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

Democratic Republic of the CongoMbole artist


Wood, pigment (white, ochre, traces of black)

H. 38.1 cm (15”)

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1986.315

During initiation, boys learn the secrets that will make them men. From another perspective, the purpose of boys' initiation is the cultural construction of male identity. This is only possible by defining a gender dialectic, for women are the ultimate audience for male theater. Secrets remain a source of power only if they are kept (see Nooter 1993), and so transgression of boys' initiation may be punished severely. Mbole people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo once made figures portraying young men who had been hanged for having fled their initiation camps to return to their mothers' bosoms and reveal men's secrets. Such figures are meant to frighten boys into compliance, recalling a story of Laka people of Chad as told in the late 1960s, of how a woman was buried alive when she hid her son rather than return him to initiation camp whence he had fled. Similarly, Senufo boys of Côte d’Ivoire used to grip buffalo-shaped brass “rings of silence” in their teeth, to signify their oath to preserve the powerful secrets of their initiation.