Ndoli Jowei (Sande Sowei Helmet Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The social, economic and spiritual lives of Mende men and women in Sierra Leone are governed by a number of secret initiation societies of which the primary societies are the male Poro (meaning 'no end' or 'far behind') and the female Sande (also called Bundu or Bondo among the Temne). Mende boys and girls must pass through their respective initiation societies to be considered rounded adults with full insight into community teachings, traditions and expected behaviours.

The main aim of the Sande is to prepare girls for marriage and motherhood. Annual, six months long celebrations are held during the dry season to publicly welcome the initiates back into the community as adults. The initiates are led through the town by a masquerade called ndoli jowei (meaning 'the Sowei who dances' among the Mende or a-Nowo among the Temne), believed to be the physical embodiment of Ngafa (also referred to as Sowo, Nowo or Sowei in other sources), the guardian spirit of Sande. The ndoli jowei helmet mask is owned by a Sowei, the senior official of the Sande).

NOTE: The Vai, Sherbro, Temne, Krim and Gola possess similar Sowei masking traditions.

For more, see the article on Women's Art and Initiation in Mendeland on the Art & Life in Africa website, hosted by the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) HERE.

Distinguishing Features

  • Carved from single piece of wood from kpole (cotton) tree
  • Weigh between two to four pounds
  • Stained black
  • Helmet mask made to fit closely over head and neck of wearer
  • Elaborate coiffure
    • Depicted with great detail (finely incised lines of hair parting & braiding)
    • Hair can take the following forms:
      1. Graduated series of 1, 3, 5 or 7 ridges running from front to back; Central ridge; Ridges either start at same point and end at same point at back of head or run parallel to each other; Old masks have ridges running from side to side instead of front to back
      2. Hair divided into 4, 6 or 8 lobes or buns; Buns radiate out from crown of head; Hair gathered together at lower or upper end of bun; Buns accented by narrow braids which terminate in tufts; some feature bun of hair at crown of coiffure
      3. Tiny buns which taper into fine twists
    • Coiffures often further embellished with additional motifs (including combs, animal horns, birds, snakes, cooking pots, cowrie shells, amulets, charms, crests, European hats and crowns)
  • Small delicate face
    • Some are janus faced
    • High domed forehead (inverted V or U shape)
    • Some feature concave triangular area of face
    • Eyes often downcast or nearly closed (slits through which masker sees cut either across the middle of the carved eye, along its lower edge or in the neck)
      • If slits are in neck, they are either hidden in the crease between chin and neck, between rings, or very rarely, provided by a decorative perforated grill placed centrally under chin
    • Neat, straight nose
    • Small closed or very slightly open mouth
    • Heavy fold bisects the face from ear to ear
    • Scarification marks on cheeks (ngaya maki), forehead or outer corners of eyes (including three to four parallel vertical lines on each cheek, X-shaped mark on each cheek or three short lines radiating from each corner of the eyes)
  • Rolls of fat carved on the neck
    • Neck same circumference as head
    • Rounded rings on neck
      • May cover the entire surface of the back of the neck as well as a small area below the chin
    • Holes pierced at the bottom of the mask

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