Art of the Kissi
— Neil Carey
After a Decade of Rebuilding, Plague Strikes
Poor Foya. The village in Lofa County had been struggling, like the rest of Liberia, to recover after the brutal regional conflicts from 1989-2003 in which 200,000 people died. Situated right on the porous border with southeastern Sierra Leone, in that tiny area where the borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea all come together and the people once freely traveled back and forth to trade and to meet relatives and friends, Foya is home to the Liberian (Southern) Kissi, a related but different group from the Northern Kissi of Sierra Leone and Guinea.
The Kissi are sandwiched between the Loma to the south and east, and the Koranko to the north, the Kono and Mende to the west, and as noted are nestled in the area where the Liberian, Sierra Leone and Guinea borders all meet. They migrated to their present location about four hundred years ago. They speak a Mel language, and linguistically are more closely related to the distant Sherbro than to their Mande-speaking neighbors. Like the neighboring Koranko, Islam and Christianity have made little inroad into their culture, and they retain a very strong “deep” Poro tradition (Carey 2008). Few if any non-Kissi initiates have ever acquired much knowledge about Kissi Poro and lived to tell about it, and so, like the Belle, little is known.
Figure 1. Guédéckou, Guinea, where the first patient died of Ebola in December 2013, is indicated by an arrow.
But then came Ebola, a deadly viral disease that was totally unknown to the people, their traditional healers (Poro Zoes), medical clinics and even the Government. Its symptoms mimicked those of other common illnesses like malaria and cholera, fooling even health care workers who treated patients as usual until they themselves became sick and died.
Not yet understanding that the virus is spread by direct contact, people continued to shake hands, hug their family and friends, engage in ritual healing, and touch the dead while preparing the bodies for burial, all the while unknowingly transmitting the disease.
A very large cluster of cases involved the area around Guédéckou, Guinea, where Patient Zero, a 2-year-old boy, was the first known Ebola-related death from this strain back in December 2013 (Figure 1). Theory has it that he became sick from eating infected bushmeat.
One source of Sierra Leone’s epidemic was 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, 365 cases were all traced back to this one woman.
Figure 2. Foya, Liberia lies on the border with Sierra Leone, close to Guédéckou, Guinea.
But it was in March 2014 that Ebola first crossed the border from Guinea into Foya. After 10 (reported) Liberian deaths, a second wave of Ebola cases erupted in Foya district, presumably coming across the border from Sierra Leone. Only 6 months later, despite a much belated and inadequate international response, no significant slowing of its spread has been seen. By October 1, 2014 Liberia alone had reported 3,834 cases of which 2,069 people died. One of the fortunate survivors was Dr. Kent Brantly. He was the first American physician to contract Ebola after working at a treatment facility in Foya, but was shipped to the U.S. for treatment.
The Kissi share several characteristics with other Poro groups (Carey 2013a):
• Mandatory circumcision of initiates, which must be held at a riverside enclosure and involves Water Spirits.
• Ritual scarification, the pattern incised in the motif of the particular group, and the bodily distribution determined by grade—Boys’, Men’s, and Elders’ Poro initiates all get scarified.
• A hierarchical system of Bush Spirit masks and sculpture.
• A separate walled-off Sacred Bush (Sacred Grove or simply Bush) outside of the village where circumcisions are performed, initiates are sequestered for various periods of time, esoteric knowledge is transmitted, sacred artifacts are stored, secret rituals are performed, and from which women and uninitiated males are forbidden.
• Three basic levels of Poro (Boys’, Men’s and Elders’).
• All members swear oaths to keep Poro secrets concealed on pain of death.
• The usage of poisons to administer justice.
• power to oversee all oaths and enforce them.
• Poro “announces” all important village matters, and in that sense it holds power even over the Paramount Chief.
Over the past centuries, the Poro of the Kissi has managed to remain strong and extremely secretive. Like the Belle, no outsider has managed to penetrate deeply into their customs and rituals. The Mel-speaking Kissi Poro has certainly influenced that of the surrounding ethnic groups, including the Mande-speaking Gbandi, Loma, Northern Kono, Koranko and Mende, and in turn has been influenced by them.
