If I Had a Hammer

Lesson Plan


Children will explore what it feels like to hammer. They will then look at and talk about the Nkisi and all of the metal pieces hammered into the sculpture.

Intended Age Group

Early childhood (ages 3-5)

Length of Lesson

One 30 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • hold and use a plastic hammer/mallet to hit an object;
  • count to at least five; and
  • identify that the Nkisi is made of wood with metal pieces hammered into it.


  1. Warm-up: Have children hammer pegs into a toy work bench if you have one; if not, have the children use soft plastic mallets to hammer colored dots drawn on a piece of paper. Ask the children: What does it feel like to hammer? Does it make music?
  2. Show them the picture of the Nkisi Nkondi. Ask them what they see (notice the human figure and face, the colors of the wood, the metal pieces, the termite damage). Ask the children: How do you think the metal pieces were put into the figure? How are they different from what you hammered?
  3. Help the children count as many metal pieces as they can in the figure. As you count, have each child take a turn putting a dried piece of macaroni/bean into the can for each piece counted.
  4. Find something in the classroom shaped like the metal pieces and something made of metal. Use the plastic mallets to tap something made of wood and something made of metal. Compare the sounds they make.


  • Plastic hammer/mallet