A few days among the Mende in Sierra Leone

This is a “live” post from Sumbuya, Sierra Leone. I ask your forgiveness for spelling or grammatical errors—I’m in an NGO office, the lights are blinking and, well—this is going to be one draft only.

I’m here to tidy up loose ends. Tomorrow I’ll attend the opening of the school that our family and friends have assisted in rebuilding –more on that in the next post. I’m also here to finish editing My Heart Is Not My Own—three days on the beach south of Freetown should do the trick.

Now to what I’ve been up to the last few days.

Hona Mahei (witch-doctor) gesturing while describing his snake-bite cure

The witch doctor didn’t disappoint. He is an engaging gentleman and is arranging for the goboi (bush devil) to dance for us tomorrow. The house that he shares with his two wives and eight children was everything I expected: walls covered in prayers, blotches of something that looked like one part mud, one part wasps nest, a hatchet over the bed, and a roof from which several items were suspended—none of which I recognized.

In short, it was a place befitting a witch-doctor/traditional herbalist. He cures snake-bites (the bite of a cobra is the worst), fixes problems involving the heart and stomach, and casts out wizards that have possessed children. For this he has a rope which is tied around the neck and waist of the afflicted child. The cure apparently never fails.

Having the girls from our compound dance for me has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in four trips to Sierra Leone. Of course I videoed the dances and showed them in the evening on my computer—this has led to more dancing and tonight one of the girls from the Fula family next door has asked if she can dance.

girls preparing with white body paint

One the first night the girls dressed normally. Their dances were wild, sensual, and seductive. As Madame Yeamah explained these are the Bondo dances that are performed during the Bundu initiation. The girls are ten to twelve and have been dancing for a couple of years.

On the second night the girls painted their faces and bodies white, as they do during the Bundu ceremony. They danced their hearts out and I could easily imagine them moving, trancelike until they dropped, on the day of the Bundu initiation.

I was the only man present and it was like the girls, and watching women, welcomed me and then forgot I was among them. Although I heard my name in some of their songs (“greetings,” they said with giggles all around) they mostly danced for themselves—as Madame Yeamah says, “the Bundu is for us, the women.”

I felt privileged.

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4 Responses to A few days among the Mende in Sierra Leone

  1. Hi I’m a london based photographer
    I’ll be soon in Sierra Leone to work with an NGO
    I also want to do a reportage on witch doctors
    I read your beautiful blog on the matter, and I thought to ask you few tips…
    How can I find them?
    Where are they mainly? I guess in small villages or also in Freetown?
    Are they easily approachable? Do they like to be photographed?
    Do they speak english or do you need a translator?

    I’m going down there in a fortnight
    Any help is Much Appreciated

    • Hello Mattia,
      Thanks for the note. Everyone’s experience is probably different–in my post, the fellow was the witch doctor in the village I’ve stayed in at various times over the past three years. The people there know me reasonably well and they trust that I won’t exploit them. I will send you a pm through your website and we can discuss further. Thanks again for the interest, best of luck! Michael

  2. Theresa says:

    Hi Michael,

    I just want to know if you will be interested in writing some words in mende in your writings.
    It is so sad that you have so much love for Sierra Leone and this ebola issue has changed your lovely stories. We keep praying that God will put an end to this virus.

    • Michael Wuitchik says:

      Thank you. Unfortunately I only know greetings in Mende and my spellings are poor. The ebola virus has brought attention to the atrocious health care system and reliance on foreign NGO’s in Sierra Leone–hopefully something will have been learned from this.

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