Female Initiation

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

Mende artist, Sierra Leone, sowei mask. Photo by Rebecca Busselle.

A Sande mask's large forehead signifies knowledge, downcast eyes indicate insight and secret powers, and an elegant coiffure shows self-esteem and artistry. Neck rings refer to a heavy woman's proud presentation of prosperity and to the concentric waves as the water spirit breaks the surface (Lamp 1985). Each Sande mask is different, reflecting something of its owner’s personality and presentation of self. The lustrous blackness of the mask and of its accompanying costume of raffia and cloth is associated with the deep, cold waters where water spirits dwell in luxurious “paradise towns” and with the profoundly “cool” mysteries of femininity (Boone 1986). Sande masquerade continues despite long years of civil strife in Sierra Leone, and is sometimes practiced in the United States by women of Mende heritage or by others who emulate Mende attention to the dignified upbringing of girls.