ETHNONYMS: Boumpe, Hulo , Kossa, Kosso
The Mende are a group of people who live primarily within the southern third of Sierre Leone. Historically, they are rather recent arrivals to this area, appearing no earlier than the sixteenth century as invading forces advancing from the south. Linguistically, the Mende are related to Niger-Kordofanian and Niger-Congo groupings; they have at least two major dialects—Kpa and Ko—and two less prominent dialects—Waanjama and Sewawa. In 1987 the Mende numbered about one million, of whom 75 to 80 percent were Kpa Mende and most of the remaining portion, Ko Mende. The Mende comprise about 30 percent of Sierre Leone's total population.
The small country of Sierre Leone, of which the Mende occupy the southern portion, lies very close to the equator on the western coast of Africa. The climate is distinguished by a dry season from October to May and a wet season from June to October. There is much variation in humidity, sunshine, and rainfall, depending on the terrain, the distance from the coast, and the time of year. Until the twentieth century, much of the terrain consisted of forests, which have since been greatly reduced by clearing for farming. Farm-bush is the dominant vegetation type of the southern part of the country, where the Mende reside.
The Mende live primarily in villages of 70 to 250 residents, which are situated from 1.5 to 5 kilometers apart. There is little or no mechanization over the greater part of rural Mende country. Mende farmers use hoes and machetes, but few other tools. Coffee, cocoa, and ginger are grown as cash crops, whereas rice, pepper, groundnuts, beniseed, and palm oil are grown for local consumption. Rice cooperatives have been formed in some rural areas.
Work is divided by gender: men attend to the heavy work of clearing the land for planting rice while women are occupied with cleaning and pounding rice, fishing, and weeding the planted crops. This routine is followed during ten months of every year, with a couple of months left around the New Year, when they can spend more time in the village engaging in domestic pursuits like house building.
The household unit is represented by at least one man and perhaps several of his brothers, with all of their wives and children. One or more brothers and married sisters usually leave sooner or later and are incorporated into other residential units. The senior male has moral authority—the right to respect and obedience—over the family as a whole, especially with regard to the negotiation of debts, damages, and bride-wealth.
Because of their recent origins, their contact with other peoples in the area, their involvement in the slave trade, and the strong influence of Islam and later colonial powers, as well as missionary contact, it is difficult and perhaps misleading to speak of the traditional culture of the Mende. Mende culture is an eclectic blend that has resulted from all of these different influences. Mende religion, likewise, has native elements—a Supreme Being, ancestral spirits, secret societies, and witch finders—that coexist with and are sometimes interspersed with adherence to Christian or Islamic beliefs.
Gittins, Anthony J. (1987). Mende Religion: Aspects of Belief and Thought in Sierra Leone. Wort und Werk. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag.
Harris, W. T., and H. Sawyerr (1968). The Springs of Mende Belief and Conduct. Freetown: Sierra Leone University Press; Oxford University Press.
Jedrej, M. C. (1974). "An Analytic Note on the Land and Spirits of the Sewa Mende." Africa 44:38-45.