Paul Julien (1901-2001) was an anthropologist from the Netherlands who traveled through Liberia in 1932. Andrea Stultiens (1974) is a photographer and researcher from the Netherlands. As part of her PhD-research she tries to connect the past that was documented by Paul Julien to the past as remembered in Liberia and the way it is connected to the present. Julien’s photographs are part of the collection of the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam.
From July 19th till August 19th 2014 Julien’s photographs and the film he made will be on display at the National Museum. Leading up to this some of the stories are shared in History and Us columns. Comments are most welcome on [email protected]
Today we pick up more or less where we left off last week, still with Julien’s fascination with the Poro that takes us (again) to the Leopard Society that we already thought about when he reported on meeting the fictional Mr. Beaghey, who turned out to have been DC Dupigny Leigh. This takes us to an object that he calls a Borfimah. This Borfimah is mentioned once or twice in other sources, for instance by Dr. Burrows of Sierra Leone in the Journal of the African Society in 1914 as “a Calabash or Gourd, usually an elongated one, but sometimes a leather bag, and it is stuffed with a composition as complex as it is disgusting, and recalls the worst concoctions of the witches of our early literature with added horrors."
What follows (again) may say more about how ‘the West’ saw Liberia than about Liberia itself, but that perspective may still help to understand past and present. Over to Julien in the 1930s:
It would be unreasonable, even from a European vantage point, to call the Poro organization immoral. The opposite is true. Without a doubt a certain educational value is attached to it, which is shown by the answer that a German researcher received from a Poroman after repeated questions into what happens in the Poro-forest. This answer was: we learn to obey. Nevertheless the Poro is one of the obstacles for the mission in these regions. It is the unbreakable structure created by it, a structure that one is not aware of until one walks into it, like into a granite wall, which makes it impossible that the individual leaves the Poro bond. Where the Poro-school could be given a certain objective value, this is not the case with most other secret societies that are active in West Africa and among them one secret society gained a disturbing name: this is the terrible Leopard Society of the Liberians, arguably the most inhuman thing that ever surfaced in the human brain. In Africa that is, if we take into account what Europe has proven to be capable of in the years 1914-1933.
When a Negro is found dead in the forest and the wounds indicate that he was the victim of a leopard, then members of his tribe will usually have a divine judgment, which means they hold a magic official gathering to find out who was guilty of his death. The verdict can be carried out in different ways: with poison (a.o. sasswood), with a red hot knife, with a Mandingo sand beating, by dancing, etc. The verdict decides first and foremost whether the death was caused by a forest leopard or by a human leopard. The human leopards are one of the biggest secrets of West Africa. Where it is very difficult to be informed about Poro business, finding information about the Leopard Society is near to impossible because we are here dealing with an organization so secretive that a negro cannot say something, and when he does know something he will be careful not to spill his words, because he knows that would mean his death, because the forest doesn’t know mercy for those who open up its secrets.
The Leopard Bond is such a big secret that at the beginning of this century the government of Sierra Leone didn’t really know of its existence while murders happened on a daily basis.
The Leopard Society originally was mostly active in this British territory, bordering Liberia, but did exist in Liberia and is, according to well-informed Europeans that are based in the interior, still active, even though I personally have not encountered facts to prove it. I can only say this, that in Gbarnga, in the heart of Liberia, I saw and spoke to about thirty human leopards that were caught in the act, sentenced to and serving at least thirty years of forced labor. Among them were several very young people, which leads to the conclusion that it cannot be more than six years ago that they had been punished.
The Leopard Society is, just like the Poro bond, organized on a village level. Different from the Poro, the Leopard society doesn’t have a Master and is lead by a council of old men. The goal of the bond can only be guessed about. Probably it is a community of people that share each other’s interests and have the leopard as Totem animal. The centre of the bond is the borfimah, a magic substance, the medicine of the bond, made up of a mix of materials like bones and human fat wrapped and kept in a poach made of leather.
This borfimah defines the wellbeing of the secret bond, of its individual members and even of the whole tribe. If the borfimah is in good health, then the rice will grow, there is a rich harvest in cassava, the women deliver healthy babies, trade blossoms etcetera. When the borfimah slowly loses its power it needs to be fed. This feeding is only possible with human blood and human fat. This means that human sacrifice is needed, and with this in mind the Leopard Society gathers.
Deep in the forest, sometimes days away from the village, the members meet during a moonless night. Some of them wrapped in Leopard skins with weapons attached to their hands with sharp iron claws that look exactly like those of a leopard. Others carry knives with multiple blades with hooks, that when used create wounds that cannot be distinguished from those caused by a leopard attack. Thus they wait in the forest for the victim, because the Borfimah is suffering.
This victim may be a family member of one of the main members, a woman, a child, a mentally weak person. This person will, sometimes with the family aware of it, be tricked to come into the forest. The members of the society come close, jump the victim the way a leopard does and kill it with the iron claws and the multiple bladed knife. Immediately the blood is applied onto the borfimah… I will spare you the rest. I just want to add that the victim is partly eaten on the spot and partly brought to important members of sister organisations that are not present.
Professor Westermann, the well-known African linguist, has up until 1914 found proof of these practices in central-Liberia and it is most likely that they are still in use in remote areas. Specially the Manoh of north eastern Liberia are known to have stuck to these leopard rituals and the connected cannibalism. Despite a lot of effort made, I did not manage to find facts to support this. The Irish missionary Denis Manning, who started a mission post in northern Manoh land two years ago, also couldn’t give a final word on this but was sure that in his village, Sanequelleh, it was not practiced. The eating of dead people is supposed to still be done among the Manoh, but it is obvious that these practices are limited to the most isolated corners of the area.
I found in Sanequelleh and villages in the direct environment graves immediately next to the houses. Burials do happen, and also in certain villages where a burial is never witnessed this does not necessarily mean that cannibalism is practiced since burials in the hut itself are told to be common practice.
Due to a growing control of north eastern Liberia by the central government on the one hand and the noticeable civilizing influences of the Mandingo negroes of French Guinea and the southern Soedan on the other hand, the last remains of this cannibalism in the Negro free state will soon belong to the past.
Next week we will hear more about the Mandingo presence in central Liberia and what Julien thinks of it.