Ebola and Poro: Plague, Ancient Art, and the New Ritual of Death
As of this writing West Africa is in the midst of an ever-spreading epidemic of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever caused by one of the deadliest viruses known. Lack of initial containment was due, among other factors, to the people’s ignorance about the disease, believing it to be caused by witch magic, curses, or malicious spirits. Their fear-induced lack of cooperation and their distrust of both the Government and healthcare workers delayed treatment, spread the virus, and resulted in outright violence and even murder.
Disease transmission was further enabled by the influential Zoes (traditional healers, ritual specialists) of the secret societies, who not only denied Ebola’s very existence, but continued to hold public village gatherings and secret Poro activities within their Sacred Groves.
This paper first discusses the epidemic in the context of its initial presentation, and looks at the cultural realities that facilitated its spread. The adverse influence of traditional secret society rituals upon modern infection control efforts are explained. Utilizing thirty-three selected examples of sacred Poro art and artifacts, it can be seen how secret society activities facilitate the transmission of the virus. Some of the emerging effects of Ebola on traditional healing rituals and ancient socio-religio-political practices are explored. Finally, in Part II, the influence of the growing Ebola epidemic upon the art and culture of secret societies is then explored against the background of historical social upheavals.
Ebola Appears in West Africa
Patient Zero, the first person thought to have contracted a new strain of the Ebola virus infecting West Africa, was a 2-year-old boy in Meliandou, a tiny village by Guéckédou, Guinea, a subdivision of N’Zerekore. He died on December 6, 2013. This is in the area where the borders of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone intersect (Maps 1-3). A week later his mother, grandmother, and 6-year old sister had also died with the same fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. Mourners at the grandmother’s funeral transmitted the virus to their own villages, and before long there were cases being reported in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. Guéckédou is in the midst of the region inhabited by the Kissi, northern Kono, Koranko, Loma (Toma), Gbandi, Belle, and Mende ethnic groups (Maps 2 and 3).
Map 1. Ebola cases reported as of August 31, 2014 in Guinea. Note the large cluster around Guédéckou, where Patient Zero, a 2-year-old boy, died on December 6, 2013. Source: WHO (2014a).
The original outbreak was not contained due to, among many reasons, an initial underestimation of the potential for rapid dissemination of the virus in heavily populated areas. All of our prior Ebola experience had come from small, easily-contained clusters in sparsely populated areas of the DRC (formerly Zaire) and Uganda.
Diseases such as this are not considered as biological processes by the generally illiterate villagers. Rather, such conditions are viewed as the results of witch magic, sorcery, or the direct intervention of malicious spirits. Thus traditional healing entails not only herbal remedies, but attempts to placate and remove the supernatural curse or offending spirit. Not surprisingly, these methods are unable to positively influence the outcome of an Ebola virus infection.
Figure 2. Traditional Poro healing objects. None of these are effective against Ebola. a. “Grandmother of the Village” figure from the Belle people of Belle Yella, Liberia. Wood, copper, fabric, sacrificial material. 18¾ inches (47.5 cm). This was owned jointly by the Poro and the Sande women’s associations. It would be brought out during an epidemic or to cure the sick if traditional medicine didn’t work. The copper eyes are the bloodshot eyes of the sick. b and c. Sa’sewodh in and out of her shroud, from the Kpelle people of Bellefuanai, Liberia. 22½ inches (57 cm). Wood, kaolin, aluminum, fabric, brass bells, fiber, leopard teeth. It was used to treat gynecological and psychiatric illness. d. Kwo Wahle (big doctor) was the personal medicine urn of a Loma Zo in Zorzor, Liberia. Terra cotta, kaolin, iron, unknown contents (the “Spirit of healing”). 16 inches (41 cm). Kept in the Zo’s home, patients would first make an offering to the medicine jar and then receive herbal or spiritual help.
One source of Sierra Leone’s epidemic has been traced back to a single traditional healer in the isolated border village of Sokoma, who had claimed to be in possession of “special powers” to cure Ebola. Sokoma is right on the border with Guinea, and only about 5 km from the actual intersection of the borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. This is Kissi territory, and it is likely that she was an initiate of the Kissi Sande women’s secret society. Patients from Guinea crossed into Sierra Leone seeking her treatment, until she herself became infected and died. During her funeral, women from neighboring towns became infected. What was initially a more confined, easily controlled outbreak snowballed into a severe epidemic when in June 2014 the Ebola virus reached Kenema, a city of 190,000. By August, 395 cases were all traced back to this one woman (Jerasevic 2014).
Barely more than a decade after a devastating civil war, the regional healthcare facilities and staffers were still struggling to rebuild. There were insufficient medical personnel and supplies for local and international aid groups. The already inadequately staffed and underfunded governmental health agencies in Guinea and Liberia mounted an ineffectual and delayed response. Without adequate training and protective barrier equipment, many medical personnel quickly died from exposure to the virus.
In addition, there was the detrimental intervention by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who established an army-enforced quarantine zone around West Point, a crowded slum area of Monrovia, contrary to the advice of her health experts. Coming so soon in the aftermath of the regional armed conflicts of 1989-2003, these uninformed people were already traumatized, suspicious, and frightened. This forced (but unenforceable) enclosure resulted in the predictable escape of Ebola-infected individuals not only into the capital, but to distant places of refuge in hinterland villages.
As of September 6, 164 days into the outbreak, Ebola had spread to five countries: Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Nigeria, with 3967 reported cases and 2105 deaths: Sierra Leone had 1,261 cases with 491 deaths, Guinea 812 cases with 517 deaths. Nigeria had 22 cases with 8 deaths, and Senegal had 1 confirmed case, but both countries acted quickly to quarantine and treated victims, and are now (temporarily at least) Ebola-free.
Map 2. Ebola cases reported in West Africa through August 29, 2014. Note that Guédéckou, Guinea, the site of Patient Zero, is situated in the tiny area where the borders of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia intersect. This explains the high incidence of infection in southeast Sierra Leone, the Macenta area of Guinea, and Lofa County in Liberia, home of the Mende, Loma (Toma), Kissi, Gbandi, and Belle (Kuwaa) peoples. Source: WHO (2014b).
Although Nigeria and Senegal managed to effectively contain the contagion, by September 8 Liberia had at least 2,192 cases with 1,223 deaths. Always under-reported due to unobserved sickness and missed mortality, the total number of Ebola cases grew exponentially to 5,339 by September 19, with 2,586 known deaths.
A large epidemiological study published on September 21 included all known cases. When non-hospitalized patients were factored in, the mortality rate of this Ebola epidemic was 70.8%, affecting males and females equally. Assuming no significant change in control measures, it is predicted that by November 2, 2014, the cumulative reported numbers of confirmed and probable cases will reach 5740 in Guinea, 9890 in Liberia, and 5000 in Sierra Leone, exceeding 20,000 in total (WHO 2014d).
Although these may seem like inconsequential numbers when compared to many other infectious causes of death in the region such as malaria and typhoid, the ominous factor is Ebola’s exponential rate of growth. If left unchecked, the number of West African cases will double every 14 days, i.e. 5,000 cases will become 10,000, then in another fortnight there will be 20,000, becoming 40,000, then 80,000, 160,000, 320,000, 640,000, and more than a million cases within 4 months. The CDC, factoring in unreported cases and expecting a doubling of cases every 20 days, is predicting 1.4 million cases by January 20, 2015:
Figure 1. Estimated number of Ebola cases and daily number of beds in use, with and without correction for underreporting, Liberia and Sierra Leone combined, 2014–2015 (from Meltzer et al. 2014).