Several names have been recorded in the literature for Kissi Poro, the most common being Poro. Fairhead and Leach called both the women’s and men’s power associations of the southern Kissi Tɔɔma; the men’s Poro is Tɔɔma vandiamua (1996:111,152). Bush Spirits are ŋina, used also by the Koranko (90-92), (elsewhere called nyenne). Poro variants closer to the Komo (Komé) of the Koranko are practiced amongst the more northern Kissi (111). They used the term Sarinɔɔ to describe a Zo who can cleanse a village of witchcraft (172), while Paulme (1954) described how a Wulumo (a Zo specialist in finding witchcraft) would be called to rid a village of sorcery.
According to oral history, the Loma originally learned about Poro from the Kissi, and the very name “Loma” is a Manding word meaning to join to, go into a secret society, to be initiated. Hence, Poro members are called Loma-Mowly, the Initiates (Korvah,1995:19). It is said that the Poro is “older than the oldest tribe in Liberia” (91).
Every Poro group has their own Supreme Spirit, usually a mask (often of the great Water Spirit), which may or may not be worn. It is from this Bush Spirit that all Poro power devolves, empowering the less powerful Bush Spirits beneath it in a pyramidal masking hierarchy. The Dan and Mano both have the big-lipped Dah wooden face masks which are the most powerful masks that are worn, but at least amongst the Dan, this is trumped by a cast brass mask of the Elders that is never worn. The Loma have the large plank mask Masgui, also never worn, but propped against the buttress roots of a sacred old cotton tree in the Gɛ Bɔ (Sacred Grove). The Kono in Guinea have the Nyomou Hinè Gblôa (Holas 1952:45). However, the Supreme Spirit of the Kissi is not known. As mentioned below, the Pomdo is much more powerful than generally thought, but is much more common than a known male figure, yet there must be a stronger object that has yet to be discovered.
The scarification ritual, like the Poro itself, is not simply some scarcely remembered and long discontinued initiatory event of the distant past. Although the specific patterns of scarification differ from group to group and may alter over time, the procedure 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. (Unfortunately, it also can cause wound infections and transmit blood-borne pathogens like Ebola, hepatitis, and HIV).
Figure 3. Scarification patterns of the Boys’ and Men’s Poro of neighboring groups.30 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).
The following report demonstrates the continued presence and importance of scarification as recently as the Liberian civil war of the 1990s (Friends of Daniel 2007):
“When the fighting intensified and the rebels overran the capital city in 1990, I sought refuge in my home village in Foya, Lofa County. During my stay in the village, I helped my parents on the farm. I was not yet married. But in no time the war spread wild across the country, thereby reaching my region of safe haven. In Lofa County, I personally became victim of my own surname while in my birth village. Since my name was not as popular as other Kissi names, Charles Taylor’s Gio and Mano fighters claimed I was a Mandingo. In fact, to find a government working ID card on me was an additional crime. Even after the villagers confirmed that I was a born Kissi of the village, they still tied me up and placed me in the sun for hours. They felt convinced to release me only after they took off my clothes and they saw Poro society marks on my back. Of course, they knew that Mandingos could not carry such marks, since they were not members of Poro (secret society for boys) society. It was a humiliating moment for me, especially for Gio people from a different region to deny me citizenship in my own area under the disguise of the gun. At that moment I regretted having to leave Monrovia to seek refuge back home. I was gripped with fear and decided to return to Monrovia.”
Kissi Poro Sculpture
Pomdo stone figures have an unknown and mysterious origin. They have been found from Sherbro Island off the coast of Sierra Leone (where they are referred to as Nomoli or Sherbro stones) to as far as the Kissi and Kono in Guinea where they are called Kissi stones, Pomtan, Pomdo, or Pomda (Allison 1968: 36-41). The locals feel that they possess magical powers, and they are sometimes inserted into cavities carved into larger wooden figures to empower them. The Kissi call both the small stone figure and the large female wooden figure into which it is inserted Pomda.
Figure 4. Male Stone Figure Pomda (Kissi.Stone). Guinea or Sierra Leone. Steatite, aluminum, copper. 6¼ inches (16 cm). Private collection. Rhode Island
Nomoli and Pomtan are found in the ground when clearing a field, or in stream beds. Despite conjecture, no one really knows who carved these little stone sculptures. It is reasonably believed that Nomoli and Pomtan were created by a culture that occupied this area of the Guinea rain forest prior to the influx of the multiple migrations of its current inhabitants. Some have speculated that they were made and left behind by the Manes, others by the Sherbro, and even by the Kissi into more recent times.
Figure 5. Male Stone Figure Pomda. Kissi. Stone. Guinea or Sierra Leone. Steatite, aluminum, copper. 6¼ inches (16 cm). Private collection, Rhode Island.
