A look at Liberia’s traditional Poro and Sande College

Dr. Somah (middle) poses with some recent Poro graduates
Photo courtesy of Dr, Syrulwa Somah

Long, long, time ago, in the beginning which has no beginning, there was the Poro and Sande College (PSC). And so it was on that the PSC became the receptacle of knowledge and wisdom of all creation. From north to south of the Saharan, from West to East of the Sahara, the PSC is a functional, organized structure that have been a fountain for the translucent flow of unity across trans-ethnic boundaries, writes Dr. Syrulwa Somah.

As keepers of the heritage—the totality of behavioral patterns, creeds, linguistic legacy, sociopolitical structure, ancestry, art, spirituality and cultural values—the PSC undergirds the unanimity of discipline, valor and commitment to collective survival. The PSC collectively embraces the values of truth, harmony, justice, reciprocity, and the cosmological order of the community.

In their curriculum are social and political knowledge of oral history and lore, communal work, appropriate conduct of sexual deportment, economical roles, military combat, diplomacy, healing, sacred songs and dances. In other words, the cardinal ideas or curricula on which the institutions prevail are natural law, justice, harmony, balance, respect, and human dignity for all. The PSC does not establish a terrible grip on knowledge, research, information and education.

All those who enrolled are taught and drank from the same fountain of knowledge. Unlike non-African secret institutions that are concealed from public view and the gaze of the religious authorities, a secret network developed whose chief purpose was to pass on far more advanced knowledge of human existence and knowledge of Creation to the privileged few, there was no such class in indigenous Liberian society.

The PSC has no resemblance to ‘secret institutions’ as misinformed and non-graduates rumored. The PSC has an open-door admissions policy to the public which provides eligible students. By definition “secret institution” encompasses any institution, organization or group of people whose activity is not accessible to the general public or of which one does not hold a membership.

Liberians who followed the footprints of Europeans to paint with a broad brush the picture of the PSC as ‘secret institutions’ overlook the fact that PSC students have every right to call every higher institutions the world over a “secret institution,” since what is taught between the walls of these institutions are unknown before admission. Unquestionably, the term “secret institution” doesn’t signify or imply anything about any institution, organization, club, or association teaching or function other than the simple truth that one is not a member of a specific institution of learning or organization but one is suspicious and spread rumors about what the institution does or doesn’t do. No one is stopping any soul who seeks admissions to the PSC.

It is an open secret in the United States, Europe, South America that one-on-one public-school violence, such as shootings, beatings and stabbings or gang-related violence, is more common. For examples, there were shooting at College of Texas on August 1, 1966 that killed 16 people; the Cologne school shooting on June 11, 1964 in Germany killed 10, and the Islas Malvinas School shooting in Argentina on September 28, 2004 killed 4 people. And the Columbine High School shooting on April 19, 1999 that killed 12 students, a teacher and injured 21 other students are still fresh on our mind. The point is that shootings or worst incidents have not stopped students from enrolling at these schools for knowledge. Though students heard good or bad things about these institutions, they enroll. Hence, what preclude the PSC or anyone who really wants to enroll in the PSC? What is arrogantly referred to as ‘secret institutions’ is the acquisition and application of knowledge or wisdom which separate those who have not been initiated from those who have graduated from its teaching.

Young females, mostly of Gola and Kpelle ethnic backgrounds, graduate for the Sande College after being taught by Sande Zoes
Photo: Journalist James Kokulo Fasuekoi

The ‘secrets’ or what simple are gaps, for example, are the graduates of the PSC knowledge of blacksmith, home economics, public health, astrology, toxicology, astronomy, war, burial and secular songs, healing medicines, the history of the people, an understanding of the spiritual world, among others.

Of course, the new graduates, like any professional disciplines, take professional oath. Suffice it to say that no medical doctor would take his diploma, surgical tools and give it to an untrained person to practice medicine. This is why all doctors must take a “medical oath” to do what is right and must obey all professional conducts within the profession or institution.

The Poro Sande College is the Institution of Beginnings where man and woman first learned the rites of birth, adulthood, marriage, eldership, and ancestorship that can only be learned or passed on only through its walls. Of course, rites of passage vary across ethnicities and even by family as urbanization and western mores affect people differently, but the above rites are the major phrases. For example, a teaching of rite of ancestor/death would teach why a person’s inevitable separation from the transitory body didn’t automatically make him an ancestor and why ancestors’ conversations do not take place in worldly language known to man.

Chief Larway Garkpeh, Guardian of the Oracle of Gibi, explained that the six rites contain periods of instruction of competence for the initiate and is never an easy thing to attain outside of the PSC. He continues that there were series of events, among which was the review of the person’s life by the Council of Elders in the PSC. For example, what good things the person have during his living years are considered.

The Rite of Birth or Reincarnation, he contends is an initiation rite whose purpose is to teach whose soul is reborn into a new body after death. In other words, who was this new member who has returned to the community of the living to relearn human language?

The Rite of Adulthood begins at puberty and is to transition to adulthood. It is during this rite that youths are taught the responsibilities of adulthood, such as providing for their family’s livelihood. The youth learns how to fend and to learn how to make independent decisions on their own. As age and seniority play an integral part, learning and rehearsing such independence gives them the impetus to take on leadership role in the affairs of communities. The message here is: youthfulness was not a sufficient measurement.

The Rite of Marriage is the matters of the heart because it doesn’t only bring two people together, but two families. The matter of love and beauty is not about only physical beauty, it also includes inner beauty. This is one of the many reasons indigenous Liberian women are very desirable to marry. Furthermore, the Rite of Marriage was (is) a no non-sense affair.

PSC traditional marriage system speaks to the very foundation of building and sustaining a stable and prosperous family. Unfortunately, in Western society a vast number of marriages fail as they are often based upon the external beauty and material wealth, thereby entering the relationship in an unbalanced state.

PSC teaching comes in six phase before marriage. In the first phase, the young man is obliged to tell his parents about a girl he likes. “I saw a girl and I want to engage her.” At this stage there is no obligation but it opens the way to communication. When the young man’s parents like the girl and if her parents have a good reputation in the community, the parents may decide on “extending engaging hand.”

The second phase is the physical visit or “break words.” This means that the young man is ready to ask the girl if she will accept his proposal. This phase also means that the boy has “marked” the girl as his. If any man comes around the girl and tries to approach her, the parents will say, “Our daughter is engaged.”

The third phase is when the young man is taking on the family responsibility—domestic, economic, and social. It also means that whatever the girl’s parents do, the young man must join them because he had closed all the other avenues for their daughter.

The fourth phase is like a trust fund; once the girl and her parents agree, a mutually inclusive relationship is established, the boy’s parents would bring food, money, clothing, domestic animals, and the like to the girl’s parents. This process is called “buying” or the paying the woman dowry. This is not buying as in the western sense. The parents also help with all issues about the initiations, as well as the feast. During this phase contributions of physical labor and cash payment are made. In this process, the parents, not the girl, determine the methods of payments for such things as buckets, clothes, cattle, money, and so forth. In other words, the marriage rites are performed for not only the coming together of males and females to procreate and perpetuate life and the coming together of families; it is also an institution that helps both the husband and wife to best fulfill their mission and objectives in life.

Traditional handshake: Liberia’s legendary folk singer Ma Yatta Zoe (right) as most affectionately call her, is seen here extending a typical Liberian traditional greetings to an elderly woman in the cultural village of Behsao, This manner of traditional greeting require of Poro Men and Sande Women is fast evaporating from amongst most ethnic groupings in the country Photo: Journalist James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Among our people, though a girl was expected to be a virgin when she married, it was also expected that married women will not engage in extra-marital affairs. PSC’s teaching comes hard on extra-marital affairs. Act of extra-marital affairs is punishable by fines, which must be paid to the husband by the man who is caught having extra-marital affair with a married woman and stern warning is given to the woman for first offense after she is sent home to her parents for counseling and cleansing.

Marriage requires commitment, total involvement, family input, and adherence to PSC mores, traditions, customs, and folkways. The parents’ involvement is their expression of accountability and love for their daughter. In this arrangement, the daughter will not only appreciate her parents’ support, she will respect and cherish it. The third phase of PSC’ teaching of marriage, as discussed earlier, is used also in the testing of the groom to see if he is qualified to marry their daughter. With this kind of education, no young man would pregnant a young lady and deny it. PSC’s teaching had made it difficult to see the kind of family breakdown and high divorce rate that is common in modern societies.

The Rite of Eldership is an important component of the PSC, because it is an important tutelary deity. In the PSC, there is a distinction between an older person and an elder. Older is simply longevity that may not have high praise and respect. In other words, the older person’s life has not yielded a positive example for his people and community. An older person, for example, could be a thief, monger of war, drunkard, an evil person or could be someone who never married and had children.

The point is that lack of impeccable records would certainly prevent a person from being considered a respected elder. An elder by PSC teaching, is someone who is given society’s highest status because he has lived a purposive life, and there is nothing more respected than living a purposeful life. The life of an elder underpinned the best tradition of the kingdom and is someone who has gone through all of the previous three rites, and is a living model for the generation to follow. An elder is given the highest status and along with babies because they are the ones who represent the closest links to the wisdom of the spirit world.

