Mende people


Mende / Mendi

Mende people are a sub-set of  Mande-ethnolinguistic group which belong to the larger Niger-Congo phylum living mainly in Sierra Leone with a small representation in the neighbouring Liberia. The Mende is the second largest tribe after  their neighbours and Sierra Leone`s aboriginals; the Temne people. Some people believe that both Mende and Temne have same population and together form the two largest tribes in Sierra Leone.

Mende People

The Mende are predominantly found in the Southern Province and the Eastern Province, while the Temne are found primarily in the Northern Province and the Western Area, including the capital city of Freetown. Some of the major cities with significant Mende populations include Bo, Kenema, Kailahun and Moyamba.

The Mende are divided into two groups: The halemo are members of the hale or secret societies, and kpowa are people who have never been initiated into the hale. The Mende believe that all humanistic and scientific power is passed down through the secret societies.

The Mende people have a very interesting historical past. During the height of the slave trade,  several Mende people groups were sold first to a Portuguese trader and later to the joint owners  of a Cuban plantation.

The Cuban slave owners tried to transport the Mende people to another  part of Cuba aboard a slave ship called the Amistad. En route the Mende and other slaves  mutinied and took control of the ship in hopes of being able to sail her back to Africa and freedom. Hampered by the remaining sailors, the Mende were captured by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel off of Long Island, New York. While the Cuban slave owners asserted that the Mende men were slaves and thus property, a Connecticut court pronounced them free and helped assist the Mende in getting back to their homeland.

Sierra Leone's politics have been dominated by the Mende, on the one hand, and the Temne and their long-time political allies, the Limba, on the other. The Mende support the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), while the Temnes and Limbas support the All People's Congress party (APC).

Mende people


The Vai people refer to Mende people as Huro or Wuro. Mende-speaking people occupy southern and eastern Sierra Leone, and there is a small group in Liberia. Their territory falls within the rain forest belt that spans West Africa. The terrain consists of fertile hills to the north; in the south and coastal areas there are plains and swamps. The narrow strip of coastland forms the western and southwestern boundary between the Mende and the Sherbro-Bullom, the Krim, and the Vai. The easternmost part of Sierra Leone and the northeast are populated by the Kissi and the Kron peoples, respectively. The Jong, Sewa, and Moa rivers flowing from the more hilly northern region of Sierra Leone intersect Mende territory in the west, center, and east.



Mende people speak Mende language. Mende (ˈmɛndi/ (Mɛnde yia) is a major language of Sierra Leone, with some speakers in neighboring Liberia. It is spoken by the Mende people and by other ethnic groups as a regional lingua franca in southern Sierra Leone.

Mende is a tonal language belonging to the Mande branch of the Niger–Congo language family. Early systematic descriptions of Mende were by F. W. Migeod  and Kenneth Crosby.

In 1921, Kisimi Kamara invented a syllabary for Mende he called Kikakui (Kikaku). The script achieved widespread use for a time, but has largely been replaced with an alphabet based on the Latin script, and the Mende script is considered a "failed script". The Bible was translated into Mende and published in 1959, in Latin script. Within Mende, three major dialect groups are distinguished: Kpa-Mende in the west, Sewa-Mende in the center, and Ko-Mende in the east.

It was used extensively in the movies Amistad and Blood Diamond.



The Mende people are descendants of the thirteenth-century Mali eipre that migrated from the Sudan (Mali empire) to settle in Sierra Leone. The oral traditions of the Mende tell of a peaceful migration into the area that may have spanned the period from 200 to 1500 AD. Linguistic and cultural traits suggest that the Mende are descendants of the thirteenth-century Mali Empire. Before the eighteenth century Mende territory did not extend to its present coastal areas, and territorial increase resulted from wars.

Mende people

Through wars and raids and subjugation and enslavement of other peoples, the Mende assimilated other groups, such as the Sherbro and the Vai. Mende cultural expansion and domination, referred to as "mendenization," continued through the colonial era, although more peacefully as Mende settlements spread in the trading areas. This geographic mobility explains aspects of Mende cultural diversity, particularly dialectic differences.

