Sierra Leone masquerades

‘Bundu devils’ or Ndoli jowei masquerades of the women’s society, photographed in February 1915 by Northcote Thomas in Tormah (Tormabum), present-day Bonthe District, Sierra Leone. (NWT 6183-4; RAI 400.38125.)

Masquerade traditions are widespread across West Africa. Masked performers are earthly manifestations of spirits – whether of ancestors or forces of nature. They mediate between the visible world of humans and the invisible world of the spirits. They often play important roles in ceremonies marking key rites of passage, such as initiation into adulthood or passing to ancestorhood, and in ritual cycles, for instance those associated with farming, fertility and renewal.

Such spirits may be benevolent tutelary figures; some are fierce and forbidding; others may be clown-like and entertaining. Much has been written about their function in society, their iconography and symbolism, and the dramaturgy of their performances. Earlier European commentators often characterised these figures as ‘festishes’ or ‘juju’. Thomas was among the first to recognize their importance in the wider ‘magico-religious sphere’, and that this was not merely about ‘belief and worship’, but ‘inextricably mixed up with law, social organisation and other elements of human life’. He also acknowledged, however, that not enough was known about them to offer an adequate analysis, not least since this knowledge was largely restricted to initiates.

During his anthropological tours in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915, Northcote Thomas photographed and documented many different masquerades, from the Eliminia performed by senior age-grade members in Otuo or those associated with annual Ovia festivals around Benin City during his Edo tour, to the graceful maiden spirit (Agbogho mmuo) or aggressive Mgbedike of the Nri-Awka Igbo. Here we focus on Thomas’s photographic documentation of Sierra Leonean masquerades.

Ndoli jowei

‘Indigenous’ Sierra Leonean masquerade traditions are quite distinct from those found in Southern Nigeria and from the Igbo- and Yoruba-derived traditions introduced into Sierra Leone (especially Freetown) by the so-called ‘Liberated Africans’ in the 19th century. Of the indigenous types, only the Ndoli jowei (the ‘dancing sowei’) of the Mende female Sande society is well known. Its distinctive black helmet mask has become a national symbol of Sierra Leone, and examples are to be found in many museums.

As well as photographing Ndoli jowei masquerade figures in Tormah, Northcote Thomas also made sound recordings of women’s society songs. This phonograph recording was made on February 24, 1915. (NWT 720; BL C51/3154.)

Ndoli jowei is just one of a family of Mende spirit manifestations, although it is especially notable since it is one of the few female masquerades actually danced by women (in contrast to the Igbo Agbogho mmuo, for instance, which is a representation of a female spirit, but danced by men). Thomas photographed examples of the Ndoli jowei in Tormah (now known as Tormabum) in present-day Bonthe District, Southern Sierra Leone in 1915. He identified them in his photo register as ‘Bundu devils’, using the name given to them by Christian missionaries, who demonized such spirit manifestations.

A video installation that featured in the ‘Sowei: Spirit of Sierra Leone‘ exhibition at the British Museum in 2013, filmed by curator Paul Basu and The Light Surgeons. The film was shown as a continuous loop in the exhibition, which featured a sowei mask collected in Sierra Leone in 1886. The exhibition explored the sowei mask from different perspectives – anthropological, art historical, symbolically as a national symbol. The exhibition also considered the colonial entanglements of the mask displayed.

‘Bundu’ – or, more correctly, ‘Bondo’ – is the Temne name for the women’s society known as Sande in Mende-speaking areas of Sierra Leone. Although associated with the Mende, the society and its masquerade is in fact more widespread in Sierra Leone, and can be found in many Temne-speaking areas where the Ndoli jowei is known as Nöwo.

‘The Sowei Mask: Curator’s Notes with Bill Hart’. Bill Hart, a specialist on Sierra Leonean material culture, discusses the mask of the Ndoli jowei masquerade, using examples from the British Library collections. This short video was made as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project (www.sierraleoneheritage.org).

