Fertility Figure

Accession Number

Fertility Figure


Object Creation Date
20th century

Medium & Support
carved wood, wire, multi-colored beads, leather, brass, and metal coins

9 5/8 in x 4 1/8 in x 3 1/8 in (24.45 cm x 10.48 cm x 7.94 cm);10 13/16 in x 3 7/16 in x 3 11/16 in (27.46 cm x 8.73 cm x 9.37 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Dr. James and Vivian Curtis

Subject matter
This object listed as made by Kirdi peoples, while most likely correct, is not without issue. “Kirdi”, meaning pagan, was the label given to the various peoples from northern Cameroon, northeastern Nigeria, and southern Chad by neighboring Fulani and Kanuri peoples because they did not practice Islam, while the latter do. The people collectively known as “Kirdi” are actually many different cultural groups with their own customs. However, due to a lack of information on where exactly this object came from, it is not possible to say with certainty which group of people created it.
This object may have been made by the Fali peoples of Cameroon, who are often labelled as ‘Kirdi’. Fertility figures were carved by a newly engaged man for his wife to be. The figure, called ham pilu, reflected the expected first child. Until the child was born, the wife would care for the figure and carry it on her back. Once the first child was born, the figure would be stored away as a family heirloom. 

It is also possible this figure was made by the Dowayo peoples of Cameroon—also called Namchi or Namji. Blacksmiths created wooden dolls for women who had trouble conceiving; the doll was then decorated with beads to resemble a newly initiated woman. As a symbol of potential motherhood, women would treat the doll as a real child until she became pregnant.

References Cited:
Cameron, Elisabeth L. 1997. “In Search of Children: Dolls and Agency in Africa.” African Arts, Vol. 30, No. 2: pp. 18-33, 93.
Gebauer, Paul. 1979. Art of Cameroon. Portland, Or.: Portland Art Museum.
Lembezat, Bertrand. 1961. Les populations païennes du Nord-Cameroun et de l'Adamaoua. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Lembezat, Bertrand. 1952. Mukulehe; un clan montagnard du Nord-Cameroun; coutumes, rites, croyances. Paris: Berger-Levrault.
Northern, Tamara. 1984. The Art of Cameroon. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
Page, Donna. 2007. A Cameroon World. New York: QCC Art Gallery Press.

Physical Description
Wooden columnar figure wrapped in alternating black and red wire. The top of the figure is wrapped in wire and decorated with leather strands of white beads and a 1946 coin. The limbs are formed by strands of green and red seed beads terminating in large white beads.  

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type

Collection Area

If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit http://umma.umich.edu/request-image for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form. Keywords
children (people by age group)
families (kinship groups)
women (female humans)

& Author Notes

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