Cultural and physical differences among the Mende suggest that immigrants may have originated from more than one source. This could also be a result of intermarriage with the peoples who had already lived in the area. Artistic traditions link them closely to the coastal Bullom peoples, a phenomenon which most likely resulted from the Mende borrowing ideas they found to be useful in their own way as understood by the 'Mende People' website.
Ethnologists identify three different sub-groups. The Kpa-Mende live to the west in the coastal bush, while the Sewa Mende are in the central forests. The Ko-Mende (or Kolo Mende) also live in the forests but generally to the north of the Sewa. (Olson, 1996).



Occupational activities as hunting, fishing, and agriculture favored the original settlements of small groups that eventually became villages and towns. A chiefdom consists of sections, with each section made up of a group of villages and towns. The ever-present possibility of attack favored placing houses close together behind a stockade. Traditional houses, usually with one story, were round or rectangular and were strongly built of wattle and mud daub with a palm thatch roof. A rectangular house usually has a veranda and two or three rooms. With the availability of cement and corrugated sheeting since the 1900s, most new houses in towns and some in remote villages have cement block walls and "pan" roof covering.


Economy. Subsistence

The Mende are an agricultural people who engage in gardening around their homes and rice farming in the outer lands. Rice is the staple crop, and community life is organized around its production, storage, and distribution. Supplementary food crops include cassava, yams, sesame, and millet. Palm nuts are harvested for vegetable oil, and raffia palms are tapped for wine. Garden crops include chili peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Families raise some poultry and keep domestic animals for meat. Fishing is done mainly in the three large rivers that intersect the Mende territory.


Commercial Activities

In the local markets families sell excess food products and buy those they lack. Traders buy salt, cocoa, coffee, ginger, groundnuts, and kola nuts. Other market products are palm oil, palm kernels, palm wine, and raffia. Commercial activities have increased as towns and urban markets have grown, and a variety of new products, including imported materials, have become available. Some trading towns originated with the development of railroads and motor roads. The hawking of food and a variety of small items at the parks and stations has become a popular commercial practice to supplement family income.


Industrial Arts

Craft products include various forms of earthenware, clothes, mats, twine, and brooms. Blacksmiths produce hoes, machetes, and other iron implements. Implements associated with fishing are nets, hooks, and dugout canoes. Sculpted objects include masks used for initiation ceremonies, ritual objects such as icons of spiritual entities, and "medicine" objects. There are various musical instruments, including drums, wooden xylophones, other stringed instruments, and decorated gourd rattlers. Stringed beads and shell rattlers are worn by dancers.


Types of Art

Most Mende art is associated with initiation and healing and includes wooden masks, twin figures, and medicine objects. Utilitarian objects such as heddle pulleys are decorated with carved heads or other beautiful designs.

Mende People



Traditonally, the commodities traded were essentially agricultural products: rice, coffee, and palm oil. Other important items of trade were implements and objects used for farming and fishing. These products were exported to northern neighbors, who supplied beef and beef products and salt to the Mende. Before the introduction of a cash economy, trade was local and was carried out by the simple exchange of products. Trading activities later expanded to involve most of the neighboring areas and farther regions and to include salt, gold, and diamonds.


Division of Labor

Rice farming is central in the economy, and men, women, and children contribute labor to the family farm. Clearing the land of vegetation in preparation for farming is typically "men's work." In a large household the senior wife organizes the junior women for rice planting and cooking food for the work group. It is women's job to thresh, clean, and parboil rice.

Young men also engage in rice planting and build fences to protect the farm from rats. Children help with weeding. Men climb palms to cut the fruit and tap wine, and women collect the fruit and press the oil. Women fish the inland rivers and spin thread, and men engage in weaving and blacksmithing. Today many men leave the village to work in mines. Both men and women engage in clerical, professional, and trading activities, but most domestic chores are still done by women.


Land Tenure

The paramount chief is the principal custodian of all the land in the chiefdom. He is assisted in administering it by elders who are the descendants of the settlers who first cultivated the land. A first land cultivator gained the right of occupation, which was inherited by his descendants after his death. The paramount chief, the chiefs, and the subchiefs exercise land ownership authority; the rest of the people in the community are landholders with only temporary rights of personal occupation and use of land. When his need for it ceases, the land used by a landholder reverts to the community.



