The Secrets of the Sande

Paige Walker's picture

Last week, the PAHMA Ethnographic Move Team extracted a series of mysterious masks from storage.  They caught my eye with their fantastical hairstyles, black sheen, and compact triangular faces, and I later learned that these masks were thought to possess supernatural powers.

Various Sande masks ready for their photo sessions in the Museum.

The barcodes that accompanied these figures enigmatically identified them as mere “helmet masks,” but further research yielded their more captivating backstory: these glossy black headgears were employed by a women’s secret society by the name of Sande.  In fact, these are only African masks known to be worn by women.  Members of this Sierra Leone society donned these masks when they initiated a new group of pubescent females into their group. 

Photo: Rebecca Busselle

To complete this initiation process, the girls travelled to a “bush,” where they were circumcised and taught ritual songs and dances.  Additionally, these members instructed initiates in their roles as women: they learned about proper sexual behavior, childbearing, child rearing, and how to act toward their future husbands.   At the same time that the Sande society reinforced the standard ideals of femininity, it also rejected them.  In order to announce to town members that new girls had been initiated into the society, members imbued with hale, or medicine, would storm and pillage the town.

In addition to wearing these masks, the Sande women would cover their bodies with layers of black palm fibers. These palm fibers would completely hide the members’ physical forms and thus hide their individual identities, even when they danced. 

The ndoli jowei, or dancing Sowei.  Photo: Ruth B. Phillips

By investigating the formal aspects of this mask, we can decode a few details about the African rituals surrounding this secret society.  Like the heavy raffia, the slit-like design of the eyeholes blocked any recognition of the female beneath the attire.  For when a woman placed the mask on her head, she personified the Society’s hale, or medicine, as well as its ngafa, or spirit.  In fact, the Mende people lack a word for “mask,” instead describing it as the ngafa.  Yet the mask must represent the ngafa in a proper visual manner in order for the ngafa to inhabit it.  This concept explains the reasoning behind the masks’ similar color, shape, size, and facial features.  But what about the hair?

Hairstyles of Mende women, late nineteenth century.  Photo: Allridge, Hair in African Art and Culture.

Although the sculpted hairstyles on the masks may seem sensational and even impossible today, Mende women did sport these dramatic fashions in everyday life.  The mask maker was required to sculpt masks with hairstyles that imitated those actually worn by women in the community. Indeed, these masks exhibit the ideals of Mende feminine beauty throughout their form: their strict symmetry, small mouth and chin, bulbous forehead, and lobes of neck fat all represent the pinnacle of attractiveness.


A small selection of the Hearst Museum’s many Sande masks, one sporting quite a bulbous hairstyle (PAHMA 5-15242) and the other a more aerodynamic approach (PAHMA 5-5833).

Thus, the Sande society instilled in its initiates the knowledge of proper feminine behavior and proper feminine beauty.  With this instruction, the newest members were primed for marriage.  After they completed their initiation, they were led to their bridegrooms, but would remain members of the Sande society for life.  

For more information, see J. V. Olufemi Richards, "The Sande Mask" in African Arts, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter 1974), pp. 48-51 and Ruth B. Phillips, "Masking in Mende Sande Society Initiation Rituals" in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 48, No. 3 (1978), pp. 265-277.

Paige Walker
Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology


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