Wed | May 22, 2019

Symbolising the rite of passage

Published:Sunday | August 26, 2018 | 12:00 AM
N'Tomo mask

A rite of passage can be defined as any ceremony that marks important transitional periods in a person's life such as birth, puberty, marriage, having children, and death. Rites of passage usually involve ritual activities and teachings designed to strip individuals of their original roles and prepare them for new roles.

In many so-called primitive societies, some of the most complex rites of passage occur at puberty when boys and girls are initiated into the adult world. In some ceremonies, the initiates are removed from their village and may undergo physical mutilation (scarification and circumcision) before returning as adults.

In the West, we have grown accustomed to very lavish rite-of-passage ceremonies which require large sums of money to be spent and appear in the forms of Sweet Sixteen birthday parties and Bar and Bat Mitzvah for Jewish boys and girls.

However, in West Africa, among the Bambara, or Bamana, people of Mali, they, too, have very complex rite-of-passage ceremonies.

The mask pictured is an N'tomo mask, which has been described by Goldwater (1960) as "among the most interesting of the Bambara [or Bamana] masks". These masks typically feature distinguishing features such as an oval-shaped human face surmounted by a high comb of vertical spikes or horns.

According to the Pacific Lutheran University, the Bamana are a large and powerful ethnic group in Mali, West Africa. The Bamana people are a subgroup of the Mande, which is a family of ethnic groups in Western Africa who speak any of the many related Mande languages of the region.

Various Mande groups are found in Benin, Burkina Faso, CÙte d'Ivoire, Chad, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone.

Within the Bamana people, both Islamic and traditional religious views are entwined in that Bamana culture. The political structure is patrilineal, meaning that positions are inherited and handed down through the male side of the family. Political leaders also control the group's religious arrangement.




Adulthood is earned through the process of six major initiation societies, collectively called the 'jow', which are used as both a religious and educational system. These major initiation societies all have their own mask. It is also important to note that initiation for men lasts for seven years and ends with their symbolic death and their rebirth.

Nearly every Bambara man had to pass through these societies in succession, until, upon reaching the highest rank, he had acquired a comprehensive knowledge of ancestral traditions. These societies are the 'jo', 'n'tomo', 'kore', 'komo', 'tji wara' and 'gwan'. All of these societies teach different aspects of Bambara culture. At the end of their initiation, all men are able to marry and start their role in adulthood, while Bamana females go through just one initiation society.

The ntomo society is a five-year period for uncircumcised boys and the first society of the six they go through to become recognised as men. Within the ntomo society, boys are taught to accept discipline and endure hardship quietly, which includes ritual flagellation sessions in complete silence. This experience is reflected in the ntomo society's masks, which have small, discreet mouths or no mouth at all. Mask dancers also carry whips with them, which relates to ritual flagellation. Silence is also taught as the lesson of keeping secrets. They even have a well-known song throughout the Bamana culture:

Aw ye a gweleya aw daw la, da de jugu ye

'Close your mouth firmly, close your mouth; the mouth is the enemy'

This saying is expressed in the mask pictured as the mask has very small lips and large ears, which highlights the need for control of speech and silence.

The last event for a member in this society is circumcision, which is believed to be the physical destruction of childhood androgyny. The Bamana believe that the male foreskin is feminine and its removal allows a boy to mature into a man.

This belief is also reflected in their masks. The number of horns on a mask indicates the gender of the dancer's role: females are represented by four or eight horns; males are represented by three or six horns; and androgyny is represented by two, five, or seven horns. The mask pictured here has five horns, which, according to Cosgrove, are believed to signify the "need for man to work in order to live", which is just one aspect of human creation, according to the Bambara people.

This mask was acquired along with approximately 659 objects by the Institute of Jamaica from former Venezuelan Ambassador to Jamaica Ottmaro Silva in 1970.

Sources: Bamana Mask. Pacific Lutheran University.

Cosgrove, A. (2018). N'tomo (Ancestor Mask).

Hackett, R. (1996). Art and Religion in Africa. Wellington House, 125 Strand London, WC2R OBB.

N'tomo Mask. The Met. Tribal African Art. Bambara, Mali.

Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica