views updated May 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: Mende (Men-day), Mendes, Huro, Wuro


Identification and Location. The term Mende refers to both the people and the language. The Vai use the term Huro or Wuro. Mende-speaking people occupy southern and eastern Sierra Leone, and there is a small group in Liberia. Their territory falls within the rain forest belt that spans West Africa. The terrain consists of fertile hills to the north; in the south and coastal areas there are plains and swamps. The narrow strip of coastland forms the western and southwestern boundary between the Mende and the Sherbro-Bullom, the Krim, and the Vai. The easternmost part of Sierra Leone and the northeast are populated by the Kissi and the Kron peoples, respectively. The Jong, Sewa, and Moa rivers flowing from the more hilly northern region of Sierra Leone intersect Mende territory in the west, center, and east.

Demography. The Mende account for one-third of the population of Sierra Leone. In the 1931 census, among the protectorate population of 1,672,058, the Mende numbered 572,678. In the 1992 national population estimate of 4,456,370, the Mende numbered 1.5 million.

Lingistic Affiliation. Mende is a member of the Mande language subgroup of the Niger-Congo family of languages. Mande is the language of the Mandigos of the kingdom of Mali. The Mande group is one of two dominant groups of languages in the area; the other one is the West Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo family. Within Mende, three major dialect groups are distinguished: Kpa-Mende in the west, Sewa-Mende in the center, and Ko-Mende in the east.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic and cultural traits suggest that the Mende are descendants of the thirteenth-century Mali Empire. Before the eighteenth century Mende territory did not extend to its present coastal areas, and territorial increase resulted from wars. Through wars and raids and subjugation and enslavement of other peoples, the Mende assimilated other groups, such as the Sherbro and the Vai. Mende cultural expansion and domination, referred to as "mendenization," continued through the colonial era, although more peacefully as Mende settlements spread in the trading areas. This geographic mobility explains aspects of Mende cultural diversity, particularly dialectic differences.


Occupational activities as hunting, fishing, and agriculture favored the original settlements of small groups that eventually became villages and towns. A chiefdom consists of sections, with each section made up of a group of villages and towns. The ever-present possibility of attack favored placing houses close together behind a stockade. Traditional houses, usually with one story, were round or rectangular and were strongly built of wattle and mud daub with a palm thatch roof. A rectangular house usually has a veranda and two or three rooms. With the availability of cement and corrugated sheeting since the 1900s, most new houses in towns and some in remote villages have cement block walls and "pan" roof covering.


Subsistence. The Mende are an agricultural people who engage in gardening around their homes and rice farming in the outer lands. Rice is the staple crop, and community life is organized around its production, storage, and distribution. Supplementary food crops include cassava, yams, sesame, and millet. Palm nuts are harvested for vegetable oil, and raffia palms are tapped for wine. Garden crops include chili peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Families raise some poultry and keep domestic animals for meat. Fishing is done mainly in the three large rivers that intersect the Mende territory.

Commercial Activities. In the local markets families sell excess food products and buy those they lack. Traders buy salt, cocoa, coffee, ginger, groundnuts, and kola nuts. Other market products are palm oil, palm kernels, palm wine, and raffia. Commercial activities have increased as towns and urban markets have grown, and a variety of new products, including imported materials, have become available. Some trading towns originated with the development of railroads and motor roads. The hawking of food and a variety of small items at the parks and stations has become a popular commercial practice to supplement family income.

Industrial Arts. Craft products include various forms of earthenware, clothes, mats, twine, and brooms. Blacksmiths produce hoes, machetes, and other iron implements. Implements associated with fishing are nets, hooks, and dugout canoes. Sculpted objects include masks used for initiation ceremonies, ritual objects such as icons of spiritual entities, and "medicine" objects. There are various musical instruments, including drums, wooden xylophones, other stringed instruments, and decorated gourd rattlers. Stringed beads and shell rattlers are worn by dancers.

