Njeri Gachihi

Ingolole (Circumcision Mask), mid 20th century, coconut fibre, 106x25 cm, Museum Fünf Kontinente and Nairobi National Museum (Foto Museum Fünf Kontinente, Nicolai Kaestner; Njeri Gachihi)

Is Ingolole an Artwork or a Ritual Object?

The Tiriki are one of the Bantu – Luhya dialect speaking group mainly found in Western part of Kenya. The community is renowned for its adherence to indigenous cultural practices, even as other communities in Kenya abandoned their traditions and embraced modernity. One of the practices that is of paramount importance is the circumcision of the male. Since it marks a significant period of transition from childhood to adulthood, the Tiriki see this as a precarious stage and hence a lot of precaution must be taken.


Let me mention that apart from the physical danger caused by the wound, they are cognizant of other ills that can be caused by traditional healing, sorcery and witchcraft which, just like many other African communities, are still part of the Tiriki cosmology. Since misfortunes such as disease, infertility and death are said to be caused by malevolent people who could be neighbours, relatives, enemies or even ancestors, protection is key at this phase of a young boy’s life. Hence the importance of the Tiriki circumcision mask, Ingolole. It is woven from sisal or aloe, animal skin with palm reeds tied on the top like a crown. Sometimes the sisal used is coloured. The mask is made by the initiate himself as directed and guided by the initiation caretakers/guardians who are circumcised men from the community. The craft is one of the activities of the seclusion period, mostly two weeks, that is done in the forest from the day the young boy between seven to fifteen leaves home to the day of return of the young man into the society. During this period, it is forbidden that any woman should see or come into contact with the initiates.

  • Njeri Gachihi
    Njeri Gachihi


    Ingolole serves several purposes in the circumcision ritual. It serves to mystify the ritual and more so the initiate. While wearing almost identical masks, the initiates become undisguisable in this full seclusion regalia. It is believed that even evil spirit sent would have a problem identifying the target and hence revert to sender. On the other hand, the masks also serve to wade off and scare women and children who are not supposed to interact with them during the seclusion. Even when they go out of the forest and make processions on major roads singing and dancing, the women and children should stay away. Part of the chants, dance and singing done is meant to break loose ‘childhood/boyhood’ which is symbolized by the breaking of the crown - palm reeds attached on the ingolole. Some do manage to break it which is a sign of physical strength and masculinity as well as spiritual and ritual wellbeing.


    The dance that the initiates perform is know as bukhulu/bakhulu which means elder. Bukhulu henceforth, cosmologically viewed, means unity with the ancestors and is also used to symbolize fertility or the life-giving seed (seminal fluid). The effort of breaking the reed henceforth translates into becoming an adult and gaining all the permission to undertake the adult roles and the responsibilities associated with it. This means that this right gives the initiate the ability and power to engage in full conjugal and social responsibility. Last but not least, the initiates spend a lot of time in the open. Ingolole then serves to protect them from the scorching rays of the sun, protect them from sweating too much when dancing and at night serves to protect them from biting cold, wild animals and insects.


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    Presentation at Nairobi National Museum

    Is Ingolole an Artwork or a Ritual Object?

    The ingolole as a form of ritual art, seems to bear witness to the resilience of the Tiriki culture; what Bakhtin might have called the 'carnivalization of the social order'. A central reason for using this mask, it seems, is to affirm the Africanization of the arena, both public and private, where a culturally appropriate image reigns. The mask usually invests the wearer with signs of power over evil, while modelling him on the norms of masculinity and respectability. The ingolole is one item of art that is yet to be transformed from artefact to curio (or momento). This is apparently so because its mechanism of distinction is yet to mobilize political as well as economic categories. This mask resonates well with the notion that visual art communicates cultural values. It is a complex ideological communication that derives its symbolism and references from culture. Yet it also draws its form and content from the fundamental tenets of the magical appropriation of power through the manipulation of depiction and elucidation.


    Therefore, the Tiriki Circumcision mask, Ingolole is not only an artistic representation. It is a ritualistic object that embodies several meanings. It is known to invest the wearer with signs of power over evil - in that the wearer is set apart from his enemies that would intend to inflict harm. It is believed that the evil spirits sent to cause harm on the initiate would find it difficult to positively identify the initiate. At the same time, it causes mystery around the initiates making their looks terrifying and hence keeping off those who are not permitted to come near newly initiates. Physically, it protects the young boys from scorching sun, biting cold and insects while in seclusion. Once ingolole is used, it is kept and passed on from generation to generation. A used one is still valuable to the family and must be kept safely to avoid causing harm to the members of the family. Hence, this is an item of art that cannot be easily transformed from a ritualistic artefact to a simple curio craft.


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    There are not many Ingolole’s in our Museum in Nairobi. Two are however exhibited in the permanent exhibition, Cycles of life, at the Nairobi National Museum.