Monthly Archives: March 2015

Women’s History Month: Ending A History of Violence Against Women

“Make It Happen” is the 2015 theme for International Women’s Day. How do we end a history of violence against women? Women must “Make it Happen.”

Women must do some reflections.

It all starts with thoughts, words then action. The physical violence we see in the clip below (which could well be in Africa) is the culmination of how society perceives women – the inferior sex; which manifests in government policies that do not promote or protect women’s rights, society’s comfort in verbally insulting women and the culminating physical violence on women around the globe.

But this does not happen without women’s contribution. Woman on woman violence is rampant. One good example recently in Sierra Leone when the Vice President was expelled from his political party. Many people expressed their reactions by audio clips, which were making rounds on social media. Sadly though, two of them were the voices of women cussing the mother of the President and other officials as well as cussing themselves in the process. In a country where women are the silent majority who are voiceless in every relevant socio-political arena, it is truly sad that those who decide to be vocal are using their voices to promote violence against their own lot.

When a woman is not seen for her worth, as an intelligent human being who is in fact contributing to society in meaningful ways as much as any man, it is easy for her to be treated in the manner that we see in this clip.

This is Women’s History Month, how are we going to end violence in all forms against women?

Our take: Women can “Make It Happen.”

Salone Women’s Empowerment: How Do We Make It Happen?

The Practical, Mystical and Public Aspects of Sande

The artistic and educational elements of Sande constitute its practical aspect in our society. The officers of Sande society, Soweisia, take the lead in imparting knowledge on the younger generation of women; in addition to teaching them about the mysteries of fertility and reproduction, the young initiates are also taught songs and dances with deep meanings.

In the Kpangwima, girls hone their skills in singing by learning and engaging in regular singing and dance sessions; songs that are learned teach young women about feminine beauty, grace as well as morals and social skills. A serious performer could emerge from the kpangwima as a professional singer or dancer.

Dancing-Girls

Sande women often sing and dance at events marking significant social and political processes, including visits of an endorsed politician, the inauguration of a new chief, or the funeral of a dignitary. During these celebrations, Sande women display their dancing skills by which they communicate the ideals and role of Sande society in public life.

As much as Sande society has been researched, theorized and analyzed by western scholars, the full essence of the society is not understood by these outsiders, partly due to the privacy emphasized by the practice of the society members and partly due to western bias reporting on the practices of other cultures. Against the backdrop of this privacy or “secrecy,” as perceived by western explorers, there is a “public” side of Sande society and this side is presented through the Sande Sowo Wui (Sowei Mask). Part of the essence of the Sowei Mask is its role in the Sande music and dance training.

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One of the officers of Sande is the dancing Sowei known as Ndoli Jowei or Sampa (Bondo), she is the master dance teacher in the society who has also earned the privilege of wearing the sacred Sande mask called the Sowo wui (sowei mask) when she dances in public for very special occasions. The dancing Sowei is the embodiment of the ideals of female beauty and strength; Sande is the only  women’s society in Africa in which female dancers wear a mask. Although known as the public face of Sande, the dancing Sowei embodies the mystical spirit of Sande, its principle of privacy; the true identity of the woman wearing the mask can never be revealed in public.

Sande also molds women into storytellers. Even though the Mende people are one of very few in West Africa to have their own ideographic and syllabic writing system, they do not keep written records. Like most ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, the Mende rely on their oral tradition to pass down their history, culture and tradition to the next generation. Sande is one of the primary mediums of this tradition. Storytelling is a skill that is highly respected in Sierra Leonean culture; it is cultivated and nurtured in talented Sande women, who can formulate stories that stress not only Sande principles but also the culture and traditions of our society.

Drummer-Nyaha

Socio-Political element of Sande

In addition to its wide scope in Sierra Leone and beyond, Sande also has political relevance. Sierra Leone is generally a patriarchal society; male favored and male controlled social structure. However, Sande officers are highly respected elders in their respective communities, they deliberate along with their male counterparts in political, economic and judicial matters. Sande society plays a significant political role, as part of the hale institutions, it shares the responsibility of enacting and enforcing the code of conduct in the society, all individuals must adhere to such code and its tenets, whether or not they are members of the society, so long as they are dealing with Sande women.

Women’s membership in Sande gives them a powerful political platform in both local and national politics; Sande leaders are capable of marshaling large numbers of their members in support of candidates of their choice during elections. When a campaigning politician visits a particular village or town, if the Sande women of that locale do not support him or her, the dancing Sowei and her officers will not put on the elaborate celebration that indicates endorsement for the candidate. Without their support, a candidate usually does not stand a chance of winning in that constituency.

