Art and Life Among the Zaramo of Tanzania

by Diane Pelrine
Indiana University Art Museum

Tanzania; Kwere, Zaramo, and other matrilineal peoples

Mwana Hiti (figure)

Wood

H. 11 cm (4.33")

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1990.676

Better known in the West are small wooden figures such as this, which are abstract depictions of female heads and torsos with distinctive two-part crested coiffures.   The figures are associated with fertility and also are a way to maintain contact with clan ancestors. They are intended to be passed down through the generations, and an old one is believed to be especially effective in sustaining a favorable relationship with the ancestors.  When I photographed this figure in 1985, it was being used by a girl who was nearing the end of a period of seclusion, during which she was learning how to be a good wife and mother.  Neither she nor her aunt, who was entrusted with maintaining the figure for the family, knew its exact age, but the aunt said it was already in the family when she was a teenager.