This two/three part post promises to be pretty disorganised, but I have to get it out of my system since it has been hanging around my neck like the Rock of Sisyphus for ages.
Stephen Ellis The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of An African Civil War.
1999 Reprinted 2007 New York University Press
Liberia: History, Civil War 1989 – . Religion: Poro Society, Sande Society.
A quick synopsis of Ellis’ highly recommended study is outlined in this youtube clip.
You can find other equally critical reviews of Ellis’ study (see first link) of the character and role of religious institutions and religious ideology as a means of explaining the content and character of the Liberian Civil War (1997 – 2003) – when Charles Taylor grasped the Presidency – on the net, but I’ve lost the links.
Now, the above depiction of African Leopard Men found in the American Natural History Museum NY owes more to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan than to anthropology, ethnology and history. While there is a definite balletic quality to this composition, it would have been improved if Home Counties babe Jane – Tarzan’s significant other – was caught in a state of semi-undress, but hey, we don’t live in a perfect world.
More to the point, there is absolutely no record of Leopard Men ever attacking white men (whether in the guise of missionaries or colonial administrators) and extracting their vital organs for a spot of cannibalism or consuming them in toto after weilding that rather neat metal claw. To be sure, Leopard Men certainly practised cannibalism but it was within a highly religious context, and the actual victims chosen for human sacrifice will be the surprise which will be discussed in subsequent posts.
The obverse side of this comic strip colonialism is all that Heart of Darkness Conrad stuff, Black Barbarism, Darkest Africa etc, which has been alive since Europeans such as Livingstone and Speke first set foot in Africa’s heartland. While we view the consumption of human flesh as being totally repugnant – the stuff that has given many serial killers their notoriety – a totally different regime of cultural beliefs continues to exist throughout many parts of Africa.
If you wish to get a quick fix of Leopard Men fact and fantasy totally devoid of context, you should visit this SITE. However, since we are making a meal of this topic, lets begin with some geography.
The colonial carve-up of western Africa ignores the fact that cultural commonalities co-exist across the borders of Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Guinea and Cote d Ivoire. A case of colonial boundaries being imposed on non-state social and cultural identities.
When we also factor in those numerous Lebanese and Mandingo traders (the latter being descendants of the powerful Malian empire of the sixteenth century) who continue to play an important role in organising cross-border and cross-tribal commerce, the problems of definition become even more complex.
Tribal boundaries don’t necessarily coincide with commonly shared languages, even though colonial or indigenous elites shared the belief that tribal identities, via deals struck with their paramount chiefs, were the key to extending their sway/government power into rural hinterlands. That extension itself was a measure forced on isolated centres of government and commerce (Bissau, Conakry, Freetown, Monrovia, Harper @ Abidjan) as colonial borders became fixed on maps and in the eyes of global institutions such as the League of Nations and its successor, the UN.
Generally speaking, Islam predominates in north Liberia and Christianity has its foothold in the south, while traditional belief systems hold sway right across this part of West Africa. Furthermore, there is no contradiction in being a Muslin and also attending a Christian church, while also being a member of a secret society that practices cannibalistic rituals. All three institutions have/and do provide individuals with sources of power and cultural identity. And power is the key term in this discussion.
However, the concept of power – an extremely imprecise notion – remains devoid of meaning until we ask the question, what type of power are we talking about, and that will be addressed in subsequent posts.
The Western mind has a long way to travel if it is going to make sense of rituals involving the consumption of human flesh in this part of the world. Theories of colonialism only explain how surplus value and raw materials were extracted, and they can be readily grasped by a smart teenager. Marxism with its concept of totality comprising of economic base and superstructure is equally hopeless: it being the conceptual consequence of our Western experience – feudalism, industrial capitalism, etc.
Attempts to incorporate anthropological concepts and perspectives into Marxism by the likes of Maurice Godelier and Emmanuel Terray are clunky at best, whiles structuralisms as instanced by Levi-Strauss also fail due to their ahistoricity and over-reliance on linguistics as the privilieged explanatory structure.
I warned you that this post will be mess, but what the heck, my blog, my mess.