Museum of masks and mysteries

Museums attract me like magnets, even when I know I should have low expectations, I always hope to find something of interest on display.  The National Museum of Sierra Leone did not disappoint (click here to read the history of the museum).

It is as central as you can get in Freetown, right next to the famous, ancient Cotton Tree, which is the heart of the nation. In fact, the smaller of the two museum buildings is the old Cotton Tree Station of the Hill Railway. The windows on all sides of the room allowed cool breezes to pass through keeping the interior at a pleasant temperature without air-conditioning.

This appears to be the original station building very close to base of tree.

This new station building  – no date –  is the other side of the tree and later became the telephone exchange, but is now the National Musuem

photo courtesy of

It is said that the on arrival in 1792, the ‘Nova Scotians’ ( freed American slaves who had fought for Britain in the Revolutionary War – under promise of being returned to Africa – and afterwards settled in Canada) walked up the slope from the shoreline and, under this tree, gave prayers of thanks for their safe passage and named the new settlement Freetown.  The tree was later used by approaching seamen as a marker on the shore to identify the settlement.

The roof in foreground is the National Museum

Back of Le10,000 note

Back of Le10,000 note


The importance of the Cotton Tree in modern Sierra Leone is reflected by its appearance on the Le10,000 note and appropriately our ‘donation’ for visiting the museum was Le10,000 and this included a guided tour which was informative.

varous 'devils'

In the old station building we were shown some old wooden masks used by various secret societies, known as ‘poro’ for men. Our guide told us that some of the artifacts were used by the Kamajors, a group formed during the civil war when some of the secret hunting societies banded together particularly in the south. The brutal initiation rites included cannibalism.  Initiates were taught that they were immune to bullets. Although set up as ‘Civil Defense Forces’ these groups were involved in war time atrocities and after the conflict several of the leaders were successfully prosecuted.

Almost half the room is taken up by  ‘devils’ – costumes of raffia, shells, beads, porcupine quills and cloth worn by the ‘devil’ (one of  the most powerful members of a secret society) and which, it is believed, endows him with special powers. Similar costumes are found throughout West Africa.

A ‘devil’ in costume


A double sided shelf unit displayed some wooden masks used only by women.  They are used in the initiation ceremonies of the Bundu/Bondo (Temne) or Sande (Mende) societies.  Young girls are taken into the bush and prepared for womanhood: learning how to be a good wife, but this ceremony also includes ‘cutting’ (female circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation FGM) often with an unsterilised instrument and no anesthesia  so the risks of infection are high, not to mention the pain of the procedure and its after effects. The practise is widespread in Sierra Leone (according to the Bradt guide, it is estimated that 85-98% of women have been cut) and efforts to change this meet strong cultural resistance from women who want to be part of the socially accepted group and by the practitioners who make their living from it and are considered to have knowledge of powerful magic.

One of the most intriguing cabinets contain a selection of nomoli – soapstone carvings of human and animal figures. Many are cylindrical, others more lifelike. A number of them have their hands (depicted in a smaller scale than the faces) on the sides of their faces.  They appear to have been carved with skill and artistry. No information is displayed so this meant I had to research them online.


Their origins remain a mystery.  They are found buried in agricultural areas along the southern coast and are thought to pre-date Portugese contact in 15-16th Century. There is a collection of statues in the British Museum, but little further information.  There are a couple of paragraphs about the nomoli which have been copied by a number of websites suggesting they are 17,000 years old, but I cannot find any concrete evidence for this. The Smithsonian Museum suggests that the figures probably date to the 15th century and are similar to the Sapi ivory carvings (held in MOMA)  traded with early Portuguese traders. Portugal had the monopoly of West African trade from the mid 15th to mid 16th centuries and reportedly “encountered urban centers in West Africa comparable to those back in Europe, governed by elaborate dynasties, organized around apprenticeship-based artistic guilds, and with agricultural systems capable of feeding their large populaces. Many African cities were even deemed to be larger, more hygienic, and better organized than those of Europe.” (MetM) Interesting video here (if your connection is faster than ours!).

