Saturday, June 16, 2012

Societies Within Society - The Secret Societies of Liberia

You will come into contact with Secret Societies if you stay long in Liberia.  You will hear all sorts of things about them both good and bad.  You will probably see all sorts of evidence of them, like the masked and raffia dressed man I witnessed last summer dancing in the Monrovia streets on 10 foot stilts.  If you desire to better understand the complex picture painted by Liberian culture it is essential to have a basic introduction to these societies.  

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.  

Forced Enrollment

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.

This location for this bush school is not well hidden and often times they are not.  The palm woven walls around the meeting place is a barrier to non-initiates and should not be crossed. Trails in the bush leading to even more secluded spots are even more forbidden and should be avoided.

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.

Secret Keeping

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
Secret Societies

Bush girls seen from a taxi seem just as curious in us
You also need to be aware that the term 'devil' is commonly heard in Liberia concerning secret societies.  The man I saw last summer dancing on stilts and wearing a mask would have been called a 'devil'.  

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.

Secret Societies 
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.


  1. So in what year is the Poro and Sande initiation?

  2. Great question Jimmy. I wish I could give you a concise answer. My assessment is that there appear to be different starting years for different regions, tribes, villages. One credible source seems to hint that the year that is chosen is based on the age of the future chief or a future zoe. The idea being that when that future chief is at the right age all the other boys in his age range would go through initiation with him as their "small" chief. This way they get used to him being their chief when he gets older. Zoes also are seen as needing to be initiated in order to perform certain rituals for harvest, etc. and so when a candidate for a future zoe reaches a certain age it might trigger an initiation year as well. I'm sure there are other factors, but I'm no expert on this. Hopefully your question will inspire others with more experience to answer, but the nature of secret societies is that people don't talk about secret societies (kind of like the first rule of fight club).

  3. Was charles taylor a member of the poro?

  4. Heath is correct in that the time of opening the Bush School (Sacred Grove) for a new class of initiates varies from group to group. Although the Loma e.g. had a traditional initiation period for the boys lasting for seven years, and the Senufo had three seven-year periods for a man (i.e. Boys', Men's, and Elders' Poro), this was influenced by such factors as war, disease, or even when the Paramount Chief's son entered puberty. In some groups the Sande Bush alternated with the Poro Bush.

    Re: Charles Taylor… Poro membership provides such great influence, particularly in the hinterland, that many Liberian officials have historically gone to great lengths and considerable expense to join and (fraudulently) establish themselves as belonging to lineages of important chiefdoms. In the 1990s Charles Taylor, a Gola, declared himself “Dahkpanah”, a title meaning not merely a chief medicine man in Kpelle (Utas:133) but the supreme head of all the Zoes in Liberia. His actual self-proclaimed title was “His Excellency Dahkpanah Dr. Charles Ghankey Taylor President of the Republic of Liberia.” When he was incarcerated in the Netherlands in 2006 and awaiting trial, the Liberian traditional rulers (Elders) retrieved the title from the ex-President through their head, Paramount Chief Jallah Lone. Lone said that one needed to progress through several levels of Poro in order to rise to the position of Dahkpanah, something Taylor didn’t do. William R. Tolbert, the President of Liberia from 1971 to 1980, was of Americo-Liberian ancestry. He also appropriated the title of the Supreme Zo of the Poro Society. (Exerpted from Carey 2013:455)

