The Secret Society of the Sande Women

The Bundu helmet mask which is sometimes called the Mende or Sowei mask is a type of mask worn by the Sande female society in Sub-Saharan Africa during solemn rituals or ceremonies. Most masquerade or masks are worn by men.  The Sande women are the only women in Sub-Saharan African allowed to wear mask during ceremonial activities or rituals. However, Sande officials commission male carvers to make the mask in secret. The Bundu helmet mask is especially used during initiation rites or puberty rites. This is a coming of age ceremony for girls to become women. The mask can only be worn by women who have certain standing or position within the society. These women receive the initiates at the end of a three-month reclusion in the forest.

            The mask represents an ideal of feminine beauty admired by the Mendes. These ideals include a full forehead, elaborate headdress or hairstyles and small facial feature. Each characteristic of the mask has a symbolic meaning associated with it. The shiny surface of the mask is a representation of healthy and glowing skin; this happens when the mask is anointed with palm oil (modern carvers use black shoe polish to get that shine). The mouth is made small to teach the initiates (girls) not to gossip. The ears are also made small to teach the initiates not to eavesdrop. The neck has deep incised lines which is considered marks of beauty and a promise of proliferation. The neck is also made broad so it could fit the person who wears it.

            The mask is worn with a costume made of thick cotton covered with raffia which has been dyed black. The sacredness of the mask and complete costume is seen as a representation of the long deceased founder of the Sande society. The wearer also has to be an official of Sande society and very good dancer, who can dance in the heavy costume for over two hours. The dance moves are also symbolic. It is said that the spirits that possess the wearer send messages in the form of the dancing. The messages sent in the puberty rituals is to teach the girls what they need to know for womanhood.

What ceremonial practices do you know of? Have you ever witnessed one? What are your thoughts on these traditions?

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