By: Sheku M. Gassimu, Community Projects Manager
Sierra Leone has a rich cultural history, with a strong presence of traditional local mascots, who appear in the form of devils. These devils are often highly decorated and represent an important part of local traditional culture and society. As a community-led organization, OneVillage Partners acknowledges the important role play by these traditional symbols in effecting and supporting significant change in the lives of the communities in which we operate. Therefore OneVillage Partners allows the presence of these traditional mascots at important community events, such as a project handover ceremony.
The village traditional devil structure in Sierra Leone is very complex. Each community may have their own particular devil, or multiple devils, and they may even have to borrow a devil from a nearby village for a particular occasion. Many of the characteristics of this system pre- date the colonial era, although there have been many attempts to improve and modernize these practices, especially in urban centers. These structures and practices remain highly hierarchical and ancestral and are shrouded in secrecy.
While many of these traditional practices were lost during the 11 years of civil war, that lasted from 1991-2002, there are still strong elements of mystical superstitions that bind people together in communities. Prior to the civil war, devils were a significant means of one village exercising power and dominance over another and held a strong spiritual purpose. While the displacement of so many people from rural areas during the war affected these traditional practices, upon returning to their communities, people remembered the importance of their traditional beliefs. The ways in which communities mobilize and organize themselves may have changed and modernized but the practice is not going anywhere! As the presence of these devils is often entrenched in the local power structure, the tradition around masked devils is still very present and serves as an important expression of community pride and unity.
Each devil has its own function and represents a certain feature in society. While the particular hierarchy of devils may vary from community to community, there are many similarities in the way devils operate. The highest level within the village structure are the male devils, named: Gogboi, Farloui, Kongolie, Gbetei etc. These are the generic names for the devils and they may vary slightly in different communities. Gogboi, for example, comes out very rarely and this might only be when a Paramount Chief dies. The Farloui and the Kongolie are ‘play devils’ and come out more frequently. The devil groups are often led by prominent local families and there are cases of people being members of multiple groups within one community. The hierarchy of the devils comes from the function they take in society. The relationship between the prominent
families and the devils sees the devil hierarchy incorporate itself into the existing power dynamics within a community. The visible and colorful nature of devils can be an expression of community happiness, self-realization and a display of power to outsiders.
Next, in the chain of authority at the village level is the female devil. This is led by a Sowei, a prominent figure in local society. Most villages have a male and female devil at the same time. The Paramount Chief – the reigning Chief for a collection of communities – and all village authorities are members of the various devil groups in their chiefdom. Every devil in each village has mystical powers which makes them unique to others. It is always the male devil who announces the death of a Paramount Chief or other prominent village male leaders, before close family members are allow to mourn and arrange for any funeral rites.
OneVillage Partners works diligently not just to impart values of inclusion and transparency within the community-at-large, we also understand that for holistic change to be possible, the inclusion of local cultural heritage is important. Through this approach, OneVillage Partners is able to work with the all sections of society; from encouraging those outside of the traditional ruling hierarchy to become community change agents, to recognizing the presence of devils as a significant endorsement from the local ruling elite. For this reason, we believe that it is important to allow communities to assemble as they wish and invite the local traditional mascots. We have seen that by allowing the communities to embed their development work in existing traditional practices, a zest for unity and collective work flourishes. Through this enthusiasm and momentum, villages are able to come together to tap the collective potential of individuals to embrace development in their communities and become self-reliant and thriving. During our engagement with a community, we consistently see that trust, understanding and collaboration increases, due to our community led approach.