Nkisi (Power Figure)

Nkisi Nkondi Mangaaka (Arbiter Power Figure)

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.

Within the nkisi corpus, an nkondi figure (meaning 'hunter'; also called nkonde, pl. minkondi) is considered to be the most powerful sub-type. Villagers turn to minkondi figures to identify and in some cases, kill unknown wrongdoers such as thieves, witches and others who have turned to malevolent spirits to cause misfortune, sickness or death to others. It is believed that the minkondi maintain order in the society. To drive an nkondi into action, nganga diviners must invoke and provoke the spirit that resides in the figure. Gunpowder is first exploded in front of the figure to annoy and arouse the nkisi spirit. Nails and metal blades (baaku) are then hammered in the figure to make the spirit angry towards the clients enemy for the wounds inflicted on its body. The nails are also used as a symbol of grievances to be resolved and of the pain the nkondi must inflict on the specified target. It is believed that the nails associated with the grievance will come of out of the body of the nkondi once the target is identified and dealt with. Finally, invocations are recited detailing the punishment the target must receive for the crime he/she has committed. The process of nkondi provocation and invocation is known as koma nloko (meaning 'to nail a curse') or nkomono ('nailing invocation') and the phrase nkisi nkodi means 'a nailed figure containing a powerful force'.

An nkisi nkondi figure is also used as a sanction for oaths. The relevant parties agree to face the wrath of the nkisi should they break the contract. When used to bind an agreement, items from each party (such as hair or pieces of clothing) are attached to the figure. An nkisi nkondi Mangaaka is an example of a figure used to publicly seal trade agreements; it is used to punish all violators of the agreement. Nkisi nkondi Mangaaka is usually paired with nkisi nkondi kozo.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all nkisi figures:

  • 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 figure
  • Some exhibit remnants of chewed kola-nut and blood

Sub-type variations (nkisi nkondi Mangaaka arbiter power figure):

  • Made of heavy, hard wood
  • Height > 1 metre
  • Figure carved with chief's hat (mpu)
  • Head thrust forward
  • Face upraised
  • Eyebrows carved in relief
    • Either straight or slightly curved bar
  • Recessed semi-circle or oval cavity for eyes
    • Cavity filled with 'medicines' (bilongo)
    • Porcelain eyes cover the cavity
    • Iron-nail pupil
  • Prominent ears
    • Hole drilled into earlobe
  • Open mouth
    • Full lips
    • Teeth exposed
  • Clay, palm wine, animal hair mixture attached to surface of chin to form a beard (vivo)
  • Broad, rounded shoulders
  • Shoulder blades indicated
  • Arms akimbo
    • Upper arm has bands carved around them (nsunga)
    • Hands held at waist
    • Thumbs turned backward
  • Muscular torso carved leaning slightly forward
    • Circular medicine pack attached to belly cavity (3 inches deep)
    • Cowrie shell inserted into 'medicine pack'
  • Strong back with spinal column indicated
  • Adze marks present on lower body
  • No male genitalia carved
  • Short, broad legs
    • Knees and ankles indicated
    • Large feet rest on individual rectangular bases
  • Figure covered with nails and blades
  • Figure painted black
    • White and red pigment strips applied to cheeks, temples, teeth, eyebrows and around eyes

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