This week we want to talk about the secret societies which are a part of the traditions of the Mende tribe. We thought we would write about this because Saturday night there was a celebration outside our front gate that lasted all night long. When we inquired what it was about, we were told that it was a Bondo celebration, that which occurs after young women have been initiated into the female Bondo society.
In a paper written by Richard Fanthorpe commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Status Determination and Protection Information Section, he states: “Secret societies are ancient cultural institutions in the Upper Guinea Coast of West Africa. Their primary purpose is to canalize and control powers of the spirit world, many of which are captured in masks and other special artifacts. Secret societies induct members by means of initiation, and both initiates and non-initiates must observe a range of laws and protocols if the cooperation of spirit powers is to be assured. “Secret society” is something of a misnomer, since initiates of the leading societies make no attempt to conceal the fact of their membership.”
The women’s society is called Sande (Southern) or Bondo (Northern and Freetown). The men’s society is called the Poro. Since what we experienced Saturday night was associated with the Bondo, we will not write much about the Poro. However, according to research done by Tony Allan “Poro numbers many of the nation’s highest-ranking officials among its members”. A 2017 academic article written by Vitalis Pemunta Ngambouk and Chama-James Tabenyang Tabi similarly states that “most of the ruling male elites hold Poro membership because of its symbolic power”.
Carol McCormick in her essay titled “The Public Face of a Secret Society” clarifies why these societies exist separately for men and women. “The primary purpose of the men’s and women’s societies is to produce fully socialized human beings. The basic idea here is that people are no less repositories of spiritual power than artifacts, the dead ancestors and the wild creatures of the bush. These powers are sex-specific and so harnessing and controlling them necessitates the separation of the sexes.”
That is probably more than enough context on these societies. In recent years there has been an outcry against both of these societies due to alleged human rights violations as there are aspects of these initiations that do not fit with Western culture or Christianity. I would say that based on what we have learned from people we have spoken to, the Poro society exists primarily in the villages (referred to as the “Bush”). The Bondo society on the other hand appears to be alive and well here in Kenema. One person suggested that the reason this celebration took place here next to our apartment is because there were a number of people who came in from the villages to participate in the Quality Food Fair launched by President Bio here in Kenema. This Fair is intended to boost agricultural production and export so the week-long event brings together farmers and agricultural organizations from across Sierra Leone to showcase the quality of their produce. Since the farmers are primarily living in the villages, coming to Kenema for the fair was an opportunity for their wives to join together in a Bondo initiation and celebration.
The celebrating started in the evening. We were hopeful that it would conclude by 10:00 pm, but it was only by 5:00 am Sunday morning that the chanting and the drumming started to wind down. I don’t think the recording above does justice to the noise, as at times it would rise to a fever pitch and then slowly get softer before again reaching a crescendo. Not a great nights sleep for sure.
We have asked a number of people if these secret societies exist within the membership of the church. The answers have been pretty consistent in regards to the men (“No”), but for the women, the responses have been much more vague and leads us to believe that these cultural traditions have come into the membership with women who have been baptized in recent years (nearly everyone) as a result of their own upbringing.
On Monday we were involved in transfers and took Elder Dunn, Sister Musangani and Elder Nwauhiara to Bo where they caught a ride to their new areas in Freetown. Elder Dunn will be the new Assistant to the President. We are very proud of him and know he will do great. In Bo, we picked up Elder Wallentine (new Zone Leader replacing Elder Dunn), Elder McDonald (headed to Kailahun) and Elder McCracken (replacing Elder Pyrah). In the evening we attended the family home evening for the young single adults in the Nyandeyama Branch. We had 12 in attendance. Four of these were the men (polio victims) from the Opportunity Training Center who recently joined the church. How I love these good men who are so faithful in all aspects of their church involvement. We had a wonderful discussion about the atonement of Jesus Christ and again LaDawn made some delicious peanut butter cookies.
On Tuesday we had Clinton Gaima (one of the pre-mission boys) come over and help get diesel and deliver it to all of the apartments for their generators. This is just one more way we can help him earn money for his mission. It was a big help to us and we were able to get the “cans” filled and to the apartments in a couple of hours.
