Written by Diamonds for Peace Liberia Staff
Overview of the Sande Society in Liberia
The Sande Society, otherwise known as the Bush School for Women is a women’s secret society in Liberia with the goal of teaching young women the responsibilities of adulthood. Liberian society requires that every young woman gets initiated into the Sande Society. During initiation into the society, the young women are taught good morals, domestic skills, how to be hardworking, and how to look after their future homes. One of the major values of the Sande Society is “never tell the secret of Sande to anyone who is not a member of the Sande Society”. The women are seriously warned to uphold the values of the society; they learn to be respectful, not only about the Sande activities, but in all matters. They only say what is necessary to be said in public and remember to keep the secret things secret.
It is widely believed that female circumcision is practiced in the Sande societal activities; however, it is difficult to make a conclusion here, as the secrets of the Sande are deep, and those secrets are never easily revealed to an outsider.
Initiation of the young girls into the Sande Society
It is a traditional requirement that women especially in rural communities are initiated into the Sande Society or Bush School in order to teach them good morals, domestic skills and how to take care of their future homes. However, women are not forced to be initiated, but the women who are non-members of the Sande Society are warned to stay away from the Sande activities and not stand in its way; otherwise, they would be caught and initiated forcibly.
A woman who is not a member of the Sande is often laughed at by her friends as she is not considered a full woman; consistently, the majority of women living in rural communities are motivated to be initiated.
Many parents willingly pay the fees to send their girl children to the Sande Bush School for initiation. The girls are mostly between the ages 5-25. Few parents do not send their girls to the Sande Bush School simply because they cannot afford the requirements, or that they are not prepared for the event. However, because of fear that the girls who are initiated would return and begin to laugh at those who didn’t go, means that girls often force their own way into the Sande Bush School. This creates the situation that compels their parents to pay the requirements for their initiation.
The Sande Society has several norms that govern its activities; when the society’s zoes set up the Sande Bush school for girls’ initiation, these norms become very active. A zoe is any person, man or woman, who is a custodian of a secret society’s tradition; like the Poro Society, the Sande Society, etc. One of the norms prohibits a non-member from entering the secret bush school; if a woman, who is not a member, enters the bush either intentionally or accidentally, that woman must be initiated and made to pay all the requirements for her initiation. For men, it is very dangerous to enter the Sande secret bush school by any means (whether deliberately or accidentally); it results in a “death threat”. They are not killed physically, but traditionally there are lots of spiritual things that could cause death. Performing traditional rites to cleanse a male person who accidentally enters the secret bush school is a better option than what happens to a man who deliberately enters the secret bush society. The only option is to stand in his own defense against the spiritual powers.
The traditional rites associated with the Sande activities
When it is announced that the Sande activities are open, the Sande zoes set the window period (a time they would allow a girl to enter the Bush for initiation). All young women who want to be initiated ae required to make use of the window period. After the window closes, no one is allowed to enter the school for initiation. However, if a woman violates this and enters, she would not be allowed to leave without being initiated, and she will be made to pay a fine.
The Sande is a society with the objectives of training women to be good house wives, and to have good morals and disciplines; it is not a school for profit making. The requirements paid for the girls are just for their upkeep while they stay in the Bush School for the prescribed period. Some of the requirements are: rice, buckets, tubs, bedding and small cash – at the zoes’ discretion.
Any girl whose requirements are not paid in full, will not be qualified for graduation; she will have to stay with the zoes for an extended period until the requirements are settled. During this period of her extended stay, her parents would be responsible to pay the cost for the extended stay with the zoes.
Sande activities come with series of plays/dances by the women throughout the period of the initiation in the community. The traditional women go from house to house in the community, singing and dancing and receiving gifts in kind and cash from the community residents (both men and women). In some instances, men can also be seen in these dances as it is not forbidden. The event brings joy to all the people in the community as the Sande has a tradition of honor, which everyone wishes to witness it regularly.
Formal graduation of the young women from the Sande Bush School
In Weasua, several young women graduated from the Sande Society in November of 2019. After their stay of 3 months, they were deemed qualified for graduation by the zoes. The Sande zoes organized a big event during which the girls were brought out and presented to their parents. During the graduation ceremony the girls dressed up in beautiful traditional uniforms; they demonstrated a small action with singing and hand clapping; this one of the duties the girls performed while in the bush. During their initiation in the Bush School the girls don’t go to formal school because they don’t leave the bush to be seen by any other person. The only time they are seen in the public after their initiation, is during their graduation.
During the graduation, two Sande Society dancing masks accompanied the graduates from the bush to the town. The masks paraded through the town, danced and collected gifts from many people. They were harmless, and even permitted people to take photos of them.
The Sande zoes gladly reported verbally that all 65 girls who were initiated, graduated in good health. Following this pronouncement, the zoes presented the girls to their parents. It was a colorful occasion as families, friends and well-wishers turned out to grace the event.
Long ago when there was no formal schools in Liberia, the Sande secret society, which is one of the cultural practices of the Liberian people, existed to teach the young women domestic skills, good governance and to be law abiding. This prepared young girls for adulthood. Liberians are proud of their culture as it has contributed and continues to contribute to the growth and development of Liberian society. However, there are mixed views in urban communities; some think the Sande secret society has lost its relevance, because western culture/education has taken dominance over the Sande. Young women are now accessing many different educational life skills which prepare them for adulthood, make them productive and enable them to contribute to the society meaningfully. For others, it is widely believed that the Sande Society still maintains its values, and that such values must be upheld at all times.
Front Photo:A Sande dancing mask along with its followers in Weasua. Consent for this photo has been given.