In a nationwide effort to combat Ebola the government of Sierra Leone instituted a three-day lockdown, confining six million people to their homes. The goal was to educate the populace about the disease and ways to avoid it, while simultaneously searching for unreported cases. From September 19–21, 30,000 workers going door-to-door reached about one million homes. There were some successes: reportedly, 200 individuals came forth for testing, of which 50 were positive for the virus, and 92 unreported infectious corpses were discovered by day 2 (Euronews 2014). But as had already been seen during the attempted quarantine in Monrovia, aid workers were attacked while burying the bodies of discovered victims, and many people fled their homes and dispersed into the bush (Voice of America 2014).
Côte d’Ivoire has as yet to report a case, but since it shares its northwestern borders with Liberia and Guinea it is likely that Ebola will find a way in. As a precaution it has closed all border crossings with Liberia and Guinea, and prohibited the sale and eating of bushmeat (an animal vector of the Ebola virus). Realistically though, and as seen during the Liberian conflict in the 1990s, some people will find a way to cross the border. On september 26, Grand Gedeh County in southeast Liberia reported its first case, when a man from Ganta in Nimba County (Mano country) became symptomatic in the marketplace in Zwedru, not far from the Cassandra river separating Liberia from Côte d’Ivoire. By October 7, the virus had already involved the Kran, Sapo, and Liberian Grebo. (For current data and maps see the WHO Ebola SitRep).
According to Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, the window of opportunity to contain the spread of Ebola in Liberia and Guinea was back in May and June 2014, and was missed. Not couching his opinions in false optimism, he agrees with others who believe that there is no way to halt the disease now in Liberia and to a somewhat lesser degree in Sierra Leone. His prognosis is grave, predicting that the only way Ebola will stop in Liberia is when it has infected all of the people and killed almost half the population—about 5 million people. He feels that more and continued efforts, particularly international in scope, are still needed, and he does not suggest that we should abandon Liberia and Sierra Leone as lost causes. (Osterath 2014) .
Map 3. Ethnic groups along the Guinea Coast which possess Poro-related secret societies and rituals. At least twenty-eight groups from six language groups have been identified. Guéckédou, the site of “Patient Zero” is indicated by an arrow (from Carey 2013:3).
Poro Activities Banned in Sierra Leone and Liberia
Certainly, the Ebola crisis has finally attracted the world’s attention. International healthcare workers and aid funds have belatedly begun to trickle into West Africa to assist in the local public health struggles. Medical teams from as far away as Cuba and Israel have headed to Liberia, and the U.S. has promised to sent 3,000 troops (only about 300 of which have arrived so far).
But this has been generally viewed as “too little, too late” as most public health efforts have been outpaced by the progress of the disease. On September 21, Liberian information minister Lewis Brown said what had been on many minds for several months, namely that Ebola has gone beyond just a health crisis, and has affected “every aspect of [Liberia’s] national existence”. Noting that after the conflicts Liberia experienced a 90% collapse in its productive sector, the 11 years of peace and rebuilding efforts since then have been reversed by the epidemic. Only 40% of healthcare facilities are functioning, all schools are closed, and an entire farming season in Lofa County (Loma, Gbandi, Kissi and Mende territory) has been wasted. He feared the collapse of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone (Cooper 2014).
On October 1, Guinean President Alpha Condé reported that already the Ebola crisis had left the country in financial ruin, and feard the total collapse of the economy if at least $100 million in aid was not forthcoming to carry things through until December (Salvaterra 2014).
These infected territories are home to the Poro men’s and Sande women’s secret societies (by whatever local name), where the Zoes have held power for countless centuries. So what, if anything, has been done to influence the Poro Zoes, the traditional healers, ritual specialists, and the de facto power in the these areas? Their cooperation (or lack thereof) directly affects any effort to prevent the transmission of this disease.
Common sense would dictate that before the governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea had instituted any actions to educate the populace or interfere with traditional Poro practices such as burial rites and herbal or spiritual healing, and especially before mandating such drastic action as imposing quarantines, they would have been wise to first educate the Zoes and bring them on board, and use their influence and networks to advise the citizenry. Granted this might be a daunting task, as the Zoes are the orthodox repositories and teachers of centuries of esoteric religious knowledge, but their participation is essential.
Back on July 31, 2014 Raul Paredes, deputy head of Ebola operations for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Sierra Leone, stated, “We cannot do it [educate villagers] on our own, which is why it is critical to engage with community leaders, be they traditional healers or religious leaders” (Mueller 2014).
As evidence of their efforts, IFRC publicized an interview with a traditional healer, Fallah James, who described himself as the head of the approximately 200 traditional healers in Sierra Leone’s Kailahun district. This is the small but heavily infectedregion in eastern Sierra Leone that abuts the Guédékou area of Guinea where Patient Zero died, and the northern border of Lofa County, Liberia. Kailahun is home to the Kissi, some Mende, Northern Kono, and probably some Gbandi (Map 3).
This suggests that James is at least a third-generation, powerful, chief Poro Zo of the district’s Mande- and Mel-speaking groups, despite his professed Islam. His actual title was not reported, but the Poro Zoes of the local ethnic groups go by various terms: Sarinɔɔ and Wulumo among the Kissi; Binni, Svekoi, Sowa, Lahwa, Halemɔi, and Tor-tor Behmor by the Mende; Sowì by the Gbandi; and Pleh-dormie or Pomasu by the northern Kono (Carey 2013). James called himself a traditional healer since birth. “I was born with leaves in my hand, following on a tradition inherited by my father and his father.” Villagers listen when he speaks. He and his fellow traditional healers are revered leaders in their communities. James admitted his ignorance about Ebola, but said he was ready to learn and pass on the information to his colleagues.
Limiting the Role of the Zoes
Yet on August 19, 2014 Awoko reported “Secret Society banned in Makeni” regarding the banning of certain traditional rituals and activities by the Zoes of secret societies in northern Sierra Leone (Kamara 2014).
Essentially, the Paramount Chief of Bombali Sebora Chiefdom in northern Sierra Leone temporarily banned certain activities by the Bondo (the term for related female sodalities of the Limba, Temne, and Bullom, whose rituals match those of Sande among the Mende,
Vai, and Kono), the Poro men’s society, the Gbangbani (the term for Poro of the Koranko and Limba), Ojeh and Hunting societies (of the Krio) —all of them secret sacred societies in this area to which nearly all villagers belong. The members “are to adhere and help raise awareness by sensitizing their various communities about the deadly Ebola virus disease.” This includes activities such as public gatherings, hunting or selling bushmeat (an animal reservoir and source of Ebola), and burial ceremonies including 3, 7, and 40 day funeral rites. Violators are subject to at least a Le500,000 fine.
In addition, “harboring suspected or positive cases of the Ebola, spreading false rumour and disseminating misleading information, failure to report deaths and burials, drug peddling and treatment of patients at home are crimes punishable by law.” In an attempt to curb the traditional activities of the Poro Zoes which interfere with Ebola containment efforts, “Paramount Chief Kassangha strongly warned Herbalists and Spiritual Healers [Zoes] to avoid treating patients at home or in their shrines, pointing out that defaulters would face the full penalty of the Law both by a fine or expulsion [from where/what? The Poro?].”
