Mwana Hiti ('Child of Wood' Figure)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:

The Zaramo mwana hiti, meaning “child of wood,” is used in initiation ceremonies of the Kwere, Zaramo, Luguru, and Gogo people of Tanzania.

Zaramo mwana hiti figures carry both practical and symbolic significance. They serve as companions for young girls during the initiation ceremony, as they are separated from their families during the process as well as childless married girls and women. Sometimes such figures are used as a form of adornment. They can be used to decorate the ends of musical instruments, walking sticks, furniture, or grave posts. The physicality of the object also provides a tangible connection to clan ancestors, turning the figure into a family heirloom to be passed down from generation to generation.

During the initiation process, the wooden figure is given to the female initiate by a maternal uncle. The ceremony educates the initiate on the ideal qualities of womanhood: hard work, generosity, prudence, and a nurturing disposition. In addition to this, she also receives sex education, instruction on how to please her husband, and ways to stay connected to her family. Following the conclusion of the ceremony, the initiates carry the figures around their necks and are expected to take great care of the figure to ensure and protect their own fertility.

Distinguishing Features

  • Usually 5 inches (10 to 20 cm tall)
  • Sagittal coiffure
    • Two-part crested coiffures
    • Plant fibres attached to indicate hair
    • Earlier examples fitted with owner's hair
    • Small tufts of hair are inserted into the holes at the top of the carved and crested coiffure
  • Stylised head
  • Facial features only lightly suggested
    • Glass beads inserted as eyes
    • Prominent square nose
    • Small notch marks mouth
  • Small breasts and navel are indicated by small disks
  • Highly stylised cylindrical female torso
  • Truncated cone and spherical segment
  • No legs, arms, or genitals
  • Glass beads strings attached to figure sometimes

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