Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ritual object or 'Kru money'?

“The society that loses its symbols loses its identity and in the process loses touch with itself.”

In: 'Rock of the Ancestors: namôa koni'
(William C. Siegmann, 1977)

The origin of these objects is not known with certainty, except for the fact that they were made and used among the Kru and the Grebo in southeastern Liberia.
According to one source, the Kru and Grebo believe these objects to be living creatures that can be found in creeks, rivers and lagoons. They call them ‘tien’,‘nitien’ or ‘Dwin’ meaning water spirits or ‘Gods of water’. A variety of powers are attributed to them including the ability to stop wars, found villages, heal the sick and guarantee fertility. They are also capable to catch people crossing these streams. The Kru and Grebo believe that the ‘tien’ live in the water but can be caught and brought to town where they may be enjoined to serve as protector or guardians (Siegmann, 1977, p. 82).

It is seriously doubted whether any of these objects have been made in recent times. In any case, nowadays they are extremely rare. A nineteenth century source described objects that resembled the above shown objects (in particular object B). In 1845, Horatio Bridge, a US Navy officer who served on a cruiser sailing in the Gulf of Guinea, reported: "I have procured some of the country-money. It is more curious, than convenient."

And he continued that the ‘Manilly’, worth a dollar and a half, would be a fearful currency to make large payments in, being composed of old brass-kettles, melted up, and cast in a sand-mould, the weigh being from two to four pounds (Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed., 1845, p. 106).

In 1853, Horatio Bridge reported that he had seen them being cast in sand-moulds on the beach near Sasstown in southeastern Liberia. He described how some were made by melting down old brass kettles, others were made using the so-called lost wax technique of casting. He must have seen more and bigger objects than in 1845 since he mentions that their size varied from less than two inches to more than ten inches in diameter whereas a big one could weigh as much as twenty-five pounds. Some objects were solid brass, while others had a sand core - like object A, above on the extreme left. Most objects consisted of an unbroken circle with four knobs, but a few were open on one side. Bridge reported that they were called ‘Kru money’. (Siegmann, 1977, p.82).

A ritual killing

Very interesting is the experience which an American Baptist missionary had in the interior of Liberia in the 1940's. Abe Guenter describes in his book ' Jungle Pilot in Liberia' where and how he found such a brass ring. He asked the villagers for an explanation and heard the following astonishing story of a human sacrifice and ritual killing.

Abe Guenter: "I kept visiting that church from time to time to encourage and strengthen the believers. On one visit I noticed a ten-pound brass ring, 7 inches across and 1.5 inches thick with four knobs attached to the side. It was half buried in mud, so I pulled it out, cleaned it off and carried it to the deacon next door. "Deacon Carr, please tell me what this is, " I requested. "Oh yes (....) I will tell you" he replied. "My grandfather was the big chief in this village. He was so afraid of spirits, sicknesses, war and other people's witchcraft that he went to the big, big witch doctor (....). With the help of the blacksmith, they poured this beautifully marked brass ring. (...) The witch doctor laid the ring down in the middle of the village (...). By then the sun was going down and the witch doctor had a meeting with just the elders of the village and my grandfather. He told them: "You asked for the most powerful witchcraft, and that always needs a human sacrifice. I want you to bring a young boy at midnight to the new god so we can make this sacrifice." An eight-year-old boy, with his mouth gagged, was brought that night. They cut his throat and spilled all his blood on the brass ring, and from that time on, all the activities of the village revolved around the 'brass god': sacrifices, worship and all. But when the gospel came, we threw the ring away and turned to the true and living God." (Guenter, 1992: p. 58/59).

An unanswered question

Hence, the question emerges: “Were these objects ritual objects or traditional money?”

We may never know the answer. Searches on the internet for ‘Kru money’, for ‘Dwin’, ‘tien’, and ‘nitien’ only resulted in a few sites. Scott Shepperd's contribution to the Tribal Art Forum is without any doubt the most important (2004). According to the author these Kru rings where made as sacred objects, not originally as currency.
Another site found, “The Artistry of African Currency”, has in its heading an illustration of the brass object - however, without any reference.

Liberian Studies Journal
1970-71 Vol. III, number 1
Another reference was found in the Liberian Studies Journal of 1970-71 that shows a Kru ring on its cover. The cover photograph is described as “Brass ring, use unknown. Called Dwin. Collected 1965 near Barclayville, Grand Cess Territory. Svend E. Holsoe Collection.” (see picture).
An endangered cultural heritage

Liberia’s numerous ethnic groups are characterized by an extremely rich cultural life. Today, many traditions still persist but an irrevocable process seems to be taking place. Gradually, tribal customs and beliefs as well as ritual ceremonies and symbols are losing their meaning. People have begun to forget the origin and purpose of traditional symbols.

