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.
The 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  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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.