|Mbwoolo Sculpture of the Yaka
by Arthur P. Bourgeois
On the southwestern edge of Zaire and stretching along the Kwango River and adjacent river valleys live
more than 220,000 Yaka, who, unlike their neighbors the Suku, Teke, and Nkanu, are conspicuous in their
use of traditional charms. Among these traditional retentions in a typical Yaka village are Mbwoolo-Tchio
shelters, miniature huts that protect the most numerous and diversified type of Yaka sculpture (Fig. I). Yet
Mbwoolo-Tchio sculpture is virtually unknown to the art literature and has scarcely been distinguished in
exhibitions of Central African art. (1)
In Yaka terminology, Mbwoolo-Tchio images aiebiteki, figures used to support or contain special
concoctions. Without these applied preparations, which permeate the surface or, more rarely, are inserted
into a small ventral cavity, they are without meaning to the Yaka and merely await employment by a ritual
specialist. But when charged with these ingredients, they become n'kisi,-"medicines-poisons" that
"make-ill" (kukwatn) through an invisible influence, or "make-well" (kubuka) by removing this influence.
Owned by specific lineages rather than individuals, the Mbwoolo pass from one generation to another
through the "seizure" and subsequent cure of a man or woman who by this ordeal is entitled to become its
ritual officer, the nganga. Originally, Mbwoolo enters a lineage through the theft of some object placed
under the n'kisi's protection and becomes a hereditary "sickness" destined to reappear in future members.
Its curative capacity can be induced only by the one who first invoked Mbwoolo or by a special ritual
practitioner qualified to activate it. Thus Mbwoolo functions as both the calling and temporary abeyance of a
curse. But once it has entered a lineage, Mbwoolo offers some benefits. This "medicine-poison" serves the
lineage by protecting property and assures the well-being of future generations. Moreover, lineage
solidarity is furthered in Mbwoolo ritual, and its nganga, or official practitioner, is assured a lucrative income.
Although complex to the outsider, Mbwoolo unfolds in daily life as one of the most dramatic uses of figure
sculpture in Central Africa still operative today. This assertion is best illustrated in the following example. A
man of the village becomes very ill, and despite the help of herbs and European medicines his condition
worsens. His concerned relatives visit a noted diviner, a Nganga Ngombo, who after consultation concludes
that some member of the sick man's lineage has stolen an object protected by Mbwoolo. As directed, the
relatives seek out a Mbwoolo specialist and invite him to their village. Upon arrival, the Nganga Mbwoolo
consults the lineage headman, and together they question the victim about his dreams. The young man has
repeatedly dreamed of being capsized in a dugout canoe, thrashing helplessly, and being unable to reach
land. Or he may have dreamed of serpents striking him or forcing him down an incline to a turbulent river.
Assured that these are the dreams of Mbwoolo, the Nganga directs that an unoccupied hut be transformed
into a ritual house, the luumbu (Fig. 2).
LUUMBU Of MBWOOLO AND TCH/O WITH ONE FEMALE AND
TWO MALE MBWOOLO FIGURES, BOAT CONTAINING TWO
NDEDI, AND SEVERAL CONTAINERS: THE ONE WITH
PROJECTIONS IS FOR TCH/O OTHER BITEKI BELONGING TO
THIS SERIES WERE TEMPORARILY ON LOAN TO OTHER
|FIG 2 LUUMBU FOR THE TREATMENT OF A VICTIM OF MBWOOLO SICKNESS
LEFT TO RIGHT: FIG 3. NGA KAMBAMBA-WHO-HAS-ONE-LEG, FREQUENTLY THE PRINCIPAL STATUETTE IN A SERIES INSTITUT DES MUSEES
NATIONAUX DU ZAIRE (IMNZ). 27.5cm. FIG 4 NGA MANTEDI, "SIR SERPENT," ALSO KNOWN AS "TWISTED " FIG 5. NDEDI WORN AROUND THE
NECK OR TIED TO THE FOREARM FOR TREATMENT OF MINOR ILLNESSES OR AS A PROTECTIVE CHARM. 11.5cm. FIG 6. TCHIO FIGURE 24,5cm.