The civil war - fourteen years of looting, destruction and fighting - has cost the lives of an estimated quarter of a million people and has seriously damaged Liberia’s cultural heritage. It has added to the negative effects of a humid climate, carelessness and economic modernization. Today, tons of Liberian art have been lost.

This article is published with the kind permission of Dr Fred van der Kraaij,
and is extracted from his website on the past and present of Africa's oldest republic. Dr Fred van der Kraaij taught economics at the University of Liberia during the second half of the 1970s.

His dissertation on the role of foreign investments in the development of Liberia 1900-1977 was published as “The Open Door Policy of Liberia – An Economic History of Modern Liberia” (Bremen, 1983).

He wrote extensively on West Africa where he lived for over 16 years. Visit his website at: Liberia Past and Present

Monday, August 01, 2005

Kissi Money or ‘Money with a Soul’

At the end of the 19th century, the so-called ‘Kissi money’ or ‘Kissi penny’ was introduced by the Kissi, Loma and Bandi peoples living in the border regions of nowadays Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

In practice its use was quite extensive. Various sources mention the use of the Kissi money among and between the Bandi, Gbandia, Gola, Kissi, Kpelle, Loma, Mandingo and Mende tribes of this region. Presumably, Kissi money was ‘minted’ as from the 1880s by native blacksmiths who used iron smelted from the rich ore in the region. For many decades Kissi money circulated along with American, British and French paper money.

The shape of the Kissi money is rather odd. Its characteristic form is a twisted rod of iron with flattened ends: a flat, hoe-like spatula at one end and a sharpened ‘T’ at the other. Its length varies from 9 to over 15 inches, the longer ones representing a higher value. Larger ‘denominations’ also were created by twisting several pieces together or bundling them and securing them with a cotton or leather strip. The odd shape may have its origin as a means of protection since it was virtually impossible to tamper with the metal content of the piece without noticing it immediately.

If an iron rod would accidentally break, it could no longer circulate and its value could only be restored in a special ceremony performed by the Zoe, the traditional witchdoctor – often the blacksmith – who, for a fee, would rejoin the broken pieces and reincarnate the escaped soul. Therefore, it was said that Kissi money was ‘money with a soul’.

The Kissi money was a general-purpose currency. Kissi pennies were tied in bundles of twenty and used for a variety of purposes. In the beginning of the 20th century a cow would cost 100 bundles, a virgin bride 200 bundles and a slave 300 bundles.

The French were the first to abolish the use of the Kissi money in their colony. The British followed in 1940. In Liberia things went much slower. In 1936 the District Commissioner at Voinjama, the most northern District of Liberia’s Western Province bordering the French colony of Guinea and the British colony of Sierra Leone, attempted to prohibit the use of Kissi money in payment of the much despised hut tax. Eight years earlier the U.S. Firestone Company had come to Liberia but the company’s operations were concentrated in regions located more to the coast. Since the North American rubber company hardly affected their way of life, the tribal people in the northwestern part of the country continued using the traditional money. It was only after the administrative reform of 1964 and the emergence of modern employers in the 1960s (plantations, iron ore mines), due to President Tubman’s Open Door Policy, that the Kissi money was definitely replaced by the official currency of Liberia - since 1944 the US dollar. In that year President Edwin Barclay had outlawed the British pound and made the US dollar the only legal tender in the country.

After being replaced by Western currencies, the use of Kissi money became virtually limited to ritual ceremonies such as on the occasion of the return of young men and women from the bush schools (Poro and Sande schools) or for sacrifices and divination ceremonies. It also serves for making protective fetishes and to decorate the graves of old warriors. Still many people believe the old money to possess magical powers. Hence, according to many tribal Liberians, the Kissi money still is ‘money with a soul’.

This article is published with the kind permission of Dr Fred van der Kraaij,
and is extracted from his website on the past and present of Africa's oldest republic. Dr Fred van der Kraaij taught economics at the University of Liberia during the second half of the 1970s.

His dissertation on the role of foreign investments in the development of Liberia 1900-1977 was published as “The Open Door Policy of Liberia – An Economic History of Modern Liberia” (Bremen, 1983).