Samawa

Another photograph relating to the women’s society masquerades was published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, and is also captioned ‘Bundu “Devil”’. This is an altogether more intriguing figure insofar as the costume does not include the familiar black helmet mask. The photograph was taken in the Temne-speaking town of Magbeli (today spelled Magbile or Magbele) on the banks of the Rokel River. In his photographic register, Thomas also provides the name ‘Pa Fore Salia’, and indicates that the photograph is of a woman. It is interesting to note that the woman carries a man’s name and title.

'Bondo devil' photographed by Northcote Thomas in Magbile, Sierra Leone in 1914
The Samawa-like figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in December 1914 in Magbile, present-day Bombali District, Sierra Leone. In his photo register book, Thomas provides the caption, ‘Bundu “devil”, Pa Fore Salia, woman’. Note the two large sacks on the front of the figure’s costume, probably representing elephantiasis of the scrotum – an affliction said to befall men who pry into the secrets of the women’s society. (NWT 5924 & 5925-6; MAA P.33579 & 33580.)

In contrast to the finely carved helmet mask and dyed raffia costume of the Nöwo or Ndoli jowei, this masquerade costume might be best described as an accretion of beads, coiled basket roundels, bones, bells, shells and animal hair attached to sack cloth. The face of the dancer – presumably Pa Fore – is only partially obscured by the headpiece. This corresponds most closely to the Samawa masquerade described by Ruth Phillips in her book Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. (If you know the equivalent Temne name for this figure, we would welcome your advice.)

Samawa is a satirist, and her use of humour can be light and playful, but can also border on the menacing and frightening. Phillips’ description of a Samawa she witnessed during her research in Southern Sierra Leone in the 1970s, shares many features of the character photographed by Thomas in Magbile:

The costume and performance of samawa change depending on the specific object of her satire. She wears no headpiece, but rather face paint, exaggerated clothing, and the appropriate appended objects. In one performance of samawa that I saw, the impersonator’s face was painted with black and white spots to represent leprosy, a strip of fur was tied around her chin as a beard, and she was dressed in dirty rags. A big bulge under the front of her costume represented a swelling of the scrotum, and she hobbled about leaning on a stick like a cripple. All these deformities, she sang, would afflict any man who disobeys Sande rules, and she interrupted her song with bursts of loud, raucous laughter. (Phillips 1995: 90)

Sure enough, on the front of the costume of the ‘Bundu devil’ photographed by Thomas in Magbile, one can see two bulging sacks, probably representing elephantiasis of the scrotum, which is indeed a condition that men who dare to intrude on the secret practices of the women’s society are said to contract.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this is one of the few facts about the Bondo society that Thomas records in his Anthropological Report. The threat of scrotal elephantiasis was perhaps sufficient to deter him from pursuing his inquiries further!

Pa Kasi

In contrast to his limited investigations of women’s initiation societies, Thomas conducted extensive research into men’s societies such as Poro and Ragbenle. Thomas attempted to be initiated into Poro at Yonibana, but was prevented as a result of the intervention of a junior colonial administrator by the name of W. Y. Lyons. When Thomas complained about this interference, it was claimed that Lyons acted in the interests of the local population. It is more likely, however, that the idea of a European acting on behalf of the colonial government being initiated into a West African ‘secret society’ was seen as a transgression of a racialised boundary, which could not be tolerated by the colonial authorities.

When Thomas submitted the initial draft of his Report to the Colonial Office at the conclusion of his Sierra Leonean tour, he requested that many details of the Poro society and its connection with chieftaincy be withheld from publication because they would cause embarrassment to his informants. Due to these ethical concerns, the section on Poro in the published report is quite cursory.

There are many masquerades associated with Poro in the south of Sierra Leone, some of which had been previously photographed and published by the colonial administrator T. J. Alldridge. Thomas’s anthropological survey was focused in the north and central Sierra Leone, and he took relatively few photographs during his travels in the south, none of which include male masquerades. (The relative sparsity of photographs from the latter period of Thomas’s Sierra Leone tour was probably due to difficulties obtaining new glass plate negatives as the First World War intensified and affected shipping to West Africa.)

'Pa Kashe' photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Pa Kasi’ photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mabonto in present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. (NWT 5843-4; MAA P.33510.)