Numerous charms are suspended or erected within (3) and a large pit is dug outside the entrance and
enclosed within a high fence made of poles and brush. When finished, the Nganga Mbwoolo begins his
chanting: "Wait hundred rivers that eat the clans, I know you,/I see you as your victim has spoken
On the following day, the patient is rubbed with kaolin, and kola nut is chewed and spit upon his chest.
The Nganga Mbwoolo then places a half-dozen statuettes within the prepared pit. The patient is lowered
into this hole, and the family members are directed to fetch vessels of water and begin pouring them over
his head. Around the squatting young man, the statuettes begin to float and bob in the rising water.
Seated near the edge of the hole, the Nganga Mbwoolo continues his chanting, keeping rhythm by
scraping a notched wooden rasp while the assembled villagers repeat his refrain: "Swim canoes
swim/Swim Mat-sia swim/Swim Kabubuswim . . ." (4) Possessed by a sudden force, the victim's body
stiffens. Beating his flexed elbows against his thin flanks, he hysterically cries out: "Ame, ame,
ame,/Wretched am I, oho, oho, oho,/It is the river that takes people,/the river eats the Ngongo clan,/ Ah,
grandfather, eh, eh, eh, oho, oho, oho,/It is my grandfather who brought this upon me,/who set it
loose./He stole goats, the goats of another,/When they left for work, when the owners left,/the owner
said:/'Follow the one who stole my goats,/seize him, seize him, you my biteke Mbwoolo,'You Matsia and
great Kinkola,/seize the one who stole my goats. 'Ame, ame, ame, Wretched am I, wretched am I, oho,
oho, oho." Then, drained of energy, the patient collapses. A line of kaolin is drawn across his forehead,
daubs of red khula paste are placed on his temples, and he is carried into the hut.
The stereotyped "Ame, ame, ame" cry and accompanying gestures have thrust him into a new life as a
Mbwoolo child confirming the augury of the diviner and dreams. Awareness of the relative and situation
that brought about the illness may have been revealed earlier by the diviner or may have already been
common knowledge, but in the seizure of the immersion ritual the victim's anguished cry publicly tells all.
In the days of rest that follow, numerous ritual procedures and dietary restrictions are explained to the
Mbwoolo child, and relatives are warned to avoid in his presence the names of snakes, the crocodile, or
other river creatures capable of re-occasioning the seizure. His subsequent dreams are examined for
clues to the particular Mbwoolo personages that must be represented in sculpture to complete his cure.
These are ordered from a local carver and then undergo an empowering process through contact with
bones of dangerous river animals and wood of a tree struck by lightning, and by being immersed for days
in a concoction made of particular tree barks and plants. After receiving a heavy coat of palm oil and red
khula paste, chewed kola nut is spit upon the torso of each, and they are placed on a wooden elevation
near the rear wall of the luumbu (Fig. 7). Following this, bands of raffia fiber are tied about the patient's
neck and wrist, and the Nganga returns to his village.
|FIG 7 MBWOOLO FIGURES ON A PLATFORM NEAR THE PERSON UNDER TREATMENT FOR THE MBWOOLO SICKNESS
For several months, the convalescent remains secluded in the luumba. When his health is regained, the
Nganga returns for an all-night celebration with dancing and singing of Mbwoolo songs to honor the
young man. At dawn, both descend to the river, the clothes and raffia bands of sickness are thrown into
the current, and the initiate is ritually bathed. As the Mbwoolo child returns to the village to complete
participation in community life, he is met with a clamor of welcome.
Before departing, the Nganga and his protege erect a new luumbu in the form of a miniature hut as a
special shelter for the new Mbwoolo biteke. Kneeling before the row of carved figures, they salute them by
clapping their hands, the right in the left, then the left in the right: they present their palms and press their
knuckles to the earth. Then, taking a biteke in each hand, they forcefully strike their shoulders, arms, and
sides. Kola nut is spit on the stomach of each statuette, and finally they are carefully placed within the
small structure together with special containers and offerings of food. The Mbwoolo specialist will observe
this ritual before dawn almost daily, Once each month, the biteki will be placed in the empowering rays of
the new moon, a cock will be sacrificed, its blood sprinkled on the images and baskets, and the full
repertoire of Mbwoolo songs will again be sung. If the initial treatment of the patient is not successful or if
there is a relapse, more images will be made and medicines will be taken, or another nganga may
introduce the close "relatives" of Mbwoolo, the Tchio, a series of associated rituals and images
considered more powerful than Mbwoolo.
