Accession Number



Artist Nationality

Object Creation Date
Early to mid-20th century

Medium & Support

36 13/16 in x 2 3/8 in x 2 3/16 in (93.5 cm x 6.03 cm x 5.56 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Margaret H. and Albert J. Coudron

Subject matter
This wooden staff featuring a carved human head at its finial is attributed to the Pende, who resided in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each Pende clan would have owned a muhango (plural, mihango), a staff bearing figural carvings that would be handled exclusively by the designated clan orator (ngambi) as he pleads his clan’s case in front of a tribunal overseeing legal disputes. Here, the image of the human head invokes the aid of a deceased clan ancestor’s spirit as well as his memory of legal precedent. The snake, seen crawling upward from the lower end of the staff, links the subterrestrial with the terrestrial, the dead with the living.
While speaking, the orator would grasp the staff by the carved finial on top and plant it in the ground in front of the tribunal. The staffs would be left there until a decision had been reached; the verdict would be communicated by rubbing white chalk on the “winning” staff. Staffs were sometimes also sprinkled with goat’s blood and palm wine by the victorious party. Upon the orator’s death, the staff would temporarily be placed in the granary of a young woman and would then be transferred to a newly appointed speaker in an elaborate ceremony. The staff, therefore, was the symbol of the orator’s authority and status, par excellence.  

Because the Pende believed that orators’ staffs were imbued with formidable, spiritual powers, Catholic missionaries viewed them as subversive and disposed many of them in the Kwilu River during the 1940s and 50s.

De Soushberghe, Leon. L’art pende. Académie royale de Belgique. 1959 
De Sousberghe, Leon. Deux palabres d’esclave chez les Pende. 1960.
Roy, Christopher. “Staff.”

Physical Description
This curved wooden Pende staff features a finial depicting a human head bearing simple facial features and a cap-like coiffure composed of vertical lines. The staff’s handle is in the shape of a narrow loop that connects the front of the figure’s head to the back of its head. A slender serpent carved with a snake-skin pattern slithers upwards from the lower end of the staff.

Primary Object Classification
Wood and Woodcarving

Primary Object Type

Additional Object Classification(s)

Collection Area

If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form. Keywords
Serpentes (suborder)
spirits (beings)
staffs (walking sticks)
symbols of office or status

& Author Notes

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