True Power

True Power

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Mende Tribe of Sierra Leone


The Mende people was one ethnic group out of ten brought to the America's during the years of slave trade. Regional warfare throughout the 19th century led to the capture and sale of many Mende speakers. This proud and strong group of people are most famous for their fight for freedom and overthrow of the slave ship Amistad in 1939. The leader of the rebellion was a man named Sengbe Pieh, a role played by Kimora Simmon's new husband, Djimon Hounsou, a native of Benin, Africa. It would be wrong to assume that once the African left the safety of his homeland, that all cultural practices were relinquished. Even though the slave assimulated to his surroundings, some element of his culture had to be practiced in the privacy of his home. The old addage: "You can take the girl out of the country but you can't take the country out of the girl," rings true no matter which way it is said.

Here is a look at some of the rituals and engrained philosophies of life practiced by the Mende people. Try to see if any threads of this culture is still present in the African American community today, especially in the South.

One of 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.

In the black, male, community today in America, The Masons are the secret society that captures the male's imagination. There is much regard for the man who is a Mason. Men tend to have more secret societies with secret handshakes and codes.

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.

Can you imagine the sense of loss the new male slave must have felt in the new world unable to go through the rituals and teachings of manhood? Never being able to be pronounced a man by peers had to have been heartwrenching.

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.

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.

No one knows why the black woman puts so much stock into their hair adding to the billion dollar a year industry. When the discussion turns to hair, their is laughter and a sense of sisterhood. And we all know how a woman feels about other women who "let their hair go." I find it curious that we always believed that the slave woman tying her head in a rag while she worked was just something she did to keep the sweat out of her eyes or to keep the scorching sun off of her scalp. Maybe it was something she had done in her home land of Africa.

***In an upcoming section I will go into more detail about how the American slave woman viewed her hair.

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