Liberia's Secret Societies Part 2: Sande Society

Sande is a women's secret society found in Liberia and other West African countries. The Sande society initiates girls into adulthood via many rituals, including female genital mutilation (FGM). Many feminist groups are against the practice of FGM, with beliefs that the practice is cruel and young women are forced against their will to participate. However, supporters of the society allege that the practice confers fertility and instills notions of morality and proper sexual comportment within young women. They deny that young women are forced into the society but rather choose to be part of a society that maintains interest in the well-being of its members throughout their lives.

Anthropologists believe that Sande originated in Gola society and spread to the neighboring Mende and Vai. Recently other ethnic groups adopted Sande society practices, and today the social institution is found among the Bassa, Gola, Kissi, Kpelle, Loma, Mano, Dahn, and Vai of Liberia.

Adolescent girls are initiated as a group during the post-harvest dry season in a specially cleared area of forest surrounding the town or village. The initiation period varies from several weeks to several months, depending upon such factors as the initiate's age, lineage membership, school attendance, and ethnicity. In the past, the girls are said to have remained in the forest for upwards of one year. During the time of initiations, girls are instructed in domestic skills, farming, sexual matters, dancing, and medicine. There’s also bonding time in the evening, where the girls eat plenty of food, sing, dance, and enjoy stories around the fire. Bonding time usually ends with instructive morals linked to Sande laws passed down from ancestors of the society.

At the conclusion of their initiation, the girls are ritually "washed" and returned to the community as marriageable adults. They emerge from the forest dressed in their finest clothes and white clay, with new names signifying their newly achieved adult status and their persona (i.e., rank) in the association's ritual hierarchy.

Although the Sande society initiation has become a controversial topic in most parts of Africa, traditionalists believe that the society contributes more to a young woman’s life, and not what feminists and westerner have made it seem. They are determined to keep the society alive.