Some 90% of Sierra Leoneans are supposedly a member of one of the country’s secret societies. Not that their existence is secret, nor an individual’s membership (I saw a number of men with rows of raised marks on their backs – the scarification that indicates the society and their rank within it), but the content and meaning of the ceremonies and initiation rites must not be revealed to non-initiates on pain of death. The societies are powerful, both in the sense of favouring their own for jobs (rather like the Freemasons) but also in the magic that can be learnt by those who go through many stages of initiation.
One of the few public manifestations of the magic of these societies is on major public holidays – including Easter Monday – when some of the society “devils” appear in the streets.
When I asked about this most people responded by describing the Easter parade. I guess this probably originates from the devils, but is now more like a carnival procession. Although I would have been happy to see it, that wasn’t really what I was looking for. Anyway, killing time in the morning (the parade being late in the afternoon – as it turned out, too late for me to see before I had to leave for my flight) I wandered around the streets of downtown Freetown, an area I hadn’t seen before.
Then, coming towards me along the street, I saw a small group of men. Some in jeans and T-shirts chanting, and playing clangy metal instruments, but quite clearly the three men in front of them were devils. They had bare torsos and wore long grass skirts, with a white cloth wrapped around their middles and another on their heads, and the one at the front also had a red headdress. But what was most striking was that they, and the white cloths, were smeared with what appeared to be blood. I got closer, and then could see that the flesh on the arms and chest of one was pierced with knives and porcupine quills – clearly it was real blood. & the devil at the front appeared to have a large dagger through the middle of his body, the handle sticking out at the base of his back and some eight inches of blade protruding from his stomach. This couldn’t be real – could it?
I looked into his eyes and they were bloodshot and staring into some place where I don’t think I want to go. & I was reminded of a Chinese harvest festival I saw in Malaysia many years ago, where I watched a man slice his tongue in half lengthways while in some kind of religious trance. So I know that it is possible to rise above bodily pain and trauma, and people I’ve described these devils to all assure me that what I saw was real and not a trick.
The Sierra Leoneans ascribe it to magic. I don’t believe in magic (or religion, or anything else that seems to run counter to common sense and evidence), but the belief in magic is so prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa that just occasionally I find myself wondering if perhaps this continent works in a different way from other parts of the world and there is something here beyond what we can see and touch.