photos courtesy of Paula Damasceno and Audrey Sage
Alumna and retired UNCG Faculty member B. Burgin Ross donated a collection of West African artifacts she collected during her service in the Peace Corps in the 1970s in Southwest Liberia. The collection includes a ceremonial mask, a clay cooking pot; sifting basket; wooden mortar; mancala game; and two bracelets.
Ross describes the history behind her collection:
I graduated from UNCG in Nutrition in 1974. In June I left North Carolina to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, West Africa for the next two years. After six weeks of cultural training, I was sent to the village of Juarzon, Sinoe County in southwestern Liberia. It took two and a half days overland to get there, traveling on rutted, dirt roads. I was literally in the middle of the jungle. I was the only volunteer in the village, living without running water and electricity, in a house made of mud and sticks. I had screens covering the windows so that mosquitos could not get in, and a tin roof to keep other critters out. Within my first few weeks there, I was called out one night to meet “the devil”. Drums were playing, a bonfire was burning, and I initially thought “this is going to be bad”. Approaching the bonfire, I saw the “devil” dancing. The devil is just a spiritual figure covered in cloth, straw and with his face covered by a wooden mask (identical to the one I am donating). He danced toward me, grabbing me around my waist, at which point I screamed, and the villagers laughed. I knew then that I was safe, and that this was the way I was being presented to the village!
The clay pot was given to me by my friend Nora, who heard me ask about cooking vessels, and presented me with this pot which was not longer useful to her due to small cracks on the bottom. I carried it wrapped in newspaper within a basket from Liberia to Asheville, NC when I returned home in 1976. I considered it my most valuable possession.
The wooden mortar was used by my friend and neighbor Esther to crush dried pepper for cooking. Liberians put hot pepper in every dish they make. They also have mortars of many different sizes, using them for crushing peanuts for peanut soup, mashing cooked palm nuts for palm butter, or for separating the chaff from the rice kernels they grew. I was given the mortar the day prior to leaving, along with a live chicken to “taken to my ma”. We cooked the chicken and had a group dinner. I also had a large mortar which I gave to Ester in return. I had used my mortar to make palm butter.
The mancala game was given to me by another peace corps volunteer, and I do not know anything about it’s past, other than it once had a cup on each end for holding the seeds used to play the game. The seeds that I have were dwindled down to just a few because the people in my village requested them to treat malaria. I could not say no, so seeds were given away little by little.
The mask was given to me by Ed Lipschitz, an American from New York who stayed in the village for a few months doing research on West African masks. Ed was working on a PhD at Columbia, and eventually became a curator at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of African Art. Ed ate dinner with me every night during the months he stayed in the village. The mask was a “thank you” for those meals. I believe it to be Liberian.
I have photos of dancing devils, who often came to the village to influence an election, or to celebrate an important village elder upon his death. It was rumored that my neighbor Eddie was a devil, but he never revealed that. As a alumna of UNCG twice (I received a BS and MS from UNCG), I am so pleased to give these items to the University.