Tag Archives: secret societies

A run-in with Sande society business

I just received the following email from a reader (who asked to remain anonymous) in response to an excerpt I posted from Tim Kelsall’s new book.

Giving Kola” [...] brought back a memory from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nimba.

I was an Inland Fisheries Volunteer so we had motorcycles.  I was coming back home from a long day of aquaculture extension activity (drinking palm wine and shooting the breeze with some of my most innovative fish farmers) and I was passing through a rubber tree grove when I noticed a line of people in the distance walking up the road.  My first thought was, these folks are returning from their Ku (farm work party).  As I got closer my engine died.  Very strange. . .  I got off the motorcycle and checked to see if I had flipped the gas valve off or something.  Everything looked normal.  About that time the line of people reached my spot in the road.

It was a group of ancient looking women.  I spoke to them in my best Mano, asking them how they were and if they were coming from their farm. They were very kind and cordial, but I did not fully understand their answer.  Then I noticed. . . The lead woman had a turtle shell, nearly as ancient as she looked.  This could mean only one thing, Sande society business.  She held out her hand for a hand shake, supporting her arm with her other hand by holding it nearly at the wrist (a sign of deep respect).  I was compelled by custom to shake her hand.  But I was a little scared.  I took off my helmet and my sweat seemed unnaturally cold.  These old ladies were not what they seemed.  I did a micro-second debate in my head and decided NOT to take off my leather glove.  I shook her hand and then gave the old but sprightly lady a nickel.  She held the nickel to her forehead and did a little jig and then they continued down the road chattering among themselves.

I was left there alone with my broken down motorcycle.  I thought to myself, “you have been living in the bush too long, you are getting spooky”.  As I contemplated walking the machine another mile to my house, I thought what the heck, I’ll give it another try.  I hopped on and gave it a kick start, the engine engaged as if nothing at all had been wrong with it in the first place.  Spooky!

“You are giving away our secrets to put a few cents in your pockets.”

The BBC has a short video segment on witchcraft in Liberia.  It’s not bad.  The narrator seems to have gotten access to a Poro society ceremony.  (This is not explicitly said, but the only people shown are teenage boys.)  Someone is quoted saying that the masked devil dancing should not be confused with Satan.  Cut to an interview with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  She explains that the idea of the devil was used to moderate people during a time without rule of law.  (Yes, she uses the past tense.)  Cut to an interview with an American missionary who describes a pull many Liberians feel between their secret society and more traditional lives, and modernity.  (I don’t think this is an accurate dichotomy.  I think it would be fascinating to read an anthropological account of how secret societies have changed over the years.)

I was thinking about how the BBC managed to get access to the Poro society ceremony, and record it, and immediately thought of something I read in Sizwe’s Test by Jonny Steinberg.  In the (absolutely amazing) book Steinberg follows “Sizwe,” a young South African man who refuses to be tested for HIV despite the availability of free treatment.  Steinberg describes a discussion he had with Sizwe about why Sizwe did not want his real name used in the book.  None of the views Sizwe expressed to Steinberg would come as a surprise to those who knew him.  In fact the views were fairly typical. Yet still, he wanted anonymity.   Sizwe said:

“I would be accused of giving away black people’s secrets,” he said. “‘It is like what you are accused of when you act as a guide.  When Graeme and the bird-watchers were there at their cottage, and I was showing them around the forest, my cousin and I organized a cultural tour for them.  We took them to see a sangoma, an inyanga, to see traditional dance, to see the floors of the hut being cleared with cow dung.  They watched the ritual when a goat is being slaughtered.

“After they left, some people in Ithanga were very angry with us.  They said, ‘You go around showing the white people our culture, but they show us none of theirs.   You are giving away our secrets to put a few cents in your own pockets.  But it is our secrets you are making money off, our culture.’

“I am afraid that I would be accused of the same thing.”…”They will say I have sold something that is not for sale.”