Pride Soaring




The Kings of the four seasons by Marcella Muhammad



The Mende People

     Thanks to African Ancestry  and their DNA testing I know that I am Mende from Sierra Leone.  I am in the process of tracing my family tree ancestry backwards towards Africa.  This is proving to be a daunting task.  The lack of records and the disrespect given to our people is just as criminal as Slavery was in its own right.  So far I have traced back five generations and now I am stuck. Thanks to African Ancestry I and have a point of start back in Africa.

mende manThe Mende are one of the two largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, along with the Temne. They make 30% of Sierra Leone's total population [2] or 1,888,432 members. The Southern and Eastern Provinces of Sierra Leone, collectively known as the South-eastern is largely populated by the Mende people, with the exception of Kono District (a cosmopolitan settlement, but primarily inhabited by the Kono people).

The Mende belong to a larger group of Manden peoples who live throughout West Africa. They are mostly farmers and hunters. The Mende are divided into two groups: The halemo are members of the hale or secret societies and kpowa are people who have never been initiated into the hale. The Mende believe that all humanistic and scientific power is passed down through the secret societies. The Mende speak the Mende language with some speakers in neighboring Liberia.

The Mende speak the Mende language among each other. However, the vast majority of the Mende people use the Krio language as the primary language of communication with other Sierra Leonean ethnic groups who do not understand the Mende language. The Mende language is the most widely spoken language in South-Eastern Sierra Leone and is spoken both the Mende people and by other Sierra Leonean ethnic groups as a regional lingua franca in southern Sierra Leone. Their language is spoken by around 40% of Sierra Leone's population. From the 16th through the 18th century, hundreds of thousands of Mende were captured and transported to the Americas as slaves


Sierra Leone's politics have traditionally been dominated by the Mende. The Mende have traditionally supported the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), which ruled the country as recently as 2007. When in power, this party has favored the Mende over all other ethnic groups in the country. This has led to ethnic tensions in the country, particularly with the other major ethnic group, the Temne, who traditionally support the current ruling party, the All People's Congress (APC).


Cultural and oral traditions indicate that the Mende migrated to the area from the western Sudan in several waves between the 2nd and 16th centuries, and are part of greater Mande society and linguistic group. Ethnologists identify three different sub-groups. The Kpa-Mende live to the west in the coastal bush, while the Sewa Mende are in the central forests. The Ko-Mende (or Kolo Mende) also live in the forests but generally to the north of the Sewa. (Olson, 1996).

Regional warfare throughout the 19th century led to the capture and sale of many Mende-speakers into slavery. Most notable were those found aboard the Amistad in 1839. They eventually won their freedom and were repatriated. This event involved fifty-two Mende tribesmen, purchased by Portuguese slavers in 1839, who were shipped via the Middle Passage to Havana, Cuba where they were sold to Cuban sugar plantation owners, José Ruiz and Pedro Montez. After working the plantation, they were placed on the schooner Amistad and shipped to another Cuban plantation. On the way, they escaped their bondage and were led in a rebellion by Sengbe Pieh. They told the crew to return them to Africa. Their efforts to return home were frustrated by the ship's remaining crew, who navigated up to the United States. The ship was intercepted off Long Island, New York, by a U.S. Coastal brig. The Spanish merchants Ruiz and Montez denounced the Mende and asserted that they were their property. The ensuing case, heard in Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut, affirmed that the men were free, and resulted in the return of the thirty-six surviving Mende to their homes.

In the Americas, especially the United States, researchers have discovered that elements of African culture had long persistence. In some areas where there were large groups of enslaved Africans, they kept much of their heritage, always recreating it in new forms, too, in their new land. In the 1930s African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner found a Gullah family in coastal Georgia who had preserved an ancient song in the Mende language ("A waka"), passing it down for 200 years. In the 1990s three modern researchers -- Joseph Opala, Cynthia Schmidt, and Tazieff Koroma -- located a Mende village in Sierra Leone where the same song is still sung today. The story of this ancient Mende song, and its survival in both Africa and the US, is chronicled in the documentary film The Language You Cry In.

Today in Sierra Leone, the Mende people are found mostly in the southern and eastern part of the country. Some of the major cities with significant Mende population include Bo, Kenema, Kailahun and Moyamba.

Tradition and culture

The Mende traditionally live in villages of 70 to 250 residents, which are situated from 1.5 to 5 kilometers apart. There is little or no mechanization over the greater part of rural Mende country. Mende farmers use hoes and machetes, but few other tools. The Mende are generally known as growers of rice and several other crops, practicing crop rotation to protect soil productivity. Coffee, cocoa, and ginger are grown as cash crops, whereas rice, pepper, groundnuts, beniseed, and palm oil are grown for local consumption. Rice cooperatives have been formed in some rural areas.