If strictly obeyed, these measures would prevent Zoes from practicing herbal or ritual healing, divination, and presiding over death and funerary rites. Although some people will present at treatment centers for observation and supportive care, many more will languish at home without tradition healing, and be placed into body bags by workers in protective masks and biohazard suits, before being tossed into mass grave sites (as in 1347 plague-ridden Europe) without traditional burial rituals.
If the Zoes comply with Ministry directives, it would also prevent the large gatherings of males (Poro) and females (Sande) and their prolonged periods of initiation within their respective Sacred Forests, an essential tradition which had already been adversely affected by the 13 years of conflict from 1989-2003.
In Liberia, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had earlier, on June 2, 2014, placed a moratorium on the Poro and the Sande, both of which are still very strong and active in the country. One of the main goals was to prevent the spread of Ebola during the times of initiation when young boys and men, girls and women, and even Elders are in close proximity to others within the confinement of the various ethnic groups’ Sacred Forests, and the transmission of the virus from village to Bush and Bush to village. As had already been documented in Sierra Leone, traditional healers are not only ineffectual in treating Ebola, but can actually facilitate transmission of the virus.
These draconian public health measures (from the Zoes’ point of view) make medical sense in light of the Zoes’ reported lack of cooperation with the Government and infectious disease protocols. Just how well this can be implemented and enforced remains to be seen. With the exception of Fallah James’ interview, what hasn’t been mentioned, and may have been much more effective than restricting the powerful and influential Zoes, would have been efforts to first educate the Zoes and then persuade them to help educate and encourage villagers to follow the recommended guidelines regarding Ebola contact, disinfection, reporting, and quarantine. Certainly the recent 3-day lockdown in Sierra Leone helped a bit, but it would seem that in the hinterland villages instruction would be most effective starting with the Zoes and working downward.
The above noted public restrictions upon the Zoes might be only political rhetoric with no intention of enforcement. One wonders if these measures can actually be enforced, since the Poro men’s secret society holds sway even over the Paramount Chief (with only some rare exceptions). To have a chance of successfully implementing this directive, Paramount Chief Kassangha would have to be the equivalent of a Dahkpanah — the Supreme Zo of all Zoes.
Poro membership provides such great influence, particularly in the hinterland, that many Liberian officials have historically gone to great lengths and considerable expense to join and (fraudulently) establish themselves as belonging to lineages of important chiefdoms (d’Azevedo 1962:515). In the 1990s Charles Taylor, a Gola, declared himself “Dahkpanah”, a title meaning the supreme head of all the Zoes. (His actual self-proclaimed title was “His Excellency Dahkpanah Dr. Charles Ghankey Taylor President of the Republic of Liberia.” When he was incarcerated in the Netherlands in 2006 and awaiting trial, the Liberian traditional rulers (Elders) retrieved the title from the ex-President through their head, Paramount Chief Jallah Lone. Lone said that one needed to progress through eight levels of Poro in order to rise to the position of Dahkpanah, something Taylor didn’t do. William R. Tolbert, the President of Liberia from 1971 to 1980, was of Americo-Liberian ancestry. He also appropriated the title of the Supreme Zo of the Poro society (Johnson 2004:27).”
As expected, there has already been a lack of cooperation noted in Liberia. On September 5, three months after the moratorium was declared, the Ministry reported continued operation of Poro and Sande societies throughout the country. Sacred Groves were open, village festivals were still being held, and rituals were still performed. In response, the Ministry declared the immediate suspension of all Poro and Sande activities throughout Liberia, with the directive that all of these traditional activities be ceased by September 17, 2014 (allAfrica 2014).
At last, on September 26, the media briefly reported that medical workers were finally getting some assistance from anthropologists (Fassassi 2014). Sylvain Landry Faye, a health anthropologist from Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar was interviewed and explained how his team facilitated a discourse between healthcare workers and villagers, helping to alter traditional funerary practices which necessitated touching corpses in an attempt to discover bad witch magic and involvement by malicious spirits. The goal was to ultimately prevent viral transmission to mourners, and to allow burials to take place without violent misunderstandings by the families, through mutual cooperation between the medical/biological and the spiritual/religious parties. Yet, still no mention was made of the secret societies and the Zoes.
Too Little, Too Late
But these public health directives, even if they were followed at the time, were certainly too little, too late. Time will tell if the Poro Zoes comply with these restrictions, partially or in whole, and what the religious, political, and social consequences will be.
It remains to be seen how these moves will affect the ancient secret societies in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and elsewhere, both in the short and long term. Although all groups have become involved, currently the most heavily infected populations are those ethnic groups living in southeastern Sierra Leone, Liberia, and southwestern Guinea—the Loma (Toma), northern Kono, Kissi, Gbandi, Belle, Mende, Kpelle (Guerzé), Mano, and Dan – the very groups who still have a strong traditional Poro and from whom most of our knowledge about secret society art, rituals, traditional healing, and socio-religious practices are derived.
Figure 2. Number of Ebola cases and deaths in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea as of September 3, 2014. (Source: WHO SitRep (2014c).
The Sacred Forest: An Incubator for Ebola
In the pre-antibiotic era, even in Western medicine, the transmission of infectious diseases was mainly controlled by physical separation and quarantine. This concept is not new. The Italians used it to some benefit during the Bubonic Plague in the mid-1300s. Even our major teaching hospitals were once built in a sprawling manner where infected patients could be kept at a distance from the unexposed, and different wards were separated by long corridors, often in totally separate buildings.
Because Ebola is an infectious disease with a high mortality rate and has no preventative vaccine or known cure, its spread from person-to-person must be thwarted, as before, through the same methods of physical separation and quarantine. Hence the current need for community education by health workers using (if available) appropriate translators in methods of contact avoidance, decontamination, usage of PPEs (personal protective equipment), and responsible, timely reporting, while hopefully generating trust and avoiding threats.
Although some people are following the recommended guidelines to maintain their distance from others possibly infected with Ebola, traditional gatherings of villagers during public masquerades, secret mass initiations in the Sacred Groves, traditional healing, and many other commonplace Poro activities place people in close proximity for sometimes prolonged periods, thereby facilitating the spread of the virus.
Who are the Zoes, what is their relationship to the current Ebola epidemic, and why are they being (publicly) banned from performing ancient secret society rituals? What is it about their practices that affects the transmission of Ebola, and why would they persist in the face of governmental crackdowns? In order to understand the resistance of the Zoes in the midst of the epidemic one must first understand the central role of the Poro, Sande and related sodalities in West African culture. Perhaps the most basic and essential rituals include the periodic opening of the Sacred Grove for initiations into the secret societies, funerary practices, judicial hearing and settlement of disputes, and even divvying up and eating body parts from a deceased Zo.
Poro Initiation Rituals: What Happens in the Bush, Why, by Whom and to Whom?
Historically, every male in the village had to become a member of Poro, and every female had to be a Sande initiate. Without such membership, one was not considered a member of the community, and could not marry or partake in other privileges. In reality there was no real choice in the matter, and everyone was initiated. These rites generally occurred every several years in a specially-built sacred forest enclosure. The frequency and duration of this Bush School varied among ethnic groups, and could be affected by a multitude of factors such as war between neighboring groups, the degree of incursion by “new religions” (Christianity and Islam), the erosion of esoteric knowledge over time, or even the timing of a Paramount Chief’s son’s pubescence.
