And while I am backtracking here, there is some back story relevant before moving forward. When I was a volunteer in Togo, I went to a parade in the capital. All the provincial Governors, called Chef Cirs, rode in an open motorcade. I noticed that each of these men wore unique but very similar head gear. The ornate masks consisted of two carved wooden faces worn atop the Governors’ own heads. Each was original, some adorn with feathers, others with animal bones. When I mentioned the distinctive commonality, someone said they were all made by the same artisan. The guy was a said to have powerful magic and serious carving prowess. He mentioned the village he came from. It was a town I’d heard of on the border with Benin.
I realized that I would be passing within an hour of that village as I returned home. I decided to make a detour to see if I could find this guy. Sure enough, entering his village, he was quickly pointed out. He had a few carvings scatter about his shop and he agreed to sell me one. It was a primitive rough-hewn figure of a man pounding on a drum. We talked for a bit over a pot of local beer and I got around to asking about his masks. I steered the conversation to the head gear I’d seen the Chef Cirs wearing and asked if he might make me one. He hesitated, then changed the subject. I felt awkward enough that I decided not to bring it up again. I said goodbye and was heading for my motorcycle when he said, “I’ll have your mask ready in four months.” Then he asked if I could pay half his asking price up front.
Four months later I went back to the village very unsure of what I’d find. I pulled up in front of his shop and once again we shared a pot of beer. After a time he asked me to wait a moment while he went to get something. He returned with a two tiered mask in the style I’d seen each of the Chef Cirs wear – but this one was unique as well. The lower of the two mask faces was painted a startling shade of pink. He’d bordered the head in long hair and painted the chin with a beard. The huge eyes and parted lips lent the mask a menacing, diabolical, air. Above that face he’d carved a woman, naked to the waist. She clutched a huge python in each of her raised hands. Long black hair taken from a living source sprouted from her head and her bottom half was the body of a fish. I recognized her as the mermaid goddess Mami Wata, worshipped by a local cargo cult.
The term ‘cargo cults’ comes from the South Pacific where anthropologists first documented some islanders adopting a ‘reconstruction’ of European behavior they’d seen. In one example, islanders cleared land in the form of airplane runways. They even lined them with fire pots to guide the airplanes in, as they had seen the Europeans do. They expected that completing this ritual would cause the treasure-filled planes to appear, just as it had for the Europeans. The Togolese Mami Wata cult has a similar origin, except the planes were sailing ships. Mami Wata arrived on sailors’ tattooed arms and the carvings on ships’ prows.
“The mask represents the true you,” the carver said. “When you wear it, you have three heads. On the bottom is your own living head. At the top is your protecting spirit. Between them we trap your evil spirit. Your protector is Mami Wata and one day she will make you very rich.” I thanked him for the unattractive headgear and headed back to my own village.
I understood the power of the headdress as soon as I got home. Not a single villager would come into my mud rooms as long as that mask was visible. They’d shake their heads and point at it and tell me it was too powerful to be near. In fact, in the decade and a half I had that thing, no African ever agreed to be in the same room with it. Even after I got back to the U.S. I will return to the mask in a moment, but I want to get back to the company for now.