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.
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.
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.