Traditionally, Mende farming has been carried out by labour groups organised on a local basis and moving from farm to farm.(NIIP, 1973) Work is divided by gender: men attend to the heavy work of clearing the land for planting rice while women clean and pound rice, fish, and weed the planted crops. This routine is followed during ten months of every year, with a couple of months left around the New Year, when they can spend more time in the village engaging in domestic pursuits like house building.

The Mende are patrilineal, patrilocal, and polygamous. The household unit is represented by at least one man and perhaps several of his brothers, with all of their wives and children . One or more brothers and married sisters usually leave sooner or later and are incorporated into other residential units. The senior male has moral authority—the right to respect and obedience—over the family as a whole, especially with regard to the negotiation of debts, damages, and bride-wealth.



Secret society

Poro Society


A Mende woman in the village of Njama in Kailahun District

One of the greatest sins a Mende man can commit is to give away the secrets of the their tribe. The Poro society is the male equivalent to the Sande society. When inducted into this society, Mende boys are initiated into manhood. Many of their rituals parallel those of the Sande society.

The Poro prepares men for leadership in the community, so they might attain wisdom, accept responsibility, and gain power. It begins with the child's grade of discovery, followed by extensive training and service. During the seven-year initiation period, the young men converse with each other using a secret language and passwords, known only to other Poro members. The member always knows and understands what is being said. This is part of the mystery of this secret society.

At the beginning, young men aged 20 are called into the society and are trained by the group above them, along with a few elders. There is much work to be done during the initiation process. Dancing the masks is part of this work, but not the most important part. Only through work does the dance of the mask become meaningful.

Sande society

All Mende women when they reach puberty begin the initiation process into the Sande society. The goals of this secret society are to teach young Mende women the responsibilities of adulthood. The girls are taught to be hard working and modest in their behavior, especially towards their elders. Sande influences every aspect of a Mende woman's life; it is present before birth and still present after.

Sande is the guardian of women; their protector and guide through life. It is Sande that grants a woman with an identity and a personality. Mende women love Sande, they celebrate it and treasure it, and pass it down through the generations. The Sande society arouses the highest aspirations among its members. It is concerned with defining what it is to be human and of discovering the ways of promoting love, justice, and harmony. It is a moral philosophy that focuses on the perpetual refinement of the individual. Sande leaders serve as models to women in the community. They exemplify the highest of Mende ideals, and they have the duty of enforcing positive social relationships and of removing any harm that might come to women in their community. "This is Sande; women together in their womanhood, in a free exchange of words and actions among sisters. Where ever two or three women are gathered together, there is the spirit of Sande."

Sande Hierarchy

The Sande society is organized by a hierarchy of positions. The sowie are the highest-ranking leaders of the group. It is their job to model to the Mende women the utmost of Mende social values. It is also their duty to enforce proper social relationships and to remove anything that might be harmful to the women in their community. The sowie have control over certain sacred knowledge that is essential to the development of success and happiness in an individual, and also to the well-being of the community. They are the experts of the Sande women and have access to spirit ancestors and forces of nature.

The rank below sowie is ligba. There are two grades within ligba; Ligba Wa (senior) and Ligba Wulo (junior). In any group there is only one Ligba Wa, she is an executive officer in Sande. Before a woman can take a leadership role in artistic activities she must be eligible at least as a Ligba Wulo. An ordinary member is referred to as nyaha. The word indicates that the Sande initiation makes a woman of a child, and every woman into a wife. An initiate in training is called mbogdoni. A non-member is kpowa. As a noun kpowa means "an ignoramus, a dummy, a fool" as a verb it means "to become insane or deranged.


Much Mandé art is in the form of jewelry and carvings. The masks associated with the fraternal and sorority associations of the Marka and the Mendé are probably the best-known, and finely crafted in the region. The Mandé also produce beautifully woven fabrics which are popular throughout western Africa, and gold and silver necklaces, bracelets, armlets, and earrings. The bells on the necklaces are of the type believed capable of being heard by spirits, ringing in both worlds, that of the ancestors and the living. Mandé hunters often wear a single bell that can be easily silenced when stealth is necessary. Women, on the other hand, often wear multiple bells, referring to concepts of community, since the bells ring harmoniously together.

Mende masks

Masks are the collective Mind of Mende community; viewed as one body, they are the Spirit of the Mende people. The Mende masked figures are a reminder that human beings have a dual existence; they live in the concrete world of flesh and material things and the spirit world of dreams, faith, aspirations and imagination.

