|A 'Bush Girl' - the white chalk paint can symbolize many things including an 'in-between' phase before her graduation when she is considered a kind of walking dead.|
Poro and Sande
First off there are two main societies: Poro and Sande. Poro is the society for men, Sande for women. There are many other societies as well, but these are the main traditional societies (for example, the Krahn that have a society more like those of Ivory Coast, and the Masonic Order which functioned in Liberia as a kind of secret society among Americo-Liberians yet rumored to have practiced ritual sacrifices just like Poro). Within Poro and Sande there are sub-groups that are designed for certain strata of society: chief, Zoe (pronounced "Zoh" meaning priest), and the regular ordinary initiate.
Poro and Sande have held a great amount of power in Liberian society and in many cases they still do. I have heard the rumor on several occasions that no one can hold a political position in Liberia without being a member of Poro or Sande. I'm not sure that is true, but that sentiment is easy to find in Liberia.
Citizenship by Initiation
What is fairly well documented is that many traditional communities do not consider the uninitiated to be a citizen of their village, clan, or even tribe. The uninitiated are considered 'unclean', 'childish' and/or unfit for marriage until they have been initiated (this usually involves circumcision). Therefore, the advantages to joining are so great that many parents are eager to place their child in 'bush school' during enrollment season.
Because the price for putting your child in bush school can be expensive for the poorer members of the community a controversial practice has arisen: 'forced initiation' or 'forced enrollment'.
From what I've been told, 'forced enrollment' used to occur on a certain day of enrollment season, after the formal enrollment and dues had been paid by other students (usually some chickens, rice, palm wine, kola nuts, or some other form of currency).
The Day of Kidnapping
On this one particular day the masked school master(s) would roam through the village and "kidnap" any child they found out of his or her hut. This 'kidnapping' was understood as a way for those in the community without sufficient funds to get their child into bush school so their child could be a respectable citizen of society.
Parents understood that if they could not pay the enrollment dues they could leave their child outside of the hut on that day and they would be grabbed and taken to the secret location for initiation.
Even today there are certain places where one is advised to not travel at certain times because the society will attempt to kidnap travelers and perform their initiation rituals upon them even if they have no intention of joining!
Female Genital Mutilation
Just last summer there was a case in Liberian court about a girl who had been unwillingly taken by a society and forced to undergo female circumcision, which brings up another controversial practice: deemed FGM 'female genital mutilation' by its opponents, and about which I'd prefer not to elaborate except to say that the US DoS estimates 50% of Liberian women have undergone this sort of procedure.
Benefits of Poro and Sande?
I've already introduced several controversial aspects of the societies, what about the good things advocates claim they do for Liberia? Well, the publicly stated purpose of these societies is to instill a cultural norm for the community.
For example, in bush school the initiates are taught their cultural history, folklore, and customs. They are taught to respect their elders and how to perform certain tasks within the community. While this model of generational wilderness school is not necessarily a bad model for teaching you will find the controversies have not been about the model of teaching per se, as much as they have been about what is taught in them and what is done to the students (see FGM above).
|My sisters at a village in the Liberian bush. Notice the two girls with white chalk faces - I was told they were in bush school and on leave to help out with the chores until the next session.|
What exactly is taught in the secret society bush schools? Well, it is called a secret society for a reason! One of the things that is apparently taught is how to keep secrets. Seriously.
Secret keeping is highly valued in Liberian culture. Many Liberians know what goes on behind closed doors, but not many are vocal about these things and consider that secret keeping to be a virtue.
Bush School Curriculum
What has slipped out about bush school curriculum through the years is that there are various stories and songs and drum beats and dance steps and secret words taught in these ceremonies in the bush.
One man revealed that all he did after his circumcision was go back into the 'sacred grove' and eat rice and hear a few stories and then he went home the same day initiated. Perhaps he was kept at the lowest level of initiation because the society knew that he wasn't one for keeping secrets!
What you are taught there also seems to depend on how much money you pay the teachers, how long you go, what tribe you are with, who your teachers are, and what caste you belong to among several other factors. There also appears to be levels or degrees of initiates and different lessons for different occupations like hunter, herbalist, farmer, chief, zoe, etc.
The Bush Devil
|Bush girls seen from a taxi seem just as curious in us|
Origin of the term
This is a term that is carried over from the old days of Christian missionaries to Liberia and Sierra Leone who called these masked, dancing people 'possessed by the devil'. This interpretation would make sense to a Christian worldview as the mask is viewed by these communities as having a spirit that needs "fed" (more on that later) and the ability to transform its wearer into another being.