Although more could be said concerning charms and ingredients, ritual exchange of foods, and chants of
the Ngnnga Mbwoolo, the forms and names of the various biteki are more pertinent here. Unlike other
Yaka ritual institutions, Mbwoolo-Tclno is found in series that can number as many as twenty biteki in a
single luumbu. In general, they average from 7.5 to 36 centimeters in height and are characterized by the
red khula-rubbed surface, the kaolin line across the forehead, and kola nut residue on the stomach. As a
series, the Yaka conceptualize them as the Bapfumii, the chiefs, whose relation to one another is a
miniature version of the traditional political structure. Each luumbu has its paramount chief and
subordinate chiefs, often with many wives, children, and retainers. All of their names begin with Nga
("Sir"), as in Nga Mulula-Kalobu-ki-Nzadi, and refers to a forebear of the Mbwoolo institution. Often the
Mbwoolo names refer to Humbu and Mfunuka chiefs and affirm Yaka traditions of the Mbwoolo institution's
northern origin among the Humbu or Teke.(5) A few have names that describe the form of the image: one
example is Kambamba-Who-Has-One-Leg, who is often the principal biteki in the luumbu (Fig. 3). Another
figure with a spiraled torso is popularly known as "Twisted," although it represents Nga Mantedi, or "Sir
Serpent," according to the Nganga (Fig. 4). Still others are called "Pointed," "One-Breast," "One-Arm,"
"One-Eye," or a combination of these.(6) All embody some dimension of the Mbwoolo sickness.
The smaller variety are the Ndedi or Tsidikiti (Fig. 5). Worn on the forearm or suspended from the neck,
these are often perforated or have cords attached for this purpose. Purchased from the Nganga, Ndedi
are used in the treatment of minor illness and as a protective charm by lineage members. In form, they
are simplified versions of the larger images, but they rarely present arms or feet. Other than these
distinctions, there is little correlation between assigned names and Mbwoolo sculptural representations in
the various luumbu observed.
When Mbwoolo sculpture is combined in the same luumbu with those of Tchio, the auxiliary of Mbwoolo,
there is not much difference between the two types aside from their names and ritual use. Usually the
Tchio are among the larger figures, but they also may lack appendages (Fig. 6). Found only when Tchio
and Mbwoolo are together, however, is the ndimba, the boat carved in miniature, which is filled with river
clays or is simply used as a receptacle for offerings and smaller sculpture such as the Ndedi.
Occasionally a mud- and kaolin-filled ndimba has at one end a carving of a passenger depicted with a
trailing headdress. Although informants did not elaborate on the significance of the ndimba or its
passenger, (7) the reference here to river travel and submersion in Mbwoolo chants, dreams, and ritual is
Stylistically, there is simplicity of detail in Mbwoolo-Tcliio sculpture together with a frequent repetition of
volumetric shapes, alternately expanding and contracting. A dowel-like neck projects the head from lower
segments, establishing a series of horizontal levels often repeated in the coiffure, eyelids, and lower
limbs. In the one-legged, one-armed, one-breasted examples, the departure from the usual bilateral
symmetry of Yaka sculpture occasions an imaginative rebalancing of the remaining elements. Bun
headdresses and an encircling shoulder plane, which are likely a direct influence of Teke sculpture (8)
and the institution's northern origin, frequently appear. Absent is the exaggerated upturned nose, a
peculiarity found in Yaka masks but rare in this sculpture and most Yaka freestanding work carved since
1930. The diagnostic encircling forehead-nose line does occasionally appear, but the bulging
coffee-bean eyes and protruding or pointed mouth would seldom be recognized as Yaka sculptural
characteristics by the standard criteria. In general, the marked diversity in the styles of particular carvers
seems more evident than over-all conformity to either a regional or "tribal" stylistic classification.
Finally, one might wonder, what are the Mbwoolo biteki essentially? The use of individualized names for
Mbwoolo images, their separate invocation and function as protective guardians would seem to imply a
series of spirits that symbolize the central magical power, as Leon Siroto has suggested for African
magical assemblages in general in African Spirit Images and Identities (1976, p.15). Certainly these
assemblages are credited with personal attributes. But because there is no independent volitional aspect
to Mbwoolo apart from the human desire to activate them, the term "spirit" seems inappropriate here.
