West Africa: Focus on the Sherbro of Sierra Leone

This exhibition section, curated by Professor Sandra Barnes, illustrates the themes of Divination and "Sickness 'When Something Else is Going On.” It highlights the way that the secret societies in Sherbro society back up and control knowledge and keep the peace. Henry Usher Hall, a curator of the Penn Museum, undertook an expedition to the Sherbro in 1937, and formed a significant collection of medicines and objects of their major secret societies, the Poro society for men and the Bundu, Sande, and Yassi societies for women.

Medicine as Social Control

Medicine as Social Control is the subsection title where Hall's collection of more than sixty— possibly as many as a hundred--medicines with very detailed descriptions of their materials and uses, will be presented. It will also feature several headpieces of the women's secret societies, and one of a men's society, along with Hall’s photographs Many of the medicines are defensive, for the protection of fields and crops from theft and destruction. Although called "medicines," they are actually considered to be poisons, whose formula for efficacy seems to always include an antidote. Both poison and antidote are controlled by a particular secret society. The Sherbro material excellently illustrate for the viewer the relationship of health and medicine to societal power and the control of knowledge in an African society and more generally.