The Devil Bush
This terminology has also carried over to the sacred grove where the bush school takes place. These areas are commonly called 'Devil Bush' in the common Liberian vernacular. One is forbidden to enter a 'devil bush' without being invited and this was at one time punishable by death. I'm not interested in seeing if this law is still in practice and if I were to see a spot marked in the jungle (usually with palm branches making an archway near the entrance or a hanging medicine bag) I would avoid it.
Video of a Krahn 'Devil' visiting a community. The Krahn have a similar secret society but seem
to be distinct from Poro and more akin to Ivorian socities.
to be distinct from Poro and more akin to Ivorian socities.
and the Civil War
and the Civil War
You will meet people in Liberia that believe that the cause of all of Liberia's problems are because they have neglected the ancient ways of Poro and Sande and the Divine Spirit of these societies is punishing them. You will also meet people who say that God allowed Liberia to suffer because of the atrocities that take place in these societies and the sooner they are eradicated the better for everyone.
Whatever the position one takes, the recent Civil Wars in Liberia revealed just how easy it can be for these secret societies to be hijacked and for devastating effect. Children were often 'initiated' into various paramilitary societies and asked to perform rites of passage (i.e. atrocities which were often under the influence of drugs and alcohol). These young soldiers were also seen wearing 'masks' such as wigs, bridal dresses, and actual Western Halloween masks while performing their deeds of war. The warlords became the new chiefs and Zoes and the law was to follow them.
Condemned Secret Societies
(Neegee and Human Leopards)
However, this hijacking of the traditional societies is not a recent development. There have been outbreaks of this sort of obscene violence and barbarism before: for example the Human Leopard Society.
Poro and Sande both publically agree that the Human Leopard Society is an evil secret society. This group and also the Neegee Society ('neegee' is the Bassa word for crocodile; literally "water leopard") are both openly condemned by Poro and Sande. Some hold that this public condemnation is only spin and that Poro is more than ready to practice human sacrifice when stronger power is needed.
Feeding the Fetish
Societies like the Neegee are known to prey on humans to feed their 'fetish' (usually a carved wooden or waxen image of the spirit of their society). This fetish-god is attended to by its Zoe (priest) and so it is the Neegee Zoe who knows the rituals for both placating the spirit of the leopard and for gaining power from this spirit. One of the powers they are said to obtain from this spirit is the ability to transform, werewolf like, into a leopard or water-leopard (crocodile).
Ritualistic Murder and Cannibalism
The Neegee society is also notorious for ritualistically murdering their victims and making it look like a leopard or crocodile attack. The tell-tale signs of the ritualistic murder however is that certain body parts are missing from the victim.
These body parts are esteemed for their purported ability to instill specific powers in the person who eats them under the proper guidance of the Zoe. Part of that ceremony seems to involve the fetish-god being fed some of the victim's blood and fat. Once that spirit is satisfied then the initiates eat specific body parts for specific powers themselves. The distribution of these body parts is usually determined by the rank of the members with the highest ranking getting the choice parts.
Poro, Sande, and Ritualistic Murder?
While the Neegee Society is known for this ritualistic cannibalism, it has been assumed by some that Poro and Sande also historically engaged in these sort of practices. This could stem from the fact that new initiates are described as having been eaten by the society spirit while in the devil bush.
Part of this process does indeed involve scarification (which are interpreted as 'teeth marks') being made upon the initiate to show that he has been eaten by the spirit, which is the necessary precursor to being 'reborn' into society as a true citizen of the community. You will see many people in Liberia with this sort of scarification. They will as a rule not talk about these marks if you bring this up for discussion.
A 'Devil' on stilts - similar to the one I saw from my taxi in Monrovia last summer.
As I continue on with this survey I realize how much this only scratches the surface. I haven't even touched on masks, the taboo laws, animal spirit guides, graduation ceremonies, markings, amulets, sassywood ordeals, carved stools, staffs, degrees, transmigration of souls, lightning manipulation, medicine huts, juju, et al.
T. J. Aldridge photo of Poro Tassos (priests) in nearby Sierra Leone, 1901, Cambridge University Library
There are books upon books written about these sorts of things and let it just suffice to say that the impact of secret societies upon Liberian culture is widespread and pervasive beyond what these few paragraphs can illuminate. Perhaps I will write more on this subject in the future, but for now just be aware that there is a culture in Liberia that lies beneath the culture and one can feel that it is there.