African Shields in General

Shields in social and cultural context: extract from Spring's African Arms and Armour
(p10; all references quoted by Spring are cited in the bibliography)

... any [such] reappraisal must consider the varying relationship between women and weaponry in Africa which is frequently overlooked. For example, in the kingdom of Dahomey the elite of the army was for a long period composed of women, the famous regiments of Amazons, and among the Teda of the Tibesti region of the Sahara, a variety of weaponry is made especially for use by women (Lopatinsky 1968). By contrast, many central African peoples believe that except on a few designated occasions, women should not be associated with iron or its production. To do so could render a woman barren and destroy the power of the iron products with which she comes into contact.

African weaponry has always had a non-utilitarian significance which is expressed in a wide variety of adapted forms developed for use in political, religious or other ritual and ceremonial contexts. A study of the embellishment of arms and armor can provide a fascinating insight into societies in which, for example, the distinctions between 'military' and 'civilian' life is not so obvious as it is in the West ... the Maasai warrior's curriculum vitae emblazoned on his shield all reveal far more about the societies which produced these objects than simply how they intended to make war. The terms 'parade weapon' or 'prestige weapon' are sometimes used to describe apparently non-utilitarian artefacts whose precise function or significance remains unclear... Material objects may be an expression of their owner's prestige in society, thought their precise significance may not always be obvious and may perhaps never be fully understood ... However it is clear that functional weaponry confers this quality of 'prestige', just as a non-utilitarian 'parade' weapon retains sufficient suggestion of a deadly potential to add to its significance as a prestigious artefact. A hard and fast distinction between the two may therefore be misleading...

Even within a specifically military context, an African weapon must usually be perceived as a part of a highly complex system of interdependent actions and beliefs from which it is quite inseparable. In common with certain types of wood sculpture, some weapons may only be empowered by the application of magical substances. No matter how thick the hide of a shield ... [it] may be considered incomplete without the symbolic designs and devices applied to [it]... A whole range of magical charms, both offensive and defensive, may be employed together with a variety of rituals preceding and following any military campaign. Sound may also be a potent weapons: the blowing of horns, the clatter of spear on shield ... These magico-religious and other types of weaponry are a legitimate subject for discussion.

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