What does it mean to become a woman in the Sande society of Sierra Leone? This helmet mask holds the answer.
Carved from dark wood, the mask shows a peaceful female face, with eyes like gentle moons, tiny ears, and a closed, small mouth. The reddish hair flows down like a waterfall. The hair is made of raffia, the fabric from dried palm tree leaves. Do you notice the three round shapes on top of the head? They are a fancy pattern for an elaborate hairstyle. The neck is covered with layers symbolizing health and the ability to bear children. The layers are also a sign of a butterfly’s belly. When a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, it has grown up to reach beauty and maturity, just like a girl becomes a woman.
When it’s time for girls to grow up, they go to a separate compound away from home and learn important things. They will be trained in life skills and learn the moral standards of being a good wife and mother. After the training is completed, a ceremonial performance will be held to celebrate this big transition of womanhood. During the initiation ceremony, this mask will be performed by a female elder of the society. It doesn’t cover the face but sits on top of the head when she dances.
The training process used to take from months to years. Today, it is squeezed into holidays and vacations because young girls go to school. However, the message of the mask remains the same: it’s a symbol of transition, teaching, and the timeless beauty of the Sande society.