Pombia ('Bush Spirit' Rhythm Pounder)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:
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The social, economic and spiritual lives of Senufo men are governed by an overarching initiation society known as Poro. A Senufo man must pass through all stages of the initiation society to be considered a rounded man with full insight into ancestral teachings and traditions. Each vocational group (including farmers, traders and artists) has its own Poro group through which they must graduate before becoming a member of the Senufo community.

Traditional sculpture of figures and masks play an important role in the Poro society. An example is the pombia (also called poro pia, nedo, doogele; pl. poro piibele, pombibele, ndble; meaning 'child of poro' or 'those who give birth') figure said to represent the ideal Senufo woman and man—the primordial ancestors. Pombia 'rhythm-pounder' figures are used to commemorate recently deceased Poro elders during their funerals, and to ensure their safe passage into the land of ancestors.

During funeral processions, male and female pombia figures are carried by the upper arms, swung from side to side and pounded on the ground regularly. This is to drive away evil spirits thus creating a smooth and safe passage for the deceased's spirit into the land of ancestors. The initiates carrying the figures then circle the elder's body three times (symbolising the three stages of Poro initiation).

When not in used, pombia figures are stored in a sacred grove (sinzanga) located outside of the village.

NOTE: Debele, short for madebele (meaning 'bush spirits'), has been used as a class name for both the rhythm-pounders and display-sculpture subtypes.
NOTE: Figures held by neck or shoulders when not being swung.

Distinguishing Features
Common features among all pombia figures:

  • Made from hard, durable wood
  • Height = 2/3rd life size
  • Standing figure
  • Facing forward
  • Stylised face with geometric features
    • Facial expression is composed, serious and tranquil
    • Eyes are nearly closed
    • Large ears cocked forward
    • Facial scarification
    • Jutting chin
  • Long neck
  • Broad, muscular curving shoulders
  • Attenuated, bent arms (some examples have longer upper arms)
  • Upper arms have a deep shiny and worn patina from being swung (traces of sweat)
  • Blocky flexed hands resting on hips or thighs
  • Elongated columnar torso
  • Extended navel
  • Legs slightly flexed
  • Narrow, massive, cylindrical base: normally between 7 - 10 inches high
  • Deep brown patina

Sub-type variations (Male pombia):

  • Sometimes carved wearing Poro emblem headdress (kworo)

Sub-type variations (Female pombia):

  • Elaborate coiffure
  • Exaggerated conical / pendant breasts
  • Swelling belly
  • NOTE: When seen in pairs, female figure is usually larger than male.