Nkondi or Nkonde nail fetish
(The plural form is minkondi and minkisi)
Nkondi (plural minkondi, zinkondi or nkondi with mi-concords, according to dialect) religious objects, frequently called “nail fetishes” because users often hammered nails into them, made by the Kongo people of West Central Africa. Nkondi are a subclass of minkisi that are considered aggressive. The name nkondi derives from the verb -konda, meaning “to hunt” and thus nkondi means “hunter” because they can hunt down and attack wrong-doers or witches, or in some cases, also enemies.
Fetishes were protective figures used by individuals, families, or whole communities to destroy or weaken
evil spirits, prevent or cure illnesses, repel bad deeds, solemnize contracts or oath-taking, and decide
arguments. A diviner or holy person would activate the statue, using magical substances. Fetishes gained
power and were effective because people believed in them.
The nkondi are the most powerful of the nkisi. They were used to identify and hunt down unknown
wrongdoers such as thieves, and people who were believed to cause sickness or death by occult means.
They were also used to punish people who swore false oaths and villages which broke treaties. To inspire
the nkondi to action, it was both invoked and provoked. Invocations, in bloodthirsty language, encouraged
it to punish the guilty party. It would also be provoked by having gunpowder exploded in front of it, and
having nails hammered into it. They were also used to literally “hammer out agreements”…with clear
implications as to what would happen to people who broke the agreements.
The primary function of a nkondi is be the home of a spirit which can travel out from its base, hunt down and harm other people. Many nkondi were publicly held and were used to affirm oaths, or to protect villages and other locations from witches or evildoers. This is achieved by enlisting spiritual power through getting them to inhabit minkisi like nkondi.
The vocabulary of nkondi has connections with Kongo conceptions of witchcraft which are anchored in the belief that it is possible for humans to enroll spiritual forces to inflict harm on others through cursing them or causing them to have bad luck, accidents or sickness. A frequently used expression for hammering in the nails into a nkondi is “koma nloka” (to attach or hammer in a curse) derives from two roots, both ancient in Bantu linguistic history, *-kom- which includes hammering in its semantic field, and *-dog- which involves witchcraft and cursing. ”Kindoki” a term derived from the same root is widely associated with witchcraft, or effecting curses against others, but in fact refers to any action intended to enlist spirits to harm others. If exercised privately for selfish ends, the use of this power is condemned as witchcraft, but if the power is used publicly by political leaders, or as a protective measure by innocent people, however, it is not considered witchcraft.
Nkondi, like other minkisi, are constructed by religious specialists, called nganga (plural nganga, also zinganga and banganga according to dialect). The nganga gathers materials, called nlongo(plural bilongo, milongo, or concord with mi-), which when assembled, will become the home of a spirit. Often these materials include a carved human figure into which the other bilongo are placed. The nganga then either becomes possessed with the spirit or places the finished nkondi in a graveyard or other place where spirits frequent. Once it is charged, the nkondi can then be handed over to the client. According to Kongo testimony of the early twentieth century, people drive nails into the figures as part of a petition for help, healing, or witness-particularly of contracts and pledges. The purpose of the nailing is to “awaken” and sometimes to “enrage” the nkisi to the task in hand.
Nkondi figures could be made in many forms, including pots or other containers, which were described and sometimes illustrated in early twentieth century Kikongo texts. but those that used human images (kiteke) were most often nailed, and thus attracted collectors’ attention and thus are better known today. Human figures ranged in size from small to life-size, and containedbilongo (singular longo often translated as “medicine”), usually hidden by resin-fixed mirrors. Nkondi in the form of wooden figures were often carved with open cavities in their bodies for these substances. The most common place for storage was the belly, though such packs are also frequently placed on the head or in pouches surrounding the neck.
In most nkondi figures the eyes and medicine pack covers were reflective glass or mirrors, used for divination. The reflective surface enabled the nkisi to see in the Other World in order to spy out its prey. Some nkondi figures were adorned with feathers. This goes along with the concept of the figures as being “of the above,” and associates them with birds of prey.
The creation and use of nkondi figures was also a very important aspect to their success. Banganga often composed the nkondi figures at the edge of the village. The village was thought of as being similar to the human body. The idea that the edge and entrances needed to be protected from evil spirits occurred in both the human body and the village. When composing the minkisi the nganga is often isolated in a hidden camp, away from the rest of the village. After the nkisi was built and the nganga had learned its proper use and the corresponding songs, he returned to the village covered in paint and behaving in a strange manner.
The unusual behavior was to illustrate the ngangas return to the land of the living. Prior to using the nkondi, the nganga recited specific invocations to awaken the nkondi and activate its powers. During their performances, banganga often painted themselves. White circles around the eyes allowed them to see beyond the physical world and see the hidden sources of evil and illness. White stripes were painted on the participants. Often the nganga was dressed similar to his nkondi. Banganga generally dressed in outfits that were vastly different than normal people. They wore ornate jewelry and often incorporated knots in their clothing. The knots were associated with a way of closing up or sealing of spiritual forces.