Design and Music in a Changing Northern Sierra Leone Chiefdom

Simon Ottenberg

Publisher: Xlibris Pages: 240 Price: (paperback) $50.99 ISBN: 9781669822691 Reviewed: July, 2023 Author Website: Visit »

The northern Sierra Leone region known as Wara Wara Balodea is an autonomous, somewhat isolated setting known as a chiefdom, one of seven Limba chiefdoms. In this oversized book filled with glossy color photographs, author Simon Ottenberg offers a portrait of the people and their culture.

Ottenberg, author, curator, and emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, has visited and studied the region. Here, he highlights its little-known rituals, customs and ceremonies, documenting the region’s feeling and color, artifacts, and tales in both historical and modern contexts.

The book begins with background on the history and political structure of the chiefdom. Influenced by Muslim incursions and the later British and American colonial era and missionary efforts, present-day Wara Wara Balodea culture is notable, Ottenberg believes, for its simplicity. Some traditions are participatory; others are relegated to leaders or specialists with ordinary folk observing. Religion, lacking priests, is perceived mostly through specially designated diviners.

Ottenberg highlights significant objects, including colorfully embroidered hats, beaded gourds and headdress, woven baskets, bags, and shawls. Arcane woodwork can be seen in carvings used in secretive ceremonies, combs, snuff boxes, and musical instruments. Music, folksongs and chants, are among the few expressive mediums offered to women, Ottenberg notes.

While well-intended, Ottenberg’s narrative is replete with puzzling prose. Sentences are often awkward, tenses shift randomly, and punctuation errors are distracting, as in: “The blacksmith normally takes part in the society’s activities and ritually washes against those who have erred against its rules.” [sic] “Society bakunto players continued to play as the society moved through the streets of the community…” Some photographs are cloudy with age, and the dense text is packed with facts that may overwhelm casual readers.

Still, as young people migrate to cities and the Wara Wara Balodea way of life begins to fade, it’s admirable that Ottenberg has worked diligently to convey and, through this work, preserve its traditions.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.

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