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As we have said earlier, the African society has no demarcation between the sacred and the secular. It is as a result of this that we have to study about the secret societies in the African community because they play both religious and secular roles. In fact, most scholars agree that many of these secret societies are of religious inspiration. Some of them also have roles to play during socio-religious festivals such as the puberty initiation rites. In this unit, you will study about some of the secret societies in Africa.


By the end of this unit you should be able to:

  1. define secret societies 
  2. discuss any of the secret societies that will be studied in this unit 
  3. discuss the roles of the secret societies in the African society 
  4. discuss symbolism in the Ogboni society. 


3.1 Secret Societies in Africa

The inability of the open relationship between people to fully give confidence in every endeavour actually is the origin of the secret society. The secret society in African society was brought about as a means of controlling the society. The following are examples of secret societies in Africa:

The Zangbcto: The Zangbeto is the strongest secret society in the region of Port Novo. The Zangbeto was said to have been introduced by the founder of the kingdom. The name Zangbeto actually means “hunters of the night”. In other localities they are also called “the spirits of the sea” because it is believed that they have come from beyond the lagoon, which is perhaps meant to indicate return from the country of the dead, across the water. Members of the society are called the Zansi meaning “wives of the night”. They usually go through the streets at night in their grass robes with rattles and gongs and the blowing of a horn called “night noses”. They speak in a nasal falsetto tone. This is because it is a widespread belief that the noses of the dead are broken and so their impersonators speak nasally. The chief of the Zangbeto is the Zangan. His attendants are called “flies” that discover any danger to the society and spy out secrets. They meet in a grove in the bush, the path of which is private to the society alone. A small hut in the grove contains the belongings of the members.

The Zangbeto society serves as an initiation society for young men as well as representing the spirits of the dead. A candidate for initiation must pay gifts in cash or kind after which he is then told when to appear in the grove. On the chosen night, the Zansi assemble in their robes but their chief is usually in ordinary dress. He is the only person who is generally known to be a member of the Zangbeto while the names of the others are kept secret.

The initiate is questioned about the knowledge he has about the Zangbeto. The inexplicability of the Zangbeto is expressed in a ritual interrogation during such ceremonies. It goes thus:
If you wish to know anyone
You may do so, but the layman
Does not know Zangbeto.
This one here?

Chr.: He is Zangbeto. 

That one here?
Chr.: He is Zangbeto.
And you yourself?
Chr.: He is Zangbeto.

After this chant the initiate is beaten with sticks to prove his courage and endurance. If he is strong and successful, then the person is admitted as a “wife of the night”. Then follows a feast marking the person’s admittance and then the cost of candidacy is paid.

The Ndako Gboya Society

The Ndako Gboya is a secret cult that is usually confused with the Igunnu cult but they are not the same. The name actually means “Ancestor Gboya” or “Grandfather”. This however does not mean that it is an ancestral cult; the name only indicates a sign of respect to the members of the society. One of the major tasks of the society is the administration of justice and punishment on women that are suspected of witchcraft. Such accused is taken into the bush by the masked members of the Ndako Gboya where she is made to scratch the ground with her bare fingernails. If after a time blood appears under her fingernails, she will be proved a witch. The proved witch is then executed or made to pay a heavy fine.
It is also incumbent on Ndako Gboya mask members to appear in the bush during the main ritual of Nupe religion to frighten novices, warn the youths to obey their parents and elders and whip the offenders. They frighten all women in order to discourage would-be-witches and to weaken the evil powers of witchcraft.

Initiation into the Ndako Gboya lasts for ten days. The prospective member would present himself to the Master of Elder, that is, the head of a lodge with the gift of drinks and fowls. After this presentation the candidate is then instructed in the secret of the cult. The candidate would also be taught the procedure of ceremonial manipulation of the mask, the dance steps, and the drum rhythms, ritual rules and obligation of respect to the elders. In a situation where an initiate fails to master all the instructions passed down within ten days the candidate would be turned down as being unworthy. If on the other hand the candidate is successful, the final sacrifice is performed on him by the Master The candidate however does not become a full fledge member of the society until after three years when the candidate is finally taught the source of the society’s power, the identity of the masked actors and the making of the masks.

The Mmuo Society

This is the principal and the most preferred secret society among the Igbo people. The society represents the cult of the ancestors. Masked figures representing the spirits of the deified ancestors appear at funerals and seasonal festivals. Initiation into the Mmuo society entails hardship and endurance. Only boys that are over the age of ten are eligible for admission into the society. The boys at the beginning of their initiation would be beaten by masked spirits after which they are paraded round the town or the village. Through the beating, it is believed that the masker has instilled confidence and valour into the initiates. From that moment onwards the initiates would no longer hide from the maskers but would have the courage to follow the maskers.