According to an aged Ng-anga Mbwoolo, it is the ritual, ingredients, and verbal formulae that occasion its
actions; no spirit or mystical "force" is involved. On a popular interpretive level, however, a spectrum of
causal factors come into play, ranging from "ancestors" to Nzambi wa Phuungu, or God, that hide within or
behind the empowered biteki. Thus Mbwoolo absorbs meaning from many levels, but this does not effect
its operation in Yaka society, where there is little speculative interest in such matters.
Another dimension of the Mbwoolo biteki is dramatized in popular narratives that emphasize their
protective role, personalized attributes, and unyielding curse. This is best illustrated in the following story.
There was a woman who planted a field of peanuts, and when they were ready to be dug a thief came to
steal them. Each day when the owner came to the field she discovered still further depredations. Taking a
Mbwoolo biteki, she placed it in the center of her field to trap the thief and warned the children not to go
there. The woman who stole peanuts arrived at the field and, not knowing that Mbwoolo was there, began
digging peanuts as usual. The Mbwoolo biteki approached the thief and began to speak. When the
woman saw this, she took her basket and fled, but the Mbwoolo followed her and began to sing, "That
woman is a thief who carries peanuts in her basket, peanuts in her basket" (sung three times). When the
thief heard the song she stopped, awaited the Mbwoolo, seized it, and cut it to pieces. But the fragmented
biteki continued to follow her. The thief stopped again and burned the biteki, but Mbwoolo continued to
follow and sing its song (refrain). When the owner of the field heard the song, she followed and the thief
was caught. The owner demanded chickens and money in payment for the past thefts, but as trie thief
had no chickens or money, she caught the Mbwoolo sickness. This is how Mbwoolo came about, because
of stealing. (9)
When I questioned a noted Nganga if the biteki ever speak or move about by themselves he replied, "You
do not understand. Mbwoolo biteki concern a sickness and its cure: they never talk or walk." When I
asked if they eat the offerings of food presented to them, he answered, "Some say the Mbwoolo eat it, but
I think the ants and rats do it." Then pausing, he added, "It is for Mbwoolo." Among the Yaka there are a
host of other lineage institutions, each with its nganga specialist and similar to Mbwoo-lo-Tchio, although
most do not utilize sculpture. The few that do, namely, Nkosi, Mbambi, and Ngombo, are said to be very
ancient, while Mbwoolo and Tchio are recent arrivals. All concern "sickness," although their various
symptoms as they relate to disease in a Western sense greatly overlap and are barely distinguishable
without the aid of divination. Similarly, several include in their treatment a type of ritual possession with
stereotyped muscle reactions and verbal responses. And each originates in the lineage through the theft
of some object from neighboring lineages. Of the various lineage institutions utilizing sculpture,
Mbwoolo-Tchio along with Ngombo are the least secretive, and because they do not inflict a succession of
deaths or insanity, they are less feared than Nkosi or Mbambi, Functionally distinct from Yaka lineage
sculpture are the personal Piingu charms that may also include carvings. Although there are patterns of
formal similarity among the various types of Yaka images, it is not always possible to identify them without
prior information. However, the Mbwoolo-Tdiio sculpture with missing limbs, spirals, expanding forms, and
particular residue of ritual use are clearly differentiated from sculpture belonging to the other categories.
|LEFT TO RIGHT 8. MBWOOLO IMAGE SURMOUNTED BY A TORTOISE. 29.5cm IMNZ 9 MBWOOLO 14.5cm. IMNZ. 10. MBWOOLO.
13cm IMNZ 11. MBWOOLO 18crn. IMNZ.
BOURGEOIS, Notes, from page 61
The fieldwork on which this research is based was carried out in summer 1976 under the auspices of the
Institut des Musees Nationaux, Kinshasa, and partially funded by the following grants: Samuel H. Kress
Foundation; NDEA Title VI; Indiana University Graduate School Grant-in-aid, The principal subject of
research concerned Yaka and Suku masking. Research on Mbiwoto-Tchia was conducted with the
Popokabaka Zone, Ngowa Sector.
