Kibbutz, Mende, and Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience,  advocated passive resistance to unjust authority, and strongly influenced the thought and tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.[1] On the question of practical living and idealistic aspirations he was on point when he observed that,

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Applying the idealistic concept of communal living in a practical framework can be fraught with missteps. Many years ago it was enough to start a discussion by either modeling the basic framework on a continuum, or by using a discrete (good/bad) function, but nowadays one can pick a specific point of balance and (very much like enlarging a view on a smartphone by widening one’s fingers) examine the merits or demerits from a sustainable and practical perspective.

The kibbutzim were built on the attempt to create a permanent and institutionalized framework, which would be able to set a pattern of conduct which would successfully handle the implementation of shared values…..The original concept of the kibbutzim was based to a large extent on self-sacrifice of its members for the sake of abstract foundations and not on the cancellation of work, and therefore after the pioneer period the linkage between the kibbutz members decreased, due to the decline in the pioneering spirit and the decline in the importance of the self-sacrifice values.[2]

So one can argue that utopian ideas were incorporated into practical life without going through the period of practical development and flexible adaptation. Ideas which may seem foreign and socialist to a certain degree (equal pay, sharing property, equal standard of living) were attempted, which in the long term did not thrive in the globalization of an individualistic and capitalistic society.

Sowo-wui (Ndoli Jowei) : "The Sande woman is not a child!!"

The Sande (Female society of the Mende , Sierra Leone) used a much more flexible and socially inclusive device to develop their Value – Ritual – Norm (VRN) system.  The most important aspect seemed to be the initial transfer of Values. The head of the Sande lodge is the Sowei, who is in charge of the initiation of young girls and are viewed as the “arbiters and creators of beauty and morality in Mende society.”[3] The Sowei’s mask is referred to as the Sowo-wui or is more commonly known to as the “Mende Mask”. It is through the masked spirit counterpart, Sowo, that the Sowei receives her temporal authority. This is the ritual aspect of this value transference device which then develops into the social norms or rules followed by the community. Again each initiate can aspire to the utopian ideal at their own pace as opposed to hard and fast rules laid down by community leaders.

Sande Society Helmet mask - Brooklyn Museum, 2010

In her book, Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone identifies several Sande (and Mende) social ideals.

Nemahulewe – cleverness, intelligence, use of mind.

Kahu – strength, endurance, stamina

Kpaya – authority, responsiibility

Ndilo – bravery, courage, (the heart can stand the strain).

Malondo – be quiet, be silent, the silence to endure hardship, long suffering

Fulo-Fulo – doing things smartly and quickly

Tonya – Truth

Di – persistence

Pona – to be correct, straight, reliable, doing things properly

Hindawanda – goodness, generosity

But there is more….. the Sande Society has two masks, for while Sowo shows the nobility of human Sowei the counterpart of failure and disgrace belongs to Gonde.

“Mende women have created two masks because it takes both to express fully the realities of the social milieu out of which the Sande mask forms emerge.”[4]


[1] http://www.morning-earth.org/ARTISTNATURALISTS/AN_Thoreau.html

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kibbutz

[3] Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone, p 34

[4] Radiance from the Waters, Sylvia Boone, p 39

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