During the 16th century, the Songye migrated from the Shaba area, which is now the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), and settled on the left bank of the Lualaba River, on a savannah and forest-covered plateau. Divided into numerous sub-groups, the 150,000 Songye people are governed by a central chief, the Yakitenge, whose role demands that he obey special restrictive laws such as not showing grief, not drinking in public and not shaking hands with men.
In addition, local rulers, the Sultani Ya Muti, distribute plots of land to their villagers and an influential secret society, Bwadi Bwa Kifwebe, counterbalances their power. Unlike their neighbours, the Luba, the Songye tribe is a patriarchal society in which agriculture is central to the economy.The Songye created impressive sculptures and masks used within their secret societies. They are character¬ized by powerful features, with the figures covered in paraphernalia. Regional variations can be observed owing to the large area occupied by the Songye tribe.
The most famous masks created by the Songye are worn in connection with the Bwadi Bwa Kifwebe secret society. They are called Kifwebe, which means `mask’ in the Songye language. Typically, it has a face covered with linear incisions, a square protrud¬ing mouth and a linear nose set between globular pierced eyes. It can be either masculine, if carved with a central crest (ro), or feminine if displaying a plain coiffure . The size of the crest determines the magical power of the mask. During initiation, circumcision or funeral ceremonies, a dancer will wear the mask and his body will be covered with straw. The dancer who wears the male mask will display aggressive and uncontrolled behaviour with the aim of encouraging social conformity, whereas the dancer who wears the female
mask displays more gentle and controlled movements and is assumed to be associated with reproduction ceremonies. Kifwebe mask representations also appear on other objects belonging to the Bwadi Bwa Kifwebe society — grooved shields , for example, are adorned with a central mask.
Songye fetish figures are numerous and vary in size from io to 15o cm. They are usually male and stand on a circular base, have an elongated torso framed by set-apart arms and their hands rest on their abdomen. Their enlarged head has a square or pointed chin, an open mouth and a triangular nose set between enlarged globular eyes. Strips of metal, nails or other paraphernalia are sometimes applied over the face which counteract evil spirits and aggressors and channel lightning against them. Moreover, the top of the head and the abdomen are usually hollowed to allow insertion of fetish material, Bishimba, which imbues the figure with power. A ‘specialist’, called the Nganga, then attaches magical objects such as snakeskins, feathers, metal necklaces and bracelets to the figure to enhance its power even more. Occasionally these figures are suspended for apotropaic purposes inside a house by inserting a metal rod under each arm . Large fetish figures protect entire villages and are kept in special miniature huts, while smaller ones are used to protect individuals against death and disease.