The Secret Societies

Time for an exotic blog entry from an exotic country. And what could be more appealing than tales of secret societies and more exotic than circumcision of small girl children – too exotic?
Most Sierra Leoneons are part of a secret society – and yes that is also what they themselves call them. I will tell you about the two major societies: the ‘Poro’ society for the men and the ‘Bondo’ society for the women.

The Poro is an ancient and cross-ethnic society. Historically they played the role of turning boys into men. The boys left the save haven of their mothers skirts when they were coming of age to join the society in ‘the bush’ for several years. Here they learnt the tribal culture: the tales, the dances, drinking poyo (palmwine) and even how to be with a woman (I’ve actually been told that the codes of conduct learned in this regard probably prevented many rapes) but also to master a craft like farming, hunting or the like.
I’ve even read that the Poro society was so strong during colonisation (nothing more uniting than a common foe) that it was used to organize the famous rebellion against – what was seen as - an unfair British tax-raise in what is named the Hut-Tax War. The different villages had prepared pile of stones of equal size. Then every day the local society leader would remove one stone, and thus made sure that everybody could prepare for synchronic acts of rebellion.
Nowadays the society is far from its former glory. It still seems to play a big role as a transmitter of culture, but the educational part has been removed altogether. An initiation can now be performed in few days, and will leave the new member with neat, highly visible parallel scars next to the eye. A high endurance level in terms of pain has always been considered manly, and these scars as well as the different marks and scratches all across the body are all indicators, that the societies are very manly indeed.
Time heals all wounds, and it does seem important to present to the youth so sort of cultural heritage to offer an alternative from the in-your-face-with-it’s-bling-bling-and-hungry-materialism American pop culture, which has made its clear and extremely visible mark in the mindset of these youngsters.

The Bondo societies are responsible for more lasting wounds. In many ways they resemble the Poro, but becoming a woman of course is different from becoming a man – in Sierra Leone it involves circumcision (or what is often referred to as FGM – female genital mutilation). This is done by the society women themselves; the so called sowies, and it can involve girls from a very early age but also girls in their puberty.
I’m come across some different approaches to battling FGM by organizations down here. One local NGO explained how they offered the sowies money and seeds, animal husbandry or the like to “compensate” them for the lost revenues from the parents to the girls, that needs to be initiated. By biggest concern with that project, was that they really hadn’t set up strong monitoring mechanism. But it can be a bit problematic to monitor what is labelled ‘secret’.
A very interesting solution is provided by a local preschool being financed by a swiss lady. The institution is only for uncircumcised girls. But a school that excludes your daughter from the local society (and thus probably from marriage) isn’t very attractive or sustainable. What she did was to talk the Bondo society into accepting her as a member (without the FGM). This sort of positive dialogue – based in recognition of the importance of the local structures – has made it possible to many of the girls to be initiated in the same way. The teachers at the school told us, that the kids are still watched upon as a sort of second rate members; but that is still an improvement from not being a member at all.
That is really an illuminating example of the power of dialogue and mutual interest to understand each other despite hugh differences.