On 09 June 2017 at 16:20

Death is not an end. Sculptures and the cycle of life at the Songye

Viviane Baeke

Death is not an end. Sculptures and the cycle of life of the Songye

By Viviane Baeke


When the first anthropologists became interested in African religions, they did not hesitate to borrow the term “reincarnation” from Indian and Greek conceptions to apply it to the processes they observed in Africa. At first glance, the term appears to translate these mechanisms correctly. Many variants exist, but they all have in common that they consider that one of the deceased’s vital principles (the shadow, the double, the soul) survives him and is reincarnated in a child yet to be born.


In reality however, when one investigates the thought systems that refer to this “carousel of souls”, one becomes aware that things are infinitely more complex. Here a comparison between the thought system of the Songye and that of their immediate neighbors, the Luba and the Tetela, sheds light on these considerations, and gives us to understand that we can really only use the term incarnation in quotation marks.


The great and enigmatic figures which all Songye art aficionados know well, some of which fascinate us with their disturbing beauty, are intimately connected with this vital process. These figures, called mankishi (singular nkishi) are, along with other cult objects, the material supports for a complex ritual and religious system. In order to understand, even only partially, what they represent in the eyes of the Songye, one must begin by considering the notion of the person and the thought system at the origin of their creation and use.


According to information obtained by Merriam from the Bala, a Northern Songye group, the living person is made up of a body (mbidi), a spirit (kikudi, plural bikudi), a shadow (mweshieshi), and a conscience (mushima) (1974: 111). Upon a person’s death, his kikudi spirit leaves his body. It will subsequently either be “reincarnated” a little later when a child is born, or it will wander eternally and become a maleficent spirit called mukishi (plural mikishi).[1] Among the Kalebwe, there is however a completely different category of mikishi spirits, namely those of the great ancestors, the founding chiefs and the major deceased notables. They remain by the side of Efile Mukulu (God), and although they are not reincarnated they may facilitate the “reincarnation of beneficent spirits”. They are venerated as the guardians of the lineages.[2] Moreover, one of the essential prerogatives of the large communal mankishi, like the examples illustrated here, is to act as mediators between men and these major ancestors, as well as to facilitate and even induce the “reincarnation” of the bikudi spirits of recently deceased people, and as an obvious corollary, to assure the fertility of women by making any obstacles that could prevent them from bearing children disappear. Lastly, most of these imposing figures protected their communities against sorcery as well as from other misfortunes, such as lightning.


The Eki, an Eastern Songye group which inhabits the area north of the town of Kabinda, have a myth of the world’s origin which describes the genesis of the world and explains how the mechanisms of the reincarnation cycle established themselves at the beginning of time.


This story was literally reenacted every seven years at the initiation to the bukishi, a ritual association which included both men and women, and whose greatest initiates or instructors were also important banganga (healers).


At each initiation, the novices literally relived the myth of the origin of the world, from the genesis of the major celestial actors to the creation of living beings, and the appearance of the first human and the establishment of the reincarnation cycle.


Having learned about this myth of origin, and apprehended its truly cosmic nature, we find that certain mankishi figures literally bear traces of it. Some are covered with signs and symbols which incarnate the Songye’s vision of the cycle of life, and how it established itself at the beginning of time. Others evoke how it replays itself, or rather replayed itself, in the heart of the ritual enclosure of the bukishi, an initiation institution which disappeared several decades ago.


Here is an example taken from among those I discussed at the lecture. The two long hooks suspended from the arms of certain figures symbolize the two hooks mentioned in the creation myth with which Rainbow captured the bikudi of deceased humans, then entrusted them to Wind, who guided them to the original womb, which was guarded by the star Alderaban, son of the Moon and of Venus – a celestial uterus from which they would later depart in order to be reincarnated.


But these magnificent figures do not just evoke. They are animated with a real power which enables them to assure the fertility of women by enjoining the spirits of the deceased to “reincarnate” themselves.


For these wooden figures to acquire their powers, it is above all essential that the ritual specialist (nganga), the only holder among men of the bukopo power, should introduce the magical bishimba substances into them. He does this by inserting them in the abdominal cavity or in the head. Thusly complete, the statue becomes a bwanga (plural manga), which is to say a charm with powers. The nkishi is in fact just that specific category of bwanga that have a human form.


And what a human form! The imposing and hieratic figures have an intrinsic beauty, imbued with mystery, and the copper ornaments, bead necklaces, and hide and textile pieces with which they are generally covered confer an undeniable majesty on them. They must have enthralled those who called on their talents, and they still exert that same power of fascination on those who admire them at exhibitions.

[1] Even though the etymology is the same, one must not confuse the name of these spirits with the substantive that designates the ritual statue and belongs to another nominal class: nkishi (plural mankishi).

[2] Hersak 1985: 28.



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On 09 June 2017 at 16:20

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Viviane Baeke

Viviane BAEKE est docteur en Anthropologie sociale de l'Université libre de Bruxelles, où elle fut, de 1986 à 1990, l'assistante des professeurs Luc de Heusch et Pierre de Maret. De 1990 à 2015, elle occupa la fonction de conservatrice au sein de la section d’Ethnographie, (devenu service Patrimoines), du Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, elle y conserve un rôle de consultant. En 1997, elle est honorée du prix Henry Lavachery décerné par l'Académie royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique pour sa thèse qui fut publiée en 2004 par la Société d'Ethnologie de l’Université Paris X (Collection Sociétés africaines, Nanterre) sous le titre “Le Temps des Rites: Ordre du monde et destin individuel en pays wuli” (Cameroun). En 2010, elle contribua à la création de la salle d’exposition permanente Joseph-Aurélien Cornet de l’Institut des Musées nationaux du Congo à Kinshasa. Depuis plusieurs années, ses recherches portent principalement sur l’art de l’Afrique centrale et plus particulièrement sur le dialogue entre l’art et les systèmes symboliques et rituels de diverses communautés culturelles de la RDC et du Cameroun, des thèmes auxquels elle a consacré de nombreuses publications.