After several years, the boys would be finally initiated into the cult. The ritual is one that symbolically pictures the initiates as undergoing a process of rebirth by a ceremonial death and resurrection into the society. The ancestors are invoked and they emerge from the underworld in the form of maskers. During this process it is important to note that the initiates would remain naked. The initiate would then be made to undergo ordeals that symbolize their visit to the world of the dead and also prove their powers of endurance. The ordeals include the eating of charcoal and bones while the initiated ones would be eating yams and drinking wine. The following morning, the initiate would emerge as if he had visited the underworld and was just coming from the place. He has already passed the test. At that point, he is then led into the secret of the society and also swears the oath of secrecy.

The Poro Society

The Poro society among the Mende is purely a male organization and is responsible for the training of adolescents. The society is controlled by spirits who are represented by masked figures. It is the oldest secret society among the Mende ethnic group of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

It is important to note that every Mende male must be initiated into this society and until this initiation is done such a male regardless of the age is considered immature. The Poro initiation session begins from November and lasts till May the following year. To commence the Poro session, a senior member of the society offers a sacrifice to solicit the favour of the Poro spirits. When the session begins the huts where the boys to be initiated are kept are strictly out of bounds, although a small path would be cut from the place to the village. On the eve of the Poro session, the Poro men would go from house to house collecting the candidates whom they will escort into the hut. At the entrance of the camp, the initiates are asked a number of questions to which they must respond in the affirmative. Examples of such questions are: “Can you carry water in a basket?” and “Can you uproot a full-grown palm tree with your bare hands?” After answering the questions, the initiates are then pulled into the huts. During all this process there would be great drumming and noise going on inside. As the boys get into the hut they hand over with a great shout their initiation fee which traditionally consists of a leaf of tobacco (though when paid in cash translates to several pounds). The initiates would then receive new names by which they are to be addressed throughout the training and

Shortly after their arrival at the camp, the initiates would receive the marks of membership which consists of a series of short cuts made on the neck, the back and the breast. The making of this mark is usually painful and the older members would be clapping their hands to drown the cries of the initiates so that passersby, especially the women and children would not hear their cries. This marks the commencement of training. While in training in the bush, the initiates would wear garments of red netting. They sleep in the special huts made for the purpose of initiation but are allowed outside during the daytime when they are not under instructions after the initial ceremony. As a practical example of their training, the initiates are not allowed to use any modern equipment. They sleep on a bed of sticks with clothes soaked in water; they remain out of doors if it rains; they receive severe beatings with sticks and they

must not cry; and they cat dry and disgusting food. The singing and drumming during their training period would last until two or three in the morning and the initiates would be awakened again at dawn. They are expected to get up and begin to sing anytime they are summoned.
During the night, they are encouraged to steal food from neighbouring farms but this is as a sign of bravery. In summary, the training that would be provided is based on the length of time the boys are able to remain in the bush. During this period also they are given instruction in traditional law and community life, singing, dancing and acrobatics. They are also taught handcrafts such as weaving, pottery, bridge-building, trapping and fishing.

The initiation rite and the period of time spent in the bush after the rite symbolizes a change of stature for the initiated. The young initiate is supposed to be swallowed by the Poro spirit when he enters the bush and his separation from the parents and kinsmen signifies his death. Thus the period in the bush marks his transition from childhood to manhood. As a result of his experiences, he would emerge as a full-fledge member of the Mende society. The trainings they would have received are both symbolical and practical. It inculcates them with deeper implication of manhood as well as the rules he has to observe as a man. The training is aimed at teaching the initiates discipline and ability to rely on themselves. They are also taught how to work cooperatively and also take orders from others.

Three separate ceremonies conclude the initiation rites. The first of this is the visit of Poro spirit to the town. The Poro spirit is accompanied by old and new members of the society. They would dance round the town and then return to the bush where the next ceremony is performed. The next ceremony is the secrecy ceremony. For this ceremony to take place all the food contributed by the parents of the initiates are brought forward with the fowls. All the fowls are killed by severing its head from its neck with the means of a sharp stone. This act serves as a warning that the secret of the Poro society must never be leaked. This ends the first stage of the initiation proper.

