The We, whose name means ‘men who easily forgive’, live in the forests on the western frontier of the Ivory Coast.
They are in fact two separate tribes:
Confederations govern the tribes – the largest is the warrior confederation which is led by a military chief, who also acts as a civil authority. The family unit plays an important role in We social life. Each is led by a patriarch, revered for his wisdom and wealth, who supervises the clan’s life – he organizes weddings, settles conflicts and influences religious life.
We carvers seem to have focused their skills on carving powerful face masks to which paraphernalia such as cowrie shells, bells, nails and feathers were attached. These applied pieces were thought to reinforce the power of the mask.
Oral traditions describe the We society of the 19th century as lacking any central governing power. Social cohesion was fostered by a shared language and a preference for intermarriage. Generally, each village had a headman who had earned his position of advantage in the community through hard work in the fields and luck as a hunter. These headmen usually surrounded themselves with young warriors for protection from invading neighbours, and exchanged gifts with other chiefs in order to heighten their own prestige.
Before the arrival of the European colonists the definitions Guéré and Wobé did not exist, the Wé, who lived in the forests, that are located on the border between the present Liberia and the Ivory Coast, simply defined themselves as Wé.
The French colonial administration, crippling and misinterpreting the translation provided by local interpreters, divided the population into two subgroups: the Guéré and the Wobé.
The Guéré and the Wobe therefore belong to the same ethnic group, the Wè ethnic group, the Guéré were the group that was located in the southernmost zone while the Wobé in the northernmost part.
Although there are few sources available on We tribe's culture, much has been written about Dan peoples who live to the north of We territory and share many cultural and artistic similarities.
Young people strive to make a name for themselves by lavishly spending at community feasts to demonstrate their wealth. Rice, yams, taro, manioc, maize, and bananas are the primary crops grown. Although farming and hunting have been largely replaced by labouring in the diamond camps or working at the rubber plantations, the establishment of a hierarchical social order is still based on the individual's ability to succeed.
We tribal political systems consist largely of non-centralized, fragmentary political groups, in which decision are made on behalf of the community by councils of elder men. Masking often served as a means of social control, enforcing the rules established by the elders. We initiation is not tied to Poro societies, as is the case of their many neighbours, but masks do appear at initiation. Performances also occur during funerals and for purposes of entertainment. Although described as primarily entertainment, such performances also contain social and political commentary that serve to demonstrate to the community the wisdom of the elders.
We tribe cosmology holds that everything can be divided into two separate and clear categories. The primary dichotomy is between village and bush, in other words, things that have been controlled by man and things that have not. Crossing over the dividing line is dangerous business, and whenever it is done, whether to clear new fields or simply crossing the forest, the bush spirits must be appeased. In order to take part in village life, the bush spirits must take corporeal form.
The Wè are characterized by an intense religious life and by mysticism, in fact they believe in the spirits and ancestors to whom they attribute supernatural powers, moreover they believe that they hold the destiny of men.
The spirits, represented by the masks, are considered very important and occupy the first places of the sacred pantheon.
Of all the traditional sacred institutions, the tradition of masks is that which has endured over time, without undergoing too many changes.
The institution of the masks is today the most widespread and the most popular among the members of the Wè ethnic group, so much so that the Wè civilization can be defined as the civilization of the masks.
For the Wè the mask is not only the one that is put on the face, but it is the complete clothing: it is composed of a headdress, a face carved in wood, a skirt in vegetable fiber and a fabric to cover the upper part of the body; the mask is worn by an initiate who is specially chosen.
The cult of masks has repercussions in people's daily lives, the mask participates in the social life of the villages, he is present during the celebrations, at sacrifices and has an important role in redeeming disputes between the inhabitants of the village.
The mask represents an immortal spirit that was created by God and was given to men to organize, protect and entertain themselves; furthermore the mask has a power of mediation between the forces of nature and men.
The mask is above all a sacred force that makes possible the communion between God and men, between ancestors and the living ones, he is a protective spirit that is opposed to the disruptive and harmful forces that are manipulated by sorcerers.
The Wè almost never turn directly to the deity, but turn to the mask, who is their main intermediary.
For this reason the mask is the central fulcrum around whom the village society is organized and structured; the mask is the guarantor of social values and his primary function is to enforce the rules and laws of the community.
The mask presides over the ritual harvest feasts, to thank the ancestors and gods for their help and protection.
The Wè believe that the mask lives in the forest, in a sacred place where only initiates can go to perform ritual sacrifices.
When the village needs his intervention, the musicians play music to call him; thus the mask emerges from the darkness of the forest and, escorted by men and musicians, reaches the village; once in the village he retires to the sacred house where the ceremony is beginning.
The women of the village cannot touch the mask and must keep their distance; for the occasion they dress in white or dye some areas of their body with white chalk and sing songs that praise the role of the mask.
The mask, after having rested in the sacred house and after drinking the palm wine, goes out and goes to the center of the village, at this precise moment the celebrations begin, the participants drink the palm wine while the percussionists keep the rhythm of the ceremony.
There are different masks based on the necessity manifested in the village, therefore there are the sacred masks, these are the most important because they defend the village from evil spirits, there are warrior masks, who enhance the courage of warrior ancestors, and finally the joyful masks, who participate in all the moments of the village festivals singing and dancing.
The masks also have a legal role, that derives from their religious function: the mask is the intermediary between God and men, as well as between the ancestors and the living ones, therefore, if someone believes he is a victim of injustice and the Men's justice failed to restore his rights, he turns to the mask.
When the mask issues his verdict, all parties must bow to his will, if they do not do so they risk being struck by the curse of the mask because, the one who rejects the verdict of the mask, makes an outrage to the ancestors and to God, of whom the mask is the messenger, in this way he would attract the anger of the spirits on himself.
At the end of the ceremonies the mask returns to the forest, where he remains hidden from the sight of men.