Kin Groups and Descent. The basic kinship institution is the household mawe. A man and his wives and children constitute a small household. A large household may have two or more adults with consanguinous kinship, their wives and children, and relatives such as mothers and sisters.

A household is patrilineal as well as patrilocal, and wives become members of the household through marriage. Male siblings and their wives and children settle in compounds (kuwui). Leadership of a compound is inherited by the oldest male in the lineage. Several compounds and the households of slaves constitute a village, and an aggregation of villages makes up a town. Towns and villages make up a section of a chiefdom.


Kinship Terminology

Mende kinship involves a bifurcated merging pattern with Iroquois patrilineal cousin terminology. Parents have the same kin terms as some uncles and aunts, and other relatives are terminologically distinguished from parents. Collateral uncles and aunts are well distinguished, whereas parallel cousins are classed together.



Marriage is usually exogamous and patrilocal. Young men who have reached maturity and can provide bride-wealth and women past adolescence are eligible for marriage. Marriage is a sign of social progress, and celibacy is considered an anomaly. Marriage can be contracted at a very early age, but its consummation requires initiation into the poro society for a man and the sande society for a woman. Polygyny is a popular practice that enhances a man's social prestige. It enables the man to take care of his sexual needs when one wife is breast-feeding a baby and sexual intercourse with her is forbidden. Economically, polygyny provides labor for rice farming and other "women's work," such as domestic chores, running cottage industries, and participating in trading. The senior wife, who enjoys respect from the junior wives and is her husband's confidant, is responsible for organizing the other wives for work. Thus, marriage is an agricultural asset as well as a capital investment. Divorce traditionally was not common, but exceptional circumstances could lead the husband to dissolve the marriage and demand a refund of the bride-wealth. These circumstances included desertion, compulsive infidelity, insulting the husband's parents, and practicing witchcraft or sorcery. Persistent abuse by a husband could lead to divorce when the relatives of the woman demanded her return to their family. After a divorce children usually remain with their father if they are past the age of breast-feeding.


Domestic Unit

The mawe, consisting of a husband, his wives, their children, and the husband's parents, constitutes a basic domestic, social, and farming unit. The numerical composition of the household can vary to include more older men and grandchildren, and the smaller conjugal unit of a man and his wife and children is not considered typical. The domestic unit provides food and shelter for the members, and serves as the primary institution of education, bringing up children and teaching them the values and techniques of Mende culture.



In traditional Mende society land is the principal item of inheritance, and since land holding is house-hold-based, the patrilineal form of inheritance is prevalent. After a man's death the immediate heirs to his land are his brothers in order of age. His sons come next and then his daughters. In the absence of brothers, sons, and daughters, a matrilinial nephew becomes the heir.

After the nephew's death the land reverts to the descendants of the original owners. Since the introduction of a Western legal system, this practice has been challenged, and sometimes sons claim their father's land from their paternal uncles.



Mothers are the principal agents in child rearing, beginning with breast-feeding. If the mother becomes very sick, any other relative with milk can take over. Usually tied to the back with lappa, a large piece of cloth, children are carried by the mother as she works.

Older siblings act as baby-sitters. Through imitation children learn the names and proper addresses and titles of their relatives. There is a popular practice of sending children of about the age of six to distant relatives, who are more strict than parents in teaching them about household chores, general responsibilities, and good behavior. At about age thirteen girls and boys are ready to be initiated into the sande and poro societies. The initiation process is the traditional place where young people learn cultural mores and prepare for adult life as wives and husbands. In spite of Western education, initiation is still carried out, sometimes in modified forms.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. At the apex of Mende social institutions is the ruling class, which consists of the paramount chief, a descendant of the founder of the territory. The paramount chief enjoys the highest social recognition, and the section chiefs are subordinate to him. Village and town heads are respected for their age and leadership in their lineages.