One Poro figure that Thomas did photograph, however, was ‘Pa Kasi’. Pa Kasi is not, strictly-speaking, a masquerade. He is, rather, a senior official of the men’s Poro society. Due to the remarkable nature of his costume, however, we include him here. The photograph was taken in Mabonto in present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. Pa Kasi plays important roles in the initiation of new members into Poro and also the crowning of paramount chiefs. The same figures is known as ‘Tasso’ in Mende-speaking areas. Thomas describes him as a ‘doctor’, adept at controlling the powers of magico-herbal ‘medicines’ which have the ability to both cure and kill.

Representations of Pa Kasi or Tasso over 200 years. Clockwise from top left: (1) ‘Gregree of Ma Yerma and Gregree of Ba Simera’, published in 1825 in Alexander Gordon Laing’s Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries in Western Africa. (2) ‘The Poro Secret Society – Group of Tasso Man, Imperri Country’, photographed in 1895 and published in 1901 in T. J. Alldridge’s The Sherbro and Its Hinterland. (3) Tasso photographed by Gary Schulze at the Durbar for Paramount Chiefs held in Bo, 2011, during Sierra Leone’s 50th anniversary of independence celebrations (reproduced with permission).

The most remarkable aspect of Pa Kasi’s costume is his headdress of ambong. This takes the form of an inverted cone with, according to Thomas, the ‘feathers of the greater plantain-eater in it’. Around its rim are arranged skulls and thigh bones. In Thomas’s account, ‘the skulls are said to be those of people who have infringed Poro law’. This accords with the account of the American anthropologist Vernon Dorjahn who conducted research on the Temne Ragbenle and Poro societies in the 1950s and who states that the ‘skeletal material’ on Pa Kasi’s crown was ‘obtained from those executed for breaches of Poro discipline’ (Dorjahn 1961). In his description of the Tassos in Southern Sierra Leone, Alldridge (1901: 131), however, notes that the bones are those of ‘defunct Tassos’, whom the wearer has succeeded in office.

a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra

Whereas the Pa Kasi/Tasso figure has been documented by European travellers in Sierra Leone since the 1750s, Thomas was the first outsider to record the a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra masquerades of the Temne Ragbènle society. It has been suggested that these spirits – krifi, or kärfi, in Temne – are found exclusively in Yele in Gbonkolenken chiefdom, in Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone, and that they travel to other chiefdoms in the region to perform at the crowning of chiefs. Thomas makes no reference to a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèrabeing exclusive to Yele, however, and, indeed, he photographed examples in Matotaka and Mamaka, in present-day Tane and Yoni cheifdoms respectively, which neighbour Gbonkolenken in Tonkolili District. Our own research also suggests that they continue to exist outside of Yele in other chiefdoms where the Ragbènle society is found.

'Arong Athoma' and 'Namenkara' masquerades photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Aron-athoma’ and ‘Namankara’ masks photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mamaka, present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. (NWT 5847-8; RAI 400.37943.)

Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone contains just a few notes on a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra. Thomas documented, for example, the Ragbènle society’s role at the death of a chief and the initiation of a new chief. At each of these occasions, and also on the death of a member of the society, the a-Ròng-a-Thoma comes out to perform. a-Ròng may be glossed as meaning ‘mask’, and, according to Thomas, Thoma or Toma means ‘forbidden’, but is also the name of a particular tree. The wood of this tree, he notes, cannot be placed on a fire by a member of Ragbènle or he will burn himself. a-Ròng-a-Thoma generally dance in pairs and are accompanied by Namangkèra, who is a messenger figure.

'Arong Athoma' and 'Nemankera' masquerades photographed by Northcote Thomas in Matotoka and Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
Left: ‘Arronna Toma’ mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in Matotaka, 1914. (NWT 5493-4; MAA P.33202.) Right: Sequence of photographs by Northcote Thomas of a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra dancing in Mamaka, 1914. (NWT 5847-8, 5849-50, 5851-2, 5853-4; MAA P.33512, P.33513, P.33514, P.33515.)