And finally, the Rite of Ancestorship, which concerns passing over into the spirit world. This final initiation rite is an extension of the elder/older distinction because the status that a person has in life is the same status that they bring with them when they pass on. In other words, men and women could die, be reincarnated, and dwell among the living.

Poro and Sande College is associated with life, regeneration and fertility, and is devoted to protecting the natural environment by preserving bonds between nature and people. A dual-sex system of checks and balances within the PSC cosmology mimics the dualism of the universe (male and female), so that no one establishment becomes too powerful; each establishment “checks” the power of the other institution to ensure a balance of powers from both male and female points of views. Simply put, the PSC is the fulcrum of a people’s way of life. It is the totality of socially transmitted values, worldview, philosophical perspectives, economic endeavors and an endless list of other cultural bonds, all cosmically coded to protect a way of life.

Our modern world standards are set by a materialistic spirit and a mechanistic model of the universe, a paradigm which destroys the environment and pillages the earth’s resources, suppressing, repressing and sucking the blood of the masses. The earth’s environment is no longer that wonderment of colossal geological formations of God’s creation. The environment around the globe is being assaulted on all fronts daily by unregulated mining and deforestation activities that reveal the potential extinction of the treasure trove of species and natural habitats of the earth.

These rampant ecological destruction is bound to plunge Liberia into a future environmental nightmare. Environmental degradation worldwide as a result of climate change has an adverse impact on drinking water and sustainable agriculture and continues to disable billions of people worldwide, especially in developing nations like Liberia. As global warming’s clock ticks to the tipping point of natural disasters, famine, spread of new vector-borne diseases and old ones such as dengue, yellow fever, plague, etc., as well as related morbidity and mortality problems from insects, rodents, other parasites, the fate of humanity is uncertain. PSC teachings ensure that each generation preserves, collects, protects and hands down and passes on to their children and future generations the sacred records, oracles, mighty rivers, birds, animals, and places that reflect the sacred continuity of life.

The power of the Poro induced presidents and leaders like W.V.S. Tubman to invite the Wilwolo, the most famous spirit dancer of the Lorma Kingdom, to his inaugurations. The power and influence of the Poro were also respected by Presidents William R. Tolbert and Charles Taylor, who took on the name “Dahkpanah” meaning the “Chief Zoe.” Israeli Golda Meir, according to legend, visited with Sande women. The above shows Sande power as Sande women can compel a factory full of muscular males to perform various deeds that fulfill women’s needs to lift them to higher ground, like queens on thrones. The Sande teaches women to never settle for less than a man who respects them.

Although the antiquity of the civilization of our parentage is unmistakably well-known, there often prevails the fantastical mythology that the PSC is solely for “circumcision.” This bizarre view of our history is still presented in textbooks about our nation the worldover, as if it is a known fact. To say the least, the extent to which the PSC is misunderstood by some educated Liberians, who are supposed to be the guidance of our nation’s shrine, is surely among the greatest of all tragedies. The “circumcision” enthrallment is pushed most often by human rights organizations, missionaries and misinformed Liberians who ratchet up criticism of the PSC to be endorsed and promoted for their book projects and post-reconstruction grants in the name of development.

Consequently, this attitude casts a pall of gloom over Liberia, and has done so since its inception as a modern nation-state in 1847. Our culture is the outer and inner garment revealing who we are: it is our womb through which we came into this world, it is our character.  Similarly, cultures are other people’s culture wares too. 

All devout Christians believe in the transubstantiation of wine every time they take communion. The Jewish culture celebrates Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs for their children as their character. Hispanic cultures have quincineras for their daughters which are their cultural garment. And  American culture, where most of PSC critics ratchet up criticism, celebrates  Sweet Sixteen parties, women piecing their genitals, same-sex marriage, and men’s body tattooing which are their characters.

And perhaps more importantly, is the Japanese carrying their giant wooden penis during the Hounen Matsuri, the largest and known fertility festival held annually on March 15. 

Volunteers formed queue to tow 2.5 meter long wooden phallus across the town of Komaki in hope to bestow its regenerative powers on the residents for fertility, fecundity, and crops. Northern Japanese monks called Sokushinbutsu go through a process of self-denial that leads to successful self-mummification by simply changing their diets, eating nuts and seeds over three years. From the examples above, every human society expresses these in arts, institutions, and learning. PSC is the heritage of our parentage; it cannot be negotiated because it has its own shape, its own purposes and its own meanings.

On this matter, one does not have to be a supporter of the PSC concepts to speak to injustices, religious bigotry, cultural discrimination or ethnocentrism. Whatever one’s personal conviction and ideals for the individual may be, which of course is to be respected, there remains the important issue that the PSC does not exist merely for the purpose of “circumcision.”

There is absolutely no basis for thinking that human rights organizations, a misinformed public and missionaries who come with their homosexuality, Bibles and penny bags in one hand and swords in another hand to conquer our homeland because of our current economic dependence should require the elimination of the nation’s social, educational, cultural, and political institutions. Amazingly, these uninformed “intellectuals” and missionaries take deep interest in the Poro and Sande’s crafts, outfits, necklaces, bracelets and costumes which they hang in their home and churches.

Ceremonial masks of Liberia’s 16 tribes
Photo: Journalist James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Even their central argument that women who graduate from the PSC do not experience orgasm is a flaw research. There is a hidden stream beneath the contrived version foisted upon the PSC as articulated in John Tierney’s article, “Sexual Consequences of Female Initiation Rites in Africa” that initiated women do not suffer any grave long-term complications and who have a good and fulfilling relationship. It posits that the initiated women enjoy sex and there are no physical, psychological and sexual consequences for women.

The above assertions are predicated on the alleged physical, psychological, and sexual effects of female attending the Sande College. The increased international concerns of NGOs, human rights organizations, missionaries to the PSC has more to do with deeply embedded in Western cultural assumptions regarding the PSC.

The majority of the interviewed Somali women respondents, as well as westerly-educated who have enrolled in the Sande College, bear witness that sexual intercourse pleasure is not a problem. Women who had experienced sexual pleasure before and after graduation claimed to achieve orgasm or greatest moment of pleasure such as involuntary pleasurable rhythmic contractions of the female organ, and the feeling of warmth all over the face and the body.

The truth that is intentionally omitted is that the matriarchal foundation upon which the PSC exists meant that respect for women was woven into the very fabric of Liberian traditional society. Women had numerous important roles and functions to carry out, many of which conferred a great deal of power and respect to them.

The erosion of the status of women occurred gradually but was significantly exacerbated and hastened by foreign invasions, particularly colonialism. In other words, colonialism profoundly negatively affected the role and status of women in Liberian society. For example, Liberian traditional women were often the most powerful spiritual figures in traditional setting. They were often in charge of the spiritual shines and oracles. Female spiritual figures of women dominated the positions of spiritual and religious power to which men were subjected by virtue of their power and respect the communities bestowed on them.

The Zoe’s “medicines” are also used to defend the sodality against intrusive men and other no initiates who may try to steal its secrets and powers. In fact, several women ritual officials professed that the Zoe has power over all men, including those within the Poro College hierarchy. Because of their guarded knowledge regarding fertility, such women have the power to cause impotence in men as well as death. Suffice it to say that if a male, chief or whatever his statue ever wanted to commit communal suicide in his kingdom, he need only speak out against Sande College and incur the wrath of its Zoe and masses of women in society.

Madame Nydyeda of Grand Bassa County speaks to the enormous power women wield. As aforementioned, PSC have been severely distorted. Cultural domination due to Christianity and Islam, colonization and neo-colonization led to the reduction of female rites of passage into nothing but genital mutilation.

The omission and lies ignored the fact that the status of women in Liberia in general in antiquity and the pre-colonial period, women health in Liberia was significantly healthier than it is today. Therefore, referring to the second-class citizen status of Liberian women today as ‘traditional’ is erroneous and a lie that continues to loom largest and compounds our so called educated “but woefully unenlightened”- as well as those who walk their footprints. Liberians cannot afford to continue thinking that traditional Liberian societies perceived women as inherently inferior creatures and thus sidelined them from positions of power and influence. Such ignorance is frightening.

Liberians, young and old, should learn about the contributions of the traditional PSC to the growth and development of Liberia. Those who attend the PSC are educated in indigenous Liberian culture, traditions, customs, mores, philosophy, medicine, law, and governance. Sadly, the Liberian educational system fails to educate Liberians about indigenous Liberian languages, geography, history, mathematics, sciences, religions, and other bodies of knowledge critical for our national survival as a nation and people.

There is not a single Liberian studies degree-granting college in Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, where we can learn the truth about ourselves. There is not a single school in Liberia, even now, which teaches our people about what it means to be a Liberian as the PSC do for the people. And it is not like those who are calling for the destruction of the PSC have built schools and educated our people to end what they were crusading against based on empirical data.