Even today, Poro membership is of great social and political importance, although instead of undergoing circumcision in the traditional Sacred Grove followed by several years of ordeals and training by the Zoes, some very Westernized parents will have their sons circumcised in a medical clinic, and then send them to abbreviated sessions in the Bush.
After the young boys are gathered together and herded off to the Sacred Grove (Sacred Forest, Sacred Bush or just Bush) for their period of initiation into the Boys’ grade level of Poro, they are first metaphorically “eaten” by a terrifying anthropozoomorphic Bush Spirit masked figure in full costume. This is common among Poro-related groups, and usually entails a Bush Spirit mask that is part human face and part crocodile jaws. The Loma (administratively called Toma across the border in Guinea) use the large Landai mask. Like most Loma masks, it is worn horizontally, balanced upon the masker’s head, his body covered in raffia, cloth, and skins, its many teeth pigmented red with the “blood of the boys”.
Figure 3. The “eating of the boys” ritual. This drawing by George Harley (1941:28) shows the method by which a Loma masquerader, totally concealed under a costume of raffia, balanced the large Landai mask in a horizontal position atop his head. Landai is the anthropozoomorphic Bush Spirit with fearsome (at least to the young boys) crocodile jaws that symbolically “eats” the initiates upon their entry into the Loma Sacred Grove to begin their long period of training.
After mandatory circumcision the boys are scarified in the design motifs of their particular group, reported to be the marks of the Bush Devil’s teeth (Figure 4), and then begin their long arduous period of sequestration in the Bush, where they are “reborn” and receive a new Poro name, learn about Poro customs and rituals, local ethics, proper sexual practice, skills of combat, farming, hut building, respect for elders, and are generally enculturated. Most importantly, they begin swearing oaths to never reveal any Poro secrets on pain of death. The initiates quickly learn to recognize Poro symbolism and a myriad of Bush Spirit masks until this becomes second nature to them. At the end of the session, they return to their villages as responsible adult members of the community.
Adult males have their own rituals using associated masked figures and sculpture during their initiation into the next grade level, the Men’s Poro. Here they are scarified on their arms and their bodies, taught deeper levels of Poro secrets, and assume responsibility for public projects. Often on a hereditary basis (like Fallah Jones), a man might receive advanced training in certain specialized areas, becoming a powerful Zo, a title that can be translated as doctor, teacher, medicine man, priest, ritual specialist, diviner, sorcerer, or shaman, but with different names among different groups.
Figure 4. Scarification patterns of the Boys’ and Men’s Poro of neighboring groups. Loma (Toma) man (a, b, f, and h); Gbandi man (c); Kissi man (d and e) and boy (h). (From Schwab 1947:119, and Germann 1933: plate 3).
Initiation into the most powerful grade level, the Elders’ Poro, occurs in utmost secrecy deep within the Sacred Bush, and historically involve rituals including human sacrifice. Even the initiates of the rarified and powerful circle of Elders undergo additional scarification. Members acquire deeper levels of esoteric knowledge. They learn and practice the arts of conducting age-old rituals, healing, divination, counseling, adjudication and punishment, political skills, and the all-important usage of native plants and animals in preparing poisons and antidotes. The Elders’s Poro has their own hierarchy of Bush Spirit masks and sacred sculptural objects, many of which are never seen outside of the Sacred Grove, and some which are seen only by the Elders. These are often associated with the declaration or ending of conflicts, judgment and sentencing, and healing or ritual killing. The Elders’ Poro holds the real power in the society, and in most groups the Elders’ Poro even exerts political control over the Paramount Chief.
Some of the Boys’ and Men’s Poro masks are used publicly and have specific public functions, e.g. a mask might be a village singing mask, or act as an intermediary between the Bush and the villagers, demanding food for the boys or reporting on their health and progress. However, in these cases they usually have different, secret names and secret functions within the confines of the Sacred Bush. These hidden rituals are not revealed to women, uninitiated males, or outsiders.
Many Poro functions are held in the dark of night, when women and uninitited boys must stay in their homes with doors and windows closed so as not to peek. The masked Bush Devil’s approach is accompanied by eerie and frightening sounds (the “voice of the Spirit”) produced by syrinxes and flutes.
Circumcision and scarification rituals, like the Poro itself, are not simply some scarcely remembered and long discontinued initiatory events of the distant past. Although the specific patterns of scarification differ from group to group and may alter over time, the procedure itself is as important today as it has been for centuries, binding the individual to his ethnic group and his particular Bush School class, and fostering a sense of group identity and solidarity.
Likewise, the young girls are initiated into the Sande within the confines of their Sacred Grove, which often occurs at a time alternating with the Poro initiations. They too must undergo excisions (traditional female genital mutilation). Young girls and Sande women also undergo scarification, which, depending on their ethnic group and grade level, might be performed on their neck, chest, breasts, abdomens, backs or arms.
The elaborate scarification patterns on this pair of brass figures is of the kind that the Kran had long ago, and that no one living today has. Such elaborate ritual scarification on the torso, arms and legs was performed at the time of initiation into Elders’ Poro (or the upper level of Sande for women). These figures were cast at or soon after the time of the founding of Liberia (1847). This was a time before there was much Western influence on the Kran, and the coast around Monrovia was being “repopulated” with freed slaves by American antislavery and religious groups. The scarification is similar on both figures. The upper arms are adorned with long serpentine scars (a reference to snakebite, poisons and antidotes, and the snake society), the abdomen and chest display a three-circled design (for the three levels of Poro), the buttocks and legs have neat rows of cuneiform markings, and the backs are decorated with large herringbone patterns.
These figures are not mere genre figures for decoration and personal pleasure, as are the zeh meh (brass person) figures, cast by the lost wax process by the Zeh Do Meh (brass working person) described by Donner (1939:149) and by Fischer and Himmelheber (1984:143). Unlike those figures, described as deviating from the stylistic canons seen in wooden carvings by being asymmetrical and actively posed, these figures are totally symmetrical and stand calmly with their arms hanging loosely at their sides.
The pair of figures belonged to the eldest of the Poro Elders. They are powerful images of the First Man and First Woman. If a person was sick or had a problem, he could make an offering to the figures directly. The Poro Elders would talk to the figures, and treat them like living beings. When a person seriously transgressed the rules of the Poro, the figures would be brought out to observe the execution. Figures such as this were also present at the ritual eating of the flesh of the respected dead.
All of these activities involve large populations enclosed within relatively small areas for prolonged periods of time. Despite each Sacred Grove having access to a nearby river for personal hygiene, this is clearly a recipe for disaster during the time of a deadly epidemic without any means of prevention (except for isolation) and without a known cure.
Art and Artifacts of Poro and Sande Initiation Rituals
There seems to be a Bush Spirit mask, figure, or tool for every possible function before, during, and after initiation. Thus, sacred art and artifacts can be used as a means for the uninitiated to learn about the religio-socio-political role of the secret societies. At the same time, it will become apparent how traditional rituals can foster the transmission of the Ebola virus through contact with blood and bodily fluids.
