Birth

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Bangubangu (pre-Bembe hunters) peoples

Ancestor figure

Wood

H. 58.1 cm (23")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.548

Initiation into the world often includes rituals naming the newborn. African names may be very significant. Parents may consult a diviner to determine the identity of a beloved ancestor reborn through “nominal reincarnation.” For example, Tabwa people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo might rejoice, “Grandfather has returned!” Such a spirit will have a special affinity for the child, guiding and protecting it. Names may denote the day of the week or the circumstances of birth, such as “Born After twins,” “Born in a Period of Hardship,” or “Gift of God,” born after many unsuccessful attempts at conception. Names may refer to the child's family heritage. Tabwa have what they call “names of the navel” that connect an infant to its matrilineage (kinship traced through the mother’s line). Ancestral figures often demonstrate the critical importance of this relationship by placing the hands next to the navel, as shown in this figure carved by Bangubangu people of a matrilineal clan shared with Tabwa.