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The societies typically serve as governing bodies for local populations, making laws and deciding on matters of war and peace.
They meet at different points of the year to perform ceremonies at which masks representing benign and malevolent spirits from the spirit world are worn.
The Poro, the largest and most influential society, is thought to have been established by migrants to the region as early as 1000 AD.
It has associated branches in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast, as does its female counterpart, the Sande society.
Society elders perform ceremonies intended to allow them to communicate with the spirit world, rid members of curses, and pay tribute to their gods.
They also perform purported feats of physical endurace - including stabbing themselves in the stomach and slicing their mouths - believing that they will be protected and healed by their gods.
Initiation can see young boys sliced on the back to leave marks representing the teeth of a spirit and young girls undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).
The practices are the subject of a growing controversy in Sierra Leone, where the wife of the president was recently forced to qualify remarks made in support of FGM.
The involvement of societies in a string of kidnappings and deaths also forced the government at one point to ban them, and minors are no longer allowed to undergo rituals without their consent.
The government has been forced to perform a balancing act when addressing concerns surrounding the influential groups.
5 Aug 2019, 22:51
Updated: 6 Aug 2019, 0:29