The Mende People


The Mende are a Mande-speaking people who live primarily in Sierra Leone and Liberia and total 1.4 million. They are the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone and comprise one-third of the countrys population. The Mende originated in the Kingdom of Mali, but sometime in the 15th century, they began to move south, conquering others as they went. Some note they were expelled for refusing to convert to Islam adopted by Mali’s elite. They were joined by another Mande-speaking people, the Mani, in the early 16th century, and by 1540, they had reached the area around Cape Mount in today’s Liberia.

Most Mende converted to either Chris-tianity or Islam in the 19th century, but their traditional religion is still strong. Traditional religious practices are still fol-lowed even by those who have converted. Traditional religion centers on the Creator called Negwo who is the supreme being, but he is approached through the spirits of the ancestors. There are also a number of lesser spirits called hale, who are contacted through special masked societies. The main societies are the Poro and Sande, who perform during major ceremonies such as circumcision and during planting seasons to help ensure abundant harvests.

Other masked and secret societies include the Humui, which deals with sexual behav-ior, Njayie that deals with major illnesses, and Kpa that deals with minor illnesses.In the 19th century, Christianity was spread from the coastal region where the British built new communities such as Freetown, established in 1787, for freed slaves both from the Americas and from captured slave ships. Islam was first intro-duced by Muslim traders from the interior. Islam spread quickly in the 20th century because it was seen as a form of resistance to the British.

Modern history of the Mende begins with their contact with the British and the British colonies of former slaves along the Atlantic coast. In 1807, Great Britain out-lawed slaving within their empire, and in 1808, Freetown came under direct British control. Illegal slaving continued, and the slaves of the famous 1839 La Amistad case (and made famous again by the 1997 Holly-wood film Amistad) were mainly Mende.

In 1896, Great Britain declared Sierra Leone a protectorate and tried to impose taxation in the form of a hut tax on the peoples of the interior. There were a num-ber of local rebellions between 1896 and 1898, but the British and the Creole or Krio of the Atlantic coast were able to gain control over the territory.In 1935, the South African company De Beer’s was granted a mining concession to develop Sierra Leone’s mineral wealth, mainly diamonds.

When Sierra Leone became independent in 1961, political power and wealth remained in the hands of the Krio, and other ethnic groups were marginalized even though the first presi-dent of independent Sierra Leone, Milton Margai, was Mende. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was organized by exiles in Libya, and in 1991, they assisted Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor in launching his civil war. The RUF quickly gained control over the diamond fields in Kono province in Sierra Leone, financing the movement and its ability to buy weap-ons.

The civil war in Sierra Leone and the role of diamonds in financing it is well presented in the 2006 Hollywood film Blood Diamond. The Mende in the Civil Defense Force set up the Karamjor paramilitary forces that backed the gov-ernment against the RUF. The civil war ended in 2002 with the assistance of British military intervention. At one point, over 2 million people had been made homeless, and the RUF made use of child soldiers, many of which still need to be reintegrated into society.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Doyle, Margaret, et al. Peoples of West Africa.New York: Facts on File, 1997.

Ferme, Mariane. The Underneath of Things:Violence, History and the Everyday in Sierra Leone. Berkeley: University of Cali-fornia Press, 2001.

Phillips, Ruth B. Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Fowler Museum, 1995.

Woods, Larry, and Timothy Reese. Military Interventions in Sierra Leone: Lessons from aFailedState. Seattle, WA: CreateSpace, 2008.