Staffs with Dual Functions

Tsonga carvers from southern and central Mozambique sometimes carved staff that doubled up as headrests. 

©Heini Schneebeli
Tsonga staff with headrest. L. 70 cm

Producing items like these required considerable skill because the carver had to be able to judge from the outset the relative weight on either end of the staff, thereby ensuring that the headrest would not tilt in one or other direction when in use.

©Heini Schneebeli
Zulu/Nguni headrest with handle. L. 52.5 cm.

Unlike Tsonga and Shona headrests which are compact and often had leather thongs attached to them for greater portability, those made by Zulu-speaking carvers tend to be heavy and bulky.

It is more than likely that the idea of portability was first introduced to present-day KwaZulu-Natal by Tsonga-speaking migrants carving household and other items for Zulu patrons. Because of the addition of a carrying handle in this example, the headrest could be strung over the shoulder, easily doubling up as a support for a bundle of clothes or foodstuffs, or both. 

©Heini Schneebeli
Staff snuff box. L. 61.5 cm

The form of this snuff container doubling up as a dance staff is extremely inventive. The round head is similar in outline to the heads found on some knobkerries, but the carver peeled the ball open to reveal two snuff pockets, one of which has an unusually shaped face carved on the side.

There as two parallel runners at the bottom of the ball to balance the leg-like projections so that the staff can stand on the ground without keeling over to one side.

©Heini Schneebeli
Snuff kerrie. L. 60 cm

Some carvers clearly took great pride in producing complex design solutions for functional artefacts. In this example, the snuff container attached to the end of the staff has been turned into a zoomorphic head form, possibly a stylised cow or an antelope.

The staff has delicately striated and cross-hatched markings, and the long shaft is elegantly twisted. The carver’s attention to detail is also evident in the addition of decorated rings at either end of the twisted shaft, marking the transition to the handle at one end of the staff, and a snuff container at the other.

By Professor Sandra Klopper