Nkisi (Power Object)

Nkisi Mbumba ('Grave' Power Object)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Nkisi, also referred to as nkishi (pl. minkisi / mankishi / zinkisi) is the general name for an object (wooden figures, clay pots, gourds or bundles) containing an empowering spirit(s). An object only becomes an nkisi when it is filled with medicines (bilongo) and a spirit resides within the object. The spirits residing in minkisi can include ancestors (bakulu), local spirits (bisimbi bankita) or ghosts (minkuyu).

Banganga (meaning diviners; literally 'masters / priests of minkisi') defend community members against illness, witchcraft, infertility, and can even provide success in specific pursuits like hunting, by leveraging minkisi figures. They however can also be used for evil; clients may turn to an nganga for an nkisi that aids in the misfortune, sickness and death of his neighbours, foes and relatives.

A type of nkisi object is the mbumba (meaning 'grave', 'medicine ball', or 'trap'), used by an nganga diviner to provide protection for a family, control rain, and cure illnesses. Mbumba minkisi are also used to identify evil witches during the ceremony called liboka.

NOTE: See the National Museum of African Art video of the X-ray of a mbumba nkisi HERE.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all nkisi objects:

  • Body (nitu) often a gourd, bag, bark box, pot, snail shell or wooden figure
  • Medicines (bilongo) added to body (NOTE: without the medicines, the container is just a shell). Nkisi bilongo typically include:
    • Luyala - a fruit used to 'rule' hostile witches
    • Luhemba - white chalk used to brighten the eyes of the nkisi and the nganga
    • Kala zima - charcoal used to strike down all evil
    • Nkandikila - red kernel used to block the path of witches
    • Tondo - mushroom used to praise spirits
    • Luhezomo & ngongo - fossil resin and Calabar bean used to scare away witches
    • Nkiduku - nut or kernel used to protect the patient
  • Grave dirt, kaolin and stones taken from place where spirit abides, incorporated into object
  • Some exhibit remnants of chewed kola-nut and blood

Sub-type variations (Mbumba 'grave' power object):

  • Monkey skull
  • Skull embedded in complex knotting of basketry fibres and earth from ancestor graves
  • Face of skull coated with white kaolin and/or red ocher
  • Small hole in forehead to hold tail of porcupine
  • Other magical materials and small objects placed into skull assemblage. Objects can include teeth, pieces of metal, and bone fragments

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