Unfortunately, the education system in Liberia downplays our cultural values and emphasizes foreign values and ideologies, so much so that many graduates of the Liberian school system are more familiar with French, German, English, American, and other Eurocentric studies and cultural values than Liberian cultural values. As a result, many Liberians are generally dense about what the PSC has done and continues to do for our people before the advent of “Western civilization.”

No true initiate of the PSC exposes its secrets. Therefore, what is written here is by no means the complete history of the PSC. At the cusp of time when the wave of the People Redemption Council (PRC) under Samuel K. Doe washed over Liberia in the 1980s, the PSC was attacked, thereby weakening Liberia’s cultural heritage and contributing to the seeds of destruction that brought about Liberia’s instability. The goal here is to bridge the contemporary gap between general knowledge of the old and new, and allow us to see patterns of permanence and patterns of difference.

STRUCTURE AND FUNCTIONS OF THE PSC

The PSC is unique and has varying levels. Power is distributed through these institutions to provide years of education, training, mores, ethics, and initiation of the youth into manhood and womanhood. The PSC encompasses the inward conditioning of the mind and spirit. Their primary functions involve instilling consciousness against committing an offense against the “birth-land.” Hence, the notion of human refinement by developing all social aims for the stability of the society is one of the primary objectives of the PSC.

Among the Lorma, for example, the College of Elders, the “Mabu” or “kEEzo” (characters) who direct the PSC are dedicated to the preservation of the culture, beliefs and values which affect the ethics and environmental health issues confronting their kingdom. The PSC of the Lorma rule of law stresses property as communal and that the fruits of the earth belong equally to all and cannot be sold. Likewise the PSC “Kuwaa” teaches various disciplines, including but not limited to: sacred moral codes, vision quests, night vigils, ritual self-emptying and purification, leadership, bravery, meditation, endurance, agility, and silence. Postures and certain types of ritual and war dancing are also learned as means of acquiring life force and spiritual powers.

Mende Kingdom is no different, especially where the mosaic of music is performed as a means of securing and enhancing life force and spiritual powers. Equally important is reverence of the beauty of the woman.

The Lorma have one of the most unique and elaborate Poro and Sande College in Liberia. The Poro in Lorma Kingdom is called “Pologii” and the Sande is called “Zadegii” or “Zardaygai.” The entire Lorma cosmos is intertwined in the “Pologii” and the “Zadegii” as the finest feature of their communal lives; all its laws, traditions, norms, mores and customs are respected and enforced to the teeth. The “Tosubaveati,” who must be a person of excellent character, with ability to render decisions without any impartiality, the equivalent of a chancellor, occupies the Lorma Poro College’s highest position. Though they both are all male and all female colleges, a woman— only one—can be a member of both the Poro and Zardaygai.

The Sande College calls its students’ enrollment “Zadekui,” or “women’s feast.” The enrollment preparation begins in the “Valaxavue” (November), at which time the dry season is coming up. The functional operation of the Sande College falls under the jurisdiction of the “Nezowo” who serves as the “mother figure.” She is known for her beautiful all-over-white attire and head tie. The “Nezowo” is assisted by the “Zowogbla.”

In Lorma Kingdom in terms of the administrative structure, the ancestral world, called “Govealazu”, exists between God and the living. Between the living and the “Govealazu” is the “Goveti,” or “Invisible Spirit,” who relays the wishes of the townspeople to their ancestral world. When “Goveti,” the Protector of the Poro comes to town, every barking dog falls quiet, a nipple is put in every crying baby’s mouth, doors are doubled locked, and the townspeople continuously clap until the matter for its intervention is settled and departed.

Next to the “Goveti” is the “Tosubaveati” who heads the Poro College. He is the “father figure” or “Father Zowo” of the College. Between the “Goveti” and townspeople is the “GboLourmai,” from whom all messages pass to the “jomaloo,” the citizens. Next visible of the Poro College is the “Koliba,” meaning the “runner” or “one who has fast feet to run after urgent matters of the College.” Equally so is the messenger “Kolubia” of the Poro College, who is sent to represent the Poro College at other Poro functions in other kingdoms of the Lormaland.

In Kpelleh Kingdom, Poro and Sande College are the two dominant institutions. Learning in the all-male Poro College varies from simple instruction to the complex educational system involving highly organized and sophisticated oral curriculum buttressed by myriad of ceremonies. The Poro College provides for the education for young Kpelleh men in Kpelleh culture and mores, offered rituals to mark the end of puberty, and served as custodians of Kpelleh customs and traditions.

The admission process to the Kpelle Poro College is called Korma, an equivalent of going to battle where the spirit Nyamu is located in the grove to transform the young men into manhood. When the male student has not yet enrolled and he is outside of the College walls he is known as kpana. Kpanchu described if the student has enrolled in the initiation of the College.

The process of graduation from the male College is called porlumkula. Upon initiation, the students are known as joboi. When the student has met the entire requirement: initiation, graduation and now full member of the community, he is known as kanamu.  

The Kpelleh Poro College has both secular and spiritual leader. The man who leads the Poro College is called the joh. In addition to the joh is the man who cares for the students or wonyateh chepolor, meaning the lighter of feast fire. The invisible male spirit of the Poro College is referred to as Nyamu (Ngamu). The Nyamu doesn’t sing but his wife does. The singing wife of the Nyamu is called Nyamunair. The union (children) of the Spirit Nyamu and the Spirit Nyamunair (Ngamulay) are called the Kaynekay.  

In essence, one of the great honors for a male is to become a member of the Poro College and go on to become a Zoe, or champion cultivator of society. The Zoe is respected throughout the region and in his old age he is given predominant leadership in the community. Hence, for young students, rites of passage to the Poro College marked the culmination of one epoch in life and the beginning of another. As students of this respected institution they are introduced by their elders to the legends surrounding the previous exploits of their society, to the mysteries of their religion, to the practical aspects of hunting, farming, raising cattle, and to their communal or societal responsibility.

Sande College: Like ever Sande College of each ethnicity, the institution for females is separate and distinct from the male Poro College, and it is not allowed to hold session concurrent with the Poro College. The women called their College grove in which the College is built whine. After the “Council of Elders or Zoe” agrees to educate women, the institution is ordered re-opened. The Kpelleh used two terms to describe before the entrance of their College and inside their College. Thus, the terms whine-la and whine-chu are employed respectively. Girls from about twelve to sixteen are enrolled with the option to complete one of the two levels: Blanta and Leekpa.

Blanta: This level provides the opportunity for the young women to get their feet wet, meaning initial introduction or preparation before jumping into the leekpa arena. The learning here is carried on to the final level or if the student chooses to stop at the blanta level, the graduate is prepared for the workforce on certain level.

Leekpa: The leekpa is more diversified than the blanta. Not only is it rooted in spiritual traditions but it also provides intensive academic experiences, as some are reflected in a particular pedagogy and some are specialized for specific populations.

The students of the Sande College learn basic survival skills and social etiquettes, including but not limited to how to be obedient and respectful to their elders and how to be good wives and mothers. For the most part, the rites of passage to womanhood– don’t only embody the ideals of the Kpelleh culture, but also female spirituality and knowledge in a culture where female knowledge represented truth. Thus, after sufficient instructions the gbechea or students of the Sande College are spiritually washed and public ceremonies are held for three days as part of the rites of passage to womanhood. Afterwards, the new graduates are expected to behave as gboblo or women, and are being treated as such. They are then expected to get married, give birth, help promote fertility and perform special ceremonies.  

Among the Bassa, the PSC has a distinct separation between the specialties of study: parable (philosophy), ideographic, spirituality, science, music and spirit medium. Political exclusiveness and chain of command supported by the PSC have several ramifications in the following order of sequence: (a) “Gaa-bohnnoh” – a level for male kindergarten and elementary students between ages 6 and 8; (b) “Saa-daba Gba” – the junior and senior level for ages 8 through 12; (c) “Bui-kpii-Gba”- the high school level which encompasses some vocational training (male and female students have separate campuses), and (d) “Zuzehi-Gba” – the college and higher level division of the Poro College for men and the Sande College for women. The Sacred Grove of the Bassa all male College is called “Gbahun-mun.” Its inner precinct is located in the “Grove of the God of the Ancestors”, called “Nohon-Xwada.” The Sacred Grove of the female institution is called “Kihn-mun” or “Kehn-mun.”

These institutions are the binding cords of cultural heritage. Vigor, discipline, learning of character excellence, proverbial wisdom of Elders and the values of human dignity are the major educational philosophy of the people. For patriotism, young men learn the Bassa Anthem “Gde Di Wehdeh,” also known as “Bodo Wehdeh.” The song is entitled “Duo Muo Dee Dyio.” During the singing, the group responds in unison, “Ee-Ee-Ee,” by the rhythm of the war drum called the “To-Gbeh.” Female learners in the Sande College also learn their national song called the “Zoe Wehdeh,” “Gbaa Wehdeh,” or “Bohnohon Wehdeh.” During the singing, the group responds beneath the song in unison as: “Ee-Ee-Ee,” by the rhythm of clapping hands.