Trade. Traditonally, the commodities traded were essentially agricultural products: rice, coffee, and palm oil. Other important items of trade were implements and objects used for farming and fishing. These products were exported to northern neighbors, who supplied beef and beef products and salt to the Mende. Before the introduction of a cash economy, trade was local and was carried out by the simple exchange of products. Trading activities later expanded to involve most of the neighboring areas and farther regions and to include salt, gold, and diamonds.

Division of Labor. Rice farming is central in the economy, and men, women, and children contribute labor to the family farm. Clearing the land of vegetation in preparation for farming is typically "men's work." In a large household the senior wife organizes the junior women for rice planting and cooking food for the work group. It is women's job to thresh, clean, and parboil rice. Young men also engage in rice planting and build fences to protect the farm from rats. Children help with weeding. Men climb palms to cut the fruit and tap wine, and women collect the fruit and press the oil. Women fish the inland rivers and spin thread, and men engage in weaving and blacksmithing. Today many men leave the village to work in mines. Both men and women engage in clerical, professional, and trading activities, but most domestic chores are still done by women.

Land Tenure. The paramount chief is the principal custodian of all the land in the chiefdom. He is assisted in administering it by elders who are the descendants of the settlers who first cultivated the land. A first land cultivator gained the right of occupation, which was inherited by his descendants after his death. The paramount chief, the chiefs, and the subchiefs exercise land ownership authority; the rest of the people in the community are landholders with only temporary rights of personal occupation and use of land. When his need for it ceases, the land used by a landholder reverts to the community.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic kinship institution is the household mawe. A man and his wives and children constitute a small household. A large household may have two or more adults with consanguinous kinship, their wives and children, and relatives such as mothers and sisters. A household is patrilineal as well as patrilocal, and wives become members of the household through marriage. Male siblings and their wives and children settle in compounds (kuwui). Leadership of a compound is inherited by the oldest male in the lineage. Several compounds and the households of slaves constitute a village, and an aggregation of villages makes up a town. Towns and villages make up a section of a chiefdom.

Kinship Terminology. Mende kinship involves a bifurcated merging pattern with Iroquois patrilineal cousin terminology. Parents have the same kin terms as some uncles and aunts, and other relatives are terminologically distinguished from parents. Collateral uncles and aunts are well distinguished, whereas parallel cousins are classed together.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is usually exogamous and patrilocal. Young men who have reached maturity and can provide bride-wealth and women past adolescence are eligible for marriage. Marriage is a sign of social progress, and celibacy is considered an anomaly. Marriage can be contracted at a very early age, but its consummation requires initiation into the poro society for a man and the sande society for a woman. Polygyny is a popular practice that enhances a man's social prestige. It enables the man to take care of his sexual needs when one wife is breast-feeding a baby and sexual intercourse with her is forbidden. Economically, polygyny provides labor for rice farming and other "women's work," such as domestic chores, running cottage industries, and participating in trading. The senior wife, who enjoys respect from the junior wives and is her husband's confidant, is responsible for organizing the other wives for work. Thus, marriage is an agricultural asset as well as a capital investment. Divorce traditionally was not common, but exceptional circumstances could lead the husband to dissolve the marriage and demand a refund of the bride-wealth. These circumstances included desertion, compulsive infidelity, insulting the husband's parents, and practicing witchcraft or sorcery. Persistent abuse by a husband could lead to divorce when the relatives of the woman demanded her return to their family. After a divorce children usually remain with their father if they are past the age of breast-feeding.

Domestic Unit. The mawe, consisting of a husband, his wives, their children, and the husband's parents, constitutes a basic domestic, social, and farming unit. The numerical composition of the household can vary to include more older men and grandchildren, and the smaller conjugal unit of a man and his wife and children is not considered typical. The domestic unit provides food and shelter for the members, and serves as the primary institution of education, bringing up children and teaching them the values and techniques of Mende culture.