Secret, ritual, and medical societies such as humui, Njayei, poro and sande play vital roles in the maintenance and transmission of societal norms and values. Initiation and marriage confer special status and recognition. The family or household is the basic social and productive unit and plays the primary group role. The individual also relates to the kindred, lineage, village, and town in graded order of rights and obligations. Men who have wealth through successful rice cultivation and are married to several women have a distinguished recognition as "big men" and represent a distinct social stratum.


Political Organization

A section, consisting of a town and villages, is the basic political unit. Political leadership resides with the section chief or sub-chief, who usually is the oldest person and the most suitable in the male line, the descendant of a victorious warrior and founder of the settlement. Women also can be chiefs. A paramount chief rules over several sections.

Political claims are also based on being a descendant of the founder of the territory or chiefdom. The paramount chief governs with the assistance of a council consisting of a speaker, subchiefs, title holders, and village heads. The chief and the council exercise political and judicial powers. They make decisions on matters of public interest, adjudicate land disputes, and punish lawbreakers. The social duty of the poro society traditionally included the maintenance of law and order in the chiefdom. Since the late nineteenth century Mende political culture has been influenced by Western systems, as in the institution of the "bench," whose members serve as jurors.


Social Control

Accusations of witchcraft are a major source of conflict and social tension in traditional Mende society. Other accusations may derive from medical malpractice or sorcery, sexual offences, dispute over inheritance, and other situations likely to endanger communal values.

To maintain communal values or assure conformity and to guarantee that tendencies toward dangerous forms of individualism and aggressive behavior are brought under control, Mende culture has customs, rules, standards, morals, and sanctions. The family and the secret societies are schools where young people learn these cultural values. Mechanism of social control is exemplified in heads of groups entrusted with authority to deal with domestic disputes, the native court under the chief, and religious specialists who prescribe and supervise rituals for redressing individual or group violations.



For much of their history from the sixteenth until the early eighteenth century the Mende were aggressors against their neighbors: the Bullom-Sherbro, Vai, and Gola. Mende fighters participated in the wars and revolts of the colonial period, which ended in 1961 with the independence of Sierra Leone. The civil war in Liberia in early 1990 brought many Liberian Mende into Sierra Leone as refugees, and many of their settlements were in Mende territory.
In the Sierra Leone civil war, after the overthrow of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah's government by Major Jonny Paul Koroma in May 1997, Mende involvement was pronounced. The civil war, besides having colonial roots, also resulted from diverse group interests, especially in controlling the diamond business. Kamajors, the reputed traditional hunters, who are mostly Mende, made up the major part of the Revolutionary United Front's army that fought against government forces. With the intervention of Nigerian-led international troops and British and United Nations forces, fighting subsided in 2001. Pockets of anti-government forces still exist in the forests and continue to threaten the fragile cease-fire.



Religious Beliefs. Ngewo, the supreme being in Mende religion, is the creator of the universe and everything in it. After creating the world, Ngewo went up to heaven and rarely intervenes directly in human affairs, although nothing good or evil can happen without his permission.

Ancestral spirits are venerated, and prayers to Ngewo are channeled through them. Other categories of natural, occupational, and evil spirits (Ngafanga) exist. Through sacrifices and other rituals, often conducted by specialists, people propitiate the spirits and ask for their protection and blessings. Mende traditional religion has declined since the advent of Western Christianity. A current religious feature is an eclectic tendency to mix elements of traditional religion with those of Christianity.


Religious Practitioners

In a variety of functions and situations individuals and groups relate to halei (power), which is connected with Ngewo. Most religious functions are hereditary, but the spirit that superintends any function must establish through signs that the individual has a calling. Priests of the various nature and occupational deities offer sacrifices to them and through them to Ngewo. Diviners are traditional diagnosticians of illness and misfortune and see beyond the present and interpret omens. The healing doctor also exercises priestly functions in ritual healing. He prepares protective charms against the harmful activities of angry or malevolent spirits and their agents. Other ritual societies conduct special rituals for the healing of particular types of wounds and to cleanse the land of defilements. Among the religious specialists are the leaders of secret societies, who exercise some religious roles during the initiation of their members.



Birth ceremonies, which take several forms, announce the arrival of new members of the community. They often require sacrifices to the deity through whose benevolence the child is born. The poro and sande initiation ceremonies are educational and are arranged in stages for the ordered maturing of young people.