Among the Dei, the PSC is two highest and most powerful cultural institutions. Its aim is to mold young men and women to handle life’s challenges. Among other things, the students learned the practice of hunting the wild animals that might attack the people. Acquisition of knowledge, especially of secrets separated those who have been initiated from those who have not. They do not operate during the same period. One of the two has to complete and graduate its students and thereafter submit all rights to the other to begin its operation. The PSC has norms that they strongly ascribe to, two of which are confidentiality and oath-taking. Other arts and value learned in PSC are: home arts, dancing and music arts, discipline, faithfulness, marriage and the family, agriculture, conflict resolution, respect, peace, care-giving, herbal medicine, building construction, agriculture, industrial science etc.

The PSC is therefore considered as their cultural universe and it’s held in very high esteem. These code of silence may include the knowledge of healing medicines, the history of the people, an understanding of the spiritual world and that the masks intended to represent spiritual beings are actually the creations of humankind. The new initiates are warned that those who reveal these secrets will be severely punished, or even killed. Gbaamaabohn, the oldest musical types in Dei Kingdom is performed during the graduation. During the celebration, music and dance, its performance is open to everybody in the community, irrespective of class, age, sex, and religion.

The PSC is also operated as a same-sex learning center. In Dei Kingdom, duration to complete the PSC training is four years for boys and three years for girls. In the Sande College, Maazoe serves as the Chancellor of the Institution and the Maagbe is the carrier of message. In the Poro College, Zoekla serves the same functions for the Poro College. Specially, law students in the Poro College are taught the form of Dei government.

Deiwions’ original form of government is referred to as Gbokankan, which was a monarchy. After many years they resigned from Gbokankan to that of Plohploh which was much more inclusive of the people as decision makers. Their current form of government is referred to as Kweekan. This form, consist of the Paramount chief, Clan Chief and Town Chiefs as its Leaders. In this form of government, the people are more involved in decision making process.

Other areas of education was how to learn how to bury the ancestors or Norh [gone to the unknown]. Students learned that the dead still live among them, but in the unknown which is much closer to adore of the Supreme God. The students also learned how to reverence the ancestors and send message through them to highest of all Creators. The prayers includes mentioning the names of their Norh who them transmit their messages.  

Upon graduation, females were eligible for marriage. To perform the wedding, a token is presented from the bride’s parent in the amount of $48.00 (must be coins) which is referred to as gbeni feh. Along with this is a leopard’s tooth, food stuff from a new harvest and house hold items. When the bride’s family receives these items, as a symbol of their consent for the marriage to finally take place, they also return a token in the form of a silver coin. To conclude the marriage, the bride’s hands are placed in that of male figure in her family and presented to the husband or male representative of his family. On the night following the wedding ceremony, the bride is carried on the back of the groom’s aunt or sister into a ‘honey moon’ room laid out with a white bed sheet. The most immediate family members of the couple stays awake through the night keeping watch on the couple , expecting a ‘clean’ consummation to take place. At early morning, the families enter the room and bring out the ‘clean’ bed sheet, singing and rejoicing around the entire town.

In Krao Kingdom, the higher learning institution is the “Gbo.” This higher institution is responsible for transitioning young men into manhood. One of the primary functions of the “Gbo” is training young men to serve in the warrior unit to defend the kingdom. Other duties include bringing back a casualty of war or wounded warrior to his homeland. The overall commander of the warriors of the “Gbo” is the “Gbobi”, “Father of the Gbo,” who reports to the king. Graduates from the “Gbo” serve in the judicial and legislative branches of leadership. Non-members of the “Gbo” are called “Kafa,” meaning “below Gbo membership.” “Kafa” are eligible to be warriors. They serve by carrying food and materials during inter-kingdomic skirmishes.

There are several levels of learning in Krao Kingdom. For example, the “Jlakabo” is only for male students between ages 7 and 14. It is located in the “Grove of the God of the Ancestors.” The next level is the “Wlakloti,” the junior and senior level. There is no tuition for these schools. They are free and compulsory. The enrollment prerequisite to this school is circumcision for male students and not performed in infancy, but before the age of 10.

This group of learners is responsible to keep the town environment clean and safe, from the “Klofue,” the big town. Although the groups are divided into ages, the “Jlakabo” and the “Wlakloti” team up to keep their village, town or kingdom clean and perform other societal duties. Before the “Gbo” is the “Che Ghone Gbo,” the initiates who have enrolled in the Gbo.” The “Che Ghone Gbo” must be someone who has a strong herbal, medicinal, and cultural background; thus, it is not a simple position. He must be able to command the army and inspire the people to work. In fact, those who want to be a “Che Ghone Gbo” must make a request to the high priest, who in turn must consult other men and healers and seers to arrive at a final decision.

The female learners fall on the shoulders of mother or the Head Wife. – the “Dagbwede.” She is the glue of the household. With the collective input of the village, she raises the children steeped in the traditions of the culture. She raises her daughters to be the wives of strong men, to bear their children. She looks up to the man and holds him in high esteem. She depends on him to do a man’s job and to always provide for them all. She is educated to know her own power and know that the high place she holds in the home and community is due to the femininity of her line and what that femininity means in their day to day lives. She knows that she holds the fate of the culture in her hands, and she is up to that vast responsibility. She stands proud before her man (“the fearless of men”) and reveres him above all other men. The older the woman, the more she covers her body. An unmarried girl (kafle) wears only a short skirt or nothing on top regardless of her size, weight, or if she had a small or large bosom.

In Krao Kingdom one does not attribute any sexual meaning to the naked breasts but rather to the bottom. Hence, when a young woman is engaged, she is required to cover her breasts as a sign of respect to her future family. Married women usually cover their bodies completely, which signal that she is off limits.

In a Krao Kingdom, a woman may become a chief if she has been married and all of her children and husband are dead. Secondly, if her father is a chief and has no other children and he dies, she then inherits the role. Under this condition she can become a paramount chief. This is vivid in “Wulubli” when Kau became the “King Lady” when the chief of the fifteen-hut town died. Hence, she represented one of the most striking examples of females managing war, because women in general do not go to war. For example, in the absence of males, or where the female is the only surviving daughter of a deceased “Koloba,” the regulation and conduct of local affairs may be in the hands of women.

Womanhood had an importance in Kroa Kingdom because children took their surnames from the mothers, and the mothers controlled both the household and the fields, which refutes the misconception that the Poro College controls the women of the Sande.

In his book, Pre-colonial Black Africa, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop avers that in the African custom of matrilineal succession, very strict rules were observed, which stated that the heir of the throne was not the king’s son but the son of the King’s first-born sister (the king’s nephew). This is because, African proverb states, ‘One can never be sure who the father of the child is; but one can be sure who the mother is. The brilliance of this logic cannot be missed. This saying underpinned the rationale many African societies used to ensure that conferring of power and titles of leadership were reckoned through the mother’s line.

Among the Krahn working with the Gwayee-pohyon was the “Gba-geahyee (drummer) who would create suitable rhythms for each song-story. When moved by the music, audience would often stand up and dance. Another traditional event was called “slah kwi.” In this, society people including adults and children sit in before the house where the slah kwi is performing. Slah kwi performs from the arctic of the house where it is hosted. The audience would hear one version and everyone else another less serious version. In “Kwi,” voices are used; voices believed to be of spirits, which are invoked from the great beyond. Like “gweh-ya ooh this event takes place only at night and on very special occasions. The location must be dark, in fact so dark, that one cannot see one’s own hand. The slah kwi serves as a liaison between the living and the spirits of the dead. In this sense, the slah kwi serves a dual capacity: to give enjoyment as well as spiritual guidance to the people.

The slah kwi sings and the people sing along with it in a call and response fashion. He delivers messages from the spirits of the dead and invokes the spirits of the dead to join in the arctic. Each time one arrives you would hear the landing sound, and he would be introduced by the slah kwi. The “kwi” sometimes are known as ‘Kantoohn Gleh, ‘Zeon Gleh, to name a few.

Among the Grebo Kingdom, the Sande College educates cadres of female leaders in the act of healing, leadership, midwifery, home economics, priestess activity, community-centered education, and the value of marriage and family unity, especially in what it means to be a woman. The “Koloqwee,” the most powerful and invisible spirit of the Grebo Sande College, is embodied in a mystical being. The “Koloqwee” also represents the spirits of ancestral maidens and their mothers with masks symbolizing beauty. In other words, the sandentric nature of the Grebo is captured in female beauty. Ceremonies and other social, cultural and political roles prepare initiates to receive a rank and title of their kingdom. The education continues until the elders declare one a man or woman, woven into nationhood. They are called upon to pass tests that show they are ready for the leap.

