Ofika ('Hanging' Figure)

By: Kathryn Cua || Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Lilwa is a male initiation association that acts as a governing body of the Mbole people of the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as neighbouring cultures. In addition to ceremonial functions, the Lilwa also provide social, political, and economic functions to the Mbole. Moreover, members of the Lilwa are responsible for overseeing the education of young boys. Mbole boys ages seven to twelve learn the social, moral, and physical responsibilities of adulthood through a long and laborious initiation process. All men and women who are daughters of the highest-ranking members are initiated into the introductory level of Lilwa.

Although Lilwa make use of few objects in the initiation process, the ofika or "hanging" figure plays a central role. The ofika figure represents a hanged person, illustrating the consequences of transgressing the rules of Lilwa. The practice of hanging was central to law enforcement in Mbole society and done very publicly. Following an execution, a Lilwa elder would request for a sculpture to be carved of the condemned individual. They are also prepared for display by being painted. Ofika are named after their offenders thus representing specific people; however, they are not considered portraits. Ofika are used in hopes of imparting proper etiquette and respect for elders, warning against immoral conduct.

Ofika figures are displayed on several occasions in the initiation process, but novices are not allowed to touch them until the final moments of initiation. Throughout the process, Lilwa leaders show the ofika figure as a cautionary tale of disobedience, reminding them that they will be fixed in the same way if they transgress the law. Aside from initiation, ofika figures are shown on other occasions, though rarely. Ofika are displayed in the instance of persistent bad hunting or when grave conflicts need to be settled. When oaths are being taken, an ofika is intended to be sworn upon. Otherwise, high-ranking initiates hide the figures where non-initiates are completely forbidden from seeing them.

Distinguishing Features

  • Typically no more than one foot high
  • May be either male or female
  • Carved in hanging position
  • Oversized head
    • Hairstyle with prominent overhanging, crescent-shaped brim
    • High forehead covered in yellow pigment
    • Eyebrows and cheeks form a white concave, heart-shaped face
    • Eyes and mouth are narrow slits on slightly raised surfaces
    • Ears aligned with eyes
    • Nose protrudes as a triangle
    • Two small holes for nostrils
    • White pigment on face
  • Tall and slender rudimentary body
    • Darkened body
    • Hunched, forward-projecting shoulders
    • Overextended arms
    • Hands rest on hips or on top of thighs
    • Arms sometimes parallel to legs
    • Elbows carved like knees
    • Long, slender trunk
    • Yellow central band on torso
    • Rounded back
    • Slightly bent legs
    • Legs spread torso-wdith apart
    • Downward pointing feet

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