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Mende musicians in 1936
|Regions with significant populations|
Sierra Leone |
(Bo District, Bonthe District, Moyamba District, Pujehun District, Kenema District, Kailahun District, Western Area)
Large population of Mende descendants in the United States and the Americas
|Mende, Krio, Sierra Leone English, French|
|Majority Islam; large Christian minority|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Limba, Loko, Kpelle, Gola, Vai, Gbandi, Loma|
The Mende people (also spelled Mendi) are one of the two largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone; their neighbours, the Temne people, have roughly the same population. The Mende and Temne each account for slightly more than 30% of the total population . 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 belong to a larger group of Mande peoples who live throughout West Africa. The Mende are mostly farmers and hunters. During the civil war the Civil Defense Force (CDF), a militia group, was founded by Dr. Alpha Lavalie, a Mende himself, to fight the rebels along with government troops. The forces included five groups drawn from all major ethnic groups in the country: Tamaboros, Hunters, Donso, Kapras, and the Kamajors.
Kamajor is a Mende term for hunter; they were not only the dominant warring factions but the most fearful among the CDF militias headed by late Deputy Minister of Defense, Chief Hinga Norman. To date, the Kamajors are honored among the elite groups of men and women who fought to restore democracy in modern Sierra Leone.
The Mendes are divided into Kpa-Mende, who are predominantly in the South - in Moyamba district, the Golah-Mende, from the Gola forest between Kenema and Pujehun districts into Liberia - a national reservation landmark, Sewa-Mende, who settled along the Sewa River, Vai-Mende also in Liberia and Pujehun district, Sierra Leone and the Koh-Mende who are the dominant tribe in Kailahun district with the Kissi (Ngessi) and Gbandi both of whom are in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
The secret "Poro" society is for men while "Sande" society for women both of whom initiate the young into adulthood. Those who join either of the male or female secret societies are referred to as: 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 language is widely spoken in Liberia more so in areas once considered part of Liberia. In the year 1984, then President Samuel Doe threatened to retake the part of Sierra Leone that was once Liberia. Both countries have Mende, Gola, Vai, Gissi and Gbandi tribes but the Mende are the dominant population.
Mende names are common in Liberia including towns that share names on both side of the border; for example, Guma Mende is popular section in Loffa, Liberia and those living along the borders claim dual citizenship.
Mende language is also taught in Sierra Leone schools and the Alphabet is closely identical to the English Alphabet. For example, the letter 'C' is flipped facing left and pronounced 'orh'; 'E' is written with broken edges and pronounced 'eh'.
The Mende speak the Mende language among themselves, but their language is also spoken as a regional lingua franca by members of smaller Sierra Leonean ethnic groups that inhabit the same part of the country. Their language is spoken by around 46% of Sierra Leone's population.
Like a majority of African nations, Sierra Leone's political parties are often tied to specific ethnic groups and 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 are known to typically support the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), while the Temnes and Limbas are associated with the All People's Congress party (APC).
Regional warfare throughout the 19th century led to the capture and sale of many Mende-speakers into slavery. Most notable were those found aboard the Amistad in 1839. They eventually won their freedom and were repatriated. This event involved fifty-two free Mende tribesmen, stolen by Portuguese slavers in 1839, who were shipped via the Middle Passage to Havana, Cuba, where they were sold to Cuban sugar plantation owners, José Ruiz and Pedro Montes.
After working the plantation, they were placed on the schooner Amistad and shipped to another Cuban plantation. On the way, they escaped their bondage and were led in a rebellion by Sengbe Pieh. They told the crew to return them to Africa. Their efforts to return home were frustrated by the ship's remaining crew, who navigated up to the United States. The ship was intercepted off Long Island, New York, by a U.S. Coastal brig. The cubans merchants Ruiz and Montes denounced the Mende and asserted that they were their property. The ensuing case, heard in Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut, affirmed that the men were free, and resulted in the return of the thirty-six surviving Mende to their homes.
In the Americas, especially the United States, researchers have discovered that elements of African culture had long persistence. In some areas where there were large groups of enslaved Africans, they kept much of their heritage. In the 1930s African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner found a Gullah family in coastal Georgia that had preserved an ancient song in the Mende language ("A waka"), passing it down for 200 years. In the 1990s three modern researchers -- Joseph Opala, Cynthia Schmidt, and Tazieff Koroma -- located a Mende village in Sierra Leone where the same song is still sung today. The story of this ancient Mende song, and its survival in both Africa and the US, is chronicled in the documentary film The Language You Cry In.
The Mende traditionally live in villages of 70 to 250 residents, which are situated from 1.5 to 5 kilometers apart. There is little or no mechanization over the greater part of rural Mende country. Mende farmers use hoes and machetes, but few other tools. The Mende are generally known as growers of rice and several other crops, practicing crop rotation to protect soil productivity. Coffee, cocoa, and ginger are grown as cash crops, whereas rice, pepper, groundnuts, beniseed (also known as sesame seeds), and palm oil are grown for local consumption. Rice cooperatives have been formed in some rural areas.
Traditionally, Mende farming has been carried out by labour groups organised on a local basis and moving from farm to farm (NIIP, 1973). Work is divided by gender: men attend to the heavy work of clearing the land for planting rice, while women clean and pound rice, fish, and weed the planted crops. This routine is followed during ten months of every year, with a couple of months left around the New Year, when they can spend more time in the village engaging in domestic pursuits like house building.