Mã Da Ba is from the Loma in Massawu, Liberia, a village renowned for the strength of its Poro (Pölö in Loma). This is in Lofa County, currently the site of a large cluster of Ebola cases (see Map 2).
When the time comes to open the Poro Sacred Grove for a new group of initiates, sometimes several years since the last Bush School, this masked and costumed Bush Spirit arrives in the village to collect the young boys. When the children feel safe and are all gathered in one place, the mask of initiation, Bakorogi Gɛ Bo (Figure 7), comes and takes the children away to the Sacred Grove (Gɛ Bo).
However, there will always be children who are scared, and run and hide. There had to have developed a mask, it would seem, whose function is to catch the young escapees – a sort of masked truant officer Bush Spirit. Indeed there has, the function being attributed to the Nyamu among the Kpelle, Gbandi and Loma, and to the Gaw Geh (Big Devil) among the Mano. One ethnographer who visited this area reported a Wei Zumo, the messenger who calls and “catches and carries” the boys to the Loma Bush School. These Bush Spirits often carry a catching stick with three or four curved hooks on it, to assist in capturing the boys. The Gbandi call him the Nafui So—the “Catching Devil”—while the Gbandi and Kpelle women (who as non-members of Poro are forbidden to know its secret name) call him simply Kondobo—”the Seizer” (Schwab 1947:268,269,273,282,521, figure 75 l; Westermann 1921:250).
One mask in the Ipswich Museum, called ka-Bemba (the Grandfather) by the Temne in Sierra Leone, both gathers the young uninitiated boys, like the Mã Da Ba, and also leads them to the Sacred Bush, like the Bakorogi Gɛ Bo (Hart 1987:68-74).
This Toma Angbai mask is from southeast of Guédéckou in the nearby Macenta region of Guinea. It is very old, dating from the third quarter of the nineteenth century or earlier, and is in the oldest known Macenta style. The three horns refer to all three levels of Poro, as this mask is used in all Poro levels. Other horned masks with two quarter-circles facing outwards and a single fishtail in the center are Boys’ Poro initiation masks from this region, as the fishtail refers to the river where the circumcisions are performed in front of the all-powerful Water Spirit.
This Angbai was not a singing mask; it could see but not talk. It shared a similar function as the mask that collected children for the Boys’ Poro (Mã Da Ba, Figure 6), but instead it gathered the men for the Men’s Poro initiations. Of course, there is no need to collect old men for the Elders’ Poro, as “they are already in possession of a strong enough Poro soul.”
If the Zo who wore this mask was not already infected with Ebola, thereby transmitting the disease from the Bush to the village, he stood a chance of getting infected in the village and carrying the virus back to the Bush, where it could infect the boys, men, or elders.
It is clear that these age-old rituals, so very central to Poro cultures along the Guinea Coast, are essentially corralling large numbers of people into enclosed environments that promote the transmission of infectious diseases. To worsen the situation, the ensuing circumcision and scarification rituals produce an abundance of blood, with a more than ample opportunity for the transmission of Ebola.
Poro Circumcision and Scarification Rituals: A Bloody Business
Since every Poro male must be circumcised and subsequently scarified (as do the Sande female initiates), there have evolved very specific rituals that vary only slightly among neighboring ethnic groups. These result not only in pain and wound infections, but in unprotected access to blood and blood-borne pathogens like the Ebola virus.
This example is one particular form of the Bakorogi mask type, called Geh Bo (Gɛ Bɔ, pronounced geh baw), a Loma term for the Sacred Grove. It is the job of the Bakorogi Geh Bo to herd the young boys to the Bush once they have been gathered together by Mã Da Ba. This is the Bush Spirit that oversees the actual circumcision ritual of the Loma. Its mouth reminds the initiates not to scream during the cutting, but to blow their breath through puckered lips. To scream out during the actual circumcision is a sign of weakness. This is the beginning of the Loma boys’ initiation in the Sacred Bush school, during which they are taught to endure pain and to fight physically in defense of the group. Red, the color of blood, is the color of Poro. The red beads around the face show that this mask is “hot” with Poro and blood.
If the Bakorogi Geh Bo hadn’t already carried Ebola back to the Bush from the village, the Zo who wore it and his costume were likely to become infected from such close involvement with the circumcision rituals if even one of the boys was carrying the virus.
This anthropozoomorphic Nyamu is the publicly seen form of the larger Landai, and represents the Landai mask in the village. Its mouth is red with blood from the “eating of the boys” ritual at the start of Boy’s Poro. During this opening ritual, the Landai Bush Spirit mask symbolically “eats” the uninitiated youth. The youngster then loses his name and identity and enters into the Sacred Grove, only to emerge after the ordeal as a full initiate with a new Poro name.
Nyamu is also used to entertain people at the initiation, and is the socially sanctioned form of the Landai mask. It parodies the Elders in Landai costume, in order to see who will make fun of the Poro. The Poro men will then punish those who have gotten too wild making fun of the mask. The Loma, Gbandi, and Kpelle all make Nyamu (Niamoo) Bush Spirit masks. This particular example comes from the Loma near the Gbandi borderland.
Although this mask symbolically “eats” the boys upon entry into the Bush, and has their red “blood” on its teeth, at this point in the initiations real blood has yet to flow. Nevertheless, it has the potential to transmit Ebola virus between the crowded village festival and the Bush.
Once belonging to a circumcising Poro Zo from the Liberian Dan, this kit contains five surgical knives or razors of various sizes and shapes. The sharp blades of locally forged iron with crudely carved wooden handles were kept in their own special hollowed cylindrical wooden container.
Circumcision is when the initiates first begin to bleed, thereby enabling others to make direct contact with the Ebola virus if one of the boys was already infected. Not only the circumcising Zo but anyone who subsequently had contact with him, his garments, the instruments, the contaminated log on which the boys sat, its immediate area, and anyone who handled the blood or foreskins from the boys or the cuttings from the girls could then also become infected.
Iron skin hooks were used by the big Zo (gɛ nangma in Mano) to tent up the skin for incision with sharp iron razors. Although somewhat rusted from time and the elements, several hooks still retain their sharply pointed ends, similar to the skin hooks still used today in the modern operating room. The horizontally placed knife with its copper band, and perhaps the entire kit, was used specifically in the ritual scarification of the Men’s level of Poro.
A Zo from another group who wanted to conduct a Poro session would first have to pay the high-ranking Zo who owned the sacred whetstone (lai) so that he could sharpen his razors for the scarification operations.
Usage of these instruments by the scarifying Zo and sharing of the whetstone presents a considerable risk of Ebola transmission via contact, as do the above noted circumcision instruments.
The chief circumcising Zo wore this shirt during the Toma Boys’ Poro circumcision ritual and also during the cutting (scarification) ritual for initiation of adults into Men’s Poro. The garment is covered with powerful medicine that protected the wearer while performing his job. Accompanying the shirt is the Zo’s medicine horn, with a fiber cord that enabled the Zo to have both hands free while wearing it around his neck.
The shirt and probably the medicine horn, both meant for protection, would undoubtedly become contaminated with blood, and could spread Ebola virus via direct contact.
This mask is from Zotaple, a large Poro Bush complex in Liberian Dan territory. It is a very rare Dan Bush Mother mask that was used for the initiation of men into the Men’s level of Poro. It is called Bew’ke, which literally means “blast maker” referring to a blacksmith’s furnace.
