July 13, 2016 By Joseph S. Margai
Ringing his bell twice between intervals, Sunny Walker relays his message with certain efficiency, evident by the turnout at community centre to witness a meeting organised by the Police on illegal sand mining.
Baw-Baw is situated along the Freetown peninsula in the Western Area Rural District of Sierra Leone.
Despite the emergence of mobile phone communication and advance social media communication – WhatsApp, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, skype, to name a few – town crying is still the means by which the village headman of the tiny peninsula village sends messages to residents.
In medieval times, town criers performed an important role, as a critical means of communication to townsfolk. Royal proclamations, local bye-laws, market days, advertisements and newsworthy events were all proclaimed by town criers.
The earliest named criers in English history were Edmund Ikelyng and Thomas Thorne, who both plied their trade in London in 1395.
The crier carries a hand bell to attract attention, thus his other historical name as the bellman.
In Sierra Leone, messages from Paramount Chiefs were disseminated by town criers to their subjects in a language that the public understands. Many people regarded as official and true what they heard from the town crier.
It is obvious that whenever a town crier is heard ringing his bell, it’s either someone very important is dead or the chief wants his subjects to know about a particular bye-law, a disease outbreak, an important event.
Locally, the role of town criers was diminished when people began to use mobile phones. In fact, their role has further been reduced or completely rendered dormant with the emergence of community radio stations. In urban areas, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media platforms are the easiest ways of communication.
At a well-attended meeting in Baw-Baw village recently, the town crier was seen roaming the streets, calling on people to attend the meeting at the community centre.
It came as a pleasant surprise to visitors who had gone to talk to villagers to abstain from illegal sand mining in Baw-Baw. They were amazed that in this era of advanced communication, the role of a town crier is still an important one in a village few kilometers outside Freetown.
In the 18th century, the town crier could also be used to make public announcements in the streets. Criers often dress elaborately, in red and gold coat, white breeches, black boots and a tricorne hat.
They carry a hand bell to attract people’s attention, as they shout the words “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!” before making their announcements. The word “Oyez” means “hear ye,” which is a call for silence and attention. Oyez derives from the Anglo-Norman word for listen. The proclamations book in Chester from the early 19th century records this as “O Yes, O Yes!”
In England, town criers were the sole means of communication with people in towns since many could not read or write. Proclamations, local bye-laws, market days, adverts, were all proclaimed by a bellman or crier.
In Goslar, Germany, a crier was employed to remind the local populace not to urinate or defecate in the river the day before water was drawn for brewing beer.
Criers were not always men, some were women as well. Bells were not the only attention getting device – in the Netherlands, a gong was the instrument of choice for many, and in France a drum was used, or a hunting horn.
History tells us that town criers were protected by law, as they sometimes brought bad news, such as tax increases. Anything done by the town crier was done in the name of the ruling monarch and harming a town crier was considered to be treasonable. The phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” was a real command.
There are two organisations which represent town criers in the modern world, the Ancient and Honourable Guild of Town Criers and Loyal Company of Town Criers.
By tradition, a copy of the Royal Proclamation about the dissolution of Parliament of the United Kingdom is delivered by hand from the Privy Council Office to Mansion House in the City of London. It is then read out by the Common Crier (aka Mace-bearer) of the City on the steps of the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City, having been handed to him by the Common Sergeant of the City, ahead of it being also read out in the London boroughs.
Back in Sierra Leone, bells or metal gongs, and wooden drums were used to pass on important information to people from chiefs.
Over the years, particularly with the advent of mobile phones, town criers are no longer in high demand. Paramount chiefs, among other stakeholders, who want to pass on messages to their subjects now only have to punch the call button of their mobile phones to do so.
Town crying used to be an employment for people in many chiefdoms and villages. Many town criers have gone out of job in recent years as a result of advancement in technology.
If fact, the trade is no longer of interest to many energetic young men, save Sunny Walker in Baw-Baw, who still uses a bell to pass on information to people from the village head.
Sunny Walker says he is sometimes embarrassed by inhabitants of the community while discharging his responsibility. “They sometimes refer to me as an idler but I enjoy doing it, and I have never stopped doing what I should do,” he adds.
Sunny was quizzed whether he is paid for doing the job of town crying or not, and he replies that the village head sometimes gives him a meagre stipend, but not a salary.
Asked also if he has a wife and children, he says he is married with two children and adds that his children tell him that they are provoked about their father’s trade.
Yet he remains confident as according to him, he loves being a town crier. However, he says that he is also a fisherman but that doesn’t hinder his town crying trade.