In the Sarpo Kingdom, the highest institution of learning is the “Kwi” where youth of reasoning age are waxed into adult men and women after ceremonial rites for official enrollment into the PSC and subsequent graduation. The “Kwi” is an oasis of academic excellence and a place of caring and compassion, tolerance, enduring friendships and civil discourse. “Kwi” graduates are taught linguistics, how to preserve oral history, about legends, spirituality, the oracles, and sacred places as a means of learning about Sarpo worldview as preparation for their membership in adult society. As soon as students come into the age of reason, they undergo the “Kwi” civic juvenile test, by which they are enrolled in the “Kwi.” It is a rigorous education in personal discipline and strict preservation of Sarpo heritage.

In Gola Kingdom, the Poro College is known as “Bohn” while the Sande College is called “Zowogbee.” The “Zoe-gbe” of the Gola teaches the use of medicine and herbs for self-protection in the “Towabei” or “Treatment Grove.” The PSC in the Gola society is responsible for rules, laws, systems, religious credo and military training. The health needs of the Gola are met through the proper use of herbs by the elders, wise heads, zoe-gbe, astrologers, and leaders of the PSC. In terms of the administrative structure, the “Dadewe” relays the wishes of the townspeople to their ancestral world. Next to the “Dadewe” is the immortal “Dazowo” or chancellor who heads the Poro College. Between the “Dozowo” and townspeople is the “Dakpannah” or “Father Kpannah” through whom all messages pass to townspeople.

In Vai Kingdom, there are three higher institutions of learning: Bili, Sande, and Poro. The Bili College trains young males into manhood while the Sande educates young females into womanhood who have went beyond initiation rites or a mere ‘finishing school’ where girls learn how to cook and try to attract a suitor. The Vai train their students for two years or more before graduation. “Yavi,” “Kolokpo,” and “Nafai” are the invisible spirits of both the Bili and Sande College that add value to improve the social fabric of the Vai. The ancestors are also respected during these rites with the initiates being taught to respect their families and relatives, not to share the secrets of their initiation rites. The head of the Sande College is the “Mazowo,” meaning “Mother Zowo.” The next in line to the “Mazowo” is the “Zowogbili,” one of those at the PSC who is referred to as a “total effort elder,” one who is always working long, hard hours for the College.

In Gbandi Kingdom, the Poro and Sande College are the two primary institutions. The male campus of the Gbandi College is called Sale or “Porogii” or “Sengai Lorboi.” The “landay,” equivalent of chancellor heads, the “Porongii.” The landay is assisted by the nagbay and lanebonge who care collectively for the gafui, meaning “Big Things.” But consider gafui to mean faculty as its equivalent. The Sale Spirit is called gafven, which should not be missed up with gafui, the faculty. The prefer gaf means spirit. Gbandi PSC provide platforms in which the youth learnt the ‘laws of the land’ and their own cultures. This process is refered to as being swallowed by the landay. Once completed, the young initiates become adults in their society and no longer children. For the female graduates, they did not even know one single thing about sex until they entered their husband’s house. Non-member of the College is called gbolowa or golowa moin, literally means stupid. In the Sande, the first student to be admitted is called gbaba, meaning “strong” or “hard,” and the last student is called kpo, or war path. 

The male session of the Gbandi College is called “Porongii” or “Seangai Lorboi, meaning men grove.” The Nyanha (female) Sowoi (Zoe) or simply nyanhahowoi and is the equivalent of chancellor and heads the Porongi. Seansowoi is the men Zoe.

First student is called ndoinya or the children mother. Second student Tanue, means owner of town. All other students fall under the two first and second students ranks. Regardless of the age, the senior is, bound to be respected. Ndawengii are those who enter the institution for few weeks and graduate due to engagement or otherwise. Learning includes trapping for birds in the trees, drawing water with container, fishing, etc. No woman cooked from outside. They used reef to drawn water with smiting iron.

During the first month, the students are trained to hunt in small groups. They hunt for raccoons, ground hogs, birds, squirrels, porcupines, opossums, rats, snakes with dogs called keke in Gbandi. Specific emphasis is placed on how to clear several yards of brush and beat down the brush with sticks as they move towards the cleared area. The students make loud noises and shake noisemakers that scare the animals that may be hidden, prompting them to run where the hunters are waiting.

Other methods the students are trained are in the use of bow and arrows, traps, slingshots, rock traps, fish traps, drop traps, which the students must learn to make. Climbing is an importance area where the curriculum of the Gbandi devotes ample time. The students are taught safe handling of the climbing rope called nbalingii. The hands-on training is demonstrated by putting special cord made from the piassava around his back at the waist and around the palm tree truck and ties a knot in it. Besides the Piassava cords, long cords of four or more whole rattan fibers are used to climb up in the palm trees which heights range from eight to twelve feet. The students are taught how to use the peeled rattan fibers around the trunk of the palm tree closely and tightly, and the vine fiber called dahay which must grip the palm trunk very well to avoid fall. The reason being that the palm tree is a major source of cash and food for Gbandi Kingdom. Students learned how to produce toluwul, or red palm oil, soap making, kernel for cash. Other social and economic functions of palm trees, the chancellor of the Poro College make sure the curriculum teach, are weaving dress of the landay, the Poro College Spirit, hammocks, baskets, fans and other festivities and secret rituals.

In Gbandi Kingdom, Poro College students in home economics and engineering learn how to build suspended bridges called monkey bridges, weave cloth called kolui or country cloth from cotton trees. They learned how to become blacksmiths and the production of iron money called koluyila.

In the Poro College, the Ngafuwe is the male dancing spirit with a long mouth. It dances performing magic. The spirit that no woman sees is Ngafuan. Ngafuwe settles compromise or controls bad human behavior; it spearheads the construction of the money bridge, which is suspended in the air and ensured that brushing all the roads is completed.

Other social events are the kemai or gbono-kemai during which the Ngafuwe goes from house to house collecting gifts. Before graduation, students must pass two exams to become ndobor-uvoi, meaning grove students. During this stage the students acquired walking sticks and have chalk on the bodies. The students come to town but no communication or interaction with women. When woman are travelling in the grove of the College, they must sing to indicate that they are using the road. Mawsahngii is chief of the town where the grove is located. Tawansengii is any town chief but not that of the Poro College. If a message or sahaa needs to be sent to another the sahaalamoi goes. The Ngafuwe or Ngafuan had its own messenger called Kulobai. He is the one who is ahead of the road, announcing, “Saysay- saysay”!

Within the Maan Kingdom, the Poro College is called “Guah-bohn.” The “Pleh-dormie,” meaning “father,” is the chancellor of the “Guah-bohn.” Included in the Poro training are military maneuvers, character excellence, hunting, herbal science, midwifery, instruction before marriage, home economics, counseling and blacksmithing. “Geh” is the spirit that comes to town for secular and other reasons. The all-female Sande College is called the “Luah-bohn.” In this case, “Bohn” is the institution and the prefix describes the gender. The head of each institution is commonly called “Zoe.” The “Zea-keleh,” the most powerful invisible spirit of the “Luah-bohn,” is embodied in a mystical oracle. The “Komo” or “Gba” (palava hut) is the main political institution of the Mandingo, headed by the “Jali,” meaning “carrier of the oral tradition.” Learners who enrolled in the “Komo” or “Gba” are trained to form a special, internal bond, which remains throughout life. During this time, they learn about the power of “Nyama” from the “Nyamakalaw” and spend their entire lives perfecting special secret skills that are passed down from generation to generation.

Young men learn about becoming a “numu” or blacksmith, and a “nara,” mastering the kora, which can take up to thirty or forty years to master. The students learn secret and sacred songs, including “call and response” songs that entail a caller or soloist who “raises the song” to which the community chorus responds or “agree underneath” the song. In addition, they are taught how to make the kora, play the three to five strings oblong lute, dance, sing and tell stories through the use of these instruments and through their epic called “fasa” of what it is to be a Mandingo. These songs teach them how they are to relate to members of the opposite sex, including their parents, their siblings, their relatives or “gwa,” and eventually their spouses, as well as their elders and their peers.

Becoming a “djeli,” a word that comes from the same root as the word for “blood,” is highly desired. The role of the “djeli” is to sing and praise the bloodline of the noble families, from children yet unborn, generation after generation. During this training period, they are cared for and taught by elders of the same sex from either the Council of Elders or College of Females. These persons become their life-long sponsors, from which a very special relationship forms. Great preparation is made in the village or compound for the return of the children. A huge celebration marks the graduation of these new adults to their families where the praise singers called “jalibaa” perform. The children are given new clothes and are treated with new respect by their elders. Boys and girls are honored with a dance and special meals. As a result of these traditional teachings, a married woman’s loyalty remains to her parents and her family. Female
students also learn to become “jalimusolu” or praise-singers and historians.

PSC Medicine

Medicine men and women are trained in the PSC who serve as official priests in the Liberian society. This medico-religious healing civilization talked with (as opposed to just talking to) countless of different plants and mushrooms to get their consensus for herbal prescriptions. One of the healing methods was herbal steaming pot in which all sorts of sweet smelling herbs, including the leaves of the lemon grass were boiled. Vapor filled with essence and salt of these herbs entered the patient’s body through pores and nose, restoring the sick person’s strength. The use of wild potato greens for curing many malfunctions was applied for its high contents of iron, protein, calcium, and vitamins. To close deep wounds, ‘kpedeh’, the sour liquid from bark of the ‘budu fein’ tree was applied.

