Bilondo (Bwami Insignia)

Bwami (Initiation Skullcap)

By: Kathryn Cua || Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The social and spiritual lives of the Lega people are governed by a central initiation society known as Bwami; Bwami is responsible for teaching morality through community performances, dances and objects. The Bwami association includes 5 society grades including:

  1. Bwali (meaning 'circumcision'; the prerequisite association for joining Bwami where initiates are circumcised (between the ages of 12 and 20) and are thought lessons on the values and behaviours expected to Bwami members);
  2. Kongobulumbu the lowest grade of Bwami followed by a short ceremony where recently circumcised initiates are given even greater knowledge about the association;
  3. Ngandu is the highest grade in some communities (of which bombwa is the female equivalent);
  4. Yananio level consists of two sub-groups, the musagi wa yananio and the lutumbo iwa yananio (bulonda is the female equivalent) and,
  5. Kindi which is the most senior level of Bwami, sub-divided into three grades, kyogo kya kindi, musagi wa kindi and finally lutumbo iwa kindi. Bunyamwa is the equivalent kindi grade for women.

A Lega man must pass through all (voluntary) initiation societies respectively to be considered a rounded man with full insight into ancestral teachings and traditions. The Bwami association is also believed to strengthen bonds within the community.

Various forms of personal adornment signify the rank and status of a member of Bwami society. These include accessories such as armbands, belts, girdles, hats, necklaces and pendants. Other paraphernalia that denote positioning include staffs, stools and rattles.

Men and women in Bwami society receive different types of regalia both during and at the termination of their initiation cycle. These objects emblemise their new-member status. Some insignia are worn on the body in the form of hats, skullcaps, masks, and belts. Other denotations of status include figurines, natural objects or other artefacts. Each type of accessory represents a different grade level of Bwami.

The skullcap is made out of woven fibres, "attached to a central tuft of hair and worn under a hat"1. Called Bwami, it takes the same name as the Bwami society. Bwami is sometimes called kilembo in initiatory settings, meaning “the thing being sought.” Bwami is presented to a man at the end of his initiation into Kongobulumbu, the lowest grade in Bwami society. When the initiate reaches Yananio, four cowrie shells are added to the skullcap and placed in the shape of an 'X'. Because Bwami are never to be seen in public, a man must cover it with another hat that indicates his rank within the society. The skullcap is burned when it becomes extremely worn, and a new one is made for the initiate. The ashes of the old skullcap are then distributed among the members of the society. Bwami men wear the skullcap until their death. When an initiate dies, his skullcap is covered with a red powder, adorned with an attached seedpod and buried with him.

Distinguishing Features

  • Made of woven fibres / raffia
  • Covered with oil and a red powder
  • Adorned with an attached seedpod
  • Some have four cowrie shells attached in shape of an 'X'

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