Mende religion [Kpa Mende (p. 25) of Sierra Leone]

p. 16 Introduction (by Bryan Wilson)

"Dreams supply portents of future events, and they prompt men to embark on particular courses of religious action. ... One is reminded of the role ascribed to dreams in the Old Testament; on the part they played in the lives or the cults of mediaeval saints and heroes; and in the various religious movements among North American Indians from the Earth-lodge and Bole-Maru cults among the Yana, Patwin and Wintun, the Smohalla ‘Dreaming’ religion, the ancestor dreams of the Klamath and Modoc of Oregon, the dream-promptings of ceremonial in the Pow-wow religion of the Chippewa and Menomini in Wisconsin, to the elaborate cultivation of contemplative dream states in the Peyote religion. ...

fn. 2 – "On the Earth-lodge cult ..., see Cora Du Bois, ‘The 1870 Ghost Dance’, Anthropological Records, 3, 1, Berkeley : University of California Press, 1939, pp. 1-151; and id., The Feather Cult of the Middle Columbia. Menasha, Wisc., George Babta, 1938; Leslie Spier, ‘The Ghost Dance of 1870 among the Klamath of Oregon’, University of Wisconsin Publications in Anthropology, 2, 2, (November, 1927), pp. 39-56.

On Smohalla, see Click Relander, Drummers and Dreamers, Caldwell Idaho, Caxton Press, 1956.

More generally, see James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Fourteenth report of the Bureau of Ethnology ... of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, ... 1896.

On the Pow-wow movement, see J. S. Slotkin, ‘Menomini Pow-wow’, Milwaukee Museum Publications in Anthropology, 4, Milwaukee, 1957, and

on the Peyote religion see, inter alia, id., The Peyote Religion, Glencoe, Ill., Free Press, 1956."

the religious role of dreams ... was an important element in the Taro cult in Papua and New Guinea, and among the enthusiasts who surrounded Paliau on Manus in the Admiralty Islands"

fn. 3 – "For the Taro cult, see F. E. Williams, Orokaiva Magic, ... Oxford University Press, 1928; and

on Paliau, see Theodore Schwartz, ‘The Paliau Movement in the Admiralty Islands, 1946-54’, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History (New York), 49, Pt. 2, 1962, pp. 207-422."

p. 27 – 1.1 Mende origins

"Ko,o, and Kpa as resulting from Mane contact with Bullom and Kissi respectively."

p. 45 – 3.1 Supreme Being

"Leve njeini translates as ‘Leve appointed it’ – or ‘Leve arranged things this way’. ... Leve njeinisia aptly as ‘the decrees of Leve’."

p. 49 – 3.2 Nge-wo,

"nge(le) wo,(o,), meaning literally ‘sky – long ago (distant)’ ... . ...

Ngewo, was once in much closer direct contact with them [humans], but escaped far away into the sky, because of the latter’s petty importunings."

p. 59 – 4.3 cosmic divine couple

"Ngewo, and his wife Mando, (i.e. earth-mother)"

pp. 74-76 – 5.2.1 Ndo,gbo,-jusui




Ndo,gbo, ["ndo,gbo,i ... red land ... (from ndo,(lo,), earth, country; and kpo,u/gbo,u, red)" (p. 59)] "Susui > jusui, ‘deep/recess’, indicates that this is a spirit of the deep bush".


"if a deformed child was born ... they said "the evil spirit has invaded the village.""


"Ndo,gbo,jusui may gain control over his client, and if he does so, he will take him away to the deepest part of the bush and hold him in thrall. If the client eventually does escape back to the village, he will be ‘crazy’ ".

pp. 77-78 – 5.2.2 Tingo,i & Njaloi

p. 77

"Tingo,i appears variously as a snake- or fish-like creature with a woman’s head. It ... usually sits on a rock combing its long hair and looking into a mirror. ... A person who sees tingo,i may try to catch the mirror or comb".

p. 78

"Njaloi is a cruel spirit whose light attracts and confuses fishermen or straying travellers. ... the njaloi needs fresh prey for its hungry offspring. It lights a lamp and attracts the unwary".

pp. 80-81 – 5.2.3 Te,mui (pl. Te,muisia) &c.


various spirits


"The te,muisia are spirits, and they ... look like small humans. Some people used to put them in a box and fed them. You would come across them at night ... . People used to take them for swearing (so,ndu, official oath ...). ... They themselves will tell you what their laws are; that they like and what they don’t like. ... They come to you in the first place because they like you."