I wish to thank my field assistant Citizen Ibanda Moganga for his enthusiastic help and companionship,
and Dr. Renaat Devisch of the University of Louvain for his assistance in sorting the interpretative data. I
also wish to thank Dr. Jgor Kopytoff tor a basic orientation to the field situation.
1. Possibly the appendage-lacking Mlmwlo-Tchio have been regarded as aberrations in Yaka sculpture,
or perhaps the few published photographs illustrating relatively rude carving have prejudiced past
appreciation. See H. Huber (1956:280, fig. 7) and M. Plancquaert (1932, pi. Vllb). L. Segy unwit¬tingly
illustrates Mfawolo in African Sculpture Speaks (1975, fig. 489}.'
2. The Yaka speak KiYaka, a language of the KiKongo group influenced by KiLunda. The word n'kisi used
in reference to medicines and charms is common throughout the southern savannah and Bantu speakers
in general, as is the term nganga, maker of charms and medicines, In KiYaka, ntikisi is the plural of n'kisi,
while kiteki is the singular otbiteki. Both words have been simplified here according to the predomin¬ant
3. Various types of leaves are suspended from the ridgepole, six charm poles (mishala) with tops
enveloped in packets are planted around the bed, and termite concretions with painted faces (bondo) are
set in the four corners of the hut. Outside, tall poles bearing charm packets are erected at either end of
the dwelling, and screens of palm leaves hang before the entrance to the enclosure as well as the door
4. The Mbieaolo victim takes a Mbu'oolo name during his seizure or in the process of his cure. Matsia is
commonly taken by males, while Makita is taken by women.
5. Mbwoolo is thought to have reached the middle Kwango region at the time of the rubber trade, circa
1900, according to L. De Beir (1975:45). My informants stated that the first nganga in the N'gowa Sector
was Muyamba-Lukuba-Kuba. Mbwoolo also spread to the Lula and Suku. Although Mbivoolo disappeared
among the Suku in the early 1960s, it is keenly remembered and from descriptions seems identical to
current Yaka practice. Cit. Lema Guete of the Institut des Musees Nationaux, Kinshasa, an authority on
Teke sculpture, insists that Mfrnw/o is presently unknown among the Mfunuka.
6. Double-figured Mbwoolo, one above the other, as well as janus-form Mbwoolo, are known, but specific
names for these were not given by informants.
7. One informant claimed that the boat refers to the arrival of the Mbuvoh institution by way of dugout
8. Compare with the wooden figures collected by Robert Hottot among the Mfunuka in 1906 in the
collection of the British Museum (see F. Willett 1971, ills. 150-152).
9. This narrative was found in several versions among both the Yaka and Suku. A similar story relates to
the Nkosi institution among the Yaka.
De Beir, L. 1975. Religion et inagie des BaYaka. St. Augustin: Anthropos Institute.
Huber, H. 1956. "Magical Statuettes and Their Accessories among the Eastern Bayaka and Their
Neighbors/' An¬thropos 51.
Plancquaert, M. 1932. Les jaga et les Bayaka ait Kwango, Brus¬sels: IRCB,
Segy, L. 1975. African Sculpture Speaks, 4th ed.
Siroto, L, 1976. African Spirit Images and Identities. New York: Pace Editions.
Willett, F, 1971. African Art, New York: Praeger Publishers.
WASS, Notes, from vage 65
1. Indigenous dress or traditional dress is defined as the attire of the people of a country or of an ethnic,
religious or social group. It develops an aura of belonging to the particular group of people and is worn
consciously to express its identity (Don Yoder in Dorson 1972:295). Hie definition of traditional dress is
proposed by Yoder as a definition of folk culture.
2. For example, research on Yoruba dress changes, related to social and political change occurring
between 1900 and 1974, revealed an increasing use of Yoruba dress particularly by-males, by educated
persons, and for special occasions (see VVass 1975).
3. The data tor this research, which applies to the period between 1880 and the present, were obtained
principally through interviews in 1977 with one Englishman and thirty-five Sierra Leoneans. The number
included four market women who sold or continue to sell print cloth used in Krio dress, six dressmakers
who specialize in Krio dress, eighteen