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.
Common features among all nkisi figures:
Sub-type variations (nkisi nkondi Mangaaka arbiter power figure):