In the afternoon, Mohamed Bockerie came over. He had received a text saying that his mission call was available online so he was eager to check. I am pretty sure this was the very first mission call delivered and opened electronically here in Sierra Leone, and perhaps in Western Africa. He was pretty excited to get his call and open it. He will be going to the Nigeria Ibadan Mission on February 14th. On Wednesday, Thomas F. Kallon opened his mission call electronically as well and he is also going to the same mission and leaves exactly the same day. We failed to take a picture of Mohamed, but remembered with Thomas. Congrats to these two excellent young men. We are very proud of both of them!
Tuesday and Wednesday were fun days with the high pressure pump. The saga continues. The portion of the line coming out of the pump was put together with very thin gray PVC pipe. It simply could not handle the pressure and quickly sprang a leak. Once that leak was fixed, the connection closer to the pump gave way. It seems where the metal fitting meets the plastic pipe we have a problem. After the pump is on for 30 minutes or so, the metal heats up causing the threads to soften and it pops the pipe out of the fitting. The plumber thought he could fix it by putting a galvanized spacer in to dissipate the heat before reaching the plastic, but alas that failed also. Finally on Saturday the plumber came back and replaced the plastic pipe with PPR (polypropylene random copolymer). This is a green composite plastic pipe that is “welded” together with heat. The pipe and connections are known for their strength. It was considerably more expensive $40 vs $10, but the promise is it won’t fail.
Well, things were working well until Saturday night when we lost water pressure. When we went out to see what happened, we could see that the plumber had used some of the thin gray pipe to connect the PPR to the blue PVC. And it was that gray pipe that had failed. Ugh! That meant no water for Sunday. But alas our guard, Charles, said to give him a plastic bag. We brought him two and the whole time we are thinking that whatever he is going to do is not going to work, and yet, he split the bags into strips and then wrapped them tightly around the pipe and tied them off with a half-hitch. Viola, it did work! There was still a small drip, but even with the pump on, the plastic wrap held. We were impressed! That is African ingenuity! Today we will have the plumber back one more time to get rid of the gray plastic pipe and figure out another way to connect the PPR to the PVC.
Wednesday night we attended the mid-week service at Dauda Town. There were only 5 members and the two elders there, but we had a nice discussion about the importance of scriptures as well as the church’s position on non-members partaking of the sacrament. We ended up having to leave early so that we could meet Elder and Sister Moomey who were bringing Elder Gray’s new companion to Kenema. We met them at 6 pm at Ahmadiyya Junction and delivered Elder Sparks to the Airfield apartment 15 minutes later. This allowed Moomey’s to get back to Bo before it was dark.
On Thursday we attended the District Council meeting for the Kenema South District. Elder McCracken is the new District Leader and he lead a wonderful discussion about pride, humility and meekness. I think we all came away with a commitment to be just a little bit better. On Thursday afternoon the Moomey’s came from Bo and LaDawn and Sister Moomey discussed the games for the Christmas multi-zone conference in Bo to be held this coming Friday. Afterwards we took them to Food Masters and we all had their delicious barbecue chicken. We continue to be amazed at just how good this small restaurant is. And now Moomey’s are convinced as well!
On Friday we took Mohamed Flee to Bo to have his mission interview with President Musa, one of President Clawson’s mission presidency counselors. While waiting for Mohamed, we visited a new grocery store that has just opened up in Bo in place of ‘Best In Market’ which closed recently. They had some nice products that we hadn’t seen before in Sierra Leone, a brownie mix being one of them (and yes we bought it). When we returned home, another young man from the Kpayama Branch, Samuel Sesay came over and we helped him get his mission application into the system. This took us more than 2 hours to complete. We still needed photos and school certificates, but he brought those back on Saturday so now he just needs his interview and his application can be submitted. Working with these young men (and a young woman now and again) to get ready for their missions is definitely one of the most rewarding things we are doing here.
On Saturday morning we attended a baptismal service for two new converts. Fatmata Foday and Helen Massaquoi were both baptized by Lansana Dugba, the branch mission leader. We are so proud of the Dauda Town branch as they started the service on time and ended on time. A real rarity here in Kenema. We loved hearing the testimonies of these wonderful converts. It is a tradition here that we really like that after the converts have dressed in dry clothes and come back into the chapel that each new convert has an opportunity to share their testimony. Definitely a highlight of the week for us!