Although there are a number of a-Ròng-a-Thoma headdresses in museum collections, until recently Thomas’s photographs were until recently the only documentation of the spirits in their complete costumes. The art historian, Fred Lamp, made a study of the figures during his fieldwork in Yele in 1979-80, during which he interviewed the paramount chief, officials of Ragbènle and former dancers of a-Ròng-a-Thoma. Lamp records that è-Ròng-è-Thoma are said to be the ‘chiefs’ of all the Ragbènle spirits, while Namangkèra is their brother. Both are regarded as water spirits. The wooden a-Ròng-a-Thoma mask is zoomorphic in form, with wide, flaring nostrils, a grid of teeth, and a pair of horns that curve around the crown of the head. It is worn with a costume of dyed raffia. According to Lamp, they are considered responsible for the general welfare and safety of the community and the growth of crops. Namangkèra’s mask has a conical, funnel-like opening, which Thomas describes as a ‘long wooden beard’ (the example photographed by Thomas has more anthromorphic facial features). Lamp notes that unlike a-Ròng-a-Thoma, ‘Namangkèra makes sounds and is very talkative, argumentative to the point that people describe him as a “lawyer”’.

‘Arong Athoma: Curator’s Notes with Bill Hart’. Bill Hart, a specialist on Sierra Leonean material culture, discusses a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra, including footage of the masquerades filmed at the installation of Bai Sunthuba Osara at Matamp in Gbonkolenken chiefdom in 2010 by Nuala McAllister Hart. This short video was made as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project (www.sierraleoneheritage.org).

Sankoh

A particularly unusual type of masquerade figure that Thomas photographed, and which is unique in Sierra Leone in having a brass face, is the a-Ròng-a-Rabai – the ‘mask of chieftaincy’ – or what Thomas refers to as the ‘cheifship krifi’. These are found exclusively in Temne areas of Sierra Leone, and have very rarely been documented. In an article on such masks, Bill Hart states that these are usually bear the name of the chiefly clan, often in archaic form. In his Anthropological Report, Thomas provides a more detailed account of the ‘cheifship krifi’ that he encountered at Mamaka. He writes,

At Mamaka he is called Sanko; Sanko and the chief, Satimaka, must be in separate houses; like the chief, he may not go where bundu [i.e. the women’s society] implements are kept, nor where there is a new-born child. It is significant that at the chief’s death his Sanko retires and is replaced by another man after offering a sacrifice.

Sanko wears a helmet of leather surmounted by a tuft; the face is of brass and there is a brass plate behind; strips of leopard skin are attached to the base, and over the skin is fibre that reaches to the waist. He has fibre ruffles round his wrists and net anklets with fibre tops. Four sticks tied together (bonkoloma) are in his hand; they are the chief’s staff; in point of fact the staff actually used by the chief is quite different, long and forked at the top.

The chiefship mask of Magbile is known as aron arabai; like Sanko the wearer cannot come out when the chief is dead; the mask is kept in the chief’s house. The dress is formed of skins, and he has palm-fibre trousers.

When he goes for a walk through the land he carries a broom and whips to flog people who do not come out when he dances. He can judge cases and pay the money received to the chief.

'Sanko' masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
Front and rear view of Pa Sanko, the ‘mask of chieftaincy’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mamaka in present-day Yoni chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. (NWT 5856, 5855; MAA P.33518, P.33517.)

When we did fieldwork in Mamaka as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we were careful to discuss with the senior men the fact that we had photographs of things that perhaps not everyone was permitted to see. Among the elders we met was Pa Amadu Kamara, the grandson of Chief Satimaka, whom Thomas photographed. We learned Pa Amadu’s grandfather’s full name was Satimaka Memneh Sankoh, and that Sankoh is the name of the ‘devil’ (i.e. spirit) that dwells in the hill above the town. The devil of the hill, we were told, has someone in the town who is called Pa Sankoh. Pa Amadu expressed surprise that Thomas was able to photograph Sankoh; neither did he know whether the spirit still dwelled in the hill. There seemed to be a distinction made between the spirit or krifi, Sankoh, after whom the hill was named, and Pa Sankoh, who alone could communicate between krifi and the people of the town.

