The Masked Men
My name is Kou Dintowon Karkay Adrienne Tingba, and I am from my father’s land, Glehyee Zorpia District of the Yarwenn Mensonon township of Nimba County. In Liberia, a child is thought to be from their father’s land because it is his name which they carry carries, however, when child dies, they are buried in their mother’s land — the return to the motherland, as I like to call it. My mother’s land is Gompa District, Ganta City, of the same Nimba County.
As a girl, around 7 years old, I got the chance to visit my father’s motherland in Zahnboye, Nimba Country. I spent the entire Summer break there, which was a total of three months. During my three months stay, I got to experience the true African village life. We hunted and planted our food, built and maintained our own homes with red soil and rafia, and woke up early mornings to fetch water from the nearby river whose waters were very rough some days, and as calm as a sunset others. In the evenings, the entire village went to the river to socialize, wash our clothes, fetch water, and take our baths. My aunts and I were all young, so bathing in front of the entire village was the norm for children. One evening at the river, someone decided they wanted to wash their clothes on a specific rock too far out in the river. I sat and watched as the entire group protested against the idea. It was forbidden in the village to even go near the rock, as it was near that rock which the village’s “Devils” convened at night to discuss matters of keeping the town protected and disciplined.
That was the first I had ever heard of the “devils”. About a week later, I woke up to the beat of the talking drum in the little village. There was a message from the Town Chiefs. All the women were to gather ingredients from their respective homes to make a huge pot of GB, a fufu-like dish made of cassava, soup, and a lot of meat, indigenous to the people of Nimba County. The entire village were to finish all of their daily duties and be in their homes by sundown. The women, specifically, were to remain in their homes with the doors locked and their windows drawn shut!
Any person found disobeying those orders from the Chiefs was to be punished. No-one knew exactly what the punishment was, but rumors had it that they were sent out of their minds, left not knowing the difference between reality and fantasy. The women were to leave the prepared food outside in the village circle with palm wine, and water to wash hands, and return to their homes.
We all did as we were told, and nightfall came. Excited with curiosity, I kept standing by the window and doors trying to decipher the sounds I heard, or get an “accidental” peek at the “spirits” who needed water left by the GB to wash their hands after eating. It was a long and fearful night. My aunts and I told stories to one another to distract ourselves from to overbearing curiosity building in us, but that did very little to mask the sounds of drums beating and men talking excitedly.
Fast forward to today, and I am still just as curious about these masked men. I even sometimes regret not taking the peek outside that night to see for myself. I have instead, taken my curiosity to the level of research. In Liberia, the masquerade devils, or “Masked Men”, are still widely feared. I believe its because the everyday person has not given themselves a chance to understand why they were used, and who they were. Liberia, being one of Africa’s only nations to have not gotten colonized, has gone a long way away from its traditions, and well into that of western nations. Our devils are especially falling victims to our westernization, as fear still looms against them.
There is an underlying art scene in Liberia. Art dealers from around the world come to Liberia to purchase our masks belonging to the masquerade devils. I decided to talk to the sellers of the masks to understand exactly how they go about obtaining it, being that people not belonging to the chiefdom or the secret society are not allowed to possess them. The dealers, majority of whom are of Guinean descent, travel to remote villages in Eastern Liberia to acquire the masks. According to Mr. Amadou Bah who sells his collection down Mamba Point across from the Mamba Point Hotel in Central Monrovia, the masks were once used as a symbol of identity among the various native groups in Liberia. When there was no passport system, a miniature version of the mask belonging to a specific group was carved and used to travel to different counties, as well as to neighboring countries like the Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. The masks actually aren’t “devils”, but are “spirits” used as a symbol of supremacy among groups. The masked “devil” belonging to a certain land was highly respected, as they and the charms they had were the protectors of the land.
It was only after my discussion with Amadou and the other dealers that I got to understand that what happened that night in the village was a sacrifice to the spirits to continue protecting the land from evil spirits such as the ones that drive the animals away, and the ones that stop the crops from growing. The food was a token of appreciation to the spirits. I also found out that the spirits have manifested themselves into men who serve as the bridge between the spirit world and our world. They are the messengers of our ancestors — our ancestors who were not Christian, or Muslim, or any other religion, but were Poro, Mende, Mandigue, and Bono. They are not devils there to harm us, but are bodies selected by the spirits to guide us, protect our lands, protect us, and protect our traditions.
Although a huge majority of Liberia has become incredibly westernized, and places and groups like the Zoe Bush or the Poro Society are not dared to be spoken of, it gives me hope that these places and these groups still exist, and our traditions are still being practiced in remote villages across our 15 Counties. With more discussion of these places and groups encouraged, the contry is better equipped at understanding what happens in them, and what steps can be taken that any harmful practices by them can be addressed.
I believe understanding your roots is essential to understanding your leaves and branches. As Liberians, we cannot turn a blind eye to our fading traditions. We must uphold it, and showcase its beauty. The traditions of our ancestors are not to be treated as a forbidden fruit. We are to speak of them, and pass on their stories to our children and grandchildren. Only then, will we be able to understand ourselves as a nation and begin to take the right decisions in its leadership and governance.
(Photo series in collaboration with Meskora Amoussou (IG @meskora)
(… And when the day becomes night, the spirit become gods.)