Sande Women’s Capacity for Empowerment

Probably long before Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and before the Women’s Movement in the United States and Europe, there was Sande society in Sierra Leone through which women were already asserting their gender rights and privileges. It is a vital part of Sierra Leone women’s social cycle. Sande is proof that African women have the capacity for collective agency, as exemplified by the various aspects of Sande Society of in Sierra Leone and beyond. Sande/Bondo has a tremendous potential in empowering women in Sierra Leone to once again, be able to resolve our own issues in a culturally sustainable manner.

Over the years, western led campaigns against female circumcision has trivialized our social institutions such as Sande/Bondo by stigmatizing female circumcision, which is part and parcel of Sande/Bondo society. But the fact is that Sande/Bondo is an African institution that has been empowering women for centuries and it holds the promise of providing agency through which women in Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone, can gain advancement not only in collectively resolving their own social problems but also in achieving advancement in the political sphere.

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Mammy Yoko – Mende Chief & Sande Woman

Our history tells us that the groundwork for women to play leadership roles in society is well laid in Sande/Bondo; the institution holds best practice lessons that could be transmitted to our modern governing structure in Sierra Leone. Leveraging these lessons would greatly help ease the way for women’s participation in political leadership to move us beyond the current pathetic state of affairs.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2015 is “Women’s Empowering: Make it Happen.” This is very instructive for African women but we must take a step back and ponder “HOW” do we “make it happen?” Do we continue with an agenda that has not necessarily empowered us? Or do we look into our own backyard to see what our grandmothers left us as a foundation on which we could build in our modern context?

Salone Women’s Empowerment:
How Do We Make It Happen?

 

 

 

Gallery

Women’s Empowerment in Sierra Leone: Sande Society in scope

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Among the Mende people of Sierra Leone, newly initiated girls in Sande are referred to as Mbogboni, girls and women who are not members of Sande are known as Kpowa. The general membership of Sande are Sande Nyaha (Sande women), … Continue reading

Women’s Empowerment: Spotlight on Sande/Bondo of Sierra Leone

WAKE UP FROM OUR UNCONSCIOUS COMPLACENCY

In our last post, we suggested that women in Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone, take this year’s International Women’s Day as a day of consciousness-raising for a look back at our social institutions that have historically empowered women – Sande/Bondo. This institution has been passed down to us from generation to generation; but over the years, the overwhelming nature of our socio-economic malaise has caused us to be what we perceive as being “unconsciously complacent” about our plight as women of this naturally endowed nation in which we have been totally left behind.

What we mean by this is that we have slowly grown into a society of women who are focused on our individual problems and achievements. In this unconscious complacent state of mind, we are satisfied with our individual achievements and almost never take collective measures to deal with our common issues. This has left us open to outsiders’ exploitation of our situation for their own glory.

Sankofa-SaloneWomen

On this international women’s day, we must do some deep self-reflection about how we perceive and approach our common problems as women of Sierra Leone; where we are the silent majority that is not only left behind in education and socio-economic and political achievements, but has been subject to the worst adverse effects of all the ills in our nation. We must seek a deeper understanding of the structure that is already in place, and which presents us with a wonderful possibility for our empowerment.

What is Sande/Bondo?

Sande/Bondo, in the simplest term, is a Social Institution. A social institution, as defined by sociologist Jonathan Turner (1997),

Is a complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures and organizing relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to fundamental problems in producing life-sustaining resources, in reproducing individuals, and in sustaining viable societal structures within a given environment.

By its principles and practices, Sande/Bondo fits this definition and then more; but Sande/Bondo should not be viewed only on face value, it must be explored for its deeper meaning and essence. The majority of the indigenous ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, as well as in other West African countries, partake in the Sande/Bondo institution.

Hills-Ftown

In more complex terms, Sande/Bondo cannot be easily described, as there are many aspects to it, including its practical, mystical and the public aspect. Sande/Bondo has been in Sierra Leone for ages and its basic function as an institution that trains and molds young women for womanhood has been it cornerstone.

Looking at this institution through the Mende culture of Sierra Leone as an example, Sande is part of the network of institutions called Hale, which provide a worldview for its members. In Mende culture, people are socially and culturally categorized as either Halemoi, those who belong to the network of hale institutions and are initiated into men’s and women’s societies, and Kpowa; those who are not in the hale and have not been initiated in any of the hale societies.

