Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Day I Entered a Poro "Devil Bush"

I've written a little about the so-called "Devil Bush" in several articles here.  It is a kind of sacred grove hidden in the bush where secret societies like the Poro and Sande meet for their secret rituals.  It is a place where non-initiates are threatened with death if they trespass; a place I unknowingly entered into when I was 13.  Here is the story of how all of that went down ...


We arrived in Liberia in 1976 at the request of some Bassa leaders that were looking for teachers from the US for their school.  My dad then taught in Buchanan, the county seat of Grand Bassa County, and it was through this that he became connected with an individual that made another request of my dad:  he wanted him to come speak in his village.  This individual was a Liberian who had become a Christian and he wanted my dad, who is also a pastor, to come and speak in his village about Christianity.  My dad agreed and made the trek.

According to old newsletters that my parents had written around that time the name of this village was "Doowin".  (This was at least how it sounded to my dad when he heard the name.)  It was quite a hike back into the deep bush and upon arrival the entire village came out to meet the group that had journeyed together with my dad.  Everyone spoke in Bassa and dad was able to get pieces of information from the welcome ceremony from translators.  Entering this village must have been like entering another world for my dad.  Here's what he pieced together from that...


The visitors to the village were joined together with the villagers in a big circle under the open air in the middle of the village.  The Chief of Doowin (sp?) walked into the circle and greeted the visitors in the presence of everyone there.  To the best of my dad's recollection, in his hands was a plate that had an egg on it and also a small pile of salt and a small pile of dirt.  These obviously symbolized something and dad remembers getting a brief explanation, but does not remember exactly what that explanation was.  It seems that it had something to do with being invited into the community.

Chief of Doowin presenting the visiting group with an egg,
dirt & salt in a bowl
 - photo by Ken Vogel


Dad remembers how the village was curious about seeing a white man.  Everyone kept stealing glances at him to see if he was for true.  They listened with interest to his presentation of some basic Christian concepts through a Bassa translator.  They watched him as entered the guest hut.  They watched him again with fascination as he brushed his teeth.  They watched as he performed this strange ritual of spitting and rinsing into a cup and then "wasting" his spit water on a nearby rock.  He looked and behaved so very strange and must have been quite the talk of the town.


I was not old enough to make this initial hike with my dad.  However about 9 years later, when he was asked again to return, I got to go with him.  I remember sitting in a small, mud and stick church that first evening there after our long hike.  I remember that everything was spoken in Bassa except when my dad was asked to speak.  Then I recall that everyone got quiet as an old man got up to speak in Bassa.  Here is the basic translation of what he said....


He recounted how he remembered when my dad came to visit their village several years before.  He remembered how he had talked about this strange, new god who had power over death.  He then remembered that this white man had taken his spit and thrown it on their sacred rock in front of everyone.  (Apparently the rock dad had thrown his toothpaste water on was their village god!)  He remembers waiting to see what would happen to this man who had challenged their god in front of the entire village.  Surely their god would strike this man dead!  When the white man lived the village met and decided that this white man's god must have more power than their god and placed their faith in this new god.  After the white man had left and with a new found courage in this new god they went into the Devil Bush and cut it down and in its place they had built this church where we now worship this new god, Jesus.  In fact, the very place where I was sitting that evening had been the gathering spot for Poro.  In the community's new spirit of openness instead of secretiveness I had been invited to enter into their very own most sacred space.  I had entered into the Devil Bush and lived to tell about it!

The village of Doowin gathered around to welcome the new visitors (Aug 1977)
photo by Ken Vogel

Alright, so perhaps this wasn't what you were expecting?  Perhaps you were wanting me to share some kind of deep, dark secret that I had witnessed in a Neegee ceremony (a missionary actually did join the Neegee once by the way but that is another story) or some amazing tale about how I had barely survived attempts on my life for trespassing on Poro sacred ground.  In fact, depending on your personal views on Poro and Sande this whole tale is either a terrible tragedy to Liberian culture or it is an amazing testimony to the power of God to use people who have no idea what they are doing.  

I will end by saying that from my perspective it was far better to have been in the sacred grove at peace with my Liberian brothers and sisters than it would have been if I had been in that same grove 10 years earlier.  Had it happened then my life would have surely been threatened just for simply being there.  That they shared their sacred space with me instead of threatening me to stay away speaks of true love and hospitality.   From my point of view the fact that I was invited into fellowship with Liberians as they worshiped was far better than being excluded because I wasn't born in the "correct" culture.  

You may ask, "But didn't you just feel more comfortable with them because they now worshiped the white man's God?"  To which I would reply, "We are all children of God and last I checked Jesus was actually Middle Eastern, not white."  The teaching of the Bible is that the Blessing is available to all nations, races and ethnic groups through Abraham's Seed.  Anyone can know the peace that transforms us from excluding others from our sacred space to opening wide the doors to our fellow human beings (whether that exclusion be a Poro society or an all white, suburban church in the US).  Shalom.  

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