Mask: Sowei, or Ndoli Jowei, 20th century
Wood, black pigment, and raffia 15 1/4 in. (38.74 cm)
Promised gift of Miep and Philip Palmer2010.28.1
This mask belongs to a form of masquerade specific to the women’s organization known as Sande or Bondo. This masquerade is unique in its context of female initiation, the only such initiation in West Africa. It is practiced in Sierra Leone among the Mende, Bom, and Kim peoples and in northwestern Liberia among the Vai and Gola. Initiation is a time when, in this instance, young girls are separated from their families and the safety of their villages. They camp together outside the village and are introduced by Sande society members to matters of adulthood, including marriage, motherhood, and leadership.
Today the Mende refer to the mask and masquerade as Ndoli Jowei.1 The wooden helmet mask is worn with a gown of black raffia that attaches to the mask and falls below the wearer’s knees. A white swatch of cloth hangs down from the mask, and dark cloth covers the remainder of the wearer’s body, including hands and feet. Also part of the masquerade ensemble are bells that jingle as Ndoli Jowei moves and a broom switch carried in the left hand. Ndoli Jowei presents an elegant figure, the embodiment of Sande ideals of female composure, intelligence, beauty, and discretion. Ndoli Jowei accompanies the girls when they leave for the camp and later introduces them to the village as women. When she dances, she does so with rapid and intricate footwork. She is a figure warmly greeted by the villagers, who respond to her masquerade with merriment.