Bew’ke is noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly, it was carved by a Kono carver, due to the very special nature of this mask that the Kono make, but the Dan carvers don’t. Secondly, it is used for the rites of transition of men into adult Poro, specifically the men who are blacksmiths.
Blacksmiths are a powerful cult that, like a few other professional clans, are greatly respected because of their knowledge and skills, yet feared and set apart from the rest of the society (McNaughton, 1988:1). They are treated differently from the rest of the men initiates, as only other blacksmiths can cut (scarify) them and perform certain other key parts of their initiation ritual. This is because it is taboo to do the things to a blacksmith that must be done in the Men’s Poro initiation ritual.
The unusual patina on the inside surface of the mask attests to this example’s authenticity and usage. After the initiation ceremony, the mask was used as a vessel for preparing a medicine that the smiths drank, creating over time the encrusted patina. This also explains why it looks like something poured out of the eyes. The slit eyes are not copper as might be expected on a Men’s mask, but are made from thinly-hammered, 94% pure iron, again a reference to the blacksmiths.
Thus the blacksmith initiates, the supervising Zoes, the mask and its costume, all instruments and blood products, and anyone coming in contact with them, all risked Ebola contact if the virus had been present.
Yerimiyah is a healing figure that had several uses in Dan Poro initiation and practices. It was owned by an Elder, and was carved as a memorial to (but not a portrait of) a deceased Sande Paramount who was known for her powers as a healer and a practitioner of magic. She would have been the Sande counterpart of the chief Poro Zo.
The Elder who owned the figure could use it for healing purposes when someone became ill, in the following manner: white clay (kaolin) was applied to the figure and to the patient at the same time, and on corresponding parts of the body. The healer then persuaded the spirit of the Sande woman to enter into the body of the sick person, and to heal them by extracting the disease. The kaolin was then washed off and used as medicine.
Although Yerimiyah watched over the Dan boys’ circumcisions for good luck and protection from illness and infection after the cutting, it would certainly prove ineffectual against the Ebola virus.
Gbandi and Loma boys must be circumcised before they are allowed to enter the actual Sacred Bush, hence there are two separate structures involved. This figure was used during Loma Boys’ Poro initiation, and was kept in the Circumcision Bush.
The boys were actually circumcised in front of this figure on the riverbank, and then had to step over it while it lay on the ground, to symbolically step from childhood into manhood. During the circumcision procedure (done with the boys sitting on a log crossbar) the boys put one hand on the figure’s head, and their blood was collected from their circumcision wounds.
The figure has the V-shaped facial scarifications of an initiate even though the penis is not yet circumcised, signifying that it is the spirit of a Poro initiate in the form of this teaching image, and its strength will give the boys the fortitude to go through the ordeal of circumcision. The figure is called Yahwah (possibly relating to the words ya “to sit down” and wa “to hurt” in Mano).
This example is correct in that it has two different patinas; the first, of the whole body, is smooth and polished because it was frequently cleaned by the Poro members out of respect. The second patina is on the face, which is the actual sacred power area and may not be touched, and is encrusted with remnants of blood, cola and rice flour.
Since each boy had just been circumcised and was probably bleeding when he touched and stepped over this figure, it is likely that at some point the figure itself, as well as the log seat, the circumcising Zo, his instruments and clothes, the surrounding area, and the newly cut boys were all in direct contact with a bodily fluid that might or might not be infectious.
This ancient Nyamu mask was used by the Boys’ Poro of the Liberian Kpelle. Like many Poro masks, it had a dual role. Publicly it was a messenger from the Sacred Bush to the villagers, who gathered each day at a certain place in the village to hear news of their children or husbands sequestered during their initiation rituals. However, it also had a more powerful and secret role within the guarded confines of the Bush, one that was never seen by women, outsiders or uninitiated males.
Within the Kpelle Sacred Grove (Porro, Polon), this mask was worn by the Elder Zo who caught the blood and foreskins from the boys’ circumcisions (cuttings). Kept in a receptacle, usually a hollowed-out gourd, these materials were saved and used later as a powerful medicine upon which oaths were sworn (refer to the brass pot, Figure 25 and Loma Masgui, Figure 26). Another Bush Spirit mask, Di A Bli Gε, prepared the collected materials into a soup with rice, which was then served to the Poro men but not the boys. The blood must never touch the ground, as this was a sign to the Bush Spirits that another spirit, possibly malicious, was about to join them.
And so, at this point in the circumcision ritual, possible sources of exposure to the Ebola virus would extend to the Zo who wore this Nyamu, the Zo who prepared the stew, the kitchen, the containers, utensils, and anyone who served or ate this concoction. If contaminated, Nyamu could easily spread the virus to the villagers.
Similar in function to the Boys’ Poro initiation figure over which the young boys must step during the circumcision ritual, this figure was used in the initiation rituals for entry into the Men’s Poro. Before actually undergoing the procedure, the men had to take their Poro oaths upon it. Then the Zo performed the cutting (scarification) while the figure looked on in the classical gesture of pride. Hence the figure is called Mashah—“He who is Proud.”
Although smaller in height, the overall form of this figure is very similar to the previous Yahwah Boys’ initiation figure, and indeed it might be easily mistaken for it. The chief distinguishing factor is the presence of the scarification pattern of an initiated man on the chest and arms of Mashah, seen as the diagonal lines on the chest and the four parallel lines on the upper arms. These would not be present on a Loma male prior to initiation into the Men’s level of Poro.
The blood spilled at the Men’s initiations presents a biohazard capable of spreading the Ebola virus to all involved.
This is an extremely rare Gbandi female shrine figure, the only one known outside of the Bush, only two or three ever having been seen. The foreshortened arms at its sides are similar in form to figures of the neighboring Belle.
The Sande used this figure during the girls’ ritual genital mutilation (cutting). When used for the Sande it is laid on a cowhide and placed a rice winnower. The girls step over it and are then excised one by one, accompanied by the tapping of turtle shell rattles (a reminder of their oaths of secrecy). The figure represents the last and final boundary between girlhood and womanhood. Stepping over this figure means that there is no turning back. Thus it parallels the Boys’ Poro ritual of the neighboring Loma using Yahwah.
The figure is also present at Gbandi Boys’ Poro initiations (pölösu), where the highest-ranking Sande woman is in attendance. Although the figure is not used, she ceremonially holds it.
The chance of viral transmission might be even greater than that inherent among the Loma using the Yahwah figure, since the Gbandi female figure is exposed to blood from both the girls and the boys, and in both the Sande and Poro enclosures.
This female figure with breasts pendulous from age and childbearing is an example of a “Grandmother” Spirit of the village, and was owned jointly by the Belle Poro and Sande. It had strong healing powers, and would be brought into the public during an epidemic, or to cure sick people if traditional doctoring didn’t work. It was considered a very powerful image and was not often seen. This particular example is from the center of Belle (Kuwaa) territory, and exhibits the rougher sculptural style of this region.
As with other traditional healing objects, this figure would be ineffective in combating an Ebola epidemic. Not only would it delay supportive treatment like intravenous fluids, electrolyte replacement, and blood pressure support, if contaminated it would serve to spread the disease.
