Kayamba ('The Cunning Mask')

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.

Each initiation society has its own associated objects and sculptures (isengo, pl. masengo meaning 'heavy things'). Masks intimately link a living human being to a close agnatic relative who has passed away. Masks play an integral role in Bwami initiations. Although they are used across the range of levels of Bwami, they are used in larger quantities at the yananio and kindi levels and in lesser amounts at lower levels. Several masks, ranging from a select few to a multitude, are typically used simultaneously in the same rite. There are times, however, only a single mask is used for a rite. Initiated men are the exclusive owners of masks, but some rites allow for their initiated wives to use them.

Kayamba, a rare horned mask, belongs to the Bwami society of the Lega people. An accomplished teacher of Bwami lore would use this mask in yonanio initiations. The whitened face of a horned kayamba mask has a very explicit meaning. Alone, the mask represents a cunning and clever person: “Kayamba, who has come from afar, cannot be bad.”3

There is no singular way to wear a mask. Masks are worn to cover the face, but they also may be worn over the temples, on the skull, on the back of one’s head or swung around and dragged by one’s beard. Masks are also worn elsewhere on the body. They can be worn on the upper arm near the shoulders and on the knee.

In some cases, masks are not worn on the body at all. Sometimes they are fastened to a fence or pole or placed on the ground. The image of ivory masks attached to a fence is intended to recall the death of the kindi, thus leading one to reflect upon death itself. The presentation of masks on a fence reminds one of those who have died in war or passed away in a village where there was much cursing and accusation of murder.

Members also use masks in a performative manner external to the body. They can be pointed to, shot at or attacked in mock combat. Masks may also be reversed from the ground, to the fence to the face.

Like other types of masks, Bwami men and women would use kayamba in performance and join the masks with sayings, music and drama. For example, when kayamba are shown dancing pairs, the masks might depict the confrontation of Kabimbi, the Clever-One, and Kalulungula, the Liar. It was through such theatrics that the dramas of social life and Bwami ethics were taught and enforced to members of Bwami society.

Distinguishing Features

  • Large size
  • Mask surmounted by two large pointed horns
  • Broad, bulging forehead
  • Pierced eyes and mouth
  • Elongated nose
  • Some have a hole(s) pierced below chin to attach a fibre beard
  • White kaolin applied to surface
  • Geometric design

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