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October 13, 2015

Our current leaders are always vociferous about keeping our African traditions.

They never let slip any opportunity to remind us, the lesser mortals, about the need to shy away from the less than desirable elements of foreign culture.

Indeed, recent events have shown how disingenuous these sanctimonious pronouncements and admonitions have been.

Let me explain.

Since when was it proper for a thorough bred and educated African to attempt the unmasking of an individual who is speaking the truth to power?

Have they never read Achebe's classic, "Things Fall Apart"?

Are they not aware of the ferocious Egungun- the masked ancestors of the Yoruba?

Do they not know the series of events that culminate in the annual awesome spectacle of the Rio Carnival and Mardi Gras?

In African culture, the mask is used as a means to simultaneously conceal and reveal; it is a powerful tool that has served us well.

When an agile masked dancer appears accompanied with the syncopation of the drums, the audience shares a communal experience and the individual dissolves into the collective consciousness.

The audience are certainly not passive but become excited, active and dynamic participants. The flying dust, the beaded perspiration which later becomes rivulets, the colorful costumes, the haunting call and response chants- all provide for an authentic African experience.

Our masks have been used to portray our indigenous cosmogenic ideas, fertility ceremonies, funeral rites and our initiation ceremonies for both genders into adulthood.

It is pertinent to remind ourselves that Africans have also used masks for healing, divination, exorcism and fighting sorcerers.

The Baule and Bapende used masks as protective amulets; the Ekoi used them for social control and sanitation; the Guere-Wobe for presenting petitions (!); the Basonge for averting disaster (!) and the Dan as a fire warning.

A few more examples will serve to hammer home their utility; the Mende-Temne used them for law enforcement (!)and judging disputes and the Bamun for hunting.

When brought into use for religious and social events focused on safeguarding the cohesion and the well-being of the community, the mask was considered as embodying a principle or ideal.

It was therefore untouchable; no one would even dare suggest unmasking the masked man.

Such was the aesthetic excellence of the African mask that numerous examples have become part of the world's cultural patrimony. They were often ingenious mixed media pieces that included wood, beads, vegetable fibers, enamel paint, animal parts and metal.

The carved wooden masks ranged from naturalistic forms, semi abstract forms- such as the "aban" mask of the Kulango- and the abstract forms of the Gurunsi and the Bobo-Fing.

The beaded face covering which we are now quite familiar with in contemporary Ghana was the preserve of kings and high nobles.

Perhaps to put it somewhat simply; in our African tradition, the wearing of a mask is a socially sanctified act that permits man to transcend the confines of his ego centeredness and to access another plane of consciousness and thereby resolve existential problems.

The real villain; the fiend; the author of the tragedy of our past and current situation is rather the "masked man without the mask".

He wears a non-material mask; he is playacting without an identity- he changes from one assumed personality to another, all to the detriment of his country men.

Such a person becomes so confused and unanchored that when he is caught out or "loses face", he becomes a nobody.

In Africa our forebears knew all this and today we must recall this with urgency.

That is why you cannot unmask a masked man who is pointing the way towards the solution of a concrete social problem.

Those who disagree are invited to think again.

Blebo We-Sakumo
Oct 13, 2015




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