Mbap Mteng (Elephant Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Bamilekeland is divided into a number of smaller kingdoms each ruled by it’s own king (fon). The Bamileke believe that this ruling fon is an embodiment of the creator god and of past ancestors and as such possesses supernatural abilities. Despite his supernatural and political power, the fon is still controlled and guided by a council of 8 male descendants (kam) of founding leaders, organised into a number of secret societies (mkem). One such society is the Kwosi (also called Kuosi) association of warriors and wealthy chiefs. The main functions of the Kwosi society are to protect the fon but also to remind the king of his duties to his people as well as to communicate the importance of the fon to the daily lives of villagers. Another society, the Kemdje association of priests, is tasked with guarding the social traditions and customs of the Bamileke. The group acts on behalf of the fon to ensure that social order is enforced amongst villagers of a given kingdom.

These two special societies make use of the beaded cloth elephant mask, mdap mteng (meaning 'animal with huge ears'; called tukum, tcho or aka in some sources), during tso elephant ritual dances, bi-annual cultural festivals and at funerals of kings and dignitaries. The Bamileke believe that the elephant represents qualities associated with kingship and leadership; strength and intelligence (hence the representation of elephants in mdap mteng masks).

Distinguishing Features

  • Made of palm leaf fibre textile and a large number of glass beads or cowrie shells
  • Humanoid face
    • Two round eye holes surrounded by circular padded cloth
    • Strip of padded cloth for nose and open mouth
  • Elephantine features
    • Stiff, large, protruding circular ears are sewn to either side of the hood (these flap when the dancer moves)
    • Two long embroidered panels hang down the front and back of the wearer (front panel represents the elephant’s trunk)
  • Embroidered extensively with glass beads
    • Designs feature royal symbols (iron double gong, frog, spider, toad, lizard, crocodile, serpent)
    • Depictions vary from very natural to highly abstract (i.e. circles, triangles (leopard spots), lines, zig-zags)
    • Early masks (19th century) feature conservative use of beads and colours (usually black, white and blue)
    • Later versions are much more colourful (early 20th century onwards)
  • Each bead colour is associated with a believe or meaning
    • Black = link between life and death
    • White = ancestors and magical medicines
    • Red = life, women, kingship
  • Worn with indigo cloth (ndop) enhanced with colobus monkey fur and leopard pelt
  • Ensemble often completed with a surmounting beaded crest (animal figures including leopard, crocodile, bird or buffalo) or headdress of red feathers (from the tail of an African gray parrot)

Share this