This particular stone figure in Kissi style, carved from a brownish steatite, is notable because it has a pure aluminum stud embedded in a small hole drilled on the top of its head, and a copper stud is embedded in its navel. Allison noted that both Nomoli and Pomtan have been collected with a hole on the head (38) but he doesn’t mention holes in the belly or metals as insertions, the stuffing in a British Museum specimen being vegetable matter.
This little Pomdo figurine is quite a significant object. As demonstrated in Carey (2013b) via extensive research including XRF analyses, copper and aluminum additions onto Poro objects indicate Men’s and Boys’ Poro grade levels. Assuming that the copper in the navel signifies Men’s Poro (which of course it might not), and the aluminum in the head indicates Boys’ Poro, and given that the Kissi have only lived in their present territory for about four hundred years, and knowing the Nomoli and Pomtan figures predated the Sherbo, Kissi, and Kono (or even their predecessors), then this figure might be evidence that the symbolic usage of copper and aluminum was present amongst the Poro of the ancient group that carved the Nomoli and Pomtan. This hypothesis is consistent with the proposition that the Poro, by any name, has existed in West Africa for over two millennia, predating the influx of Christianity and Islam.
Figure 6. Female Figure Pomdo. Kissi. Foya, Liberia. Early 20th century. Wood, fabric, millefiore beads, fiber, copper and brass bells, leopard tooth, hidden Pomdo stone figurine. 14 inches (36 cm). Private Collection.
Pomta (singular Pomdo, Piomdo, from Pom meaning the dead) are bottle-shaped, wooden female figures made by the Liberian Kissi in the border area of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. They look like busts of women with bells hanging off the back of their heads, with bands of cotton wrappings and special garments draped over their bodies.
Each Pomdo has concealed inside of it a hollowed-out body cavity containing a small ancient stone figurine that was found in the ground by whoever commissioned the carving. Sometimes other material, such as iron money (Kissi Pennies), is also hidden in there. As noted above, these small, carved stone figurines are called Nomoli or Sherbro stones in Sierra Leone and Pomdo, Pomtan or Kissi stones in Liberia and Guinea, depending where they are found. Made by an unknown culture that lived in this area before the Kissi arrived, they are not uncommon, and are usually found while clearing fields for planting.
Great power is attributed to these small figurines, and when placed inside of the large wooden Pomta, they are used for divination, ancestor worship and general protection. They are consulted by a Poro Zo who specializes only in Pomta, when something is lost or when a large problem occurs. Then they are taken outside and an animal sacrifice is made, preferably a cow.
Because the Pomdo has bush power, a leopard’s canine tooth or bone facsimile is always attached to it. Throughout the region’s non-Islamic groups a leopard’s tooth is an object of great reverence. It is often used as a sign of freedom, and historically, the presentation of a leopard’s tooth to a slave immediately set them free. In addition to the tooth, this example also has two imported glass millefiore beads strung on it (Johnston 1906:1063). There are two bells at the nape of the neck. The larger one is an imported trade bell made from a brass alloy. The smaller one was made from almost pure copper. The bells would ring at any sign of danger or trouble, and were the voice of the spirit (Johnston 1906:1063; Foray 1977:109-110; Paulme 1954 :144-149; Siegmann and Schmidt 1977:39,40; Dunn 2001:190; Page 2005:67-70).
It must be stressed that the Pomdo is a most serious object to the Kissi, as strong as than the some of the most powerful Poro material. The stone and other items inside it are extremely powerful. All oaths are sworn on the Pomta, like the highest Poro masks, and the figure is the actual abode of a deity.
The entire figure, dressed in its layers of frequently changed special garments, is attached to long sticks like a stretcher and carried on the heads of two male bearers as they might carry a corpse at a funeral (Paulme 1954:plate. XI).
This example has an exceptionally well-rendered face for a Pomdo, most of them being more crudely carved. It was collected in the 1950s when a Kissi family had all but died out, and the daughter married into another family with their own Pomdo. It was felt that there could not be two of them, and so this one was sold. It has remained unopened, as no Kissi person would dare to release the spirit trapped inside. When shaken, a rattling can be heard coming from the rectangular shaped opening in its back that can be felt through the cloth wrappings. X-rays of Pomta have revealed small stone figures, iron money called Kissi pennies, and other objects. The garments, two separate cotton tunics, were made especially for this figure. They were changed frequently, like the objects of an offering, but were removed before this photograph was taken in order to document the form of the underlying “naked” Pomdo. The mass of brown attached material seen lying behind the figure is coarse netting that was used to affix the Pomdo to its carrier.