He wrote extensively on West Africa where he lived for over 16 years. Visit his website at: Liberia Past and Present

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Bambara Tribe of Mali

The BAMBARA live in MALI on the Bani River and on both sides of the Upper Niger, and are an important MANDE speaking tribe. They number almost a million and are the heirs of two kingdoms, SEGU (1660-1881) and KAARTA (1670-1851). The BAMARA believe in the great light and creator god FARO, a kind of redeemer and organizer of the universe who is enthroned in the seventh heaven and sends rain which brings fertility. The sacred colour white is used in sacrifices and at one time, the most beautiful girl was richly adorned and sacrificed at the riverside each year as his bride. According to the myth, FARO bestowed upon man their conscience, order and purity, as well as a sense of responsibility. FARO also created female twins and through his messenger, the swallow he made them pregnant and brought into being the first BAMBARA. For this reason, twins are regarded as being the bringers of good fortune. The BAMBARA undertake nothing without first asking the will of FAR through an oracle.

Life in the villages is ruled by secret societies to which the male BAMBARA belong. There are six societies—the N’TOMO which protects the boys awaiting initiation, These boys belong, from their seventh year of life, to the N’TOMO Society, and once they have achieved manhood through circumcision ceremonies, they remain as an age group which will always be bound in mutual loyalty throughout life. The KOMO which has the smith as its head and exercises judicial power. The Smiths—NUMU were feared and also despised and lived alone, marrying amongst themselves. The same group provided the carvers who produced the sacred masks and figures. Besides them there are the KULE who are also carvers and who also live apart.

The carvings of the Bambara are of great number and variety and are of a monumental and elegant style. The world famous CHI WARA head dress for the antelope dance is amongst the most beautiful and ingenious works of African sculpture. The proud eland, the emanation of the creator god FARO is the tribal animal of the BAMBARA and the mythical spirit of work, for it once taught men how to cultivate grain.

The CHIWAA dances are closely connected with the magical relationship of the FARO to the fertility of their fields and women. The men will don the head dresses and dance a distinctive slowly weaving circular dance with constant respectful genuflections. The male and female antelope always form a pair and the great spirit would kill anyone who tried to separate them in the rite. They also dance after the conclusion of their puberty celebrations before the nubile girls who are richly adorned with cowrie shells.

The CHI WARA can be distinguished into three main groups:

1. The SEEGU-MINIANKA type of the eastern Bambara region, the structure of which is vertical. Above a small body rises a powerful curved neck with a broad mane of decorative openwork, a firm narrow head and slightly curved horns riding majestically above. The hind which belongs to this type has no mane, instead it bears a small kid upon its back and has straight horns. They are formed with powerful spiral curves.

2. The “Horizontal type” of the northwestern region around BAMAKO, There the antelope, its horns bearing spiral curves, leaps across horizontally. It is formed in two parts which are joined together at the neck with a metal ring. The surface of many of the CHI WARA is completely smooth, but that of others is entirely covered with a delicate pattern of curves, representing the pattern of the animals’ coat.

3. The SEGUNI type found in the villages around Buguni in the southern western Bambara region. Here we find the vertical abstract type, The interplay of forms between the zig-zag pattern, the horns and the curve of the neck, with the head growing to a point and the body of the antelope is sometimes arbitrarily joined to that of another animal (horse, chameleon) which as one of the first animals in creation is said to have been meant to bring immortality to the Bambara—or a lizard or gazelle. In some cases the figure of a woman may be on top which may refer to the myth in which the jealous twin brought evil. The dance for which the SUGUNI type is used is more wild than in the case of other types.

The Dogon Tribe of Mali

The DOGON from northern Mali are called HABRE (unbelievers) by the Fulani, because they resisted Islam, and following their migration under pressure from the MOSSI kingdom, they sought shelter among the rocky country at the foot of the Bandiagara and Hombori mountains where they wrested fields from the arid ground with the aid of artificial irrigation.

Their carving is of great variety and interest, and much is known about the ancient myths to which the sculptures refer. Their creator god was AMMA and there were eight NOMMO who are regarded as his messengers and as incarnations of his life force. It was also the Nommo who became men.

The seventh NOMMO who became man was the HOGON or High Priest and was the smith and it was he who arrived on earth either in an ark or on horseback bringing important cultural materials and techniques. The myths tell of the god AMMA who created the earth from clay. The earth was feminine and the termite hill represented the clitoris. AMMA had intercourse with the earth who was an unwilling partner and from this union was born DYOUGOU and SEROU who in turn committed incest with his mother. Statues of these two often depict them with their hands over their eyes symbolizing shame over the act of incest. Because the initial act of creation had got off to such a bad start, AMMA decided to excise the earth’s clitoris and once again had intercourse with her and the offspring of this union was a pair of strange beings known as NOMMO. The NOMMO had supple bodies with no joints and only one single leg in the shape of a drumstick. The pair were bisexual, but the male element dominated in one and the female in the other. The latter gave birth to four NOMMO couples considered to be the eight original ancestors of man.

