Art and Initiation Among the Yaka and Suku

by Arthur Bourgeois
Professor Emeritus, Governors State University

Initiates with their guardians on route to bathe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1976. Photo by Arthur Bourgeois.

Ritual and social activities that confer social manhood on uncircumcised boys provide the context for a major portion of masking imagery in Central Africa.  Known as mukanda, m-khanda, longwa, or n-khanda, this initiation utilizes special masks, sculptured posts, and structures that are part of a setting pervaded with charms.  As such, they are extensions of charm specialists who wish to assure and protect the future fertility of the initiated young male.  In this photograph, taken a few days following the circumcision operation, a group of Yaka initiates are on their way to bathe in a cold rushing stream accompanied by their older guardians.  The initiates wear short skirts of mafuti (raffia fiber) as their only clothing until they are healed but the fiber equally designates zones of protection and seclusion, rich in cosmological and sexual symbolism and a link to the traditional ways of the ancestors.  Recent trends are to initiate at a younger age than formerly.