Collection Description

Culture Name


Culture Description

The Mende are a group of people who live primarily within the southern third of Sierra Leone in West Africa. Historically, they are rather recent arrivals to this area, appearing no earlier than the sixteenth century as invading forces advancing from the south. Their language (also called Mende) belongs to the Niger-Congo group of languages. Traditional Mende economic life mostly revolved around rice farming in uplands and gardening around homesteads. With the increasing migration of young men to towns, the Mende have come to rely on the cultivation of economically sound and labor saving commercial tree-crops such as cocoa, coffee and palm trees.


Select the Culture Summary link above for a longer description of the culture.


Africa --Western Africa



Sierra Leone

OWC Code


Number of Documents


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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in eHRAF World Cultures and are referenced by author, date of publication and eHRAF document number.

The Mende Collection (FC07) documents, all of them in English, cover cultural, economic and environmental information circa 1890s to 1990s. The most comprehensive source in the collection to be consulted is the work of Kenneth Little, a British social anthropologist who did fieldwork among the Mende in 1945-1946 (Little 1951, no. 2). Topics covered include kinship and political organization, family life and organization of farming, puberty, initiation and secret societies. The collection also includes a 1936 Ph.D. dissertation by Jules Staub which describes Mende material culture using several plates and illustrations (Staub 1936, no. 1). These two early sources are supplemented by the remaining works which, based on primary fieldwork in different Mande communities, examine more specific themes amid socioeconomic changes that occurred in 1970s-1990s.  Melissa Leach (1994, no. 9) discusses gender relations in Mende communities living around a state forest reserve. She focuses on differences in women's and men's experiences in farming, gardening, lumbering, hunting, collecting and fishing around the forest to argue that understanding ecological changes requires sensitivity to the concerns of each gender.  Barry Isaac (1998, no. 12) documents how the Mende gradually shifted from being subsistence rice cultivators to commercial cocoa, coffee and palm trees growers a young men migrated to urban center in search of employment opportunities.  The works of Caroline Bledsoe (1993, no. 10; 1990, no. 13) focus on dynamics of gender among polygamous Mende households which she found to be fraught with inequality and suppressed tensions that can erupt in pitched battles or witchcraft accusations. The remaining article in the collection analyzes lineage meetings and in-group struggles for succession to traditional leadership positions to explore salient features of Mende political culture (Murphy 1990, no.11).  

For more detailed information on the context of the individual works in the file, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

Overview by

Teferi Adem

Famalo- present by not yet incorporated immigrant stranger to hosting family - use "GIFT GIVING (431)" with "BEHAVIOR TOWARD NON - RELATIVES (609)"

Fula – dependent settlements (often small hamlets established by  junior descents or late coming subordinates of a parent village) - use "SETTLEMENT PATTERNS (361)" with "COMMUNITY STRUCTURE (621)"

Gbo – voluntary help - use "MUTUAL AID (476)"

Hale, or halei – medicine/power - use "SHAMANS AND PSYCHOTHERAPISTS (756)" with "SORCERY (754)"

Hale nyamu – bad medicine - use "SORCERY (754)"

Inter-cropping - use "TILLAGE (241)" with 824"ETHNOBOTANY (824)"

Jinanga- spirit - use "SPIRITS AND GODS (776)"

Kamajo- real hunter - use "HUNTING AND TRAPPING (224)" with "MAGICIANS AND DIVINERS (791)"

Mawεε, or mawe - extended family - use "EXTENDED FAMILIES (596)" with "FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS (593)"

Mbonda - family - use "HOUSEHOLD (592)"

Ndehu - lineage - use "LINEAGES (613)"

Ndongbo - bush - use "ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY (318)" with "LAND USE (311)"

Ngola - forest - use "FOREST PRODUCTS (314)" with "LAND USE (311)"

Poro - men's secret society - use "SODALITIES (575)"


Sande - women's secret society - use "SODALITIES (575)"


Sinbεki - seasonal farming encampment - use "CEREAL AGRICULTURE (243)" with "ANNUAL CYCLE (221)"

Ta maha - village (town) chief - use "COMMUNITY HEADS (622)"


This culture summary is based on the article, "Mende" by Jude C. Aguwa, in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures,   Supplement, Carol R. Ember, Melvin Ember, and Ian Skoggard, eds. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. 2002. Teferi Abate Adem wrote the synopsis and indexing notes in May 2008. The demography section was updated with information from the Sierra Leone census in June, 2008.

Indexing Notes by

Teferi Adem

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