Whenever Poor John and I arrive in a new town, we seek out a local museum. Sometimes there’s more than one. Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, has two important museums—one featuring national culture and the other featuring the history of trains in the country (more about that in another post).
Inspiration for the national museum began in 1953. At that time, Governor Sir Robert Hall encouraged the formation of the Sierra Leone Society. He then challenged its members—mainly colonial expatriates and the Creole elite of the city—to establish what later became the national museum.
We found it easy enough to find the National Museum. It’s in the old Cotton Tree Telephone Exchange in the centre of the city, and has been there since its opening in 1957. It was supposed to be a temporary location, but it’s still there. The telephone exchange was named after a large cotton (kapok) tree that is still nearby.
The museum isn’t overflowing with exhibits. Sierra Leone has suffered considerable conflict over the last decades, but in recent times a Reanimating Cultural Heritage project has digitised more than 2000 museum objects and documented traditions and raised awareness of their significance.
One of those was the photo of Bai Bureh. In 2013, the museum displayed the only know photograph of this Temne guerrilla leader, who started a war against British rule. I wrote about him here.
Two of the museum’s most comprehensive exhibits feature tribal masks and ceremonial costumes.
According to a placard in the museum, the distinctive helmet-style masks are worn by members of the Ndoli Jowei, the ‘Dancing Sowei’, an exclusively female Sande or Bondo initiation society. Traditionally a senior member of the society wears the mask and a black raffia costume, which disguises the wearer’s identity, during the annual initiation of girls. Today a Ndoli Jowei appears (and dances) at a wide range of social events. It is thought to be the only masquerade figure that is actually performed by women anywhere in Africa.
A classic Ndoli Jowei mask is made of lightweight wood and dyed black. It has an elaborate hairstyle, small face, delicate features, pursed lips, downcast eyes and scarification marks on the cheeks or near the eyes.
While a lot is probably known about the ceremonial costumes, but I’ll be darned if I could find any placards that explained them. Our guide didn’t know much either.
But the photos show the construction. The materials are diverse and great fun. There are shells from small to large, dusters, brooms, grasses, horns, teeth, toothpicks, cloth, fishnets, gourds and more.
One particularly elaborate costume has what I think is a stylised ram’s head. It’s heavily adorned with hundreds of shells and long grasses, as well as two dusters for hands. I had to laugh when I saw the timber toothpick holders, complete with toothpicks. I used to own one of those. Another featured a crocodile head and numerous large shells.
I can’t imagine how many hours it took to construct these garments, and I wish I knew who wore them and under what circumstances. Some of the displays had a name at the base, but even searching online hasn’t explained much.
There are loads of other interesting items—household goods, work tools, musical instruments, games and charms. There’s a map of the continent of Africa carved, sadly, on a tortoise shell and a banner showing African leaders from the days of Nelson Mandela.
I have a weakness for fabric—I bought more than 10 metres of fabric on this trip—so was interested in what’s called ‘country cloth’. Traditionally women grew, harvested and dyed the cotton (usually in blue or brown), while men wove the cloth. Today it’s done by both.
The cloth is woven in long strips. It’s durable and is used to make clothes, hammocks, blankets, wall hangings, and, in the past, as currency.