The Mende are patrilineal, patrilocal, and polygamous. The household unit is represented by at least one man and perhaps several of his brothers, with all of their wives and children. One or more brothers and married sisters usually leave sooner or later and are incorporated into other residential units. The senior male has moral authority--the right to respect and obedience--over the family as a whole, especially with regard to the negotiation of debts, damages, and bride-wealth.
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 female 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.
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 hardworking 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.
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.
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 woman. 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. 
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.
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 rarer, 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 evil 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 the authority of Sande law and punishment. Initiates are colored with this white clay to show that they are the 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 find unarranged "wild" hair immoral and associate individuals who possess this trait with wild behavior.
A key element of Sande initiation is the clitoridectomy, or female genital mutilation. 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. Genital mutilation is thought to remove the female's residue of maleness.
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.
The rings also 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 Mende syllabary was invented in 1921 by Kisimi Kamara (c. 1890-1962) of Sierra Leone. Seeing how the British managed to take over his country, Kisimi concluded that their power was partly a result of their literacy. He decided to give his own people that ability. Kisimi claimed he was inspired in a dream to create the Mende syllabary, which he called Ki-ka-ku. During the 1920s and 1930s, he ran a school in southern Sierra Leone to teach Ki-ka-ku. The syllabary became a popular method of keeping records and writing letters.
During the 1940s, the British set up the Protectorate Literacy Bureau in Sierra Leone's second largest city of Bo. Its goal was to teach the Mende people to read and write with a version of the Latin alphabet. As a result, usage of Kisimi's syllabary gradually diminished and, until recently scholars thought that the script was all but forgotten.
But American historian Konrad Tuchscherer made some striking discoveries regarding Ki-ka-ku in the 1990s while researching his Ph.D. thesis for the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. This was the period of Sierra Leone's civil war, and to Tuchscherer's surprise, he found that instead of impeding his research, the war actually advanced it. Thousands of Mendes were taking shelter in huge refugee camps surrounding the cities of Bo and Kenema, and the people living in those camps were organized according to their home chiefdoms, making it possible for Tuchscherer to survey the entire Mende region (about half of Sierra Leone's territory) in a small space and a short period of time. And he found that the Mende syllabary, far from being forgotten, was still being used by quite a few people, mostly elderly men.
But Tuchscherer made another important discovery a few years earlier before the war broke out when he visited the town of Potoru in Pujehun District, where Kisimi Kamara came from. Tuchscherer learned that while Kisimi took the lead in spreading the script (which he calls "kikakui") throughout the Mende region, the actual inventor of the Ki-ka-ku script was a local tailor who developed it in order to keep an accurate record of his customers' names and measurements.
It is well known in Sierra Leone that the Mendes, along with the Krios and Sherbros, are educationists. They are considered to favor learning than doing business. To them, education comes first. They are also known to command respect and possess leadership qualities.
The politics of Sierra Leone have traditionally been dominated by the Mende. The Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), which is one of the two major political party in the country, is predominantly based among the Mende people. The SLPP gets most of its support in Mende- predominate south-east region of Sierra Leone.
Most of the country's top government positions have been held by the Mende. Sierra Leone's first Prime minister Sir Milton Margai, who led the country to independence from the United Kingdom on April 27, 1961 was a prominent member of the Mende ethnic group. Other prominent Sierra Leonean politicians from the Mende ethnic group include the country's second prime minister Sir Albert Margai, who was also the younger brother of Milton Margai; former commander of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces and former Sierra Leone's head of state Brigadier David Lansana; former Head of State of Sierra Leone Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio; former Sierra Leone's vice president Albert Joe Demby; former Sierra Leone's vice president and attorney general Solomon Berewa.
Former Sierra Leone's vice president minister of Justice and Attorney General Francis Minah; former Sierra Leone's attorney general and one of the founding members of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) Banja Tejan-Sie. Samuel Hinga Norman, who was Sierra Leone's minister of Defense and former leader of the militant group the Civil Defense Forces (commonly known as the Kamajors). Sierra Leonean politician Charles Margai, who is the leader of one of the country's main opposition party the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). He is also the son of former prime minister Albert Margai and the nephew of Milton Margai; and former Sierra Leone's minister of finance John Oponjo Benjamin, who is currently the National Leader of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).
The Mende are a well-documented example of a non-western, pre-industrial society in which, at least historically, women took more political leadership positions relative to men. In the pre-colonial era, the Mende had female chiefs and war leaders. One such female chief, Madam Yoko (1849-1906), was the leader of the vast Kpa Mende Confederacy. She was formally recognized by the British as a Paramount Chief in 1894, ruling an area that was eventually divided into fourteen chiefdoms.
Although it is impossible to know the extent to which other Mende women rose to leadership positions comparable to Madam Yoko's, historians believe that perhaps fifteen to twenty percent of the local leaders with whom the British negotiated at the time of colonial consolidation were women. The pattern continues to this day. According to MacCormack, "Contemporary women paramount chiefs are equally prominent, and their political influence now extends into national and international arenas. In 1988, thirteen of the 146 paramount chiefs were female."
MacCormack further notes, "There is a tendency in Western culture to define women as weak and needing protection, since they bear children. In West Africa the same biological facts are given a different cultural interpretation. The bearing of children demonstrates that women are strong and active agents in a society, capable of holding political office." Lynda Rose Day, another authority on Mende female chiefs, writes that "Women rise naturally to leadership positions when they are senior wives in large polygynous households, when they are the oldest living relatives of a large landholding descent group, or when they are heads of local Sande chapters. Mothers with many children are seen as strong, capable authority figures."