Or the Bush Devil, country devil, dancer*, guy/girl in funny costume, etc. This one was from one of the tribes on the coast. Every tribe in Liberia has some version of the Bush Devil, some are more commonly seen in public, like on this occasion. Some, like the Kpelle Bush Devil, are not seen by women at all and seem to come out at night on what Stephen Ellis called Carnival (no one I’ve met calls it that, though it’s a useful way of describing the cultural event that isn’t really translatable in the American context). This Bush Devil was covered head to foot in long dried leaves, like those from a palm, sewn together into a costume resembling Cousin It from the Adams Family. He/She/It danced in a circle when given money and was blessed by what I assume was a chief or a zoe, who couldn’t care less about the blessing. He tapped each dancers back while using his right hand to text message someone on his cell phone. On odd clash. The Devil was decidedly menacing. It did somersaults wherever it pleased, with no regard to who was standing where. It also was accompanied by a masked figure, with a black clothe tightly covering his/her face, in traditional garb (false hair or animal hair extending out of a hat, brightly colored clothes, mostly red with some green, and very little if any visible skin). I felt like, because this person was covered, they could do whatever they pleased. Like a mascot, only with less wholesome intentions. I can see why on those “carnival” nights there is both a feeling of excitement and anxiety.
There were other “street performers.” One man danced in a similar way as the devil, but without the elaborate garb. Both used hand drums for the beat, with the other man interacting with the drum as if he was dancing with the rhythm. When the beat slowed down, he did, when he wanted to go faster, he danced closer to the drummer. I’m describing this in such detail because unfortunately this was one of the days I warned about that I forgot my camera. It’s a long story, my camera is on the other side of the country right now recording interviews for an assessment to possibly start work in Sinoe.
The other performer I saw was a contortionist, a man in black wearing a woman’s wig and padding on his butt (probably useful for his many awkward positions). He was walking in the middle of the street with his hands. He legs were wrapped around his head. I thought he was a legless chimp until I got closer. B was particularly disturbed by him as she assumed he was breaking his bones in order to do his tricks. Apparently he also had some knife tricks but I missed those. I’m not much of a fan of knife tricks, they always scare me.
I say they were “street performers” because they were performing on the street for money but there was something else involved. While they were entertaining the crowd, they were also pushing boundaries. The devil performing in public, for example. As well as the contortionist’s tricks, which I’m quite certain convinced many people that he was really hurting himself. It was almost like a freak show, or how I assume a freak show crowd would respond. It made me feel oddly at ease being among others who were looked at like aliens. There was definitely an element of fear in all of the performances that was, I think, more palpable than in the US. Possibly because many of the audience had not seen these tricks before, and the cultural connotations to the devil, of course.
*JJ, the executive director, discouraged me from using the term “bush devil” instead he preferred “dancer.”