Left: Chief Satimaka of Mamaka, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 (detail of NWT 5854; RAI 400.38198). Right: Pa Amadu Kamara holding Northcote Thomas’s photograph of his grandfather, Chief Satimaka, photographed by Paul Basu, 2019. There was a striking family resemblance between grandfather and grandson.

Ayuke or Kabemba

Boys and young men must be circumcised before they can be initiated into the Poro or Ragbènle societies. At the time of the circumcision ceremonies, the initiands withdraw into a circumcision bush, which is forbidden to women and where various prohibitions pertain. According to Thomas’s account of the process, while undergoing the ordeal, those being circumcised are under the guardianship of an old man, and also an old widow who is known as Yabemba. Yabemba must be past child-bearing age, and is the only woman permitted to enter the circumcision bush.

'Kabamba' circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Kabamba’ circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mamaka, present-day Yoni chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone (NWT 5895, 5896; RAI 400.38234, MAA P.33552.)
Circumcision masks photographed by Northcote Thomas in Sierra Leone in 1914
Left: Circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Matotaka, present-day Tane chiefdom, Tonkolili District (NWT 5495; RAI 400.37821). Right ‘Kabamba’ circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Robinkie, Mayoso, present-day Kholifa Rowala chiefdom, Tonkolili District (NWT 5514; MAA P.33234).

Once the initiands’ wounds have healed, they follow a masked figure – known as Bemba, Kabemba or Ayuke – back into the town, where they dance all night wearing long gowns (runku). Thomas records that in some towns the mask is worn by the man who conducts the circumcision operation (ayunkoli).

Following the ceremonies, Thomas states that the circumcision mask and its raffia costume are generally kept; although he notes that in some places they are thrown into the bush, presumably to decay. Thomas photographed examples of the Kabemba mask in Mamaka, Matotaka and Mayoso, and he also collected one in Mapori (Mafori?), with its fibre and palm-leaf dress, which he notes in his Report is ‘now in the Cambridge Museum of Ethnology’. We were able to identify and photograph this mask during our research with the Thomas collections at the museum, now called the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.

Kabimba circumcision mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Mapori, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Yuke’ or Kabimba circumcision mask, worn at dance in town’, collected by Northcote Thomas in Mapori near Kamalo in present-day Sanda Loko chiefdom, Bombali District, Northern Sierra Leone. (NWT 49; MAA Z 14480.1.)
‘The Kabemba Mask: Curator’s Notes with Bill Hart’. Bill Hart, a specialist on Sierra Leonean material culture, discusses the mask of the Kabemba masquerade, using examples from the British Library collections. This short video was made as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project (www.sierraleoneheritage.org).

Further reading

  • Alldridge, T. J. (1901) The Sherbro and Its Hinterland. London: Macmillan.
  • Dorjahn, V. R. (1961) ‘The Initiation of Temne Poro Officials’, Man 61: 36-40.
  • Hart, W. A. (1986) ‘Aron Aarabai: The Temne Mask of Chieftaincy’, African Arts 19(2): 41-45+91.
  • Lamp, F. J. (2005) ‘The Royal Horned Hippopotamus of the Keita of Temne: “A-Rong-a-Thoma”‘, Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin: 36-53.
  • Phillips, R. B. (1995) Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
  • Thomas, N. W. (1916) Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, Part 1: Law and Custom. London: Harrison & Sons.

Fieldnotes: protection from witchcraft

Charms collected by Northcote Thomas in Sierra Leone, 1914-15
‘Charms’ collected by Northcote Thomas in Sierra Leone, 1914-15. Clockwise from top left: Sacrifice to keep children well (MAA Z 14477); Charm to protect kola tree (MAA Z 14479); Charm (MAA Z 14499); Charm for kola tree (MAA Z 14502).

Sometimes the most potent objects are not the most visually striking. This is true of the various ‘sacrifices’ and ‘charms’ that Northcote Thomas collected in Sierra Leone in 1914-15, and now held by the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. They take many forms – cloth covered bundles, a few sticks tied together, crumbling packages – yet they are also some of the most powerful objects in the Thomas collections. They have the power to protect people and their property from malevolent forces, including witchcraft, which might bring sickness, crop failure or other calamities.