The features of a Mende mask convey Mende ideals of female morality and physical beauty. The bird on top of the head represents a woman's natural intuition that lets her see and know things that others can't. The high or broad forehead represents good luck or the sharp, contemplative mind of the ideal Sande woman. Downcast eyes symbolize a spiritual nature and it is through these small slits that a woman wearing the mask would look out of. The small mouth signifies the ideal woman's quiet and humble character. The markings on the cheeks are representative of the decorative scars girls receive as they step into womanhood. The scars are a symbol of her new, harder life. The neck rolls are an indication of the health of an ideal women. In the Mende culture full-figured women are beautiful. The intricate hairstyles reveal the close ties within a community of women. The holes at the base of the mask are where the rest of the costume is attached. A woman who wears these masks must not expose any part of her body or a vengeful spirit may take possession of her. Women often cover their bodies with masses of raffia or black cloth.

When a girl becomes initiated into the Sande society, the village's master woodcarver creates a special mask just for her. The woodcarver must wait until he has a dream that guides him to make the mask a certain way for the recipient. A mask must be kept hidden in a secret place when no one is wearing it.


Learning dance is a harsh discipline that every Mende girl must tackle. Girls practice for hours at a time until they drop from exhaustion. Ndoli jowei, the expert in dancing, is in charge of teaching young Mende girls to dance. When girls make a mistake in the steps, they are whipped with a switch until they get it right. Often girls are awoken in the middle of the night to practice the dance; sometimes they are forced to stay awake for nearly 48 hours dancing almost the entire time. By the end of their brutal training, the girls have transformed into young woman who are tough and confident even in the harshest of conditions. They are in great physical shape and have endurance and stamina.

Gonde is also a Ndoli jowei, but rather than the harsh enforcer she is the comic relief. Gonde becomes a friend to the initiates, amusing them to help them forget the hard ordeals they are going through. She coaches the girls who are slow in dancing, encouraging the girls to work hard. "Gonde is a funny, lovable character who lightens the gloom and reminds everyone that Sande is not always so deadly serious."

Ndoli jowei is the principal spirit for celebration, although she also appears on other occasions besides celebrations. In Sande initiation there are three major events in which the ndoli jowei appear publicly. The first occurs 1-3 days after the initiates have been taken into the bush to be circumcised. This event is known as yaya gbegbi. At this time the ndoli jowei comes into town with a group of Sande women while the initiates stay in the bush recovering from their operations. The women come into town to tell men they have initiated people into Sande. They go through the town waving leaves and gathering food and other supplies that they need. Ndoli jowei does not dance on this occasion because it is not yet time for celebration. She is there only as a reminder of the powerful medicine which has been summoned by the Sande session. This validates the unruly behavior of the Sande women. The next time ndoli jowei appears is at a minor feast called Kpete gbula yombo le or Sowo mba yili gbi. At this occasion, an announcement is made to inform people of the date for the gani celebration; which is the last event of the Sande initiation that ndoli jowei appears at. At this time, the new initiates are brought into town for the first time since the initiation process began; accompanied by ndoli jowei. This is a happy occasion where dances are performed by both the maskers and the initiates.

Color Symbolism

Hojo is a white clay that Mende women use to mark their territory. The clay comes from the water like many other aspects of Sande. Its smooth, shiny surface reflects light, making it eye-catching. Hojo is found in a scale of colors from beige to pure white. The pure white Hojo is more rare, found only deep beneath the surface of the water. Hojo and Sande are parallel in that they are both well hidden and secretive in its purest form.

White is the color of Sande. To the Mende, the pureness of white signifies the cleanliness and absence of imperfections. "It shows a 'harmlessness'; it is void of all things satanic and is thus 'a positive and helpful color. White is symbolic of the spirit world and also of the secret parts of society where people aim for the highest standards.

Objects and people who are marked with Hojo are under Sande protection and control. They are subject to authority of Sande law and punishment. Initiates are colored with this white clay to show that they are property of Sande. This signifies that they are under the protection of Sande and should not be fooled with. Sowei, the judge of women, wears white to represent clear thinking and justice.


A woman's hair is a sign of femininity. Both thickness and length are elements that are admired by the Mende. Thickness means the woman has more individual strands of hair and the length is proof of strength. It takes time, care and patience to grow a beautiful, full head of hair. Ideas about hair root women to nature, the way hair grows is compared to the way forests grow. The vegetation on earth is the "hair" on the head of Mother Nature in the same way the hair on the head of a woman is her "foliage." (Boone) A woman with long, thick hair illustrates a life force, she may be blessed with a green thumb giving her the ability to have a promising farm and many healthy children.