I found another research project in the museum: to find out more about DelphineDelphine Reynolds Reynolds.  A scroll is displayed in a dark corner with no explanation.  It was presented to Miss Reynolds on her arrival in Sierra Leone in 1931 on a pioneering flight. I discovered that she was flying with Flight-Lieut. W. G. Pudney (although the original flight plan stated R B Waters as second pilot) in a “Blackburn ” Bluebird ” (D.H. ” Gipsy III “) to the Cape via the West Coast route” according to ‘Flight’ magazine.  The idea was to open up a mail route to Cape Town via West Africa. The flight was rescheduled from January with a revised plan of reaching Cape Town in early March.  However even this timetable slipped and they departed on March 1 from Hanworth, flying south across France. She was delayed in Gambia on March 20th, after a local boat, whose pilot was asleep, ran into and damaged the seaplane.  They had to wait for spares to be brought from Dakar.  The following report was published in Flight magazine:

“We completed a survey with Capt. Doke, the Commissioner, visiting Basse, Fatoto, and Kahur. It is possible to alight on any part of the river in the colony, and conditions here are ideal for all types of metal seaplanes. The temperature is 106° and humidity 85. We are forwarding to the Zoo a chieftain’s gifts of valuable live stock. There were no difficulties with crocodile or hippopotamus in alighting, but when unpacking the float-case we found a black mamba (a deadly snake) in it, and bees swarmed in the cockpit overnight. We are awaiting a new elevator and making tests with a wooden airscrew.” I wonder what the ‘live stock’ was and whether it ever reached the Zoo!

They flew to Sierra Leone but sustained more damage when trying to take off in choppy conditions on 10 April 1931. There was speculation that this might be the end of the trip, but in October 1932 Flight-Lieut. Pudney gave an after dinner speech entitled “Flying Conditions on the West Coast of Africa.” I have yet to find out if they completed their intended itinerary. [Update: see my blog:]

Much of the second room of the museum is given over to the history of  Bunce Island which was the main slave trading fort in this part of West Africa and was indeed still trading when the first free settlers arrived in Freetown, a few miles downriver. Bunce Island was leased from local chiefs who sold men, women and children in exchange for cloth, swords, guns, alcohol and other trinkets. It is estimated that between 1668 and 1807 some 50,000 slaves were shipped across the Atlantic to plantations in the Caribbean and America: in particular to the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia (the then population of the interior beyond Bunce Island were already rice growers), where their descendants today form the Gullah community, which uses a language very similar to Krio.

An island was an ideal place to keep the captives while waiting for ships to arrive to transport them.  Surrounded by water and dangerous currents, stories evolved of crocodiles and water spirits that would catch you if you tried to swim away.  One of these was ‘Mammy water’ the water devil, seen here in carved form.

Mammy water the water serpent/spirit

Mammy water the water serpent/spirit


On a lighter note, another intrepid journey was made on this bicycle. An energetic Sierra Leonian cycled to Kampala, Uganda  (over 4,700 miles) in 1958! No fancy suspension and no gears – this must have been quite a journey! His diaries, kept along the way, are in the cabinet beside the bike.  The equivalent of a blog today!


8 thoughts on “Museum of masks and mysteries

  1. Pingback: So long Salone! | Impressions of Sierra Leone

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  3. Pingback: Seven years in Sierra Leone: my great grandfather and the Sierra Leone Government Railway | Impressions of Sierra Leone

  4. Hi, I’ve just stumbled upon your website and was very intrigued! My father was from Freetown and I live in Toronto. I am a art historian and my research concerns the history of photography in Sierra Leone. I was struck by the image of Waterloo station taken from your great-grandfather’s collection. Would you have any more information about who it was taken by?

    • I think it was taken by my great grandfather, or at least under his supervision, as I have other photographs taken around the same time.

  5. Pingback: Iron for China | Impressions of Sierra Leone

  6. Pingback: Flight of Delphine Reynolds and W G Pudney | Impressions of Sierra Leone

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