Africa, Sierra Leone
Sande Society Mask, 20th century
H. 13 in.
This mask from the Sande Society in Sierra Leone was worn by a mature
woman as part of an initiation ceremony for young girls entering adulthood.
The mask represents the ideal of womanhood and feminine beauty among
The country of Sierra Leone is located on the west coast of Africa,
just north of Liberia.
Map of Africa
[Click on image for larger version]
| The population of well over one million
people is made up of many different cultures, the largest of which
(about 900,000) is the Mende (MEN-day) people. The Mende live in a
hilly, fertile area, and most are rice farmers.
In many African societies masked dancers perform on special occasions,
but the dancers are nearly always men. Among the Mende people, however,
women also dance in masks. Nearly every Mende woman and man belongs
to a secret association: the Sande
(SAN-day) Society for women, and the Poro
(POR-o) Society for men. When girls and boys reach their teens they
go through special training to join these organizations. Women teach
the girls dancing and singing, domestic skills, child care, grooming,
and etiquette, in addition to religious knowledge. This mask was
used in a traditional initiation ceremony into the secret Sande
This mask represents an ideal woman. The delicate facial features
are examples of inner beauty as much as outer beauty. The smooth
high forehead indicates wisdom and success. The hair is carved to
show an intricate style of braiding and banding. The lines around
the eyes and mouth represent scarification
marks, formed by cutting into the skin. Mende girls undergo scarification
as a part of initiation. Special designs identify the woman and
her link to society.
To fully appreciate the Sande Society mask, we would have to see
it in the context of the ceremony for which it was intended. Now
still and silent, this wooden mask once embodied a powerful spirit
called sowei (SO-way). Imagine the awesome appearance of this beautiful
black mask worn by a woman with raffia swirling about her as she
moved. The sowei spirit escorts the girls into initiation, provides
guidance while they are in training, and emerges with them as they
Sande Society mask in use
The rings on the neck represent another aspect of feminine beauty.
The neighboring Temne people associate the sowei spirit with the
chrysalis of the butterfly and so may the
Mende. It is possible that the rings on the mask symbolize the female's
emergence from childhood to adulthood just as the rings on the chrysalis
mark the transformation of the pupa to the mature butterfly. Most
likely, the bird on the crown of the mask is a hen. referring to
motherhood and its responsibilities.
A woman must be of a certain rank to commission a mask from a
carver. The carver is a man in the community possessing special
knowledge of spiritual and social concerns. She tells him the name
of the spirit that the mask will represent, and he "dreams" the
appropriate form. The resulting mask can be worn only by this woman,
and only she can call forth the spirit.
The Sande Society remains a vital part of Mende life today, but
society members do not discuss their beliefs and practices with
casing, or pupa, of an undeveloped butterfly.
secret association for men in Mende society.
secret association for women in Mende society.
patterned marks made by small scratches or cuts on the skin. In
many parts of Africa these scars are marks of beauty and a way to
identify someone belonging to a particular group.
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