One of the two most widespread secret societies of West Africa, the Poro Society is found all along the Upper Guinea coast from Liberia to Sierra Leone. In the past, before Christian and Muslim missionaries became influential in these areas, most boys were initiated into the Poro Society as an essential part of their transition to adulthood, while girls were initiated into the similar Sande Society. See African secret societies; Sande Society.
To be initiated into the society, candidates leave their homes and live communally for a time in the “Poro bush,” a sacred grove located outside the town limits. There they are symbolically eaten by the Poro spirit, a fierce guardian entity of the forest; they spend time within the womb of the spirit’s wife, and then are reborn as men with new Poro names. A council of Poro elders oversees these rites, and also traditionally manages certain community affairs and settles disputes over land or succession in aristocratic lineages. In many areas the local Poro Society wields a great deal of political and economic authority, which, however, is balanced by the influence of the women’s Sande Society. In some areas, in fact, Poro and Sande elders alternate in power, with Poro elders having the final word in one year and Sande elders holding authority the next.
During the era of British rule over Sierra Leone, several colonial administrations attempted to break the economic and political authority of the Poro Society: an 1897 “Poro Ordinance” barred Poro groups from their traditional role in managing the harvest of certain trade crops, while an 1898 rising against the colonial government, the Hut Tax War, was blamed by the British on the Poro Society. Stringent repressive measures against the Society failed, however, to force it out of its traditional position, and since the collapse of colonial rule the Society has played an important part in the region. During the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, local Poro elders were even able to proclaim and enforce a “Poro curfew” forbidding night attacks in certain regions, helping local communities stay out of the crossfire between insurgents and government troops.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006