Leaving a Legacy
The famous Temne warrior, Bai Bureh, was known to everyone in Sierra Leone because he'd led a protest against the British in 1898 after the colonial government tried to enforce a hut tax. The only existing picture of the warrior was a pencil drawing made by an English policeman after Bai Bureh had been taken into custody. It showed him in profile sitting on a box. The drawing had been printed in a turn-of-the-century book written by T. J. Aldridge.
As the acting curator of the Sierra Leone Museum at the Cotton Tree, I thought it might be nice to have a life-size figure of Bai Bureh in the museum. It was 1962, and I was a member of the first contingent of Peace Corps Volunteers to serve in Sierra Leone, which had recently won its independence.
There was a Creole sculptor named J. D. Marsh who lived on the outskirts of Freetown, the capital. Mr. Marsh made life-size statues of dead people to place on graves. I showed him the drawing of Bai Bureh and commissioned him to construct a life-size figure out of wire and plaster of Paris for the museum. Because he had little to go on from the policeman's sketch, Mr. Marsh had to use his imagination to sculpt the face.
When the figure was ready two weeks later, two assistants from the museum and I carried it up a hill from Marsh's workshop to a taxi. Since the statue had been painted dark brown and was wrapped in rough cloth, people thought we were carrying away a human corpse. Old women started wailing and clapping their hands as we passed. In the museum, I dressed the figure in an old, authentic Temne warrior's cap and hunting jacket and wired an antique sword from the 1890s to his right hand.
In the next few months, thousands of people came to the museum to see Bai Bureh. In subsequent years, photographs of the figure began to appear in Sierra Leone history books. The statue was displayed at agricultural shows and other events around the country.
In October 1993, thirty years after I'd completed my Peace Corps tour, I returned to Sierra Leone. To my surprise, Bai Bureh was still standing in the museum, looking proud albeit a little worn; some of the paint had peeled off and his right arm was broken, with wire and plaster hanging from where the sword was attached.
Soon after I returned to the United States, the Bank of Sierra Leone issued new currency. A friend of mine in Europe, Bill Hart, sent me the new Le. 1,000 note, which features an etching of Mr. Marsh's rendition of Bai Bureh, still wearing the hat with tassels I placed on his head more than thirty years ago.
Last year I went back to Sierra Leone as a member of the United Nations International Observer team for the country's presidential and legislative elections. Bai Bureh was not only still standing in the museum, but life-size replicas of the statue could be found in the lobbies of several hotels in Freetown. Miniature copies of the statue, complete with cap and sword, were sold all over the city as souvenirs. Moreover, the carvers had invented a female companion, Mrs. Bai Bureh.
As Bill Hart told me in his letter, I may be the only Peace Corps Volunteer who ever influenced the currency of the country in which he served. And as for the late Mr. Marsh, he put a face on one of Sierra Leone's most famous heroes.
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