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24 June 2019 / leggypeggy

Masks and costumes are highlights at Sierra Leone museum

Musical instrument, Sierra Leone

Our guide demonstrates a musical instrument

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.

The Cotton Tree, Freetown, Sierra Leone

The magnificent Cotton Tree

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.

Ndoli Jowei mask, Sierra Leone

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.

Ceremonial garment, Sierra Leone

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.

Work tools, Sierra Leone

Work tools

Banner of African leaders

Banner of African leaders

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.

Country cloth shorts, Sierra Leone

Country cloth shorts

Country cloth, Sierra Leone

Country cloth


Leave a Comment
  1. beetleypete / Jun 24 2019 9:15 pm

    Those costumes are amazing, Peggy. I can only imagine how impressive it must have been to watch people inside them, performing rituals, or dancing.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 4 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 24 2019 9:18 pm

      Wish we could have seen them in action. That said, we’ve seen some other amazing dances and I’ll be posting them soon.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. fragglerocking / Jun 24 2019 9:16 pm

    Those costumes are amazing!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Eliza Ayres / Jun 24 2019 9:37 pm

    Reblogged this on Blue Dragon Journal.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. gigglingfattie / Jun 24 2019 9:42 pm

    Wow – those costumes are something else! Too bad they didn’t have anything explaining what they were for. I like to do the same thing as you, and when I go to a new place I seek out museums. This one looks like a great place to spend some time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 24 2019 10:13 pm

      Museums are wonderful places. Stay tuned for a great museum in Dakar, Senegal.

      Liked by 2 people

      • gigglingfattie / Jun 24 2019 10:16 pm

        OOO can’t wait!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Milly / Jun 25 2019 12:44 am

    Looks fascinating. What do you do with the textiles you buy?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. IreneDesign2011 / Jun 25 2019 12:48 am

    Thank you for sharing your experiences in your travel Peggy 😀
    Otherwise many would never see this place. It looks very interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. dfolstad58 / Jun 25 2019 1:19 am

    Amazing post, thanks for photos and the details,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Phil Huston / Jun 25 2019 1:42 am

    “Ancient Astronaut theorists” would have a heyday over those masks. The costumes are too creepy to imagine. I can see someone walking out the bog’s misty fog in one of those and no telling what the small town detectives will find a few days later. EEEK! I’m not sure I understand how the ribbons of cloth are assembled into attire but it would seem to make for an abundance of pinstripes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 25 2019 12:01 pm

      I think the dusters take the edge off the scariness. 🙂 As for the cloth, you’re right! Lots of pinstripes.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Lisa Dorenfest / Jun 25 2019 5:19 am

    Those ceremonial costumes are magnificent. I wish you’d been able to learn who wore them and under what circumstances, but they were still a beauty to behold

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 25 2019 12:02 pm

      Yes, I wish I could learn more. We saw other ceremonial costumes in action. Stay tuned. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lisa Dorenfest / Jun 25 2019 9:39 pm

        Ooooh, now you have me very excited. Looking forward to your next post

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Jun 25 2019 9:41 pm

        It might not be the next post, but it will be along soon.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. gerard oosterman / Jun 25 2019 10:12 am

    Amazing costumes. I wonder if males sometimes wear those as well. Male attire in the west is very boring and predictable. I haven’t worn a suit for decades but it is still hanging somewhere in the wardrobe, waiting patiently.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 25 2019 12:03 pm

      If I understand correctly, the women wear the masks and black raffia costumes. The other costumes are most likely worn by men. They are sure beat a suit.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. BoomingOn / Jun 25 2019 4:05 pm

    What a great idea to seek out museums everywhere you go! So much insight there to be found.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. derrickjknight / Jun 25 2019 8:14 pm

    Fascinating museum well photographed

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Invisibly Me / Jun 25 2019 9:08 pm

    It’s a shame there wasn’t more information on the masks & ceremonial costumes, places usually have ample information with placards. Nonetheless, absolutely fascinating to get to see, what a brilliant collection in that museum! xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 25 2019 9:20 pm

      On reflection, I should have volunteered to write some explanations. If only I could have found someone who knew the answers.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. chattykerry / Jun 26 2019 3:17 am

    Who goes on vacation to Sierra Leone? It looks fantastic and loved the masks. Love your Derring Do!

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 26 2019 8:08 am

      Apparently Sierra Leone is quite popular with Brits. Decent beaches, English-speaking and fairly cheap. Who knew?

      Liked by 2 people

  15. Gilda Baxter / Jun 26 2019 7:28 am

    Fascinating museum, there are so many interesting pieces. I love the cotton tree😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 26 2019 8:09 am

      The museum isn’t large, but it does have some great pieces. I love that tree too.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Alison and Don / Jun 26 2019 1:18 pm

    Love the costumes. What fun. I too would love to know more about who wore them and why. Totally fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 26 2019 3:31 pm

      Thanks Alison. We saw a few dance troupes with elaborate costumes. Must post about them soon.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. CURIOUStotheMAX / Jun 26 2019 1:40 pm

    Fabulous! we have a small mask collection – at one time every wall in the house had masks staring at you – my brother didn’t like to eat in the dining room because they unnerved him!
    Thanks for the great tour.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 26 2019 3:32 pm

      I get your brother’s feeling. I like looking at masks, but I don’t need them surrounding me.

      Liked by 2 people

  18. Forestwood / Jun 26 2019 8:18 pm

    Slightly creepy costumes, but entirely fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Green Global Trek / Jun 27 2019 7:17 pm

    Interesting collection and gorgeous textiles


    Liked by 1 person

  20. Brenda / Jun 27 2019 10:11 pm

    I love seeing the country cloth. Was there any information on what they use for dyes? I’m assuming there’s indigo for the blue, but it would be fascinating to know if they make different kinds of indigo vats in different areas of the country. So much to learn! Also, I hope you will do a post showing all the textiles you brought home with you.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. pvcann / Jun 29 2019 2:27 pm

    The ceremonial costumes are so amazing. One of my majors was cultural anthrop and those cultures are so ancient, though they were ever evolving until white settlement. Loved the post, packed with interesting points.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Nilzeitung / Jun 29 2019 10:07 pm

    Vielen dank !!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. jeanleesworld / Jun 30 2019 9:20 pm

    How to design those costumes–yowza! But I love the ingenuity here, too, using things like bottle caps for education, and creating a cloth they could use for just about anything. I wish we had this “nothing wasted” mentality!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Miriam / Jun 30 2019 10:16 pm

    What a fascinating museum. So many amazing things to discover especially those costumes.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. CarolCooks2 / Jul 25 2019 9:39 am

    Oh wow, Peggy such awesom images it must have been wonderful to see and experience 😊x

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jul 25 2019 8:26 pm

      Goes to show that even small museums can be impressive.


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