At 2 pm we had an appointment with Eku to talk more about the gospel and the Book of Mormon. This time he had read enough of the chapters starting in 2 Nephi that he felt the spirit of the book. He had underlined a number of phrases that he wanted to discuss. For example, who is the “Holy One of Israel”? What is meant by the “soul” of man? Where was the “promised land” and why was it so named? He really liked the message of 2 Nephi 1:13, 14, 21 where Lehi is admonishing his two oldest sons to awake and arise and “be men”. We had a wonderful discussion with him and setup some more time with him for later today. How we love this good, honorable and spiritually sensitive man!
At 4:30 pm we went over to the Nyandeyama Branch Christmas party. They had setup chairs outside for two reasons. 1) They had already cleaned the chapel for Sunday and 2) it was cooler outside. The activity consisted of short talks from each of the auxiliary and priesthood leaders and then something like a short dance “show” from each of the auxiliaries. President Moriba conducted the event and it was good to be with these good saints. At the end we all received a hot dog sandwich (not a traditional hotdog) and a drink. We enjoyed being able to attend.
On Sunday we attended the Kenema Central Branch for church. All three meetings were outstanding. The talks in sacrament meeting were well prepared and well delivered. The theme was obedience. Sunday school was about Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream. The priesthood lesson was on the Final Judgment. It is rewarding for us to see the church run as well as it did yesterday in the Kenema Branch. Prepared speakers, prepared teachers, engaged members. A picture perfect Sabbath day.
There is nothing secret about the gospel of Jesus Christ, only things that are sacred. I love this quote from Joseph Smith: “God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them”. The “Light the World” campaign is in full swing across the globe. Jesus Christ is “love’s pure light”. Light is the metaphor for truth and knowledge. What we want to help create here in Sierra Leone are communities of light. We see the light increasing here in Kenema. We see willing hearts, open minds and strong hands capable of lifting those with feeble knees. Oh how glorious it is to be part of the team that is lighting the torch for generations to follow. We love serving the Lord!
4 thoughts on “Secret Societies”
I loved reading about the secret society celebration outside of your gate. Thank you for the context, the sound recording, and the pictures. My English Professor heart delighted in your careful attribution to your scholarly sources. 😁
I am, however, sad that the celebration kept you from sound slumber. Perhaps knowing that sharing the experience with a sister across the globe will somehow make the sacrifice worth it? I doubt I’ll ever get to Sierra Leone, so thank you for sharing,
I am also intrigued with the pump extravaganza currently playing out for you and LaDawn. Is it callous of me to delight in the Comedy of Errors that is the plumbing at your abode? Perhaps it will soften the blow if I tell you DJ and I are currently going through an extravaganza ourselves as we struggle to finish the bonus room over our garage. We have suffered a faulty mini-split, delivery of a new mini-split, multiple trips by the electrician, repeated phone calls to the owners of the company for installation advice, a leaking air handler unit that (thankfully) only watered the composite board floor in the bonus room, and worrying over how to rid ourselves of the faulty mini-split which took residence on our driveway for weeks on end. It is good to know the struggle is real here and elsewhere for everyone alike. Having said that, I know your situation has challenges we do not have to struggle with, like the “make do or do without” attitude that is forced upon you as you live in a world where all the conveniences of the modern world may be in place, but only because they have been put into place with a little spit, a little blood, and a lot of creative thinking. Bravo!
It is good to see and read how sweet the Hospel is there in Sierra Leone. This is the part of the story that always delights my soul and breathes fresh wind into my spiritual sails. What a wonderful thing it is to see Heavenly Father’s hand in the lives of my brothers and sisters across the world. I love that He loves each of His children equally, and I delight in seeing the Gospel in action here and there and everywhere.
Wow, Leslie! Nice reply. Thank you for such a thoughtful and comprehensive evaluation of all of our lives. I love your writing skills (so superior!). I especially had to smile extra long when I read “Is it callous of me to delight in the Comedy of Errors that is the plumbing at your abode?”. It is not callous, as it is definitely a comedy and not a melodrama. We just laugh at the repeated issues and have developed a love/hate relationship with the pump and the plumbing. Thanks for reading and sharing your own joyous experiences of mortality!
So much to learn from these wonderful people as I read these updates. Love you!
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