Dancing with the Devil in rural Sierra Leone
I’d only just arrived in the small rural village of Kambama in Sierra Leone’s Southern District when a creature made from straw danced in front of me and then laid prostrate at my feet.
He was capped by an embroidered crown and clad with wooden scales that clattered when he moved, but for now, he was still, except for the occasional, barely perceptible shiver.
It was Goboi, a devil-like creature who appears at momentous moments in the village, including the arrival of a scruffy Aussie travel writer.
Goboi is part of Poro – a secret men’s society in Mende culture.
Along with Sande – the corresponding secret society for women – these organisations play a major role in teaching young men and women the skills they need to survive in society.
They are often the glue that holds these rural societies together.
Ten minutes later, Goboi was still on the ground at my feet, now gently mewing.
“What does he want?” I ask my guide, Osman.
“Money,” he replied, handing me a wad of 2 Leone notes.
I stuffed a few notes in Goboi’s straw and he shuddered with delight.
Then he jumped up and started dancing again, this time making his way to the dusty town square where the rest of the village had gathered to watch him dance.
They all had their mobile phones out, filming, suggesting the performance was as much for them as us.
A row of chairs had been lined up in the shade of a mango tree for us to sit on as we watched the show.
Now Goboi was spinning and gyrating, clattering and dipping, shaking to the frenzied accompaniment of singers, clapping their hands, and a man banging on a traditional drum.
Goboi had stirred up the dust and the level of excitement amongst the villagers.
Next Ndoli Jowei appeared, the idealisation of female beauty in Mende society.
She was wearing a mask as black as night, covered in black straw and decorated with lengths of colourful wool.
Ndoli Jowei spins like a top, and like Goboi periodically stops in front of people to solicit donations.
If you think you have any chance of seeing one of these traditional dances, I recommend you stock up on 2 LE notes (£0.07/$0.10).
At the back, the young girls of the village gathered, their faces painted white.
They were in their most colourful clothes including traditional head scarfs and less traditional sarongs bearing the club emblems of Chelsea and Barcelona. One sarong is covered in characters from Peppa Pig.
Later I asked Osman what the white paint meant and he explained that the girls wear it when they are being initiated into the Sande society as part of a rite of passage into adulthood.
Then he stressed that this performance was not part of an initiation process.
These girls were just singing songs about tourists, he said. Songs asking why we liked beer so much and got sunburned so easily. It was all simply for entertainment.
Osman was keen to make the distinction because in many rural areas the Sande ceremony also includes a visit to a Bondo Bush for ‘cutting’ – Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The government has tried to stamp out the practice but in rural areas it still persists.
The Ebola outbreak in 2014 saw the practice virtually stop, said Osman, what with Ebola being transmitted by blood and other bodily fluids.
But lately, it has been back on the rise.
FGM is an ongoing challenge for the government in Sierra Leone.
They get pressure from the international community who quite rightly consider it a barbaric and discriminatory practice.
Yet many villagers argue that it is an integral part of their culture and, let’s be honest, a way of enforcing and entrenching the patriarchy.
The international community has called for the practice to be banned altogether. The Sierra Leone government is fearful that that will simply drive the practice underground, making it even more dangerous when things go wrong.
Instead they have introduced a law stating that it can be only performed if a girl is over 18 and gives her consent.
But what is consent when you’re a girl in a village and finding a husband and starting a family is dependent on you having it done?
When the ceremony ended, Goboi headed back into the forest, accompanied by his two guardians.
We caught a boat across to Tiwai Island, considering what Osman had told us and what we had just witnessed.
Later than night, as we sat on a veranda, bombarded by insects drawn to the light, I got the chance to talk to Sarah, a local woman from the village, who was preparing our meals.
She acknowledged that in some of the more remote villages FGM was still taking place and is more prevalent than the government would like to admit.
“It will only change when boys start saying they prefer girls who have not had it done.”
Something she said was already beginning to happen.
A few days later I was at a cocktail reception hosted by the Sierra Leone National Tourism Board at the Country Lodge Hotel in Freetown.
I brought the issue up with the General Manager, Fatmata Mida Hamid Carew.
“That girl on Tiwai is right,” she said. “That is the only way things will change.
I’m happy to hear that it is starting to happen in the villages.”
Main image: Young dancer in Kambama Village, Sierra Leone (Peter Moore)