Lukungu (Skull Ornament)

By: 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') including the lukungu ornament (sometimes called a 'mask'; meaning 'skull') used by kindi initiates. Passed from generation to generation, the lukungu ornament is handed down from father to his nephew (the Lega is a matrilineal line of decent). As such it is believed to represent the bond and continuity between father and son. The lukungu ornament is considered to be the most significant insignia of all Bwami grades and is the final category of objects within the society. Unlike other Bwami ornaments, the lukungu ornament is never worn on the face or body. It is instead only held (or placed on a fence) during kindi initiations. At death it is placed on the previous owner's grave after which it is inherited by a nephew.

NOTE: "Most Lega 'masks' are actually ornaments rarely worn over the face. They are instead attached to different parts of the body, piled in stacks, hung on fences, displayed, dragged on the ground and occasionally worn on the forehead with the beard draping over the face of the wearer. They are used to portray the importance of ancestors and are among the initiation objects displayed on the grave of deceased members."3

Distinguishing Features

  • Made of ivory or bone
  • Small size (between 4 - 5 inches in length)
  • Oval mask
  • Heart-shaped, slightly concave face
  • Small coffee bean eyes (some with etched out lashes)
  • Long, flat nose
  • Small angular mouth (some have teeth etched out)
  • Some have dotted circle motif (representing scarification)
  • Smooth polished surface
  • Warm orange-brown patina from ibonga (ceremonial oiling) - some versions have patina cleaned off

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