Women's Art and Initiation in Mendeland

by Ruth Phillips, Henrietta Cosentino and Rebecca Busselle
(R.P.) Carleton University

Two Sande leaders holding masks with recent graduates of Sande Initiation, Mende peoples, Sierra Leone. Photo by Ruth Phillips.


A leader of the Sande society is known as sowei, which, roughly translated, means "great expert." The general term for the Sande masquerade—ndoli jowei ("dancing sowei")—indicates her dual role. As sowei she is identified with the wisdom and knowledge of the society's leaders, appearing on great public occasions such as the visit of an important politician or the funeral of a paramount chief to represent the women of a Mende community. As a dancer she embodies and celebrates womanhood, attracting attention, admiration, and respect through movement and performance. Each chapter of the Sande society is empowered by its possession of hale ("medicine"), a material substance discovered through dream revelation that must be managed for socially constructive purposes through the knowledge and expertise of the Sande leaders. The ndoli jowei is also referred to as hale, and the masquerade has, thus, a third significance as a personification of a Sande society's medicine power. (RP)