319. Bw-10 Bwami Society hat buttons, mussel shells Lega DRC

The Lega live in the rain forests of the eastern Congo region. They comprise numerous subgroups that are collectively linked through Bwami, an adult association that serves as the political, social, economic, religious and moral authority of Lega society. Bwami is divided into a hierarchy of five grades for men and three for women. At each level, members of that and higher grades school candidates in the knowledge and wisdom appropriate for that particular level. At the close of initiation, new members are presented with their insignias, including hats. Hats decorated with cowrie shells and elephant tails were probably worn by men who have reached kindi, the highest level of Bwami. The hat can be worn as part of daily attire or on special occasions. The materials from which a hat is made as well as the objects that are attached to it signify a Bwami member's position within the association. Cowrie shells, for example, which were once used as a form of currency, signify wealth. An elephant's tail symbolizes the animal's great strength. During certain kindi rituals, an initiate's wife may wear his hat while carrying her own. Buttons, which began to replace cowrie shells in the 1940s, cover the hats worn by women who reach the highest level of Bwami. A woman wears such a hat on special occasions and as part of her everyday attire.

 
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