Marriage ceremonies involve community participation and are essential for conjugal prosperity and stability. Rituals of farm work procure blessings of fertility and prosperity for the crops and purify the farm of any defilements resulting from the violation of taboos. There are ceremonies for the installation of chiefs and for judicial procedures in the courts. Other ceremonies pertain to initiation of the members of "medicine societies" and the efficacy of their work. The rite of "crossing the water" is part of the final rite of passage, performed as a funerary rite to ensure ancestral status for the deceased. Ancestors are remembered with ceremonies involving prayers and sacrifices; the "red rice" ceremony is used to appease their anger.


Secret Society

Poro society

The greatest sins a Mende man can commit is to give away the secrets of their tribe. The Poro society is the male equivalent to the Sande society. When inducted into this society, Mende boys are initiated into manhood. Many of their rituals parallel those of the Sande society.

The Poro prepares men for leadership in the community, so they might attain wisdom, accept responsibility, and gain power. It begins with the child's grade of discovery, followed by extensive training and service. During the seven-year initiation period, the young men converse with each other using a secret language and passwords, known only to other Poro members. The member always knows and understands what is being said. This is part of the mystery of this secret society.

At the beginning, young men aged 20 are called into the society and are trained by the group above them, along with a few elders. There is much work to be done during the initiation process. Dancing the masks is part of this work, but not the most important part. Only through work does the dance of the mask become meaningful.


Sande society

All Mende women when they reach puberty begin the initiation process into the Sande society. The goals of this secret society are to teach young Mende women the responsibilities of adulthood. The girls are taught to be hard working and modest in their behavior, especially towards their elders. Sande influences every aspect of a Mende woman's life; it is present before birth and still present after.

Sande is the guardian of women; their protector and guide through life. It is Sande that grants a woman with an identity and a personality. The Sande society is concerned with defining what it is to be human and of discovering the ways of promoting love, justice, and harmony. It is a moral philosophy that focuses on the perpetual refinement of the individual.

Sande leaders serve as models to women in the community. They exemplify the highest of Mende ideals, and they have the duty of enforcing positive social relationships and of removing any harm that might come to women in their community. "This is Sande; women together in their womanhood, in a free exchange of words and actions among sisters. Where ever two or three women are gathered together, there is the spirit of Sande."
Sande groups conduct masked performances that embody the Sande guardian spirit, who is associated with water and rivers. Descriptions of the society and its masquerade events have been made by visitors since the seventeenth century.


Sande hierarchy

The Sande society is organized by a hierarchy a number of positions all around. The sowie are the highest-ranking leaders of the group. It is their job to model to the Mende women the most important of Mende social values. It is also their duty to enforce proper social relationships and to remove anything that might be harmful to the women in their community.

The sowie have control over certain sacred knowledge that is essential to the development of success and happiness in an individual, and also to the well-being of the community. They are the experts of the Sande women and have access to spirit ancestors and forces of nature.
The rank below sowie is ligba. There are two grades within ligba; Ligba Wa (senior) and Ligba Wulo (junior). In any group there is only one Ligba Wa, she is an executive officer in Sande. Before a woman can take a leadership role in artistic activities she must be eligible at least as a Ligba Wulo.
An ordinary member is referred to as nyaha. The word indicates that the Sande initiation makes a woman of a child, and every woman into a wife. An initiate in training is called mbogdoni. A non-member is kpowa. As a noun kpowa means "an ignoramus, stupid, retarded, a fool" as a verb it means "to become insane or deranged.



Much Mandé art is in the form of jewelry and carvings. The masks associated with the fraternal and sorority associations of the Marka and the Mendé are probably the best-known, and finely crafted in the region. The Mandé also produce beautifully woven fabrics which are popular throughout western Africa, and gold and silver necklaces, bracelets, armlets, and earrings.

The bells on the necklaces are of the type believed capable of being heard by spirits, ringing in both worlds, that of the ancestors and the living.
Mandé hunters often wear a single bell that can be easily silenced when stealth is necessary. Women, on the other hand, often wear multiple bells, referring to concepts of community, since the bells ring harmoniously together.


