Female Initiation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Sierra Leone; Mende artist

Sowei mask


H. 39.4 cm (15 ½”)

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.336

Whereas masking is quite common in boys' initiation, the Sande Society among Mende people of Sierra Leone is the only known case of women being patrons, owners, and performers of initiation masks. Young women “die into Sande,” and masks accompany initiands to an isolated camp, supervise their education, and dance for their coming-out. Sande trains girls in the skills and responsibilities of married life, while stressing concepts of moral stature and personal beauty. The Mende word for beauty is also the name for an underwater spirit that takes the form of an exquisite woman, and initiated women are manifestations of this spirit. Masking, too, personifies concepts of beauty through its iconography, costuming, and choreography (see Phillips 1978, 1995).  

The mask Muma ("We Agree" or "Unity"), carved by Ado Dassama, dancing at Ngiyehun, Luawa, Kailahun, Sierra Leone. Photo by Ruth Phillips.