  5. FGM PROSTITUTION CASTRATION CURSE BY PARENTS- THE BUTCHERS O F WOMANHOOD ( THE COVENANT OF THE FLESH). When God told Abraham to sign the covenant of the flesh, he circumcised all the male children and he was circumcised. The message was direct and in plain language. GENESIS 17: 1-27. The agreement was strategically initiated and the male child grew beholding daily his agreement with God at every call of nature throughout his married life.. The covenant of the flesh for a man is with ease to behold with no ill feelings or regrets without medication required afterwards in life. When God told Moses that the Children of Israel shall not circumcise their girls, the message was given in a spiritual language and bore two warnings. The Israelis parents shall not sexually mutilate their daughters and fathers we commanded not have carnal knowledge (incest) of their daughters making them prostitutes. Fgm prostitution is a satanic sacrifice for a woman, of secrecy with miseries and constrains of disgrace to behold accompanied by many cases of traumatic child delivery requiring medication. There is no fold of a fore skin in a sexual organ of a woman to cut round that hides dirty stuffs that stinks. There are no undue growths that warrant cutting and scrapping in her sexual organ. There is no part of her sexual organ that rots as she grows old from childhood. Those who justify fgm benefits in in any form are mare agents of satan in sheep skin. There are blunt lies of those women anointed by satan to propagate fgm when they claim women that are not cut stinks. Homes ,cities and countries where fgm is not practiced would have been stinking hell if their claim is true which would have been an open truth known by all. The devil is the father of lies and his accomplished do the falsehood. Fgm is the most horrible heart breaking tribute to satanic sacrifice in parenthood accepted and appreciated by many communities. They have given fgm prostitution a satanic religious positive face value with wholesome none existent cleanliness which is mockery to wisdom and Word of truth. Today those women who favor fgm feel their marriages are under attack and endangered with the unfolding truth on falsified physical and spiritual beneficial issues acclaimed in fgm. Even when some advocate for not cutting much for her benefit and her husband ,this vindicate the opening door of intended sexual deprivation and suppression for the girl child bearing all the shortcomings of fgm. All they have is to tell epic of lies to keep their husbands mentally caged in culture and remain relevant to their husbands. When some women vouch for safe mother child delivery, the devil is in front with others women in destroying the very gate way of safe mother child delivery system in fgm without iota of remorse. Parents pay homage to satan in fgm. In old days old women who had undergone fgm used to pass direct messages to young men initiates that a woman once she grows old the man if he wants and wishes to marry another woman he should do so and not disturb her. It was clear message for the young men that past child bearing age they were not readily available for their husbands at their matrimonial bed. They passed the burden of fgm prostitution castration generation curse to young married women. Fgm destroys the natural glorious lustrous beauty of womanhood which men are able to note today. During fgm initiation ceremonies, immoral cultural songs are accepted and openly sang for a satanic banquet. Fgm remains the formidable honorable sin favored by many parents globally enslaved by satan .Let men love those ladies who have under gone the awful risk of unkind cut in Christ’s Love that bonds on love. Let those ladies not condemn themselves . Let them abound in dignified liberty that is in Christ and enjoy full life and do away with satanic barbaric fgm for their daughters.

  6. I was born in liberia in 1951 to missionary parents and lived in three areas of the country my first 16 years. Back in the day my place of birth was geah bar zondo, bassa county. I spent years in krohn and tappi as well. My dad was a bush pilot and trekker/adventurer who hiked to out villages some of which had never seen a white person. I was a tag along at times and will only relay one of many devil bush stories to illustrate the power and evil i witnessed as a boy of six.
    We came upon a devil bush location about 3 days walk from our village/mission station which scared the heck out of our guides. About a quarter mile further up the trail we came upon a hand dug trench about 3 ft deep 5 ft long and maybe 2 ft wide. A small childs decomposing body was bent double crosswise and wedged down in the trench. Our guides took us on a half hour jog before resting and explaining. It was a child they said who probably was homesick and tried to sneak off and got caught. The country devil would then lay the child across the trench and jump up and down on their back til they broke in half. Other kids in camp were forced to watch as a warning. I personally never encountered anything "good" about the devil bush. Centuries of evil doesnt change evil to good.

  7. I am very glad to hear from most of you what has been written here and discussed. It is my pleasure to introduce you to the LIFT LIBERIA FESTIVAL to be held in November next year. All preparations and documentations of the various cultural aspects are going to be documented. A step to attempt compiling some of the Oral history within these celebrations and ceremonies. If any of you are interested or have any question or enquiry please contact me on