The Songye understood negative power in two ways. The first, buci, was a power much like witchcraft with which an individual was born, transmitted from mother to child. They believe it to reside in an individual’s heart or stomach, and he or she could control it internally. An individual gained the second form of negative power, masende, from ancestors or other deceased members of the tribe. Benevolent nkishi figures helped protect the Songye from both of these forces.
To make a nkishi, an artist first carved the wooden exterior form into poses meant to appear threatening or aggressive to malevolent spirits. The sculptor then turned it over to a nganga, or ritual specialist, who adorned it with decorative objects made of natural minerals and animal or vegetable parts. Finally, to formulate its powers, the nganga concealed bishima, or spiritually meaningful ingredients, somewhere inside the figure–usually in the stomach or a horn affixed to the figure’s head.
The significance of nkishi resided in their mystical qualities and the purpose they served an individual or the community. The potential of a nkishi depended on objects the nganga distributed throughout. These materials transformed it from an idle figure to a powerful spiritual tool. The decorative objects on the exterior were practical rather than aesthetic. For example, the nails piercing many minkishi represented and extended their magical forces.
Smaller minkishi typically belonged to individual households for private use, while larger ones usually protected the community as a whole. The community usually kept the latter hidden from view, allowing only Songye priestesses to access them. The protective power emitted by these figures represent both the safety and the benevolent protection of Songye society.
—Leta Woller, education–visitor engagement intern 2012-2013
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