The much celebrated DOGON door locks are seldom found in the shape of the NOMMO but the shape is common in other DOGON sculptures. The head is a semicircular form resting on two breasts which for the neck. Visually, the body of the lock becomes the body of the figure. Door locks are becoming increasingly rare with the spread of ISLAM. Peer pressure often forces people to remove the door locks and another reason is fear that they will be stolen for resale. Many of the old family locks are kept hidden in the home against such occurrences. There are no known large collections of door locks which makes comparison of styles and designs very difficult.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Yoruba Tribe of Nigeria

The YORUBA from south west Nigeria and parts of Dahomey and Togo are twelve million in number and are the largest tribe in West Africa. They have settled in the city states of which Ife and Dyo are the most powerful At the turn of the seventeenth century, every province had its OBA and each village its chief. The OBAS still exist in Nigeria today but their power and wealth is greatly diminished. The older notables of each tribe belonged to the OGBONI society which appointed certain officials and conducted secret courts and its power is still effective at the present day. The OGBONI society was formerly supervised by smiths and is therefore of very ancient origin.

Although the YORUBA have largely received Christian baptism, they still feel a tie with the high god OLORUN and his spirit messengers the ORISHAS. The most important ORISHAS are SHANGO the spirit of thunder and lightening and mythical founder of the tribe; OBATALA the god of growth and creation, or purity and compassion; ODUDUWA wife of OBATALA, the earth goddess sometimes symbolized by a nursing mother. OSHUN and OYO river goddesses, OLOKUN god of the sea, IFA the personification of divine wisdom, ESHU, ELEGBARA or ERINLE the uncertain principle; OGUN or OSANYIN, life force in the form of “powerful medicine”, god of war, and IBEJI the god of twins.

Apart from the OGBONI society, are other secret societies such as EPA and EGUNGUN.

The IBEJI twins similar to that of the MENDE, are commissioned by the bereaved mother to replace a twin who has died and who’s spirit will roam the earth, unless it finds a resting place in the wooden statue. The twins are ranked by birth order and the first born will always bear the name of TAIWO. It is he who has come first to show the way to his dominant brother KEHINDE who is regarded as the senior twin. All lineage property descends through the male line and it would be KEHINDE who would assume the titles and properties of his father and in the event of his decease, then TAIWO would inherit.

The twinning birth rate among the YORUBA is extremely high, showing figures back in the mid 1970’s of 45.1 twin births for every 1000 babies born. This is roughly four times higher than the rate found in USA or UK. While the twins are both alive, they are fed each week on a special meal of beans and oil. Both these items are thought to calm the spirit and sooth the soul. Twins are looked upon with some fear as bringers of trouble, and as the stomach is looked upon as the “seat of anger”, it is felt that by feeding them this soothing dish, they will be less likely to bring problems. At the same time of this special meal, any other child in the compound is also fed on the same dish, and in one very strange case, a woman who had twins and was living in London, ensured that at the same time each week while she was presenting her twins with this special meal, that her mother in Nigeria was feeding the children present in her compound with the same meal at the same time.

In the event of one or both twins dying, the IBEJI replacement or pair would be offered this dish at the same time each week and on the day chosen each year to celebrate the birth of the twins, the ceremonies would be still held for either the living or the IBEJI twins.

In the event of the death of one or both twins, the mother will consult the BARALAWO before commissioning the carver to sculpt the ERE IBEJI. She specifies the sex and the ILA (lineage face markings) that the statue will bear. Once carved—always in the image of a fully sexually matured adult figure normally with hands at the sides
touching either hips or thighs—the statues are presented to the mother who will then often decorate them with white chalk—EFUN—and indigo—OSUN. The sculptures are bedecked with cowries, beads, metal bracelets and anklets and are sometimes dressed in little hats and jackets and adorned with cosmetics. The mother will then proceed to wash, dress and feed the IBEJI in the same manner as she would a surviving child and honour it on the special day chosen each year. It is strongly felt by the YORUBA that if these rituals are neglected, the dead twin will then become dissatisfied and apart from bringing trouble to the household, will lure his surviving brother or any other siblings to the spirit world.