A week later, the second stage comes up. Here the people in the town will cook rice and place them outside the bush. The Poro spirit then pays another visit to the town. People spread nets around to catch the spirit. The spirit sounds its pipe to indicate its presence and almost immediately another pipe is sounded from the bush to suggest that the spirit has flown away. The Poro group then returns to the sacred bush where the ceremony proceeds.

The final ceremony is called the pulling of Poro. This is preceded by a rite called “hitting the spirit’s belly”. The spirit is pictures as unwilling to deliver the boys that he has eaten and expected to give birth to;therefore force has to be used upon him. Consequently, all the members have to strike the spirit in the stomach. The initiates are warned not to sleep or else they would be dreaming of the spirit. Later at about four in the morning, the spirit would groan like a woman in labour would groan
and sigh mournfully. The interpreter would now explain that the spirit is giving birth to the initiates. The women will clap their hands and the men would reproach the spirit for delaying their children. Finally, the spirit would give birth to the boys and fly away.

As soon as the spirit is gone, the new members would now be told the final secret they have to learn about the Mende society and they also take their final vow of secrecy. The new members are now lined up in a semi-circle in the deepest part of the bush and addressed by Mabole, the only female official of the Poro society. In her address, she invokes the spirit of the society on their behalf and prays that each one of them would be as strongly attached to the society as the thread of moss which now binds them together. As she speaks, she dips a fowl in a medicine composed of leaves and water and sprinkles the new members with it. After this each one of them would hold out his tongue in turn and the Mabole places some grains of rice on it in order to test his future. After this she kills the fowl by severing its neck with a stone and sprinkle the blood on the new members. Finally, she will prepare a ceremonial meal for the new members. They are expected to eat the food by bending down with their hands behind their back. As they do this they are

warned that they will be choked by rice if they reveal the secret of the society. The boys are then given general ablution with the remaining medicine and taken to the steam for a bath. After this, they are given a new set of clothes with head ties. This marks their rebirth into manhood and the Poro session is declared closed.

The Sande Society

This is the Mende female counterpart of the Poro society and it is meant for the initiating and the training of the female adolescents. It is conveyed about the same time as the Poro society. It also resembles the Poro society in organization and function. It is under the control of senior officials consisting of the elderly women who have attained the higher grade in the society. These women are distinguished by the white head-tie they use in the public. The education given to the girls while the Sande is in session aims at training them for accepted pattern of life, hard work, dedication to duty, endurance and patience. They are also taught modesty in behaviour and obedience to elders.

The period of seclusion lasts for three months. After their initiation, the officiating priest sends back a piece of tobacco to the girl’s parents as certificate. The girls are also sworn to secrecy and are also seen as being reborn after their training. They return to their families to take part in the life of the community as women.

Initiation in these secret societies carries with it some ethical responsibilities. First, the ethical purpose is to ensure that these immature boys and girls return to the society as full fledged members of the adult community who will now behave like mature men and women.  Secondly, during the initiation training of these societies, obedience and order are inculcated into the initiates. Thirdly, the virtue of secret keeping is also taught. The cutting of the head of the fowl with a sharp stone is a warning that anyone who reveals the secret of the society will have his or her head cut with stone. The fourth ethical purpose is the inculcation of the ethical expectations of the society. The wrong behaviours that are not expected in the society are espoused and rejected while expected behaviours are encouraged. Another ethical purpose is to warn against selfishness and encourage comradeship and team work. Brotherly love and seeing the other Mende as blood relations are also taught. All this expected to lead to a perfect sanity within the micro-community.

The Oro Society

This is an ancestral cult. It is seen as the collective male ancestors who are seen as the protectors of the community. Formerly, the Oro society was the executive arm of the secret secular council of the Ogboni society. Evil doers condemned by the Ogboni society were taken away by the Oro society and would be executed in the Oro grove after which their skulls would be nailed to a tree in the market place and their cloth hung on its branches. This society also rounds up undesirable elements of the society and also metes out punishment to witches.

The Oro society is a purely male organization and as such when it comes out all women must stay indoors, doors to all huts must be shut and all lights must be put off. Usually the members of the society come out only at night but occasionally they do come out during the day time. There used to be an annual festival of the Oro society which runs for seven days and no woman is expected to come out either in the day or in the night except during a short interval they are expected to go and gather necessary foodstuffs and items for feeding of their families. The major public sign of the Oro society is the “bull-roarer” or rhomb. When this piece of wood is whirled in the air on its cord it makes an uneven roaring sound which is called the voice of Oro.

