Since it is October, why not treat yourself to some masks that are not made out of plastic or rubber? On display outside the Special Collections Room in the O’Grady Library (lower level) are 10 West African Masks that were recently donated to Saint Martin’s University by Joe Spacciante, a Saint Martin's College graduate (1969) and retired teacher at Timberline High School, who collected the masks through his friend James Oatfield who worked in West Africa.
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The collection consists of more than 16 masks collected in Mali and the Ivory Coast. They were made for use in traditional religious ceremonies. During these ceremonies the masks were worn by members of tribe who then embodied the spirit the mask represented. So the wearer of the crocodile mask, for example, would no longer be himself, but would stand for the spirit of the crocodile and all it represented to the members of the tribe for the duration of the ceremony. This kind ritual falls under the category of Animism, the religious belief that all of nature is endowed with spirits that can be invoked and entreated.
A couple of the masks on display depict the faces of blind persons. These represent the victims of “river blindness,” or onchocerciasis. It is a disease caused by an infection from a parasitic worm. A person is infected by being bitten by a black fly that carries the parasite. The worms breed and multiply under the person’s skin. They will then migrate throughout the body including the eyes. In some West African tribes, over half the adults over the age of forty are river blind.
The blind face masks were used in ceremonies to ward off the disease from the tribal members. Men wearing masks representing good spirits would ritually drive off those wearing the masks representing river blindness. As for the science, there is no known vaccine for the disease, but it can be prevented by avoiding insect bites, using insecticide, and wearing proper clothing. An infection is treated by killing larvae and waiting for the adult worms to die. Surgery may be required to remove lumps created under the skin.
Special thanks to Joe Spacciante for donating these fabulous cultural artifacts and works of art.