The traditional healing system, using herbal mixtures to treat endless numbers of disorders and diseases including diarrhea, bladder infections, ulcers, headaches, chronic bronchitis, stomach ulcers and constipation, kidney problems, arthritis, rheumatism, and infertility – to name a few. The medicines council of faculty is called sowi (Gbandi), hwinyon (Bassa), salenu (Kpelleh). 

Treating disease, supplying charms to the lovelorn and causing harm to enemies are part of the priest’s duties. There are different kinds of medicines which have different functions. In the PSC, medicines have one thing in common, which is carefully, tenderly, nursing the ill person back to health. For example, in the process of healing a broken bone of a patient, the chicken foot would be broken. Upon the application of the born medicine, the walking or the healing of the chicken foot indicates the healing of the patient legs.

When a person was wounded, the Medicine Man first sucked the wound, and then spat out the blood. He used root powder to dry and heal the wound and to prevent infection. No lint or compress was used in dressing the wound. For toothaches, the Bassa chewed the bark of the buttonbush. Bark of the prickly ash was placed in the cavity to stop the pain of a toothache. For Gonorrhea, a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, cure which is leaf of the African water ropes were explained how it can be hand seized and dank. The symptoms, dose and time to drink the herb was a part of the education process.  

Medical students were trained in how to make use of steam cabinets into which were boiled all sorts of sweet smelling herbs. Vapor filled with essence and salt of these herbs entered the patient’s body through pores and through his nose. Strength was thus restored. This cured many malfunctions, including the effects of overeating. The flowering ash or “private tree” had bark with antiseptic quality. The bark was boiled in water and the extract was used to wash wounds. They used the barks of some trees to cure high fever like malaria. The bark of the Kei ti (a large tree to make canoe), a vine like plant’s barks were also used to cure high fever due to malaria. In order to stop a bleeding wound the sap of Serme, a vine-like tree that usually grows on palms or other trees is poured on the wound. For bad stomach, the bark of a tree called Gbangba and they use the leaves of the Kolo ti or sour plum for constipation. Other herbs to cure snake bites were taught. These are just few examples of the PSC medicines curriculum that were passed on across generations.

Metaphysics
Here, men learned how his assailants tried to stab him with their spears, but could not even wound him. Some of them had rifles and fired at him, but the bullets fell round him like hailstones, without touching him. Graduates of this discipline capably point out those who are responsible for the death of other and set free those falsely accused of witchcraft against them. An old chief sat on a rock, calmly playing on his mbira. His assailants tried to stab him with their spears, but could not even wound him. Some of them had rifles and fired at him, but the bullets fell round him like hailstones, without touching.

PSC Technology, Trade and Commerce

It is within the PSC that young men and women are trained in the cultural technology that is germane to their civilization. For example, the fulcrum of the Melegueta Civilization of Liberia was its unique engineering seedbed [ceramic pottery, ironwork or blacksmith] technology.

Different types of ceramic pottery and blacksmith furnaces used in ceramic pottery, the smelting or reduction of iron were built. It was the PSC teaching that these pre-heated forced-draft furnaces the engineers designed came in all shapes: dome shape, pit [bowl, and shaft [cylindrical]. “Fule kidii,”for example, is a name for a dome referred to by the central Kpelleh ethnic group. The roasting beds and smelting furnaces were engineered to produce and maintain temperature range similar to that used to make modern porcelain and those of European Industrial Revolution era.

These furnaces were unique in contacting or mixing iron with charcoal in its shaft or bowl. The end result was a reaction of burning charcoal and little oxygen to form carbon monoxide. The hot carbon monoxide blasted through the pre-heated forced-draft furnace and reacted with the iron oxide to reduce the ore to metal. The technology worked by blasting preheated air with bellows through blowpipes inserted into the base of the furnace. The process enabled trained smiths to merge this mass of iron particles by heating and hammering them together to desired tools.

Blacksmiths supplied important implements, including iron axe blades, lip plugs, knife blades, arrows, spear heads, hooks, bracelets, cutlasses, and money. For example, the Kissi money indigenous engineers produced was the medium of exchange in Liberia and Sierra Leone for a long, long time before the British Pound interrupted the region’s medium of exchange. In the ancient days, when the Kingdom of the Belleh [Kuuwa} was at its peak in the northern part of Liberia, mines were dug to produce guns, spears, and other weapons in pre-Liberia.

The Bassa ethnic group called this indigenous technology, “bei-gbam” which literally means the groves of technology. Pre-Liberian people were able to produce plenty of food and other agriculture products to support their family. It is not a coincidence that our nation was called the “bread basket of Africa.”

Blacksmiths plays a crucial role in farming, military hardware, and iron money that preceded what is known as bar of salt. Fashioning agricultural tools and military equipment from iron are responsibilities they performed. Agricultural tools including but not limited to hoe, cutlass, knife, axe and military equipment such as spear and sword are produced under the watchful eyes of the team of blacksmiths. It is because of these tools that kernels, rice, cassava, plantains, bananas, yams, nut oil, palm oil, wine, dry meats, fish were produced for trading and commerce. Medium of exchanges which was a slender iron rod about 8-12 inches longs are skillfully curved by graduates of the PSC. Liberian females did not idly look on.

Sande College graduates contributed as pottery engineers by employing their skills up to 1980s when once a highly valued skill became obsolete. They made many different types of pottery including pots for cooking, eating, storing oil, fish, and medicine. They learned in the PSC how to make terracottas [clay images of humans], headstones, and other items made from clay. Female engineers also manufactured palm oil and unique pots in honor of ancestral deities.

PSC Social and Political Stability

Across times, cultures and ethnic groups in Liberia, the PSC is the foundation of spirituality, religion, politics, economy, culture and family. The family, in turn, is the basic unit of society. Thus, the PSC is an institution with major public significance. Stability is achieved through kinship and loyalty to the PSC, which emphasizes community, unity and obligation, not individual betterment. Hence the Poro and Sande Supreme Court, rather than the law, is the deciding instrument.

The Supreme Court, therefore, is made up of a College of Elders who have had proven to be wise, balanced and impartial, and whose duties and rights are to pronounce judgment without mincing words. The College of Elders has very little power over the fines or property of others. These are not held, each man for himself, nor have they the right of taxation but they have power to declare war, acting in concert with their people in declaring it and waging it. College of Elders administers justice as magistrates, decides palavers according to the unwritten law of custom, summons offenders and enforces the decision. While a man is the head of the College of Elders, a woman, the “Zoegbe,” heads the Council of Females.

The head of the Council of Females and her cabinet represent the women in any important town gatherings and deliberations. If decisions arrive at the waiting feet of the people such that the womenfolk are to be told about them, the head (“Zoegbe”) of the Council of Females gets a graduate of the Sande to sound the gong or “sasa” to convene the women (Council of Females).

On not so weighty occasions, the head of the Council of Females’ inner circle passes the word around among the women by word of mouth. In essence, male leadership is not neutralized by female leadership, which is likened to the flow of electrons which need both positive and negative poles to complete its loop. Only graduates of the PSC can approach the Supreme Court for a decision. Women and children can serve as witnesses or spectators, and are not excluded from proceedings unless the proceedings are of a peculiar nature. They do not, however, summon the court to session. If a community member has a palaver, he first approaches one of the elders. The College of Elders or Council of Females then tries to determine whether the palaver can be settled within the family. All disputes which extend beyond family matters, however trivial they may be, must be settled without breaking the nexus of the community, meaning no greed-driven struggle for wealth.

Within this form of African socialism and its political context, compromises reached by the community are respected and upheld strictly through spiritual and religious principles. When the community encounters an important matter, the College of Elders or Council of Females assembles in their groves under a big tree to investigate all sides of the issue. The big tree is symbolic of the family. The various branches represent family members, but there is only one root. Problems discussed in the form of legal questions are debated in open community meetings rather than through a formal judicial process. The objective of the judge is always to help the two sides reach a compromise. Reaching a compromise is the goal of these assemblies. Thus, there are often no clear cut winners or losers in the final agreement that is made.

The PSC Roles in Environment Protection

The Poro and Sande College is a microcosm of the notion of human refinement and domestication extending from the individual to the natural environment. Proper understanding of God’s attributes includes our understanding that we must protect the natural environment, rivers, trees, forest, ocean, mountains and air, etc.

The PSC understanding that ancestral spirits dwell in nature add further protective virtues to the rivers and mountains. These ideas are universal and consistent with the oriental doctrines of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, which also consider nature and all living creatures as preceding from God whose holy spirit they worship. In Franciscan doctrine it is written that human beings and the animals are siblings rather than sage and servants. In PSC teaching, animals were believed to be the doorway to and means of communicating with the spirit world and birds were believed to be messengers to the spirit world. These concepts echo the wisdom found within the concept of the PSC, affirming that our ancestors have always obeyed the universal law of nature.