Figure 7. Male Figure. Kissi. Foya area, Liberia. Wood, seeds, human hair, fiber, country cloth. 1950s. 22 inches (56 cm). Private Collection.
This wooden Kissi male figure exhibits a peculiar concave, dish-shaped face. This treatment has been noted on other Kissi figures, although a similar facial form has been noted on some Belle sculpture.
This is an extremely rare figure from the Liberian Kissi, a different group than the northern Kissi of Guinea and Sierra Leone. Special large black seeds are used for the eyes, and remnants of human hair from a Poro Elder is adherent to the scalp and chin. Its mouth was once full of small mammal teeth, only a few of which remain today. Its abnormally foreshortened arms are reminiscent of figures from the neighboring Gbandi.
Underneath its striped cloth garment, the abdomen has a large hollowed-out compartment which once contained a spirit of unknown material hidden inside it, in Kissi tradition. It is uncertain whether this magical empowering spirit was a small, ancient carved stone figurine (like a Pomdo, used inside the Kissi Pomta figures) or some other power material.
Kissi material of this type is rare, and this figure is much rarer than the Kissi Pomdo, as most large family groups will have a Pomdo, but this figure belonged to an entire Poro camp. Its name and exact usage are unknown, as no outsider has penetrated deeply into Liberian Kissi Poro.
Figure 8. Female Figure. Kissi. Liberia. Brass. Before 1900. 4½ inches (15 cm). Collection of Brendon Sowerby.
This small, yet detailed, brass figure was very likely made by the same hand as a Loma casting in the same collection. The intricate scarification patterns on the female’s chest, abdomen, and back help identify this as a Kissi female (Germann 1933: plate 2), although the brasscaster was most likely Dan. The concave dish-like face can be seen on the precious Kissi wooden figure.
Figure 9. Miniature Mask. Kissi. Liberia. Wood, aluminum, sacrificial material. 6¼ inches (16 cm). First half of the 20th century. Private Collection, Rhode Island.
Often misattributed to the Loma or the Kpelle, Kissi masks are rare, but can often be distinguished by their relatively short noses with Kpelle-like nostrils, and prominent cheeks, though without the typical Kpelle facial angulation. This example has a triangular Bakorogi style mouth. It is a small miniature mask with a row of aluminum studs embedded across the upper forehead, indicating its Boy’s Poro relationship.
Figure 10. Kissi Penny. Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. Iron. Early 20th century. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York. Cat.90.1/6657 C.
Long thin strips of twisted, locally-forged native iron, called “Kissi pennies”, have been used as a form of currency among the ethnic groups living along the border region between Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea since at least the late 1800s. They are sometimes seen on sacred Poro (Pölö) sculpture of the Loma, who call the iron benzue.
Kissi pennies were of various lengths, from about nine to over fifteen inches, and were often used in bundles of twenty, tied around the middle with a cotton cord or leather thong. The ends were enlarged by hammering them flat, one end rounded and spatula-shaped, the other end shaped like a “T”. This may have been done as a means of detecting any attempt at cutting off a piece to “short-change” someone, or to prevent the thin iron strands from slipping out of their bundle.
It is said that the value of a broken Kissi penny could only be restored through a special ritual performed by a Poro Zo, who, for a fee, would rejoin the broken ends and “reincarnate the escaped soul”. Thus, Kissi pennies were sometimes called “money with a soul”. When added onto Poro sculpture, they imparted and revealed the Bush Spirit’s great importance and wealth.
The Future of Kissi Sacred Art
Nobody can predict the manner in which the current Ebola crisis will affect Kissi Poro or our knowledge of hitherto secret art and rituals. Certainly, there is now and will continue to be a significant disruption of traditional secret society activities.
Kissi material is extremely rare in Western collections, and our knowledge is accordingly spare. But so was our understanding of Belle and Koranko material, until the social upheavals of 1989-2003 resulted in the emergence of previously unknown materials and their secret functions. Our knowledge is still just superficial, but is much greater than it was before 1989.
Perhaps the same phenomenon will occur with the Kissi, resulting in a spurt of understanding and an exposure to new objects. On the other hand, it is just as likely that we have seen the last of Kissi Poro for some time to come. Time will tell.
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_________(2013b). Making the Grade: Symbolism and the Meaning of Metals in Poro Art of West Africa. Amherst: Ethnos.
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