Properly honoured, they can bring great fortune to their families, but neglected, they can wreak havoc. The black and white COLOBUS monkey known as EDUN is sacred to the twins. The monkey is seen as similar to the YORUBA mother in that it carries its twins one in the front and one on the back. They are also likened to the monkeys as they can “climb up and come down” at will—i.e. they have the power to die and be reborn again to the same mother. The spirit ABIKU is much feared as it is felt that he lures the children to their deaths and great pains are taken to placate and keep him at bay. The YORUBA feel that since the twins are the keepers of one soul which carries the heavenly spirit and one which bears the mortal spirit, it would be very dangerous to neglect one or other twin not knowing which bore which spirit, so it is safer that both be treated as sacred from birth. A single child of a family who has twins does not have an easy life. He is always named IDOWU regardless of sex and must be subservient to his siblings, expecting nothing unless his brothers or sisters have received it first, but a subsequent child to him will be called ALABA and at this birth, the YORUBA parents can relax and feel that life has returned in some respect to normal.

The mother of twins will often be seen in the market place begging alms for her children—both living and dead—and it is essential that the identical alms be given to each child, never favouring one above the other as this would create antagonism and result in death or trouble. While begging alms, the mother will always carry either both live babies or one live and one IBEJI, or both IBEJI’s to ensure that both children are represented. Another means of income for the mother is the selling of palm oil in the market place and it is felt that these jobs are the ones that keep the twins happiest.

There are cases now where a photograph of the surviving twin will act as an IBEJI. The negative is printed twice if the children are of the same sex. If different, the child is dressed differently for each photograph, and th negatives are printed side by side to create one photo of two children. These photos are venerated with the same food sacrifices in the same way as the wood sculptures.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Bundus


The largest pieces in the collection were the Bundu Masks which have a fascination for any collector or enthusiast for West African art. They are an integral part of the woman’s society of the SANDE and it is interesting to realise what a strong role women played in the Mende tribal life.

The MENDE tribe number about 700,000 and are the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone. They are based in the southern part of the country and are ruled by a hierarchy of chiefs having a paramount chief as head of each district. Their economy is based on rice farming.


The BUNDU helmet masks are worn by the women of the secret society of the SANDE. The women are of the tribes of the MENDE and TEMNE which are found in Sierra Leone and Western Liberia. The style has been continuous for a century but its origins are unclear. It is thought that the first mask was presented to the SANDE society by the water spirit MAMY WATA but it also could have been made by a sympathetic carver who presented the mask to the leader of the SANDE society to prevent her from being recognised.

The purpose of the SANDE is to accompany the young girls on their passage into the adult community. They will supervise their training in the skills required of them anaesthetize the young girls by hypnosis during female circumcision, and sit and receive the gifts presented to the girls by prospective bridegrooms.

When a woman reaches the middle level of the SANDE society, she commissions a mask which will belong only to her and it will project the personality of a certain spirit. The woman will tell the carver only the name of the mask and he will seclude himself in the bush in order to visualise the personality of the spirit. The mask is cut from a log with a machete. The log is then placed in a hole in the ground and the head cavity is dug out with a long handled chisel and a curved blade. Once this is formed, the log is removed from the hole and the centre of the face is marked. From this line the diamond layout of the face is created from the centre point. Symbolism both physical and spiritual is incorporated. If the hair is created in the three lobed setting, maleness is suggested whereas the arrangement of four lobes signify the female concept. The five lobed hair setting is a phallic symbol. The SHERBRO-MENDE carve a seven lobed setting to present the concept of the complete human unit.

The bulging neck is both symbolic and functional with the MENDE equation of corpulence to fertility. When completed, holes are burned around the base of the neckline to which raffia will be attached and the mask is dyed with juice from the leaves of the kojo vine which takes if first to a bright green but later oxidizes to the desired deep brown. Before the spirit can enter the mask, the costume but be completed to cover the entire body.

Black dyed raffia is attached to the mask, a cloth suit with the end of the sleeves sewn closed is worn over long stockings of often shoes are worn to prevent holes in the stockings through which the spirit would enter the dancer rather than the mask.
Once the woman passes through that stage of the SANDE society and moves upwards, the mask is no longer used but may be offered to the chief as a prestige gift, or transformed to represent the comedian GONDE. In some cases, the retired mask will be decorated with strips of silver or some other metal to denote that they are no longer in use. In order to fully appreciate the BUNDU mask, the dancer should be seen in the dipping and twirling motion which brings the mask to life and as with most of the MENDE art, it invites movement and handling in order to fully appreciate the three dimensional aspects.

The NJAYEI MASK which is different from the BUNDU mask by virtue of the spotted markings and simple lines, is worn by members of the NJAYEI society of which both men and women may be members, but they must first be members of the SANDE (female) or PORO (male) society. The head of the society is a woman who’s house is also the spiritual shrine. The mask is used in the control of sexual behaviour and will be used in ceremonies to aid such problems as mental illness, impotence, fertility, self confidence and personality development. The spotted markings on the mask are symbolic of blood which is closely associated with health and fertility, and white markings which are associated with the spirits.