It is both natural and supernatural that the forest is the ultimate authority – depended upon, respected, trusted, obeyed and loved. It expresses its feelings through storms, falling trees, floods, drought, etc. Protection of the environment is the protection of motherhood, which is associated with food and love. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the mother is regarded as the source of food. Mushrooms, roots, berries, nuts, herbs, fruits, leafy vegetables, medicine, fish and animals that are hunted are cooked and distributed by her. Hungry children look to their mothers for food, not to their fathers.

The PSC had the absolute power to protect the waters and forests from pollution, massive deforestation and to regulate fishing. It has the power to promote communal farming through “Kuu” a Kpelleh word, “Susu,” a Kroa word, or “Kre-wai” a Bassa word. These words refer to a group of villagers who came together each day to “brush” each member’s farm until all the villagers’ farms were brushed and the crops sown.

Through the power of the PSC, the family is not abandoned. Mother, father and the extended family remain together. The nuclear family does not exist, and anyone who chooses the family unit over the communal is adjudged “mixed up.” Anyone who transgresses the PSC laws bears the full consequences of societal separation. Sometimes, s/he can no longer hold leadership or have a voice in that community.

PSC Hospitality

A stranger is entertained hospitably. He is provided with a house and food for they stay, or as much longer as he may wish to stay. On departing he is given a present. His host and the village headman are bound to protect him from any prosecution while he is their guest, even if he be really guilty.

PSC Discipline

Our ancestors believe that they are descendants of the Supreme Spirits (big and small, male and female) who descended from heavens many, many years ago to bring order to chaos. These Supreme Spirits, who embody communalism, truth, justice and the orderly arrangement of the universe, teach us about the natural world, the mysteries of creation and the cosmos as a whole through the PSC.

The PSC believes the Almighty Ancestral Deity created one spiritual or natural world. The leadership of the Sande and Poro College is considered a microcosm of the consanguinity between the living world and the ancestral world. Equally important, the PSC has an affinity with the Ancestral Deities, with the power to give and take life.

The invisible Poro and Sande deities personify the perfect state of the god-created world. All that the living beings have to do in order to live and enjoy the fruits of the earth is to honor and preserve both of the judicially balanced institutions. This is the fundamental principle of humanity living in harmony with the self, others, the environment, as well as the spiritual world. For instance, on an individual level, the goal of every PSC graduate is to lead an honorable life that allows entrance into the afterlife where the ancestors have a say in the fate of the individual.

The PSC was founded to promote certain ideal aims, to be obtained not by violence but by moral measures. By this, the PSC is distinguished from conspiracies and secret plots which are formed to attain a particular object through violent means. It is a fearful thing to go against the institutional moral rules and laws. Overthrow of government, rape, invasion of one’s nation and infidelity brings eternal punishment as reflected in the gene of the members that could affect their future. In African Religion and Spirituality, Mbiti (1986) explains the consequences of deviant social behavior, in that the family’s integrity resides in the social behavior of children, and scorn falls upon the family when boys and girls engage in immoral sexual acts. Therefore, family and community values are installed early at developmental stages before puberty.

For the most part, no aspect of the PSC worldview is completely secular. In fact, Sande and Poro beliefs do not ascribe to a secular worldview, or matrifocal or patrifocal societies. The PSC is divine, so it is not viewed as private property to the exclusion of others as a Western political and private party or club would do. Government is derived from Creator Ancestor God through the Ancestral Kingdom, not through human beings. The PSC instructions in law and order are for the common good of humankind. The PSC knows no tribalism or language barrier and its authority is honored among all ethnic lineages. No individual or ethnic group, regardless of the numbers, can preempt the Poro and Sande-sanctioned law or democratic process. The first and foremost duty of the PSC is to maintain peace and order within its geopolitical borders. No PSC institution worthy of the name countenances public chaos or condone open defiance of its power. Thus, the overthrow of government in Liberian indigenous society was unheard of.

The institutionalization of the Poro and Sande social structure is an important part of all the ethnicities of Liberia in everyday life. Good citizenship and leadership mean the personification of “truth” and “justice.” These experiences constitute the aggregate of the educational, socioeconomic and religious philosophies, all on the concepts of communalism, socialism, and empiricism. This is why both institutions are like umbilical cords of the people, because the Poro and Sande tie all Liberians together. This is also why it is very important for all Liberians to re-engineer their minds on the full history of Liberia from the elementary school to the college levels, so as not to mislabel the politically motivated 14-year civil war in Liberia as an “ethnic war” or attempt to disparage the educational and unifying roles of the PSC in Liberia.

Representative Edwin Juah, a political science lecturer at the AME College, and Counselor Cecelia Bull capture the true essence of the PSC during a conversation.

Counselor Bull noted, “The Poro prepares men for bravery in battle, leadership in the community, so they might attain wisdom, accept responsibility, and gain power. It begins with the child’s grade of ‘discovery’ followed by extensive training and service.”

Representative Juah averred, “The practices of the Poro and Sande society school young people to learn about future challenges. No country in the world, as far as history tells me, survives in the absence of cultural and traditional practices. So, for Liberians who have little education to use the airwaves to condemn our culture and tradition is an affront to our ancestors and nation as a whole.”

This author agrees with both Representative Juah and Counselor Bull because he knows firsthand that all graduates of these traditional male and female college field a gallant, highly competent force in defense of their kingdom, social identities, shared values, character excellence, understanding traditional spirituality, communal farming, and other basic survival skills. For example, during the civil wars in places where the Poro and Sande College has not lost complete jurisdiction, PSC authorities were not only able to co-opt new leaders but restrain the actions and behaviors of armed men who held allegiance to warlords.

The Great Wall of Yeala: In the Lofa County town of Yeala stand the remnants of an ancient town wall that provided defense for citizens in times of a war. Yeala was encircled by this wall which stood at some 70 feet tall. The wall was erected by Poro men of the town, among whom were Journalist James Fasuekoi’s ancestors who had to battle against ruthless Guinean warlords in order to preserve unborn generations
Photo: Journalist James Kokulo Fasuekoi.

In other words, in the attendance of elders a problem does not get out of hand because it is settled. One of the ways in which PSC authorities sought to shield rural dwellers during the cruel conflict was to co-opt the young armed leaders. In addition, the PSC provides training opportunities for priesthood, herbal healing, midwifery, self-discovery and leadership of traditional Liberian men, women, and children. These institutions also taught Liberians responsibility and self-dignity to the point that their testimonies in a court trial could never be exchanged for money or excluded from trial on technicalities, as common in many Western countries.

PSC Reverence of Female Beauty

In the teaching of the PSC, the Creating Deity is depicted as both a masculine and feminine Supreme Being. However, her total image is perceived to be female, a gender more biologically engaged than male Supreme Being. It is said that the great Earth Mother was a big woman, very, very fat [African Liberian definition of beauty]. Hence, female beauty is reverenced through the bountiful female Spirit of the Sande College, as well as through every woman, each seen as a vessel of life and guardian of sacred knowledge.

The position of women is equal to that of men by virtue of the fact that the Sande College is no lesser than the Poro College. In fact, this is why when the Poro College is in session, the Sande College doesn’t open and vice versa, in order for each College to get the aggregate support of the people.

The Sande mask represents female power, inner and outer beauty, which proverbially compare to the delight and wonder of butterflies. Equally so, the sculptor conveys the beauty he sees within: a smooth high forehead portrays the ideal of womanhood, the voluminous neck-rings, the elaborate hairstyle, and the downcast eyes portraying wisdom and success.

At the apex is, of course, the Maazoe, the mother of the community, then an individual’s mother, after which is her mother-in-law, and then all other older women in the community. A woman’s equals are her age mates, those with whom she was initiated and those falling within the same age group. Thus, sameness is not always tantamount to equality, and neither does it imply strict conformity to dominant values of womanhood, such as motherhood. In short, graduation has the positive value of creating sameness among all women and maintaining equality within age groups as well as a general hierarchy of female authority in society.

Admission to the Poro College

The Poro specializes in boys between 9-16 years of age who begin “watching the hands of their fathers” at 3-6 years of age. The enrollment is done when the child is circumcised and before the age of 21, which is the legal age for boys to get married. Circumcision is done by a trained individual or the uncle and has nothing to do with the Poro College.

Unlike regular schools that mingle all age groups together, the PSC is composed of an all-male or all-female method of education. The admission begins with a bucket of white rice, a tin of oil, a gallon of rum for pouring libation, a brown roster and the all-important kola nuts.

The libation is for respectfully calling the ancestors and or swilling the dregs and making them go “plop” until they hit the earth. The libation begins by calling on the Supreme Deity, Mother Earth, the gods and the ancestors who have matrilineage or matriclan names.

