Masks = Blindfolds

By Jheri St. James

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Poro Masks

Mask making is an important cultural art throughout the history of Cote d’Ivoire. Masks like those above are worn by the Poro, a secret men's society. The essence of Poro crystallizes in the masked figure. Members take responsibilities in the political, religious, and educational lives of the community. Membership begins with the child's period of “discovery” followed by a seven-year initiation period. Young men converse with each other using a secret language and passwords known only to other Poro members. To an outsider, it sounds like babble, but members always understand each other. When young men reach age 20, they are called into society and trained by the elder group above them. There is much work to be done during the initiation process. Dancing the masks is part of this work, but it is the combination of work and the mask dance that must make the whole. Poro men work for the society as a whole, collecting items such as shells, food, and coins for distribution among the community. This is done to keep everyone equal, so that no family has any power over another.

These young Poro men also perform masked rituals at funerals, which can last up to five days. The mask for this occasion is made of fabric, raffia, fibers, and feathers. After a variety of preparations and offerings, all but the closest relatives of the deceased Poro member are required to leave. When the streets empty, the Poro Society’s most important mask, a zoomorphic helmet mask, appears. The word "kporo" designates not only this masked figure, which is at the center of Poro rituals, but also the secret society as an institution. Each mask has its own significance and is made from ritual materials for certain purposes.

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Cote d’Ivoire borders Liberia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana; its southern boundary is along the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. Independent since August 7, 1960, recent dissent resulted in a coup d’etat in 1999 and a civil war in 2002. Prior history contains many stories of warfare and turmoil, as do all countries on the surface of Mother Earth. Because of long-time French rule, that is the official language. Cote d’Ivoire used to be called the Ivory Coast because it was a huge source of ivory from elephant tusks, but in 1985, the government officially changed the name to the French version.. Yamoussoukro is the capital city.

A country of western sub-Saharan Africa, the first recorded history of this land is found in the chronicles of North African Berber traders who from Roman times conducted a caravan trade across the Sahara in salt, slaves, gold and other goods. The southern terminals of the trans-Saharan trade routes were located on the edge of the desert and from there supplemental trade extended as far south as the edge of the rain forest. The most important terminals—Djenne, Geo and Timbuctu—grew into major commercial centers around which the great Sudanic empires developed, which were able to dominate neighboring states. These empires also became centers of Islamic education from the 11th century,

Compared to neighboring Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire suffered little from the slave trade, as European slaving and merchant ships preferred other areas along the coast with better harbors. In 1843- the kings of the Grand Bassam and Assinie regions were placed under French rule, followed by explorers, missionaries, trading companies and soldier who extended these regions inland from the lagoon region until 1915.

The development of cocoa production for export and foreign investment, along with close ties to France since 1960’s independence, made Cote d’Ivoire one of the most prosperous of the West African states for some time, until internal political turmoil Today, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of rebel forces have been problematic as rebels seek to enter the armed forces. Citizen identification and voter registration pose election difficulties; several thousand UN troops and several hundred French remain to help parties implement their commitments and support the peace process.

Cote d’Ivoire is on a Tier 2 Watch List for its failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to eliminate trafficking, particularly with regard to its law enforcement efforts and protection of sex trafficking victims.

"Child soldier in the Ivory Coast"
(drawing by Gilbert G. Groud)

Incongruously situated in the West African bush, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix de Yamoussoukro) is the largest church in the world. The Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire) is only 20-30% Christian, with the remainder adhering to indigenous animist religions (25-40%) and Islam (35-40%).

The great basilica was the project of the Catholic former president of the Ivory Coast, who wished it to be a monument to himself.


Félix Houphouët-Boigny chose his birthplace of Yamoussoukro as the new capital of his country in 1983. As part of the plan for the city, the president wished to memorialize himself with the construction of what would be the "greatest church in the world." The president commissioned a stained glass window of his image to be placed beside a gallery of stained glass of Jesus and the apostles.

The basilica was constructed between 1985 and 1989 at a cost of US $300 million. It was intentionally modeled after the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, whose size it intentionally surpassed to become the largest church in the world. The cornerstone was laid on August 10, 1985, and was consecrated on September 10, 1990, by Pope John Paul II. Like its model in Rome, Yamoussoukro's basilica is not a cathedral. The nearby Cathedral of Saint Augustine is the seat of the bishop of the Diocese of Yamoussoukro and the principal place of worship for the city. The design of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace is modeled closely on that of St. Peter's Basilica, but architect Pierre Fakhoury constructed the dome to be slightly lower and the cross on top to be larger. The finished height is 158 meters (518 feet). There is enough space to seat 7,000 people in the nave with standing room for an additional 11,000 people. Constructed with marble imported from Italy and is furnished with 7,000 square meters of contemporary stained glass from France, columns are plentiful throughout the basilica but are not uniform in style. Next to the basilica are two identical buildings serving as a rectory and private papal villa, respectively. The villa is reserved for papal visits, which has only occurred once.

(Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in Yamoussoukro)

This is a little picture of Herve Katwe-teba Kalamba,formerly of Daloa, Cote d’Ivoire, who collected our soil from Yamoussoukro, capital city of Cote d’Ivoire. His location was the site of the Basilica at Yamoussoukro. He is now in Democratic Republic of Congo because of the recent disturbances in Cote d’Ivoire. Thank you, Herve.


[San Pédro, Land of Blue]

San Pédro land of blue taxis,
an ocean, riptides, and rocks,
a bridge made of driftwood,
red dirt in the tree lined hills,

No books lead here,
no guides but chance
and memories past,
rolling like the white cloud,

Blue bathing naked children
swimming, rolling in the sand,
salt leaves a filmy, white layer,
sand— a graham cracker pie crust,

Our blue swimming pool villa
dug into the red, red earth,
chlorine creeps into our nostrils,
we blow bubbles, squinting our eyes,

My book cover is blue,
my breathing is slow,
white like a phantom ghost,
I wake up red in the sun.

(A poem by an unknown Cote d’Ivoirian Poet)

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Masks are fascinating human constructs used to disguise the wearer--to celebrate with, to commit crimes behind. It is important to keep the openings properly aligned over the eyes, otherwise a mask can become a blindfold. In so many ways, human life on earth is blinded to the processes and meaning of this great planet we share. We have a way of mentally masking the ironies that as blood is shed on the soil of so many countries, cruelties of slavery delivered and received, at the same time crops are planted, flourish and harvested, and flowers bloom in Grandma’s garden.

“…both the mythic Goddess of Grain and the Reaper represent archetypal energies associated with the Earth. Our planet has 4.5 billion years of experience in both sustainability and innovation. What if we looked to Mother Nature for solutions? Biomimicry (called Bionics in Europe), the study and adaptation of natural processes, does exactly that. Although biologically inspired advances are not new—the Wright Brothers watched pigeons in flight; Velcro was invented by an engineer who analyzed how burrs caught in his dog’s fur—viewing Nature as partner and teacher results in life-changing innovations.” Stephanie Austin, The Mountain Astrologer, Feb/Mar 2011.

While magnificent churches to peace are built upon the backs of the poor, Spirit is alive and well in every person, edifice and book aside. This is the core magic and mystery of our lives on the shoulders of our Great Mother Earth. Adult human beings can choose what individual role to play, what mask not to wear, to remove the invisible, internal mask/blindfold that keeps us from seeing the importance of this choice to the whole. The word for peace in Cote d’Ivoire is pax.

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