The Ngil was a roving militia, primarily focused on finding and neutralising malevolent sorcerers. The group acted as the guarantor of social stability and security for its people, while the sorcerers they hunted were believed to be possessed by an evil parasite known as an evus.
Villagers would call the ngil whenever possession or witchcraft was suspected. This could be due to an unusual death or new disease, or because of power struggles and internal politics.
Ngil wore masks made from single pieces of wood featuring a stylised human face complete with horns. The highest-ranking member, the ngengan, would always be accompanied by attendants who acted as assistants, musicians, dancers and bodyguards.
The purpose of the rite performed by the Ngil was to frighten anyone with evil intentions. Therefore, while considered beautiful by many in the West, the faces on the masks were designed to be grotesque and intimidating.
Accused parties would be forced to drink a poison called minkal as a form of test. Those deemed guilty would be judged and sentenced on the spot. Punishments often included beating, confiscation of personal property, cursing and in some severe cases, death.
After high-profile disturbances caused by the Ngil, and upset by the direct competition with their own courts, the Ngil society was gradually banned by the colonial powers in Gabon and Cameroon between 1910 and 1920. While masks are no longer considered “active”, they continue to be made for collectors and tourists.