"the te,muisia can be said to be localised ... in the hilly areas".


"There are ... other ... spirits such as

tikpo,i (stick) which appears as a floating log to drown those it considers undesirable, and

jo,we,i ... which is an attentuated being in the form of a chain."

pp. 82-83 – 5.3 Tumbui (pl. Tumbuisia)




"the tumbuisia ... were smaller in stature than present-day Mende people, and tumbuisia venerated today are the spirits (ngafanga) of these original, autochthonous ‘dwarfs’ ... . ... The spirits ... tumbuisia have strong associations with abandoned villages – which is one reason a house will not be pulled down, but allowed


to fall down. ... The actual present-day occupants do not in any way consider themselves to be the owners ... of the land, but simply usufructers, and it is this which explains the ... propitiatory offerings and sacrifices which precede ... every new exploitation of the bush for their personal use. It is first necessary to obtain the authorization from, and pay tribute to, the legitimate overlords."

pp. 92-93 – 6.2.1 ‘human’ spirits


redincarnate shortlived children


"Occasionally, if a firstborn child dies, and very likely if a second also dies, the interpretation might be made that its spirit is ... dissatisfied with the family into which it was born. Such a spirit ... to prevent it leaving the bodies of subsequent children, ... will be begged to remain. ...


So, a child suspected of hosting a discontented spirit will be treated most kindly, and is frequently soothed ... and made to feel most welcome. And should it die, the next child born would be scrutinized for marks such as those made on the previously dead child ... [as] proof that the spirit of the previous child has returned ... . In this case the child’s spirit would again be implored to settle down into the family, and assured of sympathetic treatment. And the child would be given a name which indicated that the family know it is a wandering spirit and beg it to remain. Such names are lombei – ‘stand ... here’; ... jiilo – ‘let this one remain’; ... ko,ne – ‘please, I beg’; manu – ‘forgive’; and so on."

pp. 114-121 – 7.3 halei (‘spiritual power’) in secret societies (bla)




"Njayeibla are ... people who ... have had halei revealed to him – or her – in a dream-experience. The power or ‘medicine’ revealed, was to be found at the bottom of the river ... . {cf. medicine found at bottom of river in a dream by Songhay sorcerers} It is specifically for people who suffer from mental disorders, ... and initiation serves to mark to initiate or set him aside as a protected person ... . There are various Njayei lodges ... . ... The Njayei is in session for much of the year, ... to cure ‘crazy people’ ... . ...


A person dreams this halei and then goes and gets it – always under the water. When you have the dream you will become crazy and begin to sing Njayei songs."


kpaa [‘spear’ (p. 116)] halei : "It is customary ... for a hunter to deposit the head of an animal killed in the hunt ... . ... Everyone shuts his eyes while the leader says four times ... ‘... the Kpaa caused Sina to sweat’."


legend of origin of kpaa halei : "a young woman ... dreamed ... to cure her husband ... . The woman did what Ngewo, had shown her in her dream ... . The husband was cured immediately ..., lost his hump and resumed his former upright stature."


"Men who are impotent ... would go to ... a family, where ‘the women would serve him’, which from the context suggested much more than providing a special concoction. The halei involved here, is called mo,yo, halei." ["The constituents are ... black peppers and ... ginger" (fn. 89)]


"Kondo halei is presented in a preparation of leaves, burned and put in a large snail shell ... which is hung over one’s doorway ... . In a ceremony at which one joins, liquid is put into a person’s eyes (to enable that person to ‘see’ witches)".

pp. 123-128 – 8.1 ndilei & sibe,ngui




transmutation of "the ndilei from snake to stone"


"the word ndilei can refer ... to a python" [" ‘boa’ or ‘ndile’ medicine" (fn. 101)]


"People speak of the ‘ndilei-bird’, ... perhaps a large bat, which shrieks at night" [" ‘ndili’ (sic) also refers to a huge fruit bat, hypsignathus monstruosus, which migrates, and returns only when the mangoes are very ripe." (fn. 100)]


"The object ndilei can transform itself into an extremely attractive member of the opposite sex, but unless ndilei is ‘nurtured’ or ‘fed’, its power will atrophy."


"A sibe,ngui ... is like a stone, flat and red in the centre, and shiny. ... it is believed to be able to paralyze and otherwise incapacitate adults ... .