The Mende people, like most other groups in Sierra Leone, pass their culture and traditions down to the next generation through these Hale institutions, including the Sande. These institutions are therefore educational institutions through which a world of knowledge is imparted to all members, who then become enlightened. Therefore, a person who is not a member of these institutions, a Kpowa, does not have the same understanding about the fundamentals of life, as the halemoi perceives it. Rather than respect this perspective, outsiders, particularly Western researchers, have always referred to these institutions as “secret” societies.

So, what is Sande/Bondo? It is a women’s institution that is part of the larger network of hale social institutions, which has, for generations, provided a vital source of knowledge for women in our society and has provided a viable societal structure within which women in Sierra Leone have a societal structure through which we can be empowered to partake in socio-political  transformation of our nation.

We will touch on some of the aspects and essence of Sande/Bondo.

Stay tuned!

African Women’s Empowerment: Spotlight on Sande/Bondo Women’s Society

In current media reports, women in Africa are consistently presented as helpless and being helped with their problems. Over the years, countless non-profit organizations have been set up and continue to be set up daily all around the globe to “help African women” resolve the myriad of problems that plague them – from health issues to disparities in education. This has etched the image of women in Africa as helpless and unable to resolve their own problems without outsiders coming to their rescue. With this scenario of women’s condition of helplessness, it is difficult to conceive that women in Africa have social institutions that have given them agency to play vital roles in society.

Given the excess of social issues afflicting women in Africa today, including extreme poverty, poor health conditions and the prevalence of gender disparities at all levels of the social and political structures, and as more and more outsiders pour in to help resolve these problems, African women seem to have no agency or ability to collectively help themselves. This issue of African women’s seeming lack of agency and collective capacity today implores one particular question,

  • How have African women resolved their own social issues before the advent of non-governmental agencies that are now on the scene to rescue them?

As a woman from Sierra Leone, West Africa, I am keenly aware of women’s capability to resolve socio-political issues through women’s social institutions such as Sande/Bondo. Throughout history, Sande/Bondo women’s society has been the collective medium through which women have played viable roles in society as well as demonstrated their capacity to resolve their own issues rather than wait for others to “save them,” as current media reports would have us believe.

Sixteen tribes have co-existed in Sierra Leone for probably centuries, the Mende, Temne, Loko, Limba, Kissi, Mandingo, Koranko, Soso, Fulla, Kono, Vai, Sherbro, Krio, Yalunka, Krim and Gola. The majority of these groups live in the rural regions. With the legacy of colonization, Sierra Leone has struggled over the post independence years to partake in the global development paradigm. Although Sierra Leone is endowed with a rich tropical climate, fertile soil, abundant marine life and precious natural resources, including diamonds, gold, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore and chromite, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The decade long rebel war in the 1990s made matters worst and recovery has been slow, especially given the chronic corruption and ineffective leadership.

In the face of all the socio-economic problems affecting the country and people of Sierra Leone, it is easy for social institutions such as Sande/Bondo, to fall prey to erosion by western imperialistic agenda. Over the years, rather than strengthen such institutions so that women could benefit from their good practices, there has been a steady campaign to pull us away from our traditional practices. In the case of Sande/Bondo, the western-led global campaign against female circumcision has been mounted, in my opinion, as a campaign to erode the very institutions that have empowered women in our society; thereby perpetuating our dependency on western messiahs to “save” us from our traditional and cultural practices. We continue to be presented to the world as primitive and retrogressive and many of our problems are blamed on these traditional and cultural practices.

JustBecause

The official United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2015 is “Empowering Women – Empowering Humanity: Picture It!” In my view, African women should ponder this theme very seriously; we should take this year as a year of consciousness-raising for a look back at our social institutions that have historically “empowered women.”

Specifically, women of Sierra Leone must look back at our Sande/Bondo women’s society and uncover the good practice lessons that could be applied today to enhance women’s collective prospects for empowerment in Sierra Leone. Through these lessons, we could counter the discourse of helplessness and lamentation that currently pervades prevailing discourse on women of Sierra Leone and Africa. Doing so would also help us identify the empowering agency women already have that could be used in transforming our current sociopolitical situation into one that truly empowers and helps us achieve social justice in our society.

In the next few days leading up to International Women’s Day, March 8, 2015, we will put the spotlight on Sande/Bondo Women’s Society of Sierra Leone, highlighting the institutions various aspects and potential for empowering women.

Stay Tuned!