Hemba (Initiation Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Makunda (also called n-khanda, m-khanda, longwa or nzo longo) is the Yaka and Suku initiation society used to transition male children into manhood. Suku boys are taken to a bush camp outside of the main village, circumcised, hazed, given new names, taught what it takes to become a man (hunting, sex) and also taught specific performances and dances associated with society and the community. During the dance performances, the initiates wear special dance masks while their teachers alone are permitted to wear the ritual masks of the makunda ceremonies.

One such initiate dance mask, found among the Suku and in some regions of the Yaka ethnic group, is the hemba helmet mask. Believed to be physical representations of ancestors and past matrilineage chiefs (leemba), hemba masks are used during the makunda closing ceremony where the boys are introduced back into the community as men. A pair of hemba masks are danced to celebrate the new adults and to entertain the villagers. Some sources mention that modern hemba masks are enhanced with the ashes of masks danced at previous makunda closing ceremonies.

Beyond use in makunda ceremonies, hemba masks are also associated with hunting, punishment and healing rituals. The Suku believe that dancing the hemba mask will ensure successful hunts and punish those that are disrespectful or wish to cause harm to others.

Distinguishing Features

    • Made from a cylindrical section of wood
    • Carved into a helmet or bell-shape
    • Exterior carved into human face
    • Coiffure often decorated with incised patterns (triangular forms in banded areas)
    • Coiffure painted black
    • Some carved with raised hair crest
    • Coiffure often surmounted by superstructure of animal or human figure
        • Carved animals can include the antelope (tsetse / bambi), songbird (kingundu; signifying good council), monkey (nzangi; human intelligence), pigeon (yembi), duck (bata)
        • Carved from same piece of wood as mask (i.e. all a single piece)
        • Wooden horns sometimes carved directly onto mask or onto the carved animal superstructure
    • Majestic, serious, powerful expression
    • Slit eyes
    • Beneath chin, mask extends downwards to form handle
    • Handle hidden by raffia fringe that surrounds the lower exterior of mask

Regional variations (Southern Suku):

    • Face painted white
    • Blue vertical "scarification" marks descend from lower eyelids
    • Blue occasionally defines the brow, eyelids and nose ridge

Regional variations (Northern Suku & Yaka of Pandzi):

    • Face painted red
    • NOTE: Hemba masks are called ngulu, mayamba, kangondi, tsumbu, mbala, lundemba, loku, lukalu, mbombo mnma and kilesi in this region

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