Their masks can easily be identified by their heart shaped form and concave appearance.
All the masks have a central zone, coloured in white with brown edges, sometimes with a gradation between the two.
There may be only one heart shaped mask. Sometimes a group of three masks might make up this heart shaped form, with the main slightly larger mask in the centre. Each of the three masks has the characteristic heart shaped form.
There also exist zoomorphic masks of geometric appearance that represent antelope, warthogs or gorilla. Their function is unknown.
The Kwele also have a four faced helm mask that is similar to that of their neighbours, the Fang.
The Kwele are situated to the north east of the Kota, north of the Kuyu, and the Fang are their neighbours to the west.
Social Organisation of the Kwele People
Each village was composed of a dozen or so lineages. Each lineage had at its head, a family chief who vied with the other family chiefs of lineage for the position of village chief. Also in the village, there were priests, and a peacemaker whose role it was to ensure that the competition to become chief did not turn into a confrontation. If an ensuing confrontation made life too difficult for the villagers, a lineage could always leave the village to form another one elsewhere.
The cohesion of the village depended then on the skill of the peacemaker and on the authority of the village chief. In order to reinforce this cohesion, the Kwele borrowed the ‘Bwete’ cult from their neighbours. The celebrations for this festivity lasted a week and was organised during the meeting of the main chiefs of lineage. At the start of the ritual, the men went hunting for antelope in the forest, and its flesh, garnished with medicinal herbs, was eaten at the last meal of the ceremony. Once the men had been gone for one or two days (the women and children remaining in the village), masks representing antelope, with two big horns appeared in the village and invited the women and children to dance and sing. The village really came alive when the hunters returned with the kill.
Slightly later on in the ritual, another mask called ‘Gon’ was brought out to the sound of bells. The women put their domestic animals in cages and everybody took shelter. In effect, this mask was dangerous. The mask was a reproduction of a gorilla’s head with a rounded forehead, a prognathic lower jaw and two long downward pointing teeth. The mask made its entrance; its wearer was naked and restricted by ropes held by young people from the village. Sometimes the mask escaped and killed some domestic animals with the 5 small spears that it had in its possession.
The success of this celebration was linked to several factors, notably the magical medicinal substances taken, and the exhibition of skulls of renowned and efficacious ancestors. Often, relics were borrowed from the neighbouring villages. Finally, after the gorilla ‘Gon’ mask had left, the lineages that had been attacked by the mask had to submit to the chief that had used the ‘Gon’.