Phemba (Maternity Figure)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Commonly viewed as maternity figures, phemba (also called pfemba meaning 'the one who gives children in-potentia'1) are used to symbolise the fertility, growth, wealth, spiritual power and creativity of the entire Yombe community (male and female alike); it is a symbol of the future growth of the Yombe through the continued fertility of the whole community. Phemba figures are also more recently used in women’s fertility cults to honour maternal spirits.

Amongst the Yombe, red is believed to be tied to birth and death. During ritual use of a phemba figure, and as a sign of mediation, the diviner rubs the surfaces of the figure with a mixture of palm oil and camwood powder, leaving a red residue on the figure.

Distinguishing Features

  • Female figure facing forward
  • Head surmounted with a mitre-shaped coiffure (sometimes features mpu cap on the head instead of hairstyle)
  • Crescent eyes
  • Open mouth baring chiseled teeth
  • Raised scarification marks on body
  • Some feature a carved cord tied above the breasts (high social status figures)
  • Bracelets on arms and wrists
  • Brass tacks and imported glass beads can adorn the figure
  • Some figures have glass inset in the eyes
  • Figure holding a baby
    • Child typically carved in a lying position
    • Baby cradled at the head and feet
    • Sometimes carved breastfeeding or touching mother’s breast
  • Two distinct styles:
    • Cross-legged woman sat on a pedestal (pose represents the high status on the figure) with a dead infant on her lap (representing the connection between the living and spirit worlds)
    • Cross-legged, kneeling or crouching woman with a living infant

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