Hairstyles are very important in Mende society. A Mende woman's hair must be well groomed, clean, and oiled. Hair must be tied down under strict control and shaped into intricate, elegant styles for the sake of beauty and sex appeal. Dirty, disheveled hair is a sign of insanity. A woman who does not groom and maintain her hair has neglected the community's standards of behavior. Only a woman in mourning can let her hair loose. The Mende finds unarranged "wild" hair immoral and connects it to wild behavior.

Body alterations

A key element of Sande initiation is the clitoridectomy, or female circumcision. This surgery is supposed to foreshadow the pain a Mende woman experiences during childbirth. The shock of this experience also tests a Mende woman's physical endurance. The shared pain of the clitoridectomy creates permanent bonds among the initiates. Vows that express a social bond are taken after the operation; these vows are a metaphor for the support the women will have during the pains of childbirth.

This procedure is considered necessary to change Mende children, who are considered to be of neutral sex before the procedure, to heterosexual, gendered adults. Circumcision is thought to remove the female's residue of maleness.

Neck Rings

The neck rings at the base of the mask are an exaggeration of actual neck creases. Mende people consider a beautiful neck to be one with rings: they are a sign of beauty because they suggest wealth, high status, and are sexually attractive. The rings indicate prosperity and wholesome living, and are given by God to show his affection for a fortunate few. As well, the rings indicate a relationship with the divine: the Sowo itself is a deity from the waters, and the neck rings represent the concentric waves that are formed on still water by Sowo's head breaking through the surface. The spirit comes from the water, and what the human eye sees on the necks of women "is human in form, but divine in essence", as portrayed in the mask.

Mende syllabary

The Mende syllabary was invented in 1921 by Kisimi Kamara (ca. 1890-1962) of Sierra Leone. Seeing how the British managed to take over his country, Kisimi concluded that their power was partly a result of their literacy. He decided to give his own people that ability. Kisimi claimed he was inspired in a dream to create the Mende syllabary, which he called Ki-ka-ku. During the 1920s and 1930s, he ran a school in southern Sierra Leone to teach Ki-ka-ku. The syllabary became a popular method of keeping records and writing letters.

During the 1940s, the British set up the Protectorate Literacy Bureau in Sierra Leone's second largest city of Bo. Its goal was to teach the Mende people to read and write with a version of the Latin alphabet. As a result, usage of Kisimi's syllabary gradually diminished and it was eventually forgotten.


The politics of Sierra Leone have traditionally been dominated by the Mende. The Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), which is one of the two major political party in the country, is predominantly based among the Mende people. The SLPP gets most of its support in Mende- predominate south-east region of Sierra Leone. Most of the country's top government positions have been held by the Mende. Sierra Leone's first Prime minister Sir Milton Margai, who lead the country to independence from the United Kingdom on April 27, 1961 was a prominent member of the Mende ethnic group. Other prominent Sierra Leonean politicians from the Mende ethnic group include the country's second prime minister Sir Albert Margai, who was also the younger brother of Milton Margai; former commander of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces and former Sierra Leone's head of state Brigadier David Lansana; former Head of State of Sierra Leone Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio; former Sierra Leone's vice president Albert Joe Demby; former Sierra Leone's vice president and attorney general Solomon Berewa; former Sierra Leone's vice president minister of Justice and Attorney General Francis Minah; former Sierra Leone's attorney general and one of the founding members of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) Banja Tejan-Sie. Samuel Hinga Norman, who was Sierra Leone's minister of Defense and former leader of the militant group the Civil Defense Forces (commonly known as the Kamajors). Sierra Leonean politician Charles Margai, who is the leader of one of the country's main opposition party the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). He is also the son former prime minister Albert Margai and the nephew of Milton Margai; and former Sierra Leone's minister of finance John Oponjo Benjamin.

Connection to American Slavery

Dana Rosenbalt of CNN reported that Rick Kittles, PHD, CEO and Founder of African Ancestry INC. stated:The person who took the test, Ms. Mineola Johnson, we isolated the DNA from her swab and were able to determine an identical match among the Mende people from Sierra Leone. A "99.7%" confirmation of Ms. Mineola Johnson's DNA. James Johnson, Mineola's 75-year-old son. "We know where we are, to know the depth of what we know today is truly a historical moment in my life and my whole family's life." According to the CNN article "Kittles claims to have a database of more than 25,000 lineages from more than 384 African ethnic groups".