Mende masks

Masks are the collective Mind of Mende community; viewed as one body, they are the Spirit of the Mende people.

The Mende masked figures are a reminder that human beings have a dual existence; they live in the concrete world of flesh and material things and the spirit world of dreams, faith, aspirations and imagination.

The features of a Mende mask convey Mende ideals of female morality and physical beauty.

They are unusual because the masks are worn by women. The bird on top of the head represents a woman's natural intuition that lets her see and know things that others can't. The high or broad forehead represents good luck or the sharp, contemplative mind of the ideal Mende woman. Downcast eyes symbolize a spiritual nature and it is through these small slits that a woman wearing the mask would look out of. The small mouth signifies the ideal woman's quiet and humble character.

The markings on the cheeks are representative of the decorative scars girls receive as they step into womanhood. The scars are a symbol of her new, harder life. The neck rolls are an indication of the health of an ideal women. They have also been called symbols of the pattern of concentric, circular ripples the Mende spirit makes when emerging from the water. In the Mende culture full-figured women are beautiful.

The intricate hairstyles reveal the close ties within a community of women. The holes at the base of the mask are where the rest of the costume is attached. A woman who wears these masks must not expose any part of her body or a vengeful spirit may take possession of her. Women often cover their bodies with masses of raffia or black cloth.

When a girl becomes initiated into the Sande society, the village's master woodcarver creates a special mask just for her. Helmet masks are made from a section of tree trunk, often of the kpole (cotton) tree, and then carved and hollowed to fit over the wearer’s head and face. The woodcarver must wait until he has a dream that guides him to make the mask a certain way for the recipient. A mask must be kept hidden in a secret place when no one is wearing it.

These masks appear not only in initiation rituals but also at important events such as funerals, arbitrations and the installation of chiefs. Examples of these masks appear in museums.Various Mende masks, specifically Sowei Masks, were the focus of a 2013 exhibition in the British Museum, exploring the Sowei traditions.

Mende People


Learning dance is a harsh discipline that every Mende girl must tackle. Girls practice for hours at a time until they drop from exhaustion. Ndoli jowei, the expert in dancing, is in charge of teaching young Mende girls to dance.

When girls make a mistake in the steps, they are whipped with a switch until they get it right. Often girls are awoken in the middle of the night to practice the dance; sometimes they are forced to stay awake for nearly 48 hours dancing almost the entire time. By the end of their brutal training, the girls have transformed into young woman who are tough and confident even in the harshest of conditions. They are in great physical shape and have endurance and stamina.

Gonde is also a Ndoli jowei, but rather than the harsh enforcer she is the comic relief. Gonde becomes a friend to the initiates, amusing them to help them forget the hard ordeals they are going through. She coaches the girls who are slow in dancing, encouraging the girls to work hard. "Gonde is a funny, lovable character who lightens the gloom and reminds everyone that Sande is not always so deadly serious."

Ndoli jowei is the principal spirit for celebration, although she also appears on other occasions besides celebrations. In Sande initiation there are three major events in which the ndoli jowei appear publicly. The first occurs 1–3 days after the initiates have been taken into the bush to be circumcised. This event is known as yaya gbegbi. At this time the ndoli jowei comes into town with a group of Sande women while the initiates stay in the bush recovering from their operations. The women come into town to tell men they have initiated people into Sande. They go through the town waving leaves and gathering food and other supplies that they need. Ndoli jowei does not dance on this occasion because it is not yet time for celebration. She is there only as a reminder of the powerful medicine which has been summoned by the Sande session. This validates the unruly behavior of the Sande women. The next time ndoli jowei appears is at a minor feast called Kpete gbula yombo le or Sowo mba yili gbi. At this occasion, an announcement is made to inform people of the date for the gani celebration; which is the last event of the Sande initiation that ndoli jowei appears at. At this time, the new initiates are brought into town for the first time since the initiation process began; accompanied by ndoli jowei. This is a happy occasion where dances are performed by both the maskers and the initiates.