The parents and the initiate contribute to finding the admission fees. However, for the kola nuts that bear fruit annually, the would-be initiate is responsible to pick oval-shaped nuts that often camouflage themselves amongst the leaves. Would-be initiates would accumulate the kola nuts until there are plenty. Usually six or more inside the cluster, the kola nuts have a thin white covering which the initiates would easily peeled off during preparation and stored in earthenware pots covered with banana leaves and buried in the ground.

The initiated males learn arts useful to the survival of society such as blacksmithing, melting iron money or the medium of exchange, fishing, hunting, village architecture, weaving clothing from cotton or what is known as traditional Liberian cloth.

Elaborate graduation ceremonies are held for boys in the male Forest Grove after four years of training. A true Poro graduate’s motto is always “Hail, forever conceal, never reveal, duties never end, and the business of life passes through hands.” When a student enrolls (“Porosu”) in the Poro College during the “Porokui” or “Poro feast”, he remains in the school until graduation. Upon graduation, he is given a “Porodasiigii” or new name before becoming a full member of the society (there is an exception for the males of the Bassa Poro College). No graduate will ever expose the secrets of the Poro even at the threat of death (saa).

Admission to the Sande College

Girls between ages 7-13 are admitted and enrolled in the Sande in order to achieve the refinement and education of domestic responsibilities. Girls 3-10 years receive instruction from the Zoe and other higher societal members. The enrollment occurs before they pass the flower of their age. The admission begins with a bucket of white rice, a tin of oil, a gallon of rum for pouring libation, a white hen and the all-important kola nuts.

The parents and the would-initiate contribute to finding the admission fees. However, for the kola nuts that bear fruit annually, the would-be initiate’s brother is responsible to pick oval-shaped nuts that often camouflage themselves amongst the leaves. Would-be initiates would accumulate the kola nuts until there plenty. Usually six or more inside the cluster, the kola nuts have a thin white covering which the initiates would easily peeled off during preparation and stored in earthenware pots covered with banana leaves and buried in the ground.

The girls are told that their bodies do not just belong to them, per se, because the honor of the family and community rests in their bodies. The initiates learn arts useful to the survival of society such as spinning thread out of the fiber of cotton, fishing, hunting, village cleaning, fish trapping, weaving clothing from cotton or what is known as traditional Liberian cloth.

Mud Cloths with ancient money used for commercial activities by the Lormas displayed on top. Photo: Journalist James Kokulo Fasuekoi.

The teaching of the arts and crafts of motherhood is endlessly emphasized as they learn to live like adults and sing the songs of adult women. Tributes and songs to the family’s integrity reside in the social and sexual deportment of girls. That is why the highest bride price was paid for a virgin; the next for a woman who has been abandoned by some other hardworking man and the lowest bride price for widows. Upon graduation, students are to use “Sande graduate names” in lieu of birth names following the ceremony.

Graduation

For centuries, the Poro and Sande College (PSC) has been powerful political institutions of education and leadership that instill character excellence and prepare them for good citizenship. Highly structured graduation ceremonies are held after three to four years of studies. Upon graduation, new members take on such roles as healers, spiritualists, necromancers, musicians, griots, town criers, traditional Zoe dancers, midwives, metaphysicians, priests and warriors, and they hold mantle of leadership in other areas that satisfy the needs of the community under the watchful eyes of the Zoe Council.

Conclusion

I do not impeach the sincerity of our forefathers of primitive thought who teach that man in his nationhood beliefs has reached his present stage by progressive PSC curriculum that provides valuables lesson for the collective and communal survival of our people. Spirituality is intimately intertwined with every one of these aforementioned sociological aspects of family, rights of property, authority, tribal organization, judicial trials, punishments, intertribal relations and commerce.

The PSC is also the weaver of the basic fabric of our society with rules, laws, systems and a spiritual credo, irrespective of operative buildings, geodesic domes and skyscrapers— a pattern ordinarily used by Europeans and some of our brothers and sisters to define the efficacy of educational institutions.

Education is not necessarily valuable because of the size or kind of building in which it is conducted; what is more important is the type of education one receives, the devotion of teachers, and how the system of education empowers the minds of the people who pass through its structure. For example, personalities like Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus Christ were learners and visitors to sacred places, mystical institutions and learning places like the giant pyramids, and the wilderness and groves, which were not metropolitan areas. It is no coincidence that in indigenous Liberian society after the baby is more than a week old, the mother would take the baby for its first walk in the wilderness or big, wide world. The Bassa ethnic group of Liberia used this profound expression, “Zaa dyupleh xwada”, meaning taking the baby from hiding, wilderness [place of gift and wisdom].

The Per Ankh, the oldest learning College in Egypt, an equivalent of the PSC, is also called “House of Life.” It served as the repository and reservoir of records, medicine, laws, temple, clinic, geography, astronomy, and spiritual or Porocentric/Sandecentric education. Per Ankh contributed to the rise of great physicians, surgeons, and specialists in Africa. Its acknowledged ethical code was passed down into the famous Hippocratic Oath. The Greeks derived much of their medical knowledge from Per Ankh physicians around 750 B.C. The influence of its teaching was so great on European culture that even to this day, Per Ankh concepts still have a signature in modern Western medicine: when a medical doctor writes a prescription, the Per Ankh symbol for health (Jupiter) with the symbol for retrograde= Rx (“I curse your health in retrograde” = death) is used.

The male and female college was so powerful that the Greeks, Romans and others came to drink from their fountains. For example, in Cleinias’ admission of the “habitual ignorance” of Greek adults (freemen) on the subject of education, especially mathematics, Plato presents this dialogue: “Athenian: All freemen, I conceive, should learn as much of these branches of knowledge as every child in Egypt is taught when he learns the alphabet. In that country arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as a pleasure and amusement.”

 

Dr. Somah (middle) poses with a tradiitional dancing spirit
Photo courtesy of Dr. Syrulwa Somah

It is an open secret that missionaries have said or written that our people are ungodly, primitive and backward and had no idea of God. Come and stand in any village street of Liberia and asked, “Who is God?” Under  various ethnic names of Nyonsuah, Geledephoh, Allah, Gaephoh or, in other parts, Nagala, and so forth, they know of a Creating Deity superior to themselves, of whom they would inform you that he is the Maker and Molder. Our forefathers told us those names. The Creating Deity is the One-who-made-us and gave us PSC concept.

In their own Christian Bible, the Book of St. Luke 17: it is written “the kingdom of God is within man” neither one man, nor a group of men – but in all men – in you. Our people’s method of worship of God is misunderstood by the Europeans. Our people worship God but not through Jesus or Mohammed and etc. The European misconception of our people’s worship is derived from their ill-informed belief that because our people revere mountains, rivers and other forms of nature they are worshiping idols. They call the consultation of these natural elements by our people demonic. But the truth is, it is God who created mountains, rivers, trees, and etc. Just as Europeans hang images of Jesus, Mary, and others on the walls in their homes as form of adoration of God representation, so as our people use these natural elements as adoration of the representation and through which they communicate with God. In Nigeria, ethnic groups that do not have central governments depend on spirituality, the power within that is a part of the PSC as their basis of political power.

This is evident in different religious forms from the Ibo, Yoruba, or the Ashanti to the states of other centrally-organized peoples. The Ghanaian Northern ethnic group of Tallensi, for example, does not have central government but shares power from descent-lines and is held together by religious rituals of the Poro and Sande. These rituals are in the form of art, music and ceremonial dances to express the equilibrium of the dynamic essence between the visible and invisible worlds.

The Senufo of Cote d’Ivoire, near the Dan-Ngere region of eastern Liberia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and the Shilluk ethnic group of Sudan are linked culturally and spiritually by the PSC. The Nigerian Oyo Empire had similar institutions such as Alaafin, Oluwo, Bashorun and Kakanfo. The codes of ethics have been taught for hundreds of years, from generation to generation to African children who go to these traditional learning institutions.

The Poro and Sande institutions, in addition to their educational roles in society, mediate between various ethnic kingdoms during times of conflict and know no territorial or language boundaries, and therefore are not confined to one region. In the Ashante religion, for example, chieftainship is referred to as akonnua (golden stool), and it also has a spiritual and Porocentric meaning. Becoming a chief entails various ceremonies but the climax is to enstool the chief with the supreme ancestral stool of his particular chiefdom. Marie Pampala explains the PSC’s importance for a spiritual view point when she notes, “one person did not make a decision for an entire society but rather the collective input from the members of the community contributed to the betterment of everyone in the society.” In other words, greed and corruption are not allowed and society is not lawsuit-happy.

The new educational system and national curriculum in Liberia must embody the Liberian way of life in terms of the national survival, identity, knowledge, attitudes, skills, values, customs, traditions, norms, beliefs, practices, technology and cultural artifacts. Whatever one’s own disposition may be, there remains an urgent need to live out this truth that we must be made and unmade by ourselves, and not by the judgment of other people. It is conclusive that if Liberian cultural values and the requisite skills for national development are codified into the national curriculum and taught in Liberian schools, Liberians will prosper as a nation and people both in terms of peace, national unity and development.

 

Dr. Syrulwa Somah is president and professor at Harbel College in Liberia

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