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

Democratic Republic of the Congo; Pende artist


Wood, fiber, pigment 

H. 33 cm (13")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.207


Societies practicing circumcision possess explanations of how the custom began. As the Congolese scholar Mudiji-Malamba Gilombe (1989) explains, Pende say that a boy named Malenga, who only kept the company of his mother and sisters, was walking through a field with them one day when his penis was accidentally cut by a sharp blade of grass. The women's screams alerted men who whisked Malenga away to a hidden camp, where they completed his circumcision. They invented raffia nganji masks, representing aggressive spiritual forces to protect the camp, and mbuya anthropomorphic wooden masks as well. When women later asked what they had been doing with the boy at their camp, they could perform mbuya masks without revealing the secrets of his initiation. As a carver of masks told Mudiji-Malamba, “We each have our secrets. Women have the mysteries of pregnancy and birth, and we men those of initiation and masks.”