It is said to resemble in size and shape, a duck-egg. ... To make sibe,ngui it is necessary first to obtain the right stone (naturally occurring), then to pour a mixture of leaves and water (forming a reddish liquid) on the stone ... . ... the owner nay take ... sibe,ngui hidden about his person and ... obtain articles from the victim – nail parings, hair ... . Then at night the owner will dream of the victim".

p. 146 – 9.3.2 Njalei & spirits (ngafanga)

"The Njayei members themselves, having originally ... obtained their halei from the river (nja = water) after a dream disclosing its whereabouts, will return periodically to the riverside to invoke spirits specifically associated with Njayei".

pp. 152-153 – 9.5.1 Sande & its halei (power)




"Another kind of halei is believed to strike down or ‘fall on’ men who are temerarious enough to spy on Sande proceedings, or who fail to stay indoors with eyes averted when the announcement is made that the Sande women are coming into town. {cf. Peeping Tom who spied on Lady Godiva} After the [female] initiation ceremonies are completed, the women and new Sande-members parade through the town, while all the men remain indoors and do not look. On this occasion, the men explain their own behaviour by saying that among the women, who will


be naked, are their own mothers and sisters. To see these women would be shameful (ngufengo,) and ... [would be punished by] the power of Sande halei itself, which is believed to cause bosin or swelling of the testes, in the over-curious." ["Hydroceles, which are quite common among the men, and some are grotesquely large, are often attributed to Sande halei." (fn. 140)]

p. 155 – 9.6 major secret societies

"Po,ro, and Sande for all men and all women respectively;

Humo,i for all Mende people, irrespective of sex ... and

Njayei which is for all who need it, by virtue of their mental illness. ...

Wunde ... exists only among the Kpaa-Mende people, and ... is limited to fourteen Chiefdoms."

pp. 161-164 – 10.3 dreaming of witchcraft




[dream] "the kondo bome,i or witch-net, to ‘catch’ any witch trying to enter the house. Consequently the entry was prevented and the would-be interloper caught ... . He felt suspended over the threshold ... by some invisible agent."

162, fn. 154

"The ‘witch-net’, which looks like a small piece of reticulated fabric, is fixed to the inside wall above the door. It is believed to stretch invisibly across the doorway and to catch any illegal entrant."


"his experience was a dream."

p. 164 [waking result of this dream] "elaborate confession ceremony, with each individual being reconciled ..., and mutual forgiveness."

p. 165 – 10.4 voluntary confessions of witchcraft

"Witchcraft experiences are real, but since people do not make a clear distinction between the reality of experiences during sleeping or waking periods, there is no need for them to distinguish ... physical anthropophagy and ... dream-experience anthropophagy."

pp. 167-169 – 11.1 relevant dreamings




"Dreams are understood by Mende people to be one of the ways in which Ngewo, transmits orders and information to humanity."


"in the case of witchcraft previously quoted [pp. 162-164], the young man did not advert to the fact that when he ‘saw’


witches he was actually asleep; there are numerous cases of confessions being made by people who admitted to having eaten human flesh. On the basis of such confessions they were deemed guilty and executed (cf. Kalous [: Cannibals and Tongo Players of Sierra Leone. Trentham Pr,] 1974 ...) by agents of the British government who would never have thought to ask the self-confessed cannibals if they happened to be asleep in bed at the time".


"Through dreams a person may discover some food-avoidance to be observed ... . And dreams may point to hitherto unknown sources of power (halei), and idicate to the dreamer how such power is to be obtained. In fact all ‘medicine’ and charms, whatever their nature or attributes, ... find their fundamental origin in a physiological dream. Any object at all can be transformed into ‘medicine’ and consecrated as such, on the simple condition that an order come from on high and designate it in a dream as being the object needed for the situation".


"Through dreams people may get to know the fate and state of happiness of the deceased, and may be instructed to take some action to aid those departed ones".


[instance of a dreamer-preacher :] "He maintained that in his dream his spirit (ngafe,i), had been transported out of his body to heaven ... . He received power and instructions from Ngewao,, and began to preach to the people."


