One of the respected traditional symbols of the Mende people of the West African nation, Sierra Leone, in initiation ceremonies is the helmet or sowei mask.
In the Mende culture, the helmet mask is used to invoke the protection of the guardian spirits called Sowo by key figures of Sande, the women’s wing of the Mende people. The characteristic hairstyle which adorns the mask represents beauty, wealth and health.
The high forehead and iconic facial features, according to literature from the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, signify the feminine beauty of the maidens, with the large neck rings standing for their physical wellbeing.
An irony of the helmet mask is, although it is worn by women, it is carved by men. It is made out of wood and given its dark color by immersing it in vegetable dye.
In Sierra Leone, the Mende tribe is the most dominant group with the Poro standing for men’s society and Sande representing the women’s society. These two sects are actively involved in the grooming and preparation of young teenagers for adulthood.
According to a paper by the Pacific Lutheran University, the girls are taught the roles of being a mother and a wife as well as their contribution to building a society. In all of this, the most important aspect is the ceremony performed for the girls when they ascend to adulthood.
The ceremony is performed the moment they have undergone and passed the tutelage offered by the elderly women of the Sande society. During this period, they are recognized as qualified for both marriage and motherhood.
The ceremony is heralded by dancing and singing traditional songs to usher young teenage girls to adulthood. It is during this period they wear the helmet mask, which represents the spirit of society. The mask is first placed on the head of the young teenage girl while the rest of her body is covered by black cloth and raffia fibers.
The sowei mask is considered a bridge between the physical and spiritual world, that’s why it is important for the wearer’s whole body to be concealed. By so doing, the young adult girl becomes one with the past and present of the Mende spirit.
The helmet mask is considered the embodiment of what the Mende tribe stands for and its authority, and among the elderly women, it’s added to the initiation ceremony to teach, heal and guide the ways of the young teenager.
It is also worn by the elderly women of Sande during the ceremony either to provide some sense of liveliness or scare a section of the gathering. The mask is usually made light when carving because it is worn as a helmet to make it easier on the shoulders of young adult girls.
The helmet mask, when carving, must weigh between two to four pounds and must be symmetrical in form. What makes the helmet mask stand out lies in the three major parts, which are the neck, face and coiffure. The neck often has two to three rings of flesh, which represent wealth and prosperity.
The face typically takes the form of downcast eyes, little ears, and a large rounded forehead.
The mouth is also small and closely fitted to represent the silence of the spirits. It is regarded that it’s only humans who speak in the physical world and not spirits.
The hair and other embellishments make up the coiffure, which stands for the symbol of a bird or snake.