This is a story full of superstition, yet so credible. When a people neglect that which constitutes their collective consciousness and that which helps them to grow and prosper as a community, the negative effects are bound to hit them hard.
The Ghosts of Ngaingah is about a village on the west coast of Africa and a ritual curse that befell it. The Kissi have lived in that village since ancient times. Upon locating in the Kissi-Kama Chiefdom in the northeastern region of the Republic of Sierra Leone, they refused to follow ancient traditional practices. At the local oracle near the Kuyoh Mountain and at a shrine on the bank of Ndopie River, they heard a mysterious dirge one morning before the sun reached its zenith. The villagers saw a crowd of ghosts with bundles on their heads and accompanied by many animals. They were repeatedly chanting a mysterious dirge. The ghosts entered crevices in the Kuyoh Mountain and disappeared. The scratches they left on the hard rocks are still visible.
According to my mother, who was a young woman when the incident took place, it probably happened in the mid-1940s. This narrative, which contains humor, mischief, and magic, demonstrates how powerfully tradition and custom influenced the lives of the people of one ethnic group¾the Kissi. The mystery of the singing ghosts still haunts them. I am telling this story so readers will know about one of the twentieth century?s enduring mysteries.
Some names in this work are fictitious, excluding the famous paramount chief, Ansumana Jabba, alias ?Memah? of the Kissi-Kama Chiefdom, who lived at Dia, and that of Chief Sombo, who actually lived in Ngaingah during that time. Nevertheless, what you are about to read is an eyewitness account of what occurred in that Kissi village.
Michael F. Kallon
New York City, September 20, 1997
A Kissi Song
A Bondo Society Graduation Day Song
1. In these times of ours
We shall sing to the young and old
On this graduation day of the Bondo Society
During this sunny, and dusty day of the dry season
We all come to sing, and dance, and to push them out
2. When no rains shall pour on our heads
Only clouds of dust may powder our faces
As these young women dance to the shakers
And the samba
And to the sweet songs of the Bondo god
3. Come, come, fathers and mothers
Come let?s push them out
For we don?t want to be blamed
For we don?t want to be blamed
Come help push them out
4. These songs we sing are whispered by sparrows
The toucans hoot to their rhythms
And the toads and frogs echo to them
For these are the songs we and love-birds sing
And the young women shake their buttocks and dance
5. For when they are long gone to their loved ones
They shall see the significance of this day in their lives
It?s the graduation day of the Bondo
Come, come, fathers and mothers
Come help us push them into their future
Ngaingah and Its People
Before the northeast of Sierra Leone was blessed with motor roads just after Second World War, the Kissi were almost unknown in the country. However, they enjoyed a well-ordered, peaceful, and even prosperous existence¾a people of culture and pride.
The Kissi believed in life after death and, as a result, named their children after famous forebears and visited shrines at the Ndopie River that runs near Ngaingah, and also oracles on the Kuyoh Mountain. They believed that the spirits of their ancestors lived there and would never allow evil to befall them and their villages.
One of their sacred rituals involved sacrificing domestic animals and cooking them, and then pounding softened grains of rice in mortars with long and heavy pestles until they were transformed into white flour. A few morsels of this flour was soaked in calabashes and formed into round balls which were then taken with the meat to the shrine at the Ndopie River and to the oracles on the Kuyoh Mountain.
On the bank of Ndopie River, the villagers neatly placed the morsels of food on half-submerged rocks, and then prayed, calling the names of their forefathers who were now considered their guiding spirits. They also prayed to God to ensure a bountiful harvest, to make their barren young women productive, or for general prosperity. This was how the Kissi lived. Even after most of them had embraced Christianity or Islam, they continued to pour libations at the shrines and oracles.
Ngaingah in those days was inhabited by people who performed wonderful deeds that awed their kinsmen from other villages who came to seek advice from the shrines and oracles. The prowess of the psychics and traditional and country doctors of Ngaingah made the Kissi-Kama Chiefdom renowned in the region.
