Culture of the Mende in Sierra Leone

The Mende people are indigenous to the south of Sierra Leone on the border with Liberia. In the jungle, several ethnic groups live peacefully together and their villages are partly remote. At the Moa River near Tiwai Island, we had the opportunity to witness a ritual dance.

Luftaufnahme des Moa-Flusses in Sierra Leone / © Foto: Georg Berg
Aerial view of the Moa River in Sierra Leone / © Photo: Georg Berg

To rhythmic accompaniment we could listen to men and women singing in turn and marvel at the dances of the Devils. Each performance informs the public at the same time in a kind of code about decisions of the secret societies. At the same time, the secrets are never fully revealed. Nevertheless, they leave no one completely uninformed.

Die Dorfgemeinschaft der Mende sammelt sich für die rituelle Tanzveranstaltung / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Mende village community gathers for the ritual dance performance / © Photo: Georg Berg
Das Volk der Mende in Sierra Leone ist mit seinen Traditionen verwurzelt. Mit Spannung wird jeder Auftritt erwartet / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Mende people of Sierra Leone are rooted in their traditions. Every performance is eagerly awaited / © Photo: Georg Berg

Traditional customs also in the daily life of the Mende people

For the Mende, traditional customs also play an important role in daily life. You don’t have to understand the Mende language to recognize from the reactions of the audience that the lyrics of the songs communicate something new every time they are sung. Later, I learn from our guide for the Tiwai Nature Reserve what an important role the secret societies play for the Mende.

Hauptsächlich die Frauen gehören zum Sande Geheimbund / © Foto: Georg Berg
Mainly the women belong to the Sande Secret Society / © Photo: Georg Berg

There are Secret Societies for men and women. Our guide apparently belongs to the Poro secret society himself and indicates that he is not allowed to say much more. For among the Mende, betrayal of secrets is considered one of the worst transgressions.

In the dances, there is apparently a typical division of roles. These roles are embodied by Devils, which better not be translated as evil devils. Their appearances reveal secrets in a coded way and provoke excited reactions from the villagers who do not belong to any of the secret societies.

Die Figur des Gbeni ist der wichtigste Spieler im Poro Geheimbund. Die Gbeni Maske hat immer einen zylindrischen Kopf und ist mit Muscheln oder Spiegeln dekoriert / © Foto: Georg Berg
The figure of Gbeni is the most important player in the Poro secret society. The Gbeni mask always has a cylindrical head and is decorated with shells or mirrors / © Photo: Georg Berg

With his dance, the Gbeni conveys coded messages and opens up topics of conversation. The figure wears a body-length costume made of undyed raffia. The gbeni mask always has a cylindrical head and is decorated with kauri shells or mirrors.

Die Falui-Rolle hat eine eher unterhaltende Funktion. Der Kopf ist mit farbigen Tüchern bedeckt und mit Kauri-Muscheln und Spiegeln dekoriert. Er hat eine konische Form und trägt an der Spitze Federn. / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Falui scroll has a more entertaining function. The head is covered with colored cloths and decorated with kauri shells and mirrors. It has a conical shape and carries feathers at the top. / © Photo: Georg Berg
Wald-Teufel haben ein Kostüm aus Zweigen mit frischen Blättern / © Foto: Georg Berg
Forest Devils have a costume made of branches with fresh leaves / © Photo: Georg Berg

Several Devils have a costume made of twigs with fresh leaves from the forest. All Devils are occasionally hit with clumps of twigs by bystanders. The only Devils played by women are the Ndoli Jowei, who wear a black wooden head and a long dress.

Die Männer des Dorfes trommeln die beherrschenden Rhythmen. Auch der Nachwuchs ist schon dabei / © Foto: Georg Berg
The men of the village drum the dominant rhythms. Even the youngsters are already participating / © Photo: Georg Berg

Drums are the domain of the male villagers. The big drums are carried all the time by young boys. The players concentrate on the lyrics and immediately supplement their constant beat with commenting riffs on occasion.

Frauen unterstützen mit der Segbula den Rhythmus der Trommeln / © Foto: Georg Berg
Women support the rhythm of the drums with the segbula / © Photo: Georg Berg

The instrument of the Mende women is the segbula. It consists of a calabash, which is grasped with one hand at its style, and a net covered with kauri shells. The net must be stretched to varying degrees of tightness around the calabash during play, which is turned or pulled in rhythm with the other hand.

In Sierra Leone verspricht der Schulbesuch eine bessere Zukunft. „Die Reichen weinen auch“, steht auf dem T-Shirt. Wenn sie mal lesen können, haben die Jungen hoffentlich noch mehr Grund zu lachen / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Sierra Leone, going to school promises a better future. “The rich cry too,” the T-shirt says. Hopefully, when they can read, the boys will have even more reason to laugh / © Photo: Georg Berg

Almost all villagers in Sierra Leone are grateful to visitors for gifts. Items of clothing, money or even food are most welcome. From the imprints on the T-shirts, you can tell where they come from.

The music in the video is a continuous sound recording. No melodic instruments are used. The alternating vocals and rhythm are able to sustain a dramatic arc of tension.

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This research trip was supported in part by the Tourist Board Sierra Leone

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