Sengbe Pieh (1813 – ca. 1879), later known as Joseph CinquО, was a West African man of the Mende tribe who was the most prominent defendant in the Amistad case, in which it was found that he and 52 others had been victims of the illegal Atlantic slave trade. CinquО led a revolt, killing the captain and the cook of the ship; two slaves also died, and two sailors escaped. JosО Ruiz and Pedro Montez. The Spaniards transported the captives on a ship called the Amistad, with the intention of selling them as slaves in Cuba for work at sugar plantations. The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court. In March 1840, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Africans mutinied to regain their freedom after being kidnapped and sold illegally. The advocacy of former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, together with Roger Sherman Baldwin, was critical to the Africans' defense. The Court ordered the Africans to be freed and to be returned to Africa, if they wished (which they did).

Connection to American Slavery

Dana Rosenbalt of CNN reported that Rick Kittles, PHD, CEO and Founder of African Ancestry INC. stated:The person who took the test, Ms. Mineola Johnson, we isolated the DNA from her swab and were able to determine an identical match among the Mende people from Sierra Leone. A "99.7%" confirmation of Ms. Mineola Johnson's DNA. James Johnson, Mineola's 75-year-old son. "We know where we are, to know the depth of what we know today is truly a historical moment in my life and my whole family's life." According to the CNN article "Kittles claims to have a database of more than 25,000 lineages from more than 384 African ethnic groups".


Notable Mende people


  • Sir Milton Margai, Sierra Leone's first prime minister from 1961-1964.
  • Sir Albert Margai, second prime minister of Sierra Leone from 1964-1967; the brother of Sir Milton Margai and father of Charles Margai.
  • Solomon Berewa, former Sierra Leone's Attorney General and Sierra Leone's vice-president from 2002-2007.
  • John Oponjo Benjamin, Sierra Leone Minister of Finance from 2002-2007 and the current leader of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).
  • Brigadier General (Ret) Julius Maada Bio, former Head of State of Sierra Leone.
  • Dennis Sandy, current Sierra Leone's Minister of Lands, Country Planning & the Environment
  • Francis Minah, served as Sierra Leone's minister of Justice and Attorney General from 1978–1985 and Sierra Leone's vice president from 1985-1987.
  • Joseph Ganda, Sierra Leonean Archbishop
  • Joe Robert Pemagbi, current Sierra Leone ambassador to the United Nations.
  • Sir Banja Tejan-Sie, former Sierra Leone attorney general and one of the founding members of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP).
  • Charles Margai, Sierra Leonean politician and leader of the People's Movement for Democratical Change political party
  • Albert Joe Demby, former vice-president of Sierra Leone
  • Sam Bockarie, former Sierra Leonean rebel leader
  • Ella Koblo Gulama, the first woman to be elected in the parliament of Sierra Leone and the first woman to be elected as cabinet minister
  • David Lansana, former Head of State of Sierra Leone
  • Bernadette Lahai, Sierra Leonean politician and currently a member of Parliament representing Kenema District
  • Joseph B. Dauda, former Sierra Leone minister of finance, former member of parliament and former minister of trade
  • Shirley Gbujama, Sierra Leone minister of social welfare from 2002 - 2007
  • Septimus Kaikai, Sierra Leone minister of Information and Communication from 2002-2007
  • John Karimu, Sierra Leonean politician and former minister of Finance
  • Samuel Hinga Norman, Sierra Leone defense minister from 1998- 2002 and former head of the militant group the Civil Defense Forces (commonly known as the Kamajors).
  • David Woobay, current mayor and Council Chairman of Moymaba
  • Sama Sahr Mondeh, Sierra Leone minister of Agriculture and Food Security from 2002-2007.
  • Mary Musa, current mayor of Koidu Town
  • Solomon Musa, vice chairman of the NPRC, a military government that rule Sierra Leone from 1992-1996.
  • Ansu Lansana, National Secretary General of the PMDC political party
  • Augustine Bockarie, member of parliament of Sierra Leone representing Kono District
  • Bindi Hindowa Samba, paramount chief of Bo District
  • Allieu Kondewa, former commander of the Civil Defence Forces.


Football stars


The Sande Society mask, or sowo-wui, is worn by Mende women of Sierra Leone, and has the distinction of being one of the few ritual masks worn by African women.

The Sande, or Bundu, Society is a fellowship of women who are responsible for preparing young Mende girls for adulthood, and for their roles as wives, mothers and female community members. At the girls' initiation, which is still practiced into the twentieth century, a society member appears in full costume as Sowo, the water spirit of the Sande Society, and walks with the grace and elegance expected of Mende women. The costumed woman wears a black gown of raffia fibers that conceals her body, and the mask rests over her head on her shoulders. This dark mask "exalts the far-famed beauty of Mende women," (1) and represents the sculpted head of Sowo.