The sacred activities in the village, its myths, and history were all the responsibility of their ruler at the time of these events, Chief Sombo. He always encouraged his subjects to give gifts to their neighbors and to feed the dead at the shrines at the Ndopie River and at the oracles on the Kuyoh Mountain. This practice is considered superstitious, according to the norms of Christianity and Islam, but what this story reveals could change perceptions about so-called superstitious beliefs.
All rivers are considered sacred by the Kissi, and the Ndopie blessed the villagers with so much fish during the fishing season that visitors to Ngaingah during the days of Chief Sombo were amazed to see such abundance. The women did a good deal of fishing in that river that contained a lot of river crabs, shrimp, and river snails, as well as fish. On bright sunny days during the dry season, the boys turned some broad spaces on the river into their swimming pool without much concern for the river snakes, black mambas, deadly scorpions, and poisonous insects that lay calmly on the river bank waiting to bite them. Such bites caused skin rashes and other skin diseases¾all curable with medicinal herbs. The Ndopie River and its tributaries also provided all the water that the people of Ngaingah needed.
The Kissi carved cooking spoons from hardwood and surprisingly smelted iron which they discovered in rocks on hilltops or mountaintops. The rocks were collected and subjected to heat, and the end result was iron which they used to make hoes, machetes, and swords. Iron was also obtained from trading with kinsmen across the Makona River in Nongoa, Gbekedou, Tumandu, and Yendeh Millimo in French Guinea or in Foya Kama in Liberia.
The Kissi also made their own rubber sandals, but in spite of being so inventive, many loved to be barefoot, just as they preferred eating with their bare hands. That was how they enjoyed their food.
They grew all their own food¾yams, peppers, okras, eggplants, and many more. They ate fresh foods daily and, so, heart disease was unknown among them. They ate cooked rice accompanied by different vegetables, such as cassava leaves, potato leaves, and eggplants, all prepared with palm oil and mixed with meat, fish, red hot peppers, and other edibles in the same pot with the African stock-cube called ?Que-siohn? which was imported from French-Guinea. Que-siohn is eaten to this day in the Kissi-Kama Chiefdom. The cassava leaves were picked from the stems of the cassava plant and prepared for cooking by grinding them in a mortar and pestle; whereas potato leaves were cut by hand. They also loved okra, which was added to all the foods they ate.
There were no hospitals in the Kissi-Kama Chiefdom, only a small clinic that had been opened in the chiefdom headquarters at Dia. It was manned by physician assistants, who went from village to village curing the sick. These assistant doctors were highly respected by the Kissi, who sometimes considered them gods and gave them concubines, some of whom later became their wives. People with major illnesses were carried to Kailahun, the district headquarters, where there was a hospital. It still exists.
Among the domesticated animals in the village, the dog and the cat were most treasured. The cats chased rats in the ceilings of the mud huts. The dogs served as guards and slept outdoors. The dogs also assisted hunters during their hunting expeditions. They were trained to smell animal tracks. They could even smell where bush animals had hidden. That was in the past but not today.
Kissi villages located near Ngaingah included Kondoma, Njah, Yebeimah, Sarkpeh, Lepaeining, Mano Sewadu, and others. During the period of this story, these villages, just a few miles apart from each other, prospered and their inhabitants considered each other kinsmen. In the dry season, the villagers played and danced to the drums, the shakers, and other traditional musical instruments, such as the Kaelendon (Kissi) Balafon, which were played at every gathering. The drums, shakers, and the samba were their most sacred instruments. The samba in particular was believed to be so sacred that it was unwise to play it just for fun. Every beat could mean a prediction of good, as well as evil, for the player and even for spectators who only looked on and listened.
Dancing identified the Kissi as people of one culture. They danced to settle bush disputes and as a way of inviting the spirits of their dead to participate in cultural events. Afterward, the spirits returned to the distant land of the dead with jubilation, love, and peace. The Kissi loved and respected their elders. Whenever they joined in a dance, the women would take off their head-ties and use them to wipe the elderly dancers? faces. They would also wave the head-ties in front of them gently to create a cooling breeze. It was a sign of love, respect, and pride. The women cheered the elders until the dancing ended.
Those were glorious days in the Kissi chiefdoms. By working together, the Kissi enjoyed an abundance of food, harmony, and other benefits of a spirit of unity.