Inheritance. In traditional Mende society land is the principal item of inheritance, and since land holding is house-hold-based, the patrilineal form of inheritance is prevalent. After a man's death the immediate heirs to his land are his brothers in order of age. His sons come next and then his daughters. In the absence of brothers, sons, and daughters, a matrilinial nephew becomes the heir. After the nephew's death the land reverts to the descendants of the original owners. Since the introduction of a Western legal system, this practice has been challenged, and sometimes sons claim their father's land from their paternal uncles.

Socialization. Mothers are the principal agents in child rearing, beginning with breast-feeding. If the mother becomes very sick, any other relative with milk can take over. Usually tied to the back with lappa, a large piece of cloth, children are carried by the mother as she works. Older siblings act as baby-sitters. Through imitation children learn the names and proper addresses and titles of their relatives. There is a popular practice of sending children of about the age of six to distant relatives, who are more strict than parents in teaching them about household chores, general responsibilities, and good behavior. At about age thirteen girls and boys are ready to be initiated into the sande and poro societies. The initiation process is the traditional place where young people learn cultural mores and prepare for adult life as wives and husbands. In spite of Western education, initiation is still carried out, sometimes in modified forms.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. At the apex of Mende social institutions is the ruling class, which consists of the paramount chief, a descendant of the founder of the territory. The paramount chief enjoys the highest social recognition, and the section chiefs are subordinate to him. Village and town heads are respected for their age and leadership in their lineages. Secret, ritual, and medical societies such as humui, Njayei, poro and sande play vital roles in the maintenance and transmission of societal norms and values. Initiation and marriage confer special status and recognition. The family or household is the basic social and productive unit and plays the primary group role. The individual also relates to the kindred, lineage, village, and town in graded order of rights and obligations. Men who have wealth through successful rice cultivation and are married to several women have a distinguished recognition as "big men" and represent a distinct social stratum.

Political Organization. A section, consisting of a town and villages, is the basic political unit. Political leadership resides with the section chief or subchief, who usually is the oldest person and the most suitable in the male line, the descendant of a victorious warrior and founder of the settlement. Women also can be chiefs. A paramount chief rules over several sections. Political claims are also based on being a descendant of the founder of the territory or chiefdom. The paramount chief governs with the assistance of a council consisting of a speaker, subchiefs, title holders, and village heads. The chief and the council exercise political and judicial powers. They make decisions on matters of public interest, adjudicate land disputes, and punish lawbreakers. The social duty of the poro society traditionally included the maintenance of law and order in the chiefdom. Since the late nineteenth century Mende political culture has been influenced by Western systems, as in the institution of the "bench," whose members serve as jurors.

Social Control. Accusations of witchcraft are a major source of conflict and social tension in traditional Mende society. Other accusations may derive from medical malpractice or sorcery, sexual offences, dispute over inheritance, and other situations likely to endanger communal values. To maintain communal values or assure conformity and to guarantee that tendencies toward dangerous forms of individualism and aggressive behavior are brought under control, Mende culture has customs, rules, standards, morals, and sanctions. The family and the secret societies are schools where young people learn these cultural values. Mechanism of social control is exemplified in heads of groups entrusted with authority to deal with domestic disputes, the native court under the chief, and religious specialists who prescribe and supervise rituals for redressing individual or group violations.

Conflicts. For much of their history from the sixteenth until the early eighteenth century the Mende were aggressors against their neighbors: the Bullom-Sherbro, Vai, and Gola. Mende fighters participated in the wars and revolts of the colonial period, which ended in 1961 with the independence of Sierra Leone. The civil war in Liberia in early 1990 brought many Liberian Mende into Sierra Leone as refugees, and many of their settlements were in Mende territory. In the Sierra Leone civil war, after the overthrow of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah's government by Major Jonny Paul Koroma in May 1997, Mende involvement was pronounced. The civil war, besides having colonial roots, also resulted from diverse group interests, especially in controlling the diamond business. Kamajors, the reputed traditional hunters, who are mostly Mende, made up the major part of the Revolutionary United Front's army that fought against government forces. With the intervention of Nigerian-led international troops and British and United Nations forces, fighting subsided in 2001. Pockets of antigovernment forces still exist in the forests and continue to threaten the fragile cease-fire.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Ngewo, the supreme being in Mende religion, is the creator of the universe and everything in it. After creating the world, Ngewo went up to heaven and rarely intervenes directly in human affairs, although nothing good or evil can happen without his permission. Ancestral spirits are venerated, and prayers to Ngewo are channeled through them. Other categories of natural, occupational, and evil spirits (Ngafanga) exist. Through sacrifices and other rituals, often conducted by specialists, people propitiate the spirits and ask for their protection and blessings. Mende traditional religion has declined since the advent of Western Christianity. A current religious feature is an eclectic tendency to mix elements of traditional religion with those of Christianity.