Sacrifice for good sleep, Kamalo, Sierra Leone
‘Sacrifice’ in house in Kamalo to protect from evil and bring good sleep. Photographed by N. W. Thomas in 1914. (MAA P.33089)

Witchcraft and the various means to protect oneself from it appear to have been of particular interest to Thomas during his tour of mainly Temne-, Soso-, Koranko- and Limba-speaking communities in northern Sierra Leone. He devoted a number of chapters of his Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone to the topic and related matters. This reflects the centrality of the issue to the communities he worked with.

He evidently struggled to make sense of the numerous rites, ceremonies, sacrifices, amulets and charms that were employed by different communities to protect themselves from malevolent forces. This no doubt reflects the anthropologist’s desire to make distinctions between and classify the practices and objects he encountered. Thus, in Chapter 7 of his Report, Thomas discusses various rituals, sacrifices and magical things under categories of ‘satka’, ‘wanka’ and ‘kanta’, and yet in his descriptions the distinction between these is often blurred and confusing.

N. W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, typology of wanka
Pages from N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, including a table in which Thomas attempts to produce a typology of wanka.

The ‘belief’ in witchcraft is still very much part of life in Sierra Leone and it is not unusual to see protective amulets, charms and other devices, especially in rural areas. The need to protect oneself from malevolent forces (the invisible ‘bullets’ of a ‘witchgun’, for example) is strongly felt and local herbalists or ritual specialists perform important roles in their communities. Although these charms are often constructed from ordinary things (basketwork, calabashes, eggs, stones, fishing nets), these have been ritually transformed. Thomas concluded that the objects were often selected because of their mimetic properties – a fragment of old fishing net thus becomes a ritual trap, for instance.

Sacrifice against fire, Fundembia, Sierra Leone
‘Sacrifice against fire’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Fundembia (?), 1914. NWT 5735; MAA P.33428.

Satka are often set up outside people’s houses. They typically take the form of long poles, on top of which are suspended various things – sometimes a white or red cloth, sometimes a small fan or basket, sometimes a small bell. Thomas observed these too: ‘Chief among mimetic rites’, he wrote, ‘may be mentioned the custom of hanging up a fan which swings in the breeze and is believed to be efficacious in blowing away evil influences’ (Thomas 1916: 53). We were given a similar explanation at the village of Katumpeh, on the road between Kamalo and Kamakwie. Mr Abraham Dumbuya explained that his previous house was damaged by strong winds, so he had this satka made. Now when evil comes with the wind, it sees the satka and jumps over the house, leaving it unharmed. Instead, the satka welcomes in good luck. Another man in the same village explained that when his satka swings in the breeze, it will invite good luck to the household.

Satka charm, Katumpeh, Sierra Leone
Satka outside house in Katumpeh, on the road between Kamalo and Kamakwie. Photographs by Paul Basu.

When we brought copies of Northcote Thomas’s photographs of Mamaka to show the present-day community, we asked about the various wanka he had photographed. One type, in particular, was instantly recognized. Thomas describes this as a type of ‘sacrifice’ ‘put at the entrance to a farm … to keep away witches, bad krifi [spirits], and evil-disposed persons and influences’ (Thomas 1916: 53).

Sacrifice on entrance to farm, Mamaka, Sierra Leone
‘Sacrifice at entrance to farm’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka in 1914. NWT 5863; MAA P.33523.

In Mamaka, we were later introduced to Mohammed Kamara, a herbalist or omen, who agreed to let us film him making such a charm, which he described as a kantha. He explained that farmers would approach him to make the kantha. It would be set up at the entrance to a farm at the time of hoeing the soil, before planting. The kantha can be re-used from year to year, but a new ceremony must be performed each year. The kantha includes a raw egg wrapped first in a red cloth, then covered in a piece of old fishing net. These have previously been transformed into powerful things using herbs or medicines. These are placed in a basketry receptacle that has been woven into long strips of cane. The receptacle is then covered in another piece of red cloth and another piece of old fishing net, which is bound in place. Just like the example photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914, this is then suspended on two poles and set up at the entrance of a farm. At key points in the making of the kantha, Mohammed spoke words that ‘activated’ the charm. The egg, he explained, was like a bomb – if a witch passed by, it would explode. The fishing net was a ritual trap.