"everyone who claims to have some extra special powers for the benefit of the community either appeals directly to a dream by way of legitimation, or is able to trace back the pedigree of such power to a dream-experience of the person from whom he himself inherited it."

pp. 173-174 – 11.2 gbe,se sibling of twins




"As soon as a mother has delivered twins ..., she will try to become pregnant again (the normal rules of sexual sequestration are waived) so as to give birth to gbe,se, whose power is operative from birth, ... and this is fully mature even though gbe,se is an infant. Gbe,se is ... a mediator between twins and others. Gbe,se is also an interpreter of twins’ wishes and activity ... . Gbe,se has the ability to control the twins ... by intervening to stop one from harming the other, and ... by ‘begging’ a twin spirit to desist from harming parents or townspeople."


"with the twins gbe,se has the ability to protect his or her house and its occupants from marauding witches. ...


Gbe,se can ... make demands on people ..., and may ask someone for food or a small loan. And if anyone were to refuse ..., that person might just find that he or she became unaccountably lame."

p. 175 "Either before they are born or after a few weeks of life, the twins will communicate spiritually with another twin in the village, to reveal their destiny, their likes and dislikes, their temperament and the taboos which they will observe, the standard being the avoidance of the meat of the monitor-lizard, paame,i".

pp. 180-181 – 12.3 diviners / fortune-tellers




"Ke,nyawunde was cited as the ... founder of the diviners. Ke,nya was given as the esoteric name for dust or fine sand, and ke,nyawunde, by examining dust, was able to discover vital information. The power of these diviners ... was from Ngewo,".

"The power of divination is usually gained through a dream-experience, but may nevertheless be passed down from father to son or through other family links."


[how a man became a diviner :] He "dreamed that someone put pebbles or stones from a bag, on the ground. The apparition called him to watch the pebbles, and specified a person in the town who would die after two days. It happened. ... He used to practice with his father’s pebbles, until the dream occurred again, and he was told to go to a place in the bush where he would find pebbles for his own use. This too happened ... . ... He knew the power was from Ngewo, ... since it came through a dream, and dreams are means whereby Ngewo, and ngafanga, spirits, communicate with people."


"There are five named stones each deemed to represent a spirit and indicating variously : a man, a woman, a favourable verdict, an unfavourable verdict, and a reprieve. The stones, about three dozen in all, are grouped in seven ranks on the mat on which the to,to,gbe,mo,i sits. He then interprets their significance, determining whether a man or a woman is involved, by word or action, and whether a matter of life and death is involved. ... Two throws are necessary : the first to identify the problem or a miscreant, and the second to determine what must be done."

pp. 183-201 – 12.4 ke,mamo,i (witchfinder)




[source of witchcraft, according to the ke,mamo,i] "Witchcraft ... takes hold in people’s lives when people are less than fully open-hearted. All wickedness is ultimately because people hate each other or are jealous or suspicious or afraid. These emotions and motivations cause people to act antisocially, and once evil has taken hold in a village, then witchcraft can easily spread and flourish. ...


[treatment of persons convicted of witchcraft, as recommended by the ke,mamo,i] "we must exercise magnanimity and mercy to these people who have nothing, and nowhere to go. So, ... let the people of this village make it their business to see that these [persons convicted of witchcraft] are fed and clothed and housed and able to live out their remaining days in peace".


[consequences for the convicted, in the aftermath of the witchhunt] "The witchfinder had warned the whole village to ensure the relative prosperity of the accused and sentenced ... old people. ... Six months later all of the people ... accused, were secure, well-fed and arguably happier than at any [praevious] time; they had hardly to beckon and people would come with food or whatever was needful. ... Instead of such old and widowed people being left helpless or (as in Western society) institutionalized in old people’s homes, these were reintegrated into society and left secure in their old age ... . ... Old people are ‘suitable’ candidates for this kind of accusation in the sense that they are isolated ..., and they are ‘suitable’ candidates for ‘social security’ for precisely the same reasons."


[consequences for sick infants, in the aftermath of the witchhunt] "the effect of the witchcleansing probably lasts for ... years in the sense that mothers are predisposed to tend their babies with more hopefullness and real concern. ... Therefore ... many babies who, before the arrival of the witchfinder, might have been saved if the mothers had had the heart and will to stop at nothing to tend their babies, WILL now survive precisely because they will receive the best attention which circumstances allow. So there is a REAL reduction in the infant mortality rate in the years immediately following the witchcleansing movement".


[attitude of the populace toward the witchfinder] "they valued his work and would learn the lessons he came to teach them, about social responsibility and cooperation."

STUDIA INSTITUTI ANTHROPOS, Vol. 41 = Anthony J. Gittins : Mende Religion. Steyler Verlag, Nettetal, 1987.