Things that cannot be known have a big attraction. No wonder that Paul Julien, as many other researchers, was fascinated by the secret societies in Liberia in particular and West Africa in general. What follows are fragments of an article in a Belgian magazine and a radio talk written after his travel through Liberia in 1932 and should not be read as necessarily factual, but as an account of what was available to Julien as a visitor to Liberia at the time. And of course it is also a testimony to the doors that stayed closed to him since he, being a strongly religious Catholic, never considered being initiated, however big his interests were.
“How large the number of the different societies is cannot be stated with certainty. In Liberia and its immediate neighbors there are at least about a dozen, but probably more. Of these organizations the Porobond is the most important one. Even though the negro is extremely reluctant to talk about them to strangers, specially white people, some information about the bond has leaked, which allows us to get a general idea of it, even though no European knows it by experience. While still in Monrovia, the Catholic mission had a servant, a boy about 25 years old, if I remember correctly, member of the Bassa tribe. I knew that he was part of the Poro, or at least used to be, so I asked him: ‘Hey Grebo, you are Poroman, tell me, where was your Poro-forest and what were you doing there?’
“This unexpected question unsettled the boy completely. His face went dark, his eyes scanned the environment to make sure nobody was listening in to this conversation and then hastily whispered: ‘Bad question, massa, bad question!’ And as soon as he saw the chance he walked away, scared that I would repeat it. The rest of the day he did his best not to walk into me again. It was clear that he was not willing to talk about this subject and even the missionaries who were very intimate with their servants, never got him to share something of his previous life, where it concerned the Poro society. And yet this young man had been a Christian for years, and not a bad one.”
Later, when on the road Julien tries again.
“When the pipe went from mouth to mouth, I asked my cook in a casual way: Tell me Moses, is there a Poro-forest in the area?”
‘Moses, I am sure, because at sunset I saw the entrance in the forest. I saw twigs that were bound together over the path, I know what the entrance to a Poro-forest looks like.’ No answer. ‘Are the villages in the area holding a Poro-forest?’ No answer. ‘Is it a Sande-forest then?’ Again silence, but now I noticed that the full circle of porters was focused on what I was saying. They understood enough English to know what it was about and I saw in their eyes an expression, a strange and cynical flickering, threatening in such a way that I didn’t dare to mention another word about the subject. So what is this Porobond, which existence is covered in so much secrecy? The only proper answer to that question is: it is a community of initiated people, that most men of a tribe are part of and that first of all has an educational nature.
With seven year intervals – I am now speaking of the Poro of the Kpelle tribe – the most prominent members of the society meet and decide that it is time for a Poro-forest, which means that the parents decide that their sons from about six years of age will be part of an initiation to become full members of the community. Far from the village, in the middle of the forest, trees are taken down, the place cleared and some rough huts are built for the future Poro-students and the Poro-master, who is called bush-devil by the Liberians, but under the Kpelle he is known under the name Namoe, which means something like ‘Master’.
None of the children knows who the devil is. The start of the Poro-forest is preceded by a big feast that lasts for about a month. After that the boys go either voluntarily or with force into the forest, to the Namoe, the devil and his helpers.
The first thing that happens in the forest is the circumcision, to which the scarification-tattoos on chest and back follow. Without a scarification–tattoo the initiation is not possible. One can tell whether an individual is part of such an organization by these scars that the Negro tries to cover if possible. With a knife a large number of carves is made in the boy’s chest and back. I estimate the number as 50 to 200 pretty deep cuts, 1.5 to 2 cm. long. Sometimes the boys will be anaesthetized, sometimes they are not, but under death threads they cannot show a sign of pain during this torturous practice. Biting medicines are rubbed into the wounds and the boys are put with their backs onto hot leaves to stimulate the healing and scarification processes, which can take months. It is certain that some children do not survive this treatment.
We are not sure what happens after this in the forest. People guess that the boys are taught in the secrets and the crafts of the tribe. They learn here how to build huts, how to make leopard traps, how plant crops; they learn all the characteristics of their tribe; maybe some individuals are also taught traditional magic, but no white man has ever witnessed daily life in the forest, so nobody knows exactly what happens there. The few accounts that over the years have been published by so called eye-witnesses are either based on fiction, or on misguidance by the blacks, who noticed the presence of an outsider, and put up a fake show and this way left the observer with the idea that they experienced the Poro rituals.
The boys stay in the forest for four years and cannot be seen at all by the villagers during this period. They do not see the devil without his mask; they never hear him speak; with undefined sounds from his throat he expresses his will.
The family in the villages of course shows a lot of interest in the fate of the children in the forest and tries to find out whether they are still alive and how they are doing, but everything is kept secret.
And then finally, when the four years are over, the young men return from the forest. On a dark, moonless night, after the rainy season, far outside of the village a long howl sounds, a warning that the devil is on his way and that all women should hide. A procession, accompanied by screaming flutes, approaches the village. The flutes sounds like people in pain, lasts for long periods and represents the pain of the Poro devil, because the people believe he suffers labor pains and is delivering the new members of the community.
Under the screaming flutes the procession walks through the nightly dark village and the next morning, under the immense expectations of the villagers, specially the mothers, the announcement is made which boys stayed behind in the belly of the Namoe, meaning, which boys passed on in the Poro forest. The boys behave as though this environment is completely new to them and they do not remember it at all. The do not recognize their family members and only after a celebration, that involves excessive consuming of food and drinks, the boys return, now as full members of the community, in the daily life.
Something similar happens to the girls, but it should be noted that the same area never has both a Poro and a Sande (as the female version is called) forest at the same time.
The Sande forest lasts three years and is probably not as tough as the Poro, all females of the community take part in it. A girl that has not been to the Sande forest cannot marry.
The rituals sketched are applicable for the tribe of the Kpelle. For other tribes there are differences, but things are more or less the same throughout the Guinea-coast, from Ivory-coast up to the Gambia-river. Where the contact between Europeans and natives gets intense the influence of this initiation diminishes.
The meaning of the Poro school in the native’s lives is enormous. It creates the bond between the members of the community that cannot be torn down by an individual, and it is this connection, this invisible net of tribal rituals, of traditions dating back thousands of years, that complicates the implementation of other ideas of other people that work their way through the forests of West-Africa.”