Ethiopian Flywhisk

In much of Africa, flywhisks are carried as prestige decoration items. They are used to emphasize gestures and speech.

They are often made of items that suggest status. Our flywhisk from Ethiopia is made of dyed horsehair. The horse is connected to military success. The lettering on the whisk is in Ethiopian flag colours (also used by rastifarians ) and is likely to be Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia).

The ceremonial flywhisk has been part of the regalia of the Christian Ethiopian church for many centuries. They were often used by a member of the clergy or the royalty.

Amongst the Kongo of Angola and the Shona of Zimbabwe, as with other peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, it is also an essential item in the healing process.


African headrests support the head by cradling it along the jawline, and lifting it from the ground. In some regions of central and southern Africa, headrests can be associated with dreaming and divination, they are practical in eastern Africa.

They protect intricately prepared hairstyles from dust or from becoming flattened. Hairstyles can take a very long time to create, and they indicate the wearer’s social status, age, rank, and gender. They can retain traces of their owners and use. For example, some headrests in museum collections have a dark sheen on the upper platform and sides, which happens because the wood becomes imbued with butter-based hair dressings and other materials used to create the hairstyle.

Men in East Africa use headrests when looking after animals at night. They are sometimes carried during the day as a sign of their status.

There is a great deal of variety of design in African headrests. Sometimes, they show the original forms of the tree trunks or branches which they were carved from. Usually, the head support is a slightly curved rectangle. The legs and decorations show the cultural style and artistry of the individual craftsperson.

Watch Natty Mark Samuels, founder of the African School, talk about our headrest here.

Akogo Thumb Piano

This is a Ugandan akogo. This one is made out of an old fish tin, with flattened spokes of a bicycle as the keys.

The akogo, also known as the thumb piano, is a very popular instrument from Uganda. It is made up of a series of flexible metal tongues of different lengths. It makes its sound by pairing these vibrating membranes with a small wooden chamber made of kiaat wood. Kiaat is a small tree with yellow flowers that is native to southern Africa.

Musicians play the akogo with two hands. They use their thumbs to pluck the upturned end of the metal tongues, which they usually tune to the diatonic scale of G major. In Uganda, the instrument is usually played by solo musicians. Some musicians add small metal wraps to the tongues, which makes a rattle effect as they play. The akogo is classified by musicians as a type of instrument called a lamellaphone or idiophone.

There are many variations of these types of instruments across Africa. In Zimbabwe, the instrument of the Shona peoples is the "mbira", which is another type of lamellaphone. Mbira are a family of musical instruments which are traditional to the Shona people of Zimbabwe. They have a wooden board with attached staggered metal tines. They are played by holding the instrument in the hands and plucking the tines with the thumbs, the right forefinger, and sometimes the left forefinger.

The Pitt Rivers Museum website hosts a video of a conversation with Thabo Muleya who explains the cultural significance of the mbira instrument here. He explains how the instrument was used in celebrations and community events such as harvests, rain dances, weddings and funerals, as well as being used by spiritual seers and traditional healers. Mbira players would play the instruments while seers and healers were practising. When the country was colonised, he notes that the mbira was regarded with suspicion by Christian missionaries and converts.

The playing of the mbira "went underground", resurfacing as a source of inspiration during the Zimbabwean struggle for independence up to 1980. 

Watch Natty Mark Samuels, founder of the African School, introduce our thumb piano here.


Karamojong Wrist Knife

This is an ancient wrist knife from Karamoja, north-eastern Uganda. The karamojong word for this type of knife is agul (pl. nagulya). It is used by the Tepeth tribe, a Turkana tribe which lives on the valleys of Mount Moroto, Mount Kadam and Mount Napak.

Ethiopian Christian Art

The story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a traditional subject of Ethiopian art, appears in this rendition by Janbaru Wandemu, painted in the 1950s. Recorded in the Kebra Nagast ( Glory of Kings), a literary work preserved in manuscripts from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century C.E., the story may have existed as early as the sixth century C.E. It tells of the descent of the the Ethiopian monarchs from Solomon and Makeda (the Ethiopian name for the Queen of Sheba) and of the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia.

The 44 panels, laid out according to a traditional format, progress along the horizontal rows from upper left to lower right. The story begins (panel 1) with Wainaba, the snake dragon at upper right, ruling Ethiopia. The people agree to make Angabo king if he kills this monster (2). Angabo mixes a poison (3), feeds it to his goat (4) and feeds his goat to Wainaba (6). This kills Wainaba (7), and Angabo becomes king (8–9). When Angabo dies (10), his daughter Makedda becomes queen (11).

A merchant takes perfume from Queen Makedda to King Solomon and Makedda travels to Jerusalem. King Solomon sleeps with Queen Mekadda's maid and Makedda. He gives Makedda a ring as a token of faith. Queen Mekadda gives birth to a son called Menilek. He grows up and travels to Jerusalem to see his father. Menilek brings the Ark of the Covenant back from Jerusalem and his mother crowns him and gives him the royal seal. Queen Makedda dies and Menilek sets up monuments to her in Aksum.

It was donated to the Rumble Museum by Professor Judith McKenzie from the University of Oxford.