Any male may join the Oro society on payment of a sheep or fowls and may attend the meetings, but office is restricted to certain families. The grove of Oro is in the bush, guarded by palm fronds and sentries to stand on the path during meetings.

The Ogboni Society

The Ogboni is principally a political organization. The society served political ends meeting periodically to settle civil disputes, curb the powers of chiefs, deal with criminal charges, act as people’s tribune, chose and install kings, maintain law and order, give judgement to anti social elements in the society and those found guilty for any serious offence.

Members of the Ogboni society were usually elders and so they effectively carry out laws and order. Members of the Ogboni cult worship the earth. They believe strongly in the earth. This is because the earth in Yoruba belief is regarded as a means of sustaining the whole being. This lies in the fact that people depend on the earth for agriculture, the man at birth lands on the earth and it is also the last place for man. The Ogboni belief in the earth makes them to use the earth as a means of oath taking. This is called “imule” which literary means “drinking the earth”. During the oath taking, they exchange blood from members and eat the kola nut laced with blood. As a result of this oath no one is expected to speak ill of other members or reveal their secrets. To exchange blood is to share a common life and so they cannot act contrary to one another.
Initiation into the Ogboni cult calls for two human skulls, one for a male and one for a female. The initiate would be in the shrine blindfolded with a strip of red cloth. The skull of the male will be tied to the initiate’s right arm while that of the female will be tied to the left. The initiate will then be led backward to recite some incantations. During the initiation the initiate is led to believe that he is now entering into a new life.

When this ceremony is over, the initiate will be ordered to open his mouth and his right hand is placed on the male skull while the left is placed on the female skull simultaneously. Meanwhile, blood will be drawn from old members and placed inside a wide basin. At this stage, both the old and new members will be naked. A designated official will dip his second left finger into the bowl of blood and put it into the mouth of the initiate three times. The leader will then address the new member that leaking the secret of the society will lead to death within three days. At this point the red strip of cloth tied round him would be loosened after which all the members would put on their dresses and this marks the end of the ceremony.

Three days after the first ceremony another ceremony would take place at the grave yard at mid-night. The new member would carry the two human skulls with palm leaves in his left hands. He would then be washed into a pit while his eyes are covered with white and red stripes of cloth. These along with the human skulls would be buried in the pit and this marks the entrance of the new member into the Ogboni cult.

3.2 Functions of Secret Societies

In the African society, secret societies are not always evil because they have certain roles to play in the society. These roles are political, social and religious.

Political Role Some of the secret societies in Africa were political organizations established for the purpose of maintaining law and order in the society. As such they meet to settle disputes, discuss general matters concerning the welfare of their people and prosecute criminals brought before them. Secret societies also form a consultative assembly to assist the traditional rulers in their day-to-day administration of the towns. They act as king makers and also curb the powers of the chiefs and check kings that are becoming dictatorial. The members of the secret societies are statesmen that manage the affairs of the town at the approval of the kings.

Social RoleThere are certain secret societies that are connected with social uplifting of their respective societies. This role is seen in the areas of puberty rites which sometimes necessitate initiation into secret societies. A ready made example here is the Poro and the Sande societies which is meant for training of adolescents.
Religious RoleMost if not all secret societies have religious background. This is to say that most of these societies are religiously inspired. They have a set of belief that is carefully guarded. These are the ones connected with the cult of the ancestors like the Egungun and the Oro society. Some of these societies take active interest in funeral and memorial services, they set up a standard for others to follow, they determine ritual behaviour and effect social attitudes.

These societies instil religious teachings of the societies into the members of the societies. They also administer ordeal on women suspected of witchcraft, frighten all women to discourage would-be-witches, discover and danger to the society and spy out secrets.


Secret societies are not seen in the manner at which they are conceived today with the coming of western civilization. In fact, secret societies are the cream of the leadership of the traditional society and they play a lot of role on the stability of the community and all that the community stands for. They play political, religious and social roles. They are not destructive except they execute judgement on the evil doers in the society.


The following are the major points you have learnt in this unit:

  1. Secret societies in Africa play both religious and secular roles 
  2. Secret societies arose because of the inability of open  relationships to give full confidence to human relations 
  3. Politically, secret societies settle disputes, discuss the welfare of the citizenry and assist in the daily administration of the town 
  4. Socially, secret societies are meant to train the young generations into responsible adulthood 
  5. Religiously, secret societies are connected with the cult of the ancestors. 


Discuss the necessity for the secret societies in the African communities.


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