Religious Practitioners. In a variety of functions and situations individuals and groups relate to halei (power), which is connected with Ngewo. Most religious functions are hereditary, but the spirit that superintends any function must establish through signs that the individual has a calling. Priests of the various nature and occupational deities offer sacrifices to them and through them to Ngewo. Diviners are traditional diagnosticians of illness and misfortune and see beyond the present and interpret omens. The healing doctor also exercises priestly functions in ritual healing. He prepares protective charms against the harmful activities of angry or malevolent spirits and their agents. Other ritual societies conduct special rituals for the healing of particular types of wounds and to cleanse the land of defilements. Among the religious specialists are the leaders of secret societies, who exercise some religious roles during the initiation of their members.

Ceremonies. Birth ceremonies, which take several forms, announce the arrival of new members of the community. They often require sacrifices to the deity through whose benevolence the child is born. The poro and sande initiation ceremonies are educational and are arranged in stages for the ordered maturing of young people. Marriage ceremonies involve community participation and are essential for conjugal prosperity and stability. Rituals of farm work procure blessings of fertility and prosperity for the crops and purify the farm of any defilements resulting from the violation of taboos. There are ceremonies for the installation of chiefs and for judicial procedures in the courts. Other ceremonies pertain to initiation of the members of "medicine societies" and the efficacy of their work. The rite of "crossing the water" is part of the final rite of passage, performed as a funerary rite to ensure ancestral status for the deceased. Ancestors are remembered with ceremonies involving prayers and sacrifices; the "red rice" ceremony is used to appease their anger.

Arts. Artistic activities are learned and exercised in social and religious contexts. Certain artistic works, such as carving, require a the special calling of an individual. Storytelling and oratory are popular. Mende myths are learned by initiates of the poro and sande societies, who also perform music and dances. The masks used in initiation, particularly the sande society mask, are outstanding works of sculpture. Sierra Leonian dance troupes in the 1990s had a strong Mende artistic flavor.

Medicine. The halei (medicine man) and several "medicine societies" deal with illness, which can have physical or spiritual causes. The spiritual causes include individual moral deficiencies and the malevolent activities of spirits and their agents. The diviner discovers the cause of an illness or misfortune. The medicine man or healing doctor prepares medicines and administers them. Medicines are prepared from herbs and other natural substances. Protective medicine can consist of charms and inoculation with "power substances." When medicine is prepared and consecrated, it is believed to be impregnated with efficacy. Since the advent of scientific medicine and Christianity in Mende society, the use of traditional medicine has been on the decline, especially in towns and cities.

Death and Afterlife. Death is often imputed to witchcraft or activities of spirits and their agents. However, death in old age is accepted as natural, and inquiries into other causes are not necessary. Natural death is not considered a calamity, but the death of a young person is considered a "bad death." Based on the status of the deceased and the gender, different funerary rites apply. The rites of passage ensure that a dead person who has the moral qualifications "crosses the river" and becomes an ancestor. Ancestors continue to live as spirits and their earthly relatives keep their memory alive in rituals.

For the original article on the Mende, see Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


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Boone, Sylvia Ardyn (1986). Radiance from the Waters: Ideas of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Conteh-Morgan, Earl, and Mac Dixon-Fyle (1999). Sierra Leone at the End of the Twentieth Century: History Politics, and Society. New York: Peter Lang.

