinsic values.
Sierra Leone’s cultural heritage cuts across all it takes to make the country enviable as to place it in a class of its own. The country is known for its secret societies for example the Poro society, the Bondo society, the Hunting society, the Ojeh society, the Odele society, the Otta society (Geledeh), the Jamitiawo society, the Gunu-guru society, the Brotherhood society, the Freemason among others. These societies have considerable influence on their members and subjects with equally important responsibilities such as training of members (children) in areas of crafts, traditional laws and values. Members of these various societies maintain connecting strands of social solidarity in moments of bereavement or sickness of a member, financial needs, wedding, trouble, unemployment, disaster, etc.
Mask devils of all shapes and forms associated with these secret societies distinguish one secret society from the other, highly revered by members and cowardly feared by non-members. Non members are kept at bay when these mask devils come to town for parade or other functions. The colourful designs of the Odele masquerade for example, speak not only volumes of the power of human ingenuity, but also of the extravagance. Lantern parades and street carnivals all constitute the mechanism of our cultural and social life in Sierra Leone.
The cultural landscape of Sierra Leone is thus no less remarkable than anyone anywhere. What is less remarkable, offensive, disgusting and obnoxious though, is the violence and lawlessness that are associated with those devil masquerades and lantern parades. For far too long now have these vices of violence and lawlessness been factored into what otherwise should be peaceful and friendly occasions and means of entertainments.
The books are replete with records of violent and even bloody encounters between groups supporting respective masquerades and lantern parades during national, religious and private festivities. Members of these groups take drugs and alcohol and socialize into the culture of violence, lawlessness and even murder. The drugs and rum give them some weird sense of being superhumans and immune to police arrest. They become prone to sudden uncontrollable fits of temper tantrums, very violent, ready to fight and stab at the drop of a hat. The fellows get high on the adrenalin of drugs and liquor. One social observer says “they come across as narcissistic, dangerous and unbalanced. They become sentimental, indulged in emotions and feelings, enjoying the sensations of victory over others that have no meaning.”
In their psychedelic and drunken stupor , members of these masquerades and lantern parades pounce on innocent by-standers/observers and pick their pockets, snatch their mobile phones, watches, handbags and other valuables; they strike violently on vehicles stranded in the midst of their lawlessness, sometimes smashing the windshields with measures of impunity. They carry and drink alcohol, some smoke diamba (marijuana) in full view of the police that stand helpless at the sheer teeming and menacing crowds accompanying the respective groups. People no longer go out to be entertained by these masquerades but instead stand and watch in awe and mercy of the lawless and violent members and supporters.
Street corner entertainment performed by the Ojeh masquerades has equally become a social menace. The society members could cordon a whole public road without notification and probably without police clearance, to perform which lasts into the morning hours. Inevitably, no vehicle would have access to that particular road as long as the entertainment lasts.
This author and family had their own share of mammy curse and other unprintable invectives in the hands of an Ojeh masquerade members and supporters on the night of Saturday May 10, 2014 along Fergusson Street. Driving from Bayconsfield after a wedding reception between 10 and 11 p.m. that night we happened upon a large crowd of Ojeh revelers who had blocked every direction to and from Fergusson Street off Campbell Street. Ojeh members with vehicles had come and parked on every entrance or exit on Fergusson Street. My crime and that of my sister-in-law’s was why should we even ask who parked their vehicles on a public road leaving no avenue of exit. We were showered with mammy curse and other profanities never heard of before in our lives. One of the scumbags dashed to kick the hell out of me only for him to stagger in his drunken stupor and fell down as I stood over him. But for their sheer number, I was strong enough to have removed one of his arms from its socket and beat him with it into a coma. Praise God we later had an exit.
As recent as this year’s 53rd. independence anniversary celebration, Kissy Road in the east end of Freetown came under siege consequent of a big riot between two lantern groups that resulted in mayhem and destruction of properties. Several arrests were made whose culprits may not even be behind the bars by now.
The culture of violence, indiscipline and lawlessness has to this day remained a trademark of these mask devils and lantern parades, far removed from the amiable Poro, Bondo and other festivities of the country. To have a mask devil named “Bloody Mary” for instance, cannot be anything complimentary. In the face of all the disturbances and social disorder characteristic of these masquerades and lantern parades, members of the public have nowhere to make their grief known, nowhere to turn for mitigation of their plight. The police are nonchalant most of the time.
The practice and culture of street carnivals/parties in Freetown is as strange as entering Sicily in Rome and ask about the mafia. To many who have travelled and live elsewhere they only marvel at the sights. Public streets are cordoned illegally from one end to the other to facilitate private carnivals and parties that last all through the night. There is drinking, dancing, noising and loud music that robs neighbours of their right to peaceful sleep. These functions in normal and orderly societies are carried out in private homes or other secluded places, but in Freetown, they are meant to make inconvenient and embarrass the rest of the public. Who cares? After all no one’s cow is gored, they brag.
Cultural practices and events in all their varying forms are meant to preserve traditional values that are considered sacrosanct; values that seek the interest and welfare of their members and the society generally, and are poised against lawlessness, indiscipline and violence; values that preach peace, love and unity among the people. New initiates of the Poro and Bondo societies for example, are trained over a period of time in arts, crafts, household chores and traditional laws, thereby helping them with their education and keeping their traditional culture alive. Lawlessness, violence and indiscipline are considered abominable.
A culture that causes fear of insecurity in the people is no longer a culture but a curse on the society in which it exists; it becomes stricken and moribund thus losing its very essence. Financial and material support for cultural festivities based on political, tribal, ethnic and religious sentiments undermine our cultural values. These values remain the last vestiges of emancipation from the shackles of colonialism and western civilization. They must not be alternated.