Made for the Sande secret society, this figure was used in the Bush during the young girls’ initiations and excisions. The figure was placed in front of the Sande Bush to mark the place as sacred. The figure is meant to always have its genitalia covered by a red cloth, the color of Poro and Sande.
When the girls were in the Bush camp, the figure was brought out every three days when they bathed in the river, and their bodies were covered with chalk. First the figure was sung to, and the Zo woman applied chalk to its face. Many published examples are actually copies of these figures given to wives or daughters especially of chiefs. Those figures were kept in the home for good luck, as mementos of the girls’ stay at the Bush school, and a reminder of the ideal Dan female image to which they sang. Its name is Irimye in Mano, but unknown in Dan.
The figure protects the girls from evil, but would not protect them from Ebola.
The head of this Dan spoon is a portrait of a known woman, Mah Keemah. Although old at the time that this was collected from her granddaughter at Grahn, near Tapita, as a young woman she was quite beautiful, and her face was immortalized hereupon. She was Bassa and married a Dan man.
These spoons are used as begging spoons. Beautiful women go around with them on holidays and festivals to collect rice. Later, after undulating erotic dances, they go from man to man collecting money or other valuables, based on their beauty and the beauty of the spoon. In general, these spoons are called wake mia by the Gio (Liberian Dan), meaning “spoon associated with feasts,” but this style with its carved head is called mehwuoshlümia meaning “person-faced wooden spoon” (Fischer and Himmelheber 1984:123).
The word poh refers to similar large spoons (27.5 inches to 70 cm long) from the Ivorian Wobé said to represent the fertility spirit Nyonublekela (Girard, 1967:186). These are female figures with or without legs, with the spoon part on the top of the head (Girard, Plate XVI). The Kran call their large spoons minatu (Donner, 1940:18).
The Dan owner of this spoon was called a Wa ke de (at feasts acting woman). She would have been the most hospitable woman in the village or quarter, and was not only responsible for the administration of food resources for her extended family, guests, traveling musicians and others who might pass through the village and eat at her home, but she was also responsible for preparing food for the Circumcision Bush and Boy’s Poro. The spoon provided her the help she needed to accomplish all this, as a Spoon Spirit incarnates her spoon, just as masks are Bush Spirits incarnate. Fischer and Himmelheber reported that the spoon spirit actually can animate the spoon so that it can move by itself without a human touching it (1984:124). In order for the spoon to be passed on to its next owner, the new Wa ke de must wait to be accepted by the Spoon Spirit which comes to acknowledge her in a dream.
Ebola could be easily transmitted by the Wa ke de, her spoon, the rice and other food, infecting guests, travelers, other women and men, and spread between the village and the Bush.
Carved in an archaic Dan style that was used only for this type of mask, this example of a Gah Greh Bush Spirit mask was used to bring food back and forth between the women of the village, who even today cook for the initiates of all levels, and the Poro camp. Once inside the camp, the wearer divides the food and distributes it among the initiates. It is a very respectful and peaceful mask, but one that is considered very powerful and important. Although food is grown within the Bush, initiates are always dependent upon nourishment from the village. Without sustenance in the form of cooked food from the women, children initiates in the Bush would slowly starve to death, and there are reports of children “wishing themselves to die” a slow death (probably from slow-acting poison) if their parents neglected to bring them food. Thus, the role of this mask was critical (Schwab, 1947:292).
Like the above ceremonial spoon, this masquerader had repeated contact with multiple villagers and the inhabitants of all age grades in the Bush. During the current epidemic it would negate efforts to prevent viral transmission by direct contact.
Boys are not the only ones who are initiated surgically. The girls are also subjected to scarification and genital excision (female genital mutilation or FMG) upon their entry into the Sande women’s association.
This large maternity figure was the central icon that all Loma Sande women came to for fertility. It witnessed every scarification ritual of the women, and all Sande initiation rituals. It was kept in a hut with a fire that was not allowed to go out, by the oldest Sande woman in the area. Note the scarification patterns of a Sande Paramount on the breasts and chest.
Like Yahwah, the Boys’ Poro initiation figure (Figure 15), this carving likely became contaminated with blood and, if positive for Ebola, would be instrumental in its spread to Sande women and the young initiates.
This complex face mask is named Koh (war, teacher). It was danced at important Poro ceremonies by the chief Zo of the Dan.
The intricate coif contains many dangling charms and medicine packets, used for different kinds of magic. Among other functions, this mask blessed and protected all the Poro men from “wish magic” from any other man. The flat packets contain layers of folded paper, but paper that is said to have snake poison or some other very potent toxin on it, or a drop of blood from the circumcision, or the death blood of the highest Poro elder, or some other such potent medicine.
A powerful Bush Spirit, Koh also acted as the war mask that made the men “impossible to kill” in battle. It possesses great strength, and never left the confines of the Poro Bush. A woman or an uninitiated male could only see this mask if they were trespassing in the Poro Bush, which is a capital offense.
Koh was said to make men crazy and violent when it appeared, but it could also drain men of their strength. It is one of the most powerful Dan masks, and is the strongest and holiest of the Men’s Poro masks, ranking beneath only the masks of the Elders’ Poro. This is the Dan ideal of all male strength, which all men might attain if the spirit of the Poro enters them.
This mask was also the executioner for the Dan Poro Bush should anyone commit a capital offense. The encrusted patina on the face is from years of accumulation of blood from sacrificial victims, chewed kola nuts, and other empowering substances. The inside patina is not shiny from wear as might be expected, because this mask was only worn once or twice a year and then only for a brief time, and cleaned out afterwards.
Blood from circumcisions, scarifications, dead Elders, and sacrificial victims was an extremely powerful, magical “medicine” that was saved and used for various sacred Poro rituals. It is this accumulation of blood and attachments, rather than simply the form of the wooden mask, that gave Koh its power. However, if any of the blood was tainted with Ebola virus, the mask could sicken the Chief Zo and everyone within the Bush with whom it came in contact.
This very old medicine pot was meticulously cast and is an excellent example of traditional Dan brasscasting. It is part of a functional set along with an extremely rare brass mask. The mask is the most powerful Bush Spirit mask of the Dan, sitting atop their Poro masking hierarchy, and from which all Poro power devolves. The pot has a hinged handle and stands on four simple legs. Both the handle and the pot are decorated with classical Dan motifs seen on other examples of Liberian and Ivorian brasscastings (see Bruyninx 1986).
Poro Zoes would travel to a central area to use this mask and its medicine pot. The pot represents the three wombs of life: the womb of the mother; the womb of Earth, which surrounds us and nurtures us; the womb of the grave, which gives life through reincarnation in the Poro. Each Poro grade level is taught the mysteries of the womb of that level.
The medicine pot held the ritual blood from the female excisions (bola; balomé = the excisor)) and other Sande rituals, and was then brought back to the Elders to use as the grand medicine container .
At this point, the Zoes and the women who were involved in the Sande initiation rituals, the newly initiated girls, and the Zoes who traveled from afar to utilize the medicine pot were all at risk of contracting blood-borne pathogens like Ebola virus.
This large mask is the paramount mask among the Toma, their Supreme Spirit. All Poro power derives ultimately from this great mask, called Masgui (Grandfather). It is the most holy center of their Poro Elders, and is used for all their most sacred purposes.
The mask is not worn, but is kept in the Poro society Sacred Grove (Geh Bo) where it is propped between the buttress roots of a sacred old cotton tree. Sacrifices are made and oaths are taken on this, and blood from the animals is kept in the small pot on the head.