Documentation film of Mohammed Kamara, herbalist, making a kantha charm to protect farm from witchcraft.

Mohammed learnt the skills of a herbalist from his father, Pa Almamy Kamara, who had, in turn, learnt the art from his mother, Yanna Kanray. He explained that not everyone has the power to make such charms and cure diseases. One must be gifted with ‘four eyes’ – that is, the ability to engage with the spirit realm. We asked how much a farmer might pay him for a kantha and he explained that it depended on how much he was able to pay. We asked that the kantha Mohammed made for us be given to a poor farmer who could not afford to pay. We hope that it will protect his farm from harm and bring a good harvest!

Kantha charm, Mamaka, Sierra Leone
The finished kantha that Mohammed Kamara made for us in Mamaka. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Peripheral presences: N. W. Thomas’s Field Assistants

Assistant with umbrella. Peripheral presences in N. W. Thomas's anthropological photography. NWT 194b, 195a, 196a and 200a.
One of N. W. Thomas’s assistants, probably John Osakbo, as a peripheral presence at the edge of the frame in a series of physical type portraits photographed in Benin City in 1909. NWT 194b, 195a, 196a, 200a.

The image of the anthropologist as a heroic, lone fieldworker, battling through adversity in order to single-handedly document disappearing customs and rituals is a tenacious myth. Some anthropologists intentionally portrayed themselves in such terms. Malinowski‘s 1922 monograph, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, famously begins with the lines: ‘Imagine yourself, suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which brought you sails away out of sight’. In fact, we know that anthropological fieldwork is – and always has been – a highly collaborative endeavour. The important role of fieldwork collaborators – including fixers, brokers, assistants, interpreters and other participants – has, however, often gone unacknowledged. A notable exception was Franz Boas, who acknowledged his debt to his Tlingit-speaking assistant, George Hunt, who collected much of the data on which Boas’s publications were based.

N. W. Thomas was undoubtedly an energetic fieldworker, travelling extensively in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the course of some 55-months of anthropological survey work between 1909 and 1915. While Thomas was the sole author of the various reports and publications that resulted from this research, and is credited with assembling the thousands of photographs and sound recordings, and extensive collections of artefacts, botanical specimens and linguistic materials that are the legacy of these surveys, it is clear that this could not be the work of just one man. But who accompanied Thomas on his travels? How many assistants did he have? What roles did they play? One has to look hard to find a trace of such collaborators in the archives of Thomas’s surveys – but they can occasionally be glimpsed as peripheral presences.

This peripheral presence is most literally manifest when Thomas’s assistants appear at the edge of the photographic frame, holding a number board, supporting the photographic background sheet, or diffusing the sunlight with an umbrella. Many of Thomas’s photographic negatives are loosely framed, allowing peripheral detail to creep into the picture. The intention would have been to crop these images prior to publication, removing the traces of their co-production. As an experiment, such photographs can be differently cropped, placing the peripheral presences in the centre of the frame.

Peripheral presences. Details of N. W. Thomas photographs NWT 427 and 959.
Placing the peripheral presence in the centre of the frame. Again, probably John Osakbo, described by N. W. Thomas as ‘the most capable boy I ever saw’. NWT 427, 959.

Represencing Thomas’s fieldwork collaborators also entails recognising their trace elsewhere in the archive. In negative number NWT 261, a photograph of a group of Hausa musicians and dancers taken in Benin City in 1909, an assistant can be seen on the verandah making notes in what appears to be Thomas’s photographic register. These register books survive in the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute and, indeed, the handwriting on these pages is not Thomas’s. Has the act of writing this very register entry been captured at the periphery of the frame?

Peripheral presences in N. W. Thomas's anthropological photography. NWT 261.
Left: A group of Hausa musicians and dancers, photographed in Benin City in 1909. Right: Detail showing figure on the verandah at the right edge of the frame, and of the photographic register entry he appears to be writing. NWT 261.

Within the photographic archive of the anthropological surveys, there are just five photographs of N. W. Thomas himself. These were likely taken by Thomas’s field assistants. In one intriguing pair of photographs, taken at the same location, it appears that Thomas and one of his assistants – probably Corporal Nimahan (see below) – have taken it in turns to photograph one another. This raises the question as to how many other photographs in the archive might have been taken by Thomas’s assistants rather than by Thomas himself.

N. W. Thomas (left) and an unnamed field assistant, possibly Corporal Nimahan, 1909.
Left: N. W. Thomas, possibly photographed by Thomas’s interpreter, Corporal Nimahan. Right: Unnamed assistant wearing corporal’s stripes (possibly Corporal Nimahan), probably photographed by N. W. Thomas. RAI 400.38267, 400.38292.

There appears to be only one entry in Thomas’s photographic register books in which it is noted that an assistant has taken a photograph. Thus photograph NWT 283 is described as ‘Burial of Legema, 26.3.09’. Evidently a sequence of four photographs was taken under this same number: 3 and 4 ‘by N.W.T.’, 5 and 6 ‘by John’. In fact we know a little more about ‘John’ compared with Thomas’s other assistants. This was evidently John Osakbo of Benin City. In a surviving letter from Thomas to the Colonial Office, sent from London in May 1910 after the completion of his first anthropological tour, Thomas requests that this assistant be paid a ‘retaining fee’ of £1 a month until his return to West Africa. Thomas describes John Osakbo as ‘the most capable boy I ever saw’, but notes that he was illiterate, and that the retaining fee should be paid on condition that he learn to read and write, and that he should also ‘receive training in photography’. It appears that Thomas’s request was granted. Thomas also recorded a phonograph of John Osakbo playing a song on a high-pitched woodwind instrument. Thomas’ voice can be heard at the start of the wax cylinder recording (NWT 16; BL C51/2164), ‘…song played by my servant, John, February 10th, 1909’.

 

It is likely that the number of individuals who accompanied N. W. Thomas on his travels varied from tour to tour. He travelled with camp equipment as well as photographic kit, phonograph and much else and would therefore have needed carriers. He seems to have travelled on foot, on bicycle and by hammock. In a letter to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, written in 1928, recalling the collecting of vernacular names of plant species in Sierra Leone, Thomas mentions that Temne and Mende plant names were obtained from his hammock boys, and that they had been recruited in Freetown. Thomas relied on the assistance of interpreters, not only in his day-to-day interactions with people in the communities he visited, but also in compiling vocabularies and other linguistic data. In the preface to Part II of Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, concerned with linguistics, Thomas provides a list of the interpreters with whom he worked during his first tour and explaining the methodology he employed. Their names are: Erumese (Edo/Benin City), Nimahan (Kukuruku and Ishan), Osidora (Agbede and Kukuruku), Ogbedo (Edo/Benin City), James Smart (Sobo), George, Oganna and Isuma (Kukuruku). Nimahan was a corporal of the Southern Nigeria Police, and appears to have acted as both official interpreter and as representative of colonial authority. In Part III of Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone: Timne Grammar and Stories, Thomas notes that the first twelve stories published in the book ‘were recorded from the mouth of various members of my staff’.

In conclusion, by attending to their peripheral presences in the archive, it is clear that N. W. Thomas was not a lone fieldwork, but was accompanied and assisted in his anthropological survey work by an entourage of collaborators. While further work needs to be done to identify both the names and full range of activities they undertook, it is evident that their roles were fluid (‘hammock boys’, for example, provided ethnographic and linguistic information and did not simply transport the anthropologist on his itinerations). These collaborators were not peripheral to the anthropological project, but were in fact central to the endeavour. Hopefully, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to identify more of N. W. Thomas’s Nigerian and Sierra Leonean collaborators, and correct the erroneous impression that Thomas was single-handedly responsible for assembling this remarkable ethnographic archive.