Introduction: Before western culture was introduced to Africa, there were certain established norms in communities throughout the continent. These norms helped to glue the communities together by establishing law and order, cultural practices, social rankings and so forth. In Liberia, cultural societies such as the Poro and Sande were the arbiters of what became the norm in certain parts.
While some of these practices have been scaled back due to the proliferation of western culture and education, it is important to understand that these societies provided form, structure and stability to the communities not to mention survival skills and training against internal and external enemies.
In recent years, western governments especially women rights organizations have exerted enormous pressure on these societies urging them to abolish the practice of female genital mutilation. “In August of 2009, the United Nations committee overseeing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, criticized Liberia’s Ministry of International Affairs for issuing permit to practitioners of female genital mutilation.”
In a reversal of policy, the Liberian government stopped granting “permits to any Sande society as of January 2012,” according to Public Radio International. Although such a ban did not go well with most traditional leaders especially the zoes and chiefs, it became imperative that they realize that times have changed. Introduction by Joseph Warkreh T-Toe, born and raised in Liberia, FunTimes Magazine Associate editor.
Blogger Heath Vogel who traveled extensively throughout Liberia, gives a unique perspective:
If you stay long in Liberia, you will come into contact with Secret Societies. You will hear all sorts of things about them both good and bad. You will probably see all sorts of evidence of them, like the masked and raffia dressed man I witnessed dancing in the Monrovia streets on 10 foot stilts. If you desire to better understand the complex picture painted by Liberian culture it is essential to have a basic introduction to these societies.
Poro and Sande
There are two main societies in Liberia: Poro and Sande. Poro for the men and Sande for women. There are many other societies as well for example, the Krahn have a society more like those of Ivory Coast, and the Masonic Order which functioned in Liberia as a kind of secret society among Americo-Liberians yet rumored to have practiced ritual sacrifices just like Poro. Within Poro and Sande there are sub-groups that are designed for certain strata of society: chief, Zoe (pronounced “Zoh” meaning priest), and the regular ordinary initiate.
Poro and Sande have held a great amount of power in Liberian society and in many cases they still do. I have heard the rumor on several occasions that no one can hold a political position in Liberia without being a member of Poro or Sande. I’m not sure that is true, but that sentiment is easy to find in Liberia.
A ‘Bush Girl’ shown in the photo with white chalk paint which can symbolize many things including an ‘in-between’ phase before her graduation when she is considered a kind of walking dead.
Citizenship by Initiation
What is well documented is that many traditional communities do not consider the uninitiated to be a citizen of their village, clan, or even tribe. The uninitiated are considered ‘unclean’, ‘childish’ and/or unfit for marriage until they have been initiated (this usually involves circumcision). Therefore, the advantages to joining are so great that many parents are eager to place their child in ‘bush school’ during enrollment season.
Because the price for putting your child in bush school can be expensive for the poorer members of the community a controversial practice has arisen: ‘forced initiation’ or ‘forced enrollment’. From what I’ve been told, ‘forced enrollment’ used to occur on a certain day of enrollment season, after the formal enrollment and dues had been paid by other students (usually some chickens, rice, palm wine, kola nuts, or some other form of currency).
The Day of Kidnapping
On this one particular day the masked school master(s) would roam through the village and “kidnap” any child they found out of his or her hut. This ‘kidnapping’ was understood as a way for those in the community without sufficient funds to get their child into bush school so their child could be a respectable citizen of society. Parents understood that if they could not pay the enrollment dues they could leave their child outside of the hut on that day and they would be grabbed and taken to the secret location for initiation. Even today there are certain places where one is advised to not travel at certain times because the society will attempt to kidnap travelers and perform their initiation rituals upon them even if they have no intention of joining!
Female Genital Mutilation
Recently, there was a case in Liberian court about a girl who had been unwillingly taken by a society and forced to undergo female circumcision, which brings up another controversial practice: deemed FGM ‘female genital mutilation‘ by its opponents, and about which I’d prefer not to elaborate except to say that the US DoS estimates 50% of Liberian women have undergone this sort of procedure.
This location for this bush school is not well hidden and often they are not. The palm woven walls around the meeting place is a barrier to non-initiates and should not be crossed. Trails in the bush leading to even more secluded spots are even more forbidden and should be avoided.
Benefits of Poro and Sande?
I’ve already introduced several controversial aspects of the societies, what about the good things advocates claim they do for Liberia? Well, the publicly stated purpose of these societies is to instill a cultural norm for the community.
For example, in bush school the initiates are taught their cultural history, folklore, and customs. They are taught to respect their elders and how to perform certain tasks within the community. While this model of generational wilderness school is not necessarily a bad model for teaching, you will find the controversies have not been about the model of teaching per se, as much as they have been about what is taught in them and what is done to the students (see FGM above).
What exactly is taught in the secret society bush schools? Well, it is called a secret society for a reason! One of the things that is apparently taught is how to keep secrets. Seriously.
Secret keeping is highly valued in Liberian culture. Many Liberians know what goes on behind closed doors, but not many are vocal about these things and consider that secret keeping to be a virtue.