During the Toma circumcisions a bowl is used to collect all the blood, which is then placed on the top of the mask as an offering before the blood is made into a stew. The iron on the head is called benzue (Kissi pennies). The jar is used as poison oracle as well.
It follows that if even one Zo or initiate was infected, or the sacrificed animal, the contamination would then extend to the pot of blood on the top of Masgui, and probably the entire mask, the area around the sacred tree in the Bush, as well as all the Zoes who came into contact with the blood, bowl, stew, and anyone who came by to make offerings.
This Elders’ mask is one of the most important and powerful Dan masks known. It is extremely rare and over a century old. It was used when people died, and was seen immediately after the Dah’h mask upon the death of a Poro Elder (Dah’h is the most supreme Dan mask that is worn).
This Geh (Bush Spirit) goes to see the corpse before any other members of the Poro Society or the villagers can see it. Its function is to ascertain with certainty that the person is dead and not simply comatose. But it is much more than a simple Coroner—the mask’s eyes are red not only because it is a deep Poro mask, but also because it actually sees the Poro spirit. It can see the spirit leave the body and will direct it in the proper direction. It will speak to both the spirit and to the person right at the very moment of death in order to catch the last breath, and entreats the spirit not to do anything aggressive or harmful to the village or the people. If this is not accomplished, the spirit of the dead (Fuenyyina in Kono) might choose to remain in this world, unseen, but able to do evil if it wished.
It is actually lower in rank than the Dah’h but it is by far more rare, as there were only two or three of these masks ever made, and since only some Poro clusters used it. The actual name of this mask remains unknown as it is too secret to speak. Only the general name of Geh Were is known. This mask was still being used in Yourpea village in the 1970’s, attesting to the existence and persisting power (although secretive) of Poro among the Dan into present times.
Of all the Poro activities that promote the spread of Ebola, some of the worst are the traditional prolonged rituals surrounding death, mourning, and funerals. Not only is there direct contact with the contagious dying person (as with this mask), but funerary customs entail prolonged and repeated direct exposure to the infected corpse during its washing and preparation for burial, often involving many people and sometimes lasting for weeks.
Coming from Kpawolozu, only 14 km. from where the Loma maternity figure was used (Figure 23), this is a good example of the intermixture of styles among neighboring groups. Though from the Belle, as exemplified by its extremely low-set mouth, this mask has elements of Gbandi, Belle and Loma styles. The narrow-set small circular eyes and long columnar nose placed directly under the prominent brow are Loma and Belle elements, but the round, almost spherical treatment of the forehead is of Gbandi origin.
It was used by all three groups in this area when a Poro elder died, in a manner similar to a Loma Bakorogi funeral mask. If the burial ritual was for an Ebola-infected corpse, the mask, its wearer, his costume, burial paraphernalia, and mourners would all be at high risk of contracting an illness with a 70.8% death rate.
Figure 29. Face Mask Mounah. Grebo. Manolu, Liberia. Wood, Kaolin. Date: 19th century. Height: 28½ inches (72.4 cm).
The “River”or “Water” Grebo of southern Liberia carve abstract masks with protruding cylindrical eyes, the number of eyes corresponding to the Bush Spirit’s Poro (Boviowa) grade level and status within the masking hierarchy. There are six sets of eyes on Mounah, representing the highest or last level that can normally be reached by a Grebo man. The eyes were pigmented white on the ends (some white kaolin still remains) because they could see supernatural phenomena that a human’s eyes could not.
Its shape was meant to be fishlike, and Grebo initiations still all take place on the edge of a river that runs through the Sacred Bush. This mask was rubbed with fish oil, and kept where fish was cooking. Rounded lips are found on older examples, newer carvings showing more abstract square lips. In June 1907, during a visit to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, later known as the Musée de l’Homme, Pablo Picasso first saw a simple Grebo mask on display. That mask’s abstract form with only one pair of cylindrical eyes revealed that it came from the River Grebo of southern Liberia, and was utilized in the rituals of the Boys’ level of Poro. This encounter was one of the chief stimuli that resulted in his “African Period” and contributed toward his Cubist phase.
The right to wear this mask belonged only to the highest-ranking member (Bodio, Deya ) in the Elders’ Poro . Lower level men saw him only while he was wearing this mask, and they never saw his face, a privilege reserved for only the highest level Poro men.
Despite its large size, Mounah was a sacred face mask (Kwi, Wasagii). It originally had vulture feathers inserted into an array of holes along the top edge, and like the vulture, this Bush Spirit knew where there would be death. Its name Mounah means the Final (Highest) Spirit. Non-initiates call it Wesegehn—That Which Terrifies. It presided over executions and the cutting up of the sacrificial victim. Mounah could leave the Bush, but if it did the people ran in fear, as it signified death and sacrifice. Mounah also rendered judgment if anyone violated Poro law.
Should the victim be infected with Ebola, the very act of execution and its surrounding rituals entailing the cutting up, distribution, and sometimes eating of human flesh would guarantee the acquisition of the Ebola virus. Although the victim was already dead, approximately 70.8% of the Zoes involved would subsequently die from the disease.
Figure 30. Ritual Knife. Dan. Liberia. Brass, iron. 13 inches (33 cm).
The SIgba Snake Society of the Dan Poro continues to practice ritual human sacrifice despite periodical token banning of such activities by the government, although in a more secretive and less frequent manner. This is one of several known charms and implements used by the Elders of the Sigba during these secret rituals. It is a brass-handled knife with an iron blade. The 99% iron blade would be expected in a utensil such as this, who’s purpose is to kill and cut, as it is easily sharpened and will retain a finely honed edge. The brass hilt, however, makes this a very special item. With its high copper and zinc contents (72.5% Cu and 24.8% Zn), this ancient, handworked, lost wax cast handle identifies this as a potent ritualistic implement of the Elders’ Poro.
In this time of Ebola, such a bloody ritual would be extremely likely to contaminate all participants should the victim be infectious.
The Future of Poro
What is especially ominous is the prospect that the practitioners and retainers of centuries-old (probably millennia-old) secret society lore and customs may succumb to Ebola before their oral history and practical knowledge can be passed on to new groups of initiates and apprentices. Even if infants and children survive, there might not be a sufficient number of surviving Elders to instruct them, and no Sacred Groves in which the Zoes can teach them.
Mass community education and the subsequent avoidance of personal contact as an infection control measure will inevitably impact the quality and frequency of traditional Poro rituals, perhaps for generations. Biomedicinal remedies and methods of traditional healing may be lost, and sacred Poro masks and paraphernalia might have no further use as their symbolism, dances, public and private functions become mysteries to future generations.
The Poro and other West African secret societies have managed throughout the ages to survive despite inroads from the “new religions”—Islam and Christianity—but they are certainly no match for Ebola. President Condé said, “The world has known many epidemics … that have affected the west and yet Europe is still around, so Africa too will beat this.” The problem with that is that the Black Plague e.g. killed one-third of the world’s population and changed the destiny of Western culture, religion and politics. West Africa will survive, but with a 70.8% mortality rate, what will Ebola leave behind?
Nevertheless, the cooperation of the Zoes is essential for the containment of Ebola, and will hopefully be reflected in a downward trend in the disease’s spread.
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