Mende People

Color symbolism

Hojo is a white clay that Mende women use to mark their territory. The clay comes from the water like many other aspects of Sande. Its smooth, shiny surface reflects light, making it eye-catching. Hojo is found in a scale of colors from beige to pure white. The pure white Hojo is more rare, found only deep beneath the surface of the water. Hojo and Sande are parallel in that they are both well hidden and secretive in its purest form.
White is the color of Sande. To the Mende, the pureness of white signifies the cleanliness and absence of imperfections. "It shows a 'harmlessness'; it is void of all things satanic and is thus 'a positive and helpful color. White is symbolic of the spirit world and also of the secret parts of society where people aim for the highest standards.

Objects and people who are marked with Hojo are under Sande protection and control. They are subject to authority of Sande law and punishment. Initiates are colored with this white clay to show that they are property of Sande. This signifies that they are under the protection of Sande and should not be fooled with. Sowei, the judge of women, wears white to represent clear thinking and justice.



A woman's hair is a sign of femininity. Both thickness and length are elements that are admired by the Mende. Thickness means the woman has more individual strands of hair and the length is proof of strength. It takes time, care and patience to grow a beautiful, full head of hair. Ideas about hair root women to nature, the way hair grows is compared to the way forests grow.

The vegetation on earth is the "hair" on the head of Mother Nature in the same way the hair on the head of a woman is her "foliage." (Boone) A woman with long, thick hair illustrates a life force, she may be blessed with a green thumb giving her the ability to have a promising farm and many healthy children.

Hairstyles are very important in Mende society. A Mende woman's hair must be well groomed, clean, and oiled. Hair must be tied down under strict control and shaped into intricate, elegant styles for the sake of beauty and sex appeal. Dirty, disheveled hair is a sign of insanity. A woman who does not groom and maintain her hair has neglected the community's standards of behavior. Only a woman in mourning can let her hair loose. The Mende finds unarranged "wild" hair immoral and connects it to wild behavior.

Mende People

Body alterations

A key element of Sande initiation is the clitoridectomy, or female circumcision. This surgery is supposed to foreshadow the pain a Mende woman experiences during childbirth. The shock of this experience also tests a Mende woman's physical endurance. The shared pain of the clitoridectomy creates permanent bonds among the initiates. Vows that express a social bond are taken after the operation; these vows are a metaphor for the support the women will have during the pains of childbirth.

This procedure is considered necessary to change Mende children, who are considered to be of neutral sex before the procedure, to heterosexual, gendered adults. Circumcision is thought to remove the female's residue of maleness.


Neck rings

The neck rings at the base of the mask are an exaggeration of actual neck creases. Mende people consider a beautiful neck to be one with rings: they are a sign of beauty because they suggest wealth, high status, and are sexually attractive. The rings indicate prosperity and wholesome living, and are given by God to show his affection for a fortunate few. As well, the rings indicate a relationship with the divine: the Sowo itself is a deity from the waters, and the neck rings represent the concentric waves that are formed on still water by Sowo's head breaking through the surface. The spirit comes from the water, and what the human eye sees on the necks of women "is human in form, but divine in essence", as portrayed in the mask.



The halei (medicine man) and several "medicine societies" deal with illness, which can have physical or spiritual causes. The spiritual causes include individual moral deficiencies and the malevolent activities of spirits and their agents. The diviner discovers the cause of an illness or misfortune. The medicine man or healing doctor prepares medicines and administers them. Medicines are prepared from herbs and other natural substances. Protective medicine can consist of charms and inoculation with "power substances." When medicine is prepared and consecrated, it is believed to be impregnated with efficacy. Since the advent of scientific medicine and Christianity in Mende society, the use of traditional medicine has been on the decline, especially in towns and cities.


Death and Afterlife

Death is often imputed to witchcraft or activities of spirits and their agents. However, death in old age is accepted as natural, and inquiries into other causes are not necessary. Natural death is not considered a calamity, but the death of a young person is considered a "bad death."
Based on the status of the deceased and the gender, different funerary rites apply. The rites of passage ensure that a dead person who has the moral qualifications "crosses the river" and becomes an ancestor. Ancestors continue to live as spirits and their earthly relatives keep their memory alive in rituals.