Nkisi (Power Figure)

Nkisi Nkondi Kozo (Dog Power Figure)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Nkisi, also referred to as nkishi (pl. minkisi / mankishi / zinkisi) is the general name for an object (wooden figures, clay pots, gourds or bundles) containing an empowering spirit(s).
An object only becomes an nkisi when it is filled with medicines (bilongo) and a spirit resides in the object. The spirits residing in minkisi can include ancestors (bakulu), local spirits (bisimbi bankita) or ghosts (minkuyu). Banganga (meaning diviners; literally 'masters / priests of minkisi') defend community members against illness, witchcraft, infertility, and can even provide success in specific pursuits like hunting, by leveraging minkisi figures.

An nkondi figure (meaning 'hunter'; also called nkonde, pl. minkondi) is considered to be the most powerful sub-type of nkisi figures. Villagers turn to nkondi figures to identify and in some cases, kill unknown wrongdoers such as thieves, witches and others who have turned to malevolent spirits to cause misfortune, sickness or death to others. It is believed that the nkondi maintain order in the society. To drive the nkondi into action, nganga diviners must invoke and provoke the spirit that resides in the figure. Gunpowder is first exploded in front of the figure to annoy and arouse the nkondi into action. Nails and metal blades are then hammered in the figure to make the spirit angry towards the clients enemy for the wounds inflicted on its body. The nails are also used as a symbol of grievances to be resolved and of the pain the nkondi must inflict on the specified target. It is believed that the nails associated with the grievance will come of out of the body of the nkondi once the target is identified and dealt with. Finally, invocations are recited detailing the punishment the target must receive for the crime he/she has committed. The process of nkondi provocation and invocation is known as koma nloko (meaning 'to nail a curse') or nkomono ('nailing invocation') and the phrase nkisi nkondi means 'a nailed figure containing a powerful force'.

Among the Kongo, wild animals are associated with the dead as they live in the forests where the deceased are buried. The Kongo use domesticated dogs to hunt down game in the forest, but these same dogs reside alongside villagers in the community. Because of this ability to move freely between the village and the forests, it is believed that dogs have the ability to mediate between the worlds of the living and dead. Kozo (also called nkisi nkondi a mbwa meaning 'dog') is an nkisi nkondi sub-type, believed to be an nkondi for women in the community. Because of their ability to transverse between worlds, nkisi nkondi kozo figures are used for the identification of witches and wrongdoers. They are also believed to control the sexuality of women. The owner of the nkondi kozo attaches materials (such as a deceased persons hair or remnants of stolen goods) to the blades on the figure to remind the nkondi of its mission.

NOTE: Kozo is often grouped with a specific type of nkisi, an nkisi nkondi, 'the hunter'.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all nkisi figures:

  • Body (nitu) often a gourd, bag, bark box, pot, snail shell or wooden figure
  • Medicines (bilongo) added to body (NOTE: without the medicines, the container is just a shell). Nkisi bilongo typically include:
    • Luyala - a fruit used to 'rule' hostile witches
    • Luhemba - white chalk used to brighten the eyes of the nkisi and the nganga
    • Kala zima - charcoal used to strike down all evil
    • Nkandikila - red kernel used to block the path of witches
    • Tondo - mushroom used to praise spirits
    • Luhezomo & ngongo - fossil resin and Calabar bean used to scare away witches
    • Nkiduku - nut or kernel used to protect the patient
  • Grave dirt, kaolin and stones taken from place where spirit abides, incorporated into figure
  • Some exhibit remnants of chewed kola-nut and blood

Sub-type variations (nkisi nkondi kozo dog power figure):

  • Made of wood
  • Takes the form of a dog
    • Single headed with curled tail raised at the end
    • Double headed
  • Each muzzle has a protruding, lolling tongue
  • Wide jaw
  • Sharp fangs
  • Elongated cylindrical torso
  • Pack of medicines on back of figure
    • Hollowed square at the centre of the back (insertion of magic medicines)
    • Medicine projection covered by either a mirror or by hog’s teeth
  • Iron nails and metal blades driven into the figure
    • However not all nkondi are nailed (nails are just one way to arouse the nkisi)
  • Sometimes cloth, hair or other items added to nails
  • Madibu (dog-bells; sing. dibu) attached to figure
  • Some also have hunting nets entangling the legs

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