Fyfe, Christopher (1964). Sierra Leone Inheritance. London: Oxford University Press.

Gittins, Anthony J. (1987). Mende Religion: Aspects of Belief and Thought in Sierra Leone. Nettetal, Germany: Steyler Verlag - Wort und Werk.

Harris, W. T., and Harry Sawyer (1968). The Springs of Mende Belief and Conduct: A Discussion of the Influence of the Belief in the Supernatural among the Mende. Freetown: Sierra Leone University Press.

Kilson, Marion (1976). Royal Antelope and Spider: West African Mende Tales. Cambridge: Press of the Langdon Associates.

Leach, Melissa (1994). Rainforest Relations: Gender and Resource Use among the Mende of Gola, Sierra Leone. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Little, Kenneth (1967). The Mende of Sierra Leone. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Phillips, Ruth B. (1995). Representing Women: Sande Masquerade of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.



views updated May 29 2018


ETHNONYMS: Boumpe, Hulo , Kossa, Kosso

The Mende are a group of people who live primarily within the southern third of Sierre Leone. Historically, they are rather recent arrivals to this area, appearing no earlier than the sixteenth century as invading forces advancing from the south. Linguistically, the Mende are related to Niger-Kordofanian and Niger-Congo groupings; they have at least two major dialectsKpa and Koand two less prominent dialectsWaanjama and Sewawa. In 1987 the Mende numbered about one million, of whom 75 to 80 percent were Kpa Mende and most of the remaining portion, Ko Mende. The Mende comprise about 30 percent of Sierre Leone's total population.

The small country of Sierre Leone, of which the Mende occupy the southern portion, lies very close to the equator on the western coast of Africa. The climate is distinguished by a dry season from October to May and a wet season from June to October. There is much variation in humidity, sunshine, and rainfall, depending on the terrain, the distance from the coast, and the time of year. Until the twentieth century, much of the terrain consisted of forests, which have since been greatly reduced by clearing for farming. Farm-bush is the dominant vegetation type of the southern part of the country, where the Mende reside.

The Mende live primarily in villages of 70 to 250 residents, which are situated from 1.5 to 5 kilometers apart. There is little or no mechanization over the greater part of rural Mende country. Mende farmers use hoes and machetes, but few other tools. Coffee, cocoa, and ginger are grown as cash crops, whereas rice, pepper, groundnuts, beniseed, and palm oil are grown for local consumption. Rice cooperatives have been formed in some rural areas.

Work is divided by gender: men attend to the heavy work of clearing the land for planting rice while women are occupied with cleaning and pounding rice, fishing, and weeding the planted crops. This routine is followed during ten months of every year, with a couple of months left around the New Year, when they can spend more time in the village engaging in domestic pursuits like house building.

The household unit is represented by at least one man and perhaps several of his brothers, with all of their wives and children. One or more brothers and married sisters usually leave sooner or later and are incorporated into other residential units. The senior male has moral authoritythe right to respect and obedienceover the family as a whole, especially with regard to the negotiation of debts, damages, and bride-wealth.

Because of their recent origins, their contact with other peoples in the area, their involvement in the slave trade, and the strong influence of Islam and later colonial powers, as well as missionary contact, it is difficult and perhaps misleading to speak of the traditional culture of the Mende. Mende culture is an eclectic blend that has resulted from all of these different influences. Mende religion, likewise, has native elementsa Supreme Being, ancestral spirits, secret societies, and witch findersthat coexist with and are sometimes interspersed with adherence to Christian or Islamic beliefs.


Gittins, Anthony J. (1987). Mende Religion: Aspects of Belief and Thought in Sierra Leone. Wort und Werk. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag.

Harris, W. T., and H. Sawyerr (1968). The Springs of Mende Belief and Conduct. Freetown: Sierra Leone University Press; Oxford University Press.

Jedrej, M. C. (1974). "An Analytic Note on the Land and Spirits of the Sewa Mende." Africa 44:38-45.