A warm welcome in Bandejuma!
Last year I returned home to Sierra Leone and visited my great grandmother’s village in Bandejuma. We were welcomed by masked dancers of the Sande society which was a warm heart felt welcome by the women of the village. This was lovely and I truly appreciated the welcome.
However, I knew the mask was synonymous with the horrific custom of female genital mutilation (FGM) and that the custom is sadly still practiced on young girls today. What could have been a beautiful cultural display, made me feel anxious and uncomfortable.
On my return to the UK, I reached out to Alimatu Dimonekene MBE, the inspirational women’s and girls’ rights activist and founder of FGM prevention and victim support charity, ‘A Girl At A Time Sierra Leone’. I knew she could help educate me on the history, practice and cultural symbolism. As a survivor herself, she has campaigned consistently for an end to this practice and I wanted to understand more about how and why FGM started and the amazing work Alimatu and others are doing to eradicate it and support its victims.
The Sande society and my visit to Bandejuma
We were welcomed to my grandmother’s village in Bandejuma by what we call the ‘Bondo Debuls’ in Sierra Leone. These masked dancers originate from the Sande society of Mende traditions but have spread to other parts of Sierra Leone and are known as Bondo society in Temne. Specifically, we encountered the Ndoli jowei, or Nöwo, who are most well-known for their distinctive black masks, which have become a national symbol of Sierra Leone.
The Sande society is an all-female association that seeks to unite women in the communities as a strong social and political force by teaching them virtues through coming-of-age ceremonies. Their masks, whilst representing the traditional Mende beauty standard, are symbolic of the values the Sande society represents. For example: The full forehead (intelligence), large downcast eyes (modesty and wisdom) and shining dark complexion (cleanliness or prosperity). The Ndoli jowei are said to embody the Sande spirit and mediate between the mortal and spiritual realms. To be greeted by them was to be greeted by the ancestorial spirits – I should have been honoured. However, I was more apprehensive and uncomfortable around them as over the years, the Bondo Debuls have come to represent an unsettling practice.
As part of initiation into the Sande society, adolescent girls travel to the bush during the post-harvest dry season and will stay there for around 3-4 weeks. What happens there during this time is strictly confidential between women and absolutely forbidden to be known of by men.
The Bondo Debul, Samawa, is a satirical figure that represents what happens to men who pry into the matters of the Sande society. Ruth Phillips, a researcher looking into Sierra Leonean masquerades in the 70s wrote that:
‘The costume and performance of samawa change depending on the specific object of her satire. She wears no headpiece, but rather face paint, exaggerated clothing, and the appropriate appended objects. In one performance of samawa that I saw, the impersonator’s face was painted with black and white spots to represent leprosy, a strip of fur was tied around her chin as a beard, and she was dressed in dirty rags. A big bulge under the front of her costume represented a swelling of the scrotum, and she hobbled about leaning on a stick like a cripple. All these deformities, she sang, would afflict any man who disobeys Sande rules, and she interrupted her song with bursts of loud, raucous laughter.’
However, what is known about what happens in the bush is that girls being initiated will have their clitoris and a part of the labia excised by an elder in the community. This is known as FGM (female genital mutilation). Although many countries have banned this practice, some still believe that this is part of our culture and that other countries have no right to interfere or judge. This couldn’t be further from the truth. FGM was brought to Sierra Leone by Madam Yoko. She was the formidable leader of the Kpa Mende, the ‘Queen of Sennehoo’. In her time, she not only united all 14 chiefdoms of the Kpa Mende but was also able to make alliances with British officials. Madam Yoko was calculative, using her alliances to help her advance in power. An example would be how she successfully eradicated her rival Kamanda by reporting to the British that he had was colluding with raiding Temne warriors. It is said she was greatly feared for her ability to call on and manipulate the British. She was intelligent, strong in battle and well-understood the art of politics. Like most historical figures, her achievements seem to shroud her wrong doings
Madam Yoko initially gained status after spending time with the Sande society. It was there she learnt how to dance and was known to be incredible at it. Quickly rising to local fame, she was granted a marriage to a powerful warrior and after this marriage collapsed, she was able to marry a chief and from here on her journey into politics began. At that time, men made alliances with other men by granting marriages using the daughters of leading families in the villages as currency. Madam Yoko found a way to do this more effectively by becoming a Sowei (society leader) and grooming girls for marriage in a similar way to the Sande society. However her inspiration was taken greatly from debutante culture in England. This is how the bush tradition started as Madam Yoko called her organisation the Bondo (bush) society and began practicing FGM. It is believed that she had picked this up from observing the works of British gynaecologist Issac Baker Brown, who had insisted that masturbation caused health issues in women such as hysteria, spinal irritation, idiocy and could eventually lead to death. To prevent this, he performed clitoridectomies whenever and on whomever he could. However, his fame was short-lived, as after the publication of an article from The Times in favour of his work, he was investigated by The Lunacy Commission, eventually expelled from the Obstetrical Society of London for carrying out the operations without consent and branded as a quack doctor by others in that field of study.
I guess that part of the story never reached Sierra Leone as Madam Yoko’s girls were all granted marriages to the high-profile bachelors of society which gave her more power and cemented the bush tradition as other Sowei’s began copying this to make their girls more desirable.
Today, FGM is still popular in the villages. Girls are rarely given an option as to whether they want this or not and even if they do refuse they will be treated as outcasts. The Sande society and the Ndoli jowei were never originally something to be feared but by picking up such a horrible and disgusting practice what should have been an extraordinary element of Sierra Leonean culture has instead brought us shame. We must remember that the original purpose of the Sande society was to protect and nurture our girls. Not to hurt them.
Alimatu works independently and tirelessly to make the lives of women and girls much better. Please do make a difference by donating as every little helps. Visit https://www.agirlatatime.org/ to find out more about how the charity is working to see an end to all forms of violence against women and girls including harmful practices and hidden crimes.
Basu, P. (2020). Sierra Leone masquerades. [online] [Re:]Entanglements. Available at: https://re-entanglements.net/sierra-leone-masquerades/.