The mask itself is a conical helmet that rests on top of the raffia costume, and is described by observers as "truly a glamorous being...the mask joins the community together in the experience of its beauty and allure." (2) The artist, carefully chosen by the Society, carves the face with the attention a woman would give her own appearance. The mask's appearance exemplifies Mende women's physical and moral beauty and cannot fall short of the Mende ideal. The artist coats the mask with palm oil, which gives it the black, lustrous shine - the color of the spirit of the waters. A sleek, luminous surface is achieved and the mask takes on a glow, which seems to come from the inner light of life.

The ideal Mende mask has clearly defined features created by delicate, dainty carving. The neck with its rings of flesh, the face, and the coiffure make up the three divisions of the mask. These must be in perfect symmetry, with the coiffure as the largest and most elaborate part of the mask. The features of the face are held to a standard, while distinctions occur among the coiffures.

Coiffures: The hair styles of the Mende masks are quite varied, and some are ornately decorated. A thick head of hair is admired, and these are designed into coiffures that indicate elegance, wealth, and femininity. The beautiful styles are very complicated and very neat to convey conscientious grooming and good behavior, while adornments to the coiffures exhibit individuality. The perfect style of Sowo's hair indicates her supernatural status, and contrasts with the wildness of the raffia costume. A perfect coiffure connects the mask to the divine world.

Neck Rings: The neck rings at the base of the mask are an exaggeration of actual neck creases. Mende people consider a beautiful neck to be one with rings: they are a sign of beauty because they suggest wealth, high status, and are sexually attractive. The rings indicate prosperity and wholesome living, and are given by God to show his affection for a fortunate few. As well, the rings indicate a relationship with the divine: the Sowo itself is a deity from the waters, and the neck rings represent the concentric waves which are formed on still water by Sowo's head breaking through the surface. The spirit comes from the water, and what the human eye sees on the necks of women "is human in form, but divine in essence," as portrayed in the mask.

Facial Features: The neck rings cradle a small face whose features are situated at its bottom half. The face itself is carved in a compact space which is dominated by the eyes. Each feature is specially carved to convey Mende ideals of beauty and female behavior.

The Brow: The most outstanding feature of the masks face is the brow. This exaggerated brow symbolizes poise and success. The brow shines and is never covered by hair, which indicates happiness and self-confidence.

The Mouth: The small pursed mouth of the Sande Society mask indicates composure, and forbids flirtation or smiling. The Sowo's mouth is sealed so no female secrets are revealed. The Mende society discourages spiteful talk which can cause suffering, thus silence becomes an indication of composure and sound judgment. The mask shows the ideal mouth: an image of perfect silence.

The Nose: Sowos' nose is delicate and sharp, and small like the mouth. The Mende people loathe bad smells, and women are considered to have a stronger sense of smell than men. Despite this quality, the nose of the sowo-wui is discreet, never large or suggestive of her strong sense of smell.

The Eyes: The eye is the supreme element of the body, and the most interesting component of the head because it is considered a human's most beautiful physical trait. The Mende believe that eyes are goodness, and reveal a person's genuine feelings. The eyes on the mask are heavily lidded, downcast, and barely open. The slit eyes have many meanings: they conceal the identity of the masked Society member, and make it impossible for the woman to communicate with others using her eyes. As Sowo is too exalted to look in the eye, her lowered lids prevent anyone from looking into her eyes. The eyes also give an air of calmness and gentleness, characteristics which are attractive to Mende people. The dreamy look given the mask is very sexual to Mende men, but such a look also reassures a husband that his wife is not trying to make eye contact with other men.

Scarification: The small marks found beneath the eyes on a Sande Society mask may be identity marks formally used by the Mende. These are rarely, if ever, found on modern Mende people.



Lifestyle of the Mende People of
South Carolina


circa 1900

Aunt Sophie Daise
An Aristocratic Lady of St. Helena Island

Children On Their Way To School

Before the end of the Civil War, Penn School was founded on the Oaks Plantation. The newly freed slaves were eager to get a Education. Due to the isolation of the Island pior to the building of the first bridge in 1927, and the County not providing transportation, many children were forced to travel by Bateua or walk as much as 9 miles to attend school

"Michael Heard Rowing Across Beaufort River"
Taken from the Beaufort Gazette,
May 19, 1998


The writer Mr. Gerhard Spieler is a writer on Black History for the Gazette

       The Hallelujah Singers were seen last week on the Good Morning program on ABC-TV. The program included a portion of a spiritual known around the world "Michael Row the Boat Ashore", sung in Beaufort's Tabernacle Baptist Church.

       This well-known African-American spiritual had its beginning on the Sea Islands of Beaufort District. Northern teachers and missionaries came here during the Confederate War. They heard it sung by the black men who rowed the ferry from the landing at the foot of Carteret Street across the Port Royal (Beaufort) River to the opposite shore of Lady's Island, now known as Whitehall Landing.

       Some of the Northerners wrote down the words of the song, as well as the musical notation. Gilbert Chase, in his book, America's Music From the Pilgrims to the Present, wrote: As a result of the activities of the United States Educational Mission to the Port Royal Islands, the first collection of American spirituals was published in 1867 under the title Slave Songs of he United States, edited by in Francis Allen, Charles Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison. Though this collection contains many errors and bears slight evidence of musical scholarship, it yet retains its importance as a primary source.

       In a lengthy introduction, Allen wrote, The same songs are used for rowing as for shouting. I know only one pure boat-song, the fine lyric "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" and it being the archangel Michael that is addressed ... On the passenger boat at the (Beaufort) ferry, they rowed from sixteen to thirty strokes a minute twenty-four was the average. Col. Higginson commanded a regiment of black troops stationed on Port Royal Island. He also wrote about the songs he heard sung around the camp fires. As to the composition of these songs, I always wondered whether they had always a conscious and definite origin in some leading mind, or whether they grew by gradual secretion, in an almost unconscious way.

       On this point I could get no information, though I asked many questions, until at last, one day when I was being rowed across from Beaufort to Ladies' Island, I found myself, with delight, on the actual trail of a song. One of the oarsmen, a brisk young fellow, not a soldier, on being asked for his theory of the matter, dropped out a coy confession. "Some good spirituals," he said, "are start jess ou o curiosity. I been a-raise a sing myself, one".

       Gilbert Chase concluded that the folklorist should be our guide in any folk tradition. It is to the folklorists of the twentieth century that we owe the rediscovery of the negro spirituals, and indeed of virtually the whole body of Negro music, including the remarkable wealth of secular songs of which very little was known previously. The transition from unison to part singing in the Negro spirituals evidently took place in the decades following the Civil War ... The question remains: what were the sources of this tradition? Did it originate with the Negro or did he adopt, it from the white man? ...

       Some investigators, notably George Pullen Jackson, Guy B. Johnson, and Newman white, maintain that the Negro spirituals were copies from the white spirituals, that is the religious folk sons of the rural white population.

       The opposite theory, upheld by Krehbiel, by Kolinski, by Herzog, and by Waterman, is that the negro spirituals and all Afro-American music in general, embodies traits that are fundamentally of African origin, though blended with Anglo-American elements....... Sterling Brown, in The Spirituals... The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote: A give-and-take seems logical to expect. Correspondence between white and Negro melodies have been established. The complete Africanism of the spirituals was never tenable. The spirituals are obviously not in an African musical idiom, not even so much as the music of Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. But all of this does not establish the Negro spiritual ... as imitative of white music, or as unoriginal, or as devoid of traces of the African idiom.

       The obstinate fact of a great difference between Negro folk-songs and the white camp-meeting hymns exists. Even the strongest adherents of the view that the , origin of the Negro music is in white music, agree that now the spiritual is definitely the Negro's own and, regardless of birthplace, is stamped with originality.

       J. McKim, of the Port Royal Relief Society, stated in August 1862 that slave songs were "related to contemporary occurrences". Lucy, his daughter, had come with him to the Sea Islands and complied a "No. 1 collection of Songs of the Freedmen of Port Royal" which was published in November. Eventually, there followed the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States.

       In 1979, the Beaufort Council for the Arts received a state grant for presentation of An Evening of Sea Island Music at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. The Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir sang, with Cleadus Ferguson as director; Rosalie Pazant as accompanist and Alice Wright as narrator. They were assisted by the Ebenezer and St. Joseph choir and the RFP singers. One of their spirituals was Michael Row Boat Ashore



       The newly Freedmen were eager to become self-sufficient, but lacked the two main ingredients of a free person, education and land. Ms. Laura M. Towne was sent to St. Helena Island in April, 1862 to establish a school to educate the Freedmen of St. Helena and surrounding Island. Shortly afterwards Ms. Elen Murray joined Ms. Towne, together they founded Penn Normal School. It began as an agriculture school, later Industrial courses were added and Penn Normal School underwent a name change. The new name was Penn Normal Industrial and Agriculture School.

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Basket Weaving

       The trades taught were carpentry, black smithing, wheel wrighting, harness making, cobbling, and mechanics. Basket weaving was also taught as a part of the curriculum. Although basket weaving has almost become extinct on St. Helena it is very much a part of the GULLAH scene in Charleston, particularly along US Highway 17. Ms. Jeri Taylor pictured at the 1998 Heritage Festival is one of the few basket weavers practicing the art today on St. Helena Island.

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Net Making

       Net making is a part of the culture that was brought with them from the Motherland that's been retained. It is an important part of the Fabric that has enabled this community to survive and retain its uniqueness. Because of its isolation from main stream America, the residents of this island have been able too retained their identity and their unique culture. Since being Discovered by developers, the increasing taxes and the lost of land, has made it increasingly difficult to hold on to the things of the past that has kept this culture and community intact. Mr. Luke Smalls while serving with the Tuskegee Airman was able to retained his skill of net weaving which was passed down to him from his parents and grandparents. Today he still practice the skillful art net weaving. Mr. Smalls demonstrated his skill of net weaving at the 1998 Heritage Festival held at Penn Center.

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Grinding Corn

       Mrs. Rebecca Green grinding corn in preparation for her midday meal in 1909. Mrs. Green and her family lived on Dathaw Island, nearby Penn School. Dathaw Island today is one of the many Islands that have been developed as a gated community. It is unaccessible to the people that not too long ago was able to fish from its banks, farm the land, harvest the crops and grind the corn. Dathaw, a part of the culture that has been lost and can never be recovered

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A Family Reunion

       Family reunions are a vital element of the Gullah Culture. Throughout the summer months bus loads of relatives from New York and other cities across the United States gather for a weekend to rekindle family ties. Developers will argue that the gated communities that are being developed on land that formerly belonged to the indigenous people bring employment, yet young people that graduate from High School are forced to leave their birth place to seek meaningful employment. Community leaders argue that the jobs brought by tourism and gated communities create menial dead end jobs. Instead of providing jobs that enhance the quality of life, the results are negligible, this has divided families rather than keeping them together.

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A Sea Island Sunset

       Be still, sad heart! Behind the clouds is the sun still shining. Never once, since the world began has the sun ever stopped shining. Behind the cloud the starlight lurks. For God, who loveth all has left His hope with all: Be still sad heart.

Longfellow, The Rainy Day

       0, it is pleasant, with a heart at ease, just after sunset, or by moonlight skies, to make the shifting clouds be what you please, Or let the easily persuaded eyes..... The sun will shine tomorrow.

S.T. Coleridge, Fancy in Nubibus

       During the summer months when the moon is full and the tides are just right, a sunset seen over the marshes of
St. Helena Island warm waters is a remarkable sight. Being buried near the ocean is a part of the Gullah culture. The believe was, if you were buried near the water your soul would float back to the motherland  Top of Page

Boat Building

                            Sea Islanders have always depended on the land to sustain themselves. Before Hilton Head was developed into a tourist community and menial jobs were available, fishing, oyster gathering, and shrimping was a means of sustaining life on the Sea Islands. Until the first bridge was built in 1927 many of the tools used to work the land was built by skilled craftsman, boat building was included. Pictured here building a boat at the 1998 Gullah Heritage Festival is Mr. Sammy Moultrie a master boat builder. Mr. Moultrie was taught the art of boat building at a very young age. Today he is proficient enough to build a boat without a blueprint, the measurements are committed to memory. Although the art is being passed on to his son and grandson, due to uncontrolled growth it is a dying art along with the culture.

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       During slavery, most slaves were not allowed to Praise the Lord with their "holders" (often referred to as slave masters). Their were exceptions, those that allowed the slaves to attend had balconies. The slaves were allowed to "Praise the Lord" in their own communities, in houses that were appropriately named, "Praise House". At the turn of the century each community had its own Praise house. Religious services were mostly conducted by "leaders". Leaders were the "Elders", or the "Wise" men of the community. In addition to Religious services, community meetings were held to keep the community informed. Many of the Praise houses have disappeared from the landscape, those that remain are either on, or are eligible for the Historic register. Religious Services are now being held in our own houses of Worship. Pictured here is a picturesque, Historical Praise House where services are still being held, it's located on Eddings Point Road. Also pictured is Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ebenezer has one of the largest congregations on St. Helena Island. Ebenezer is located on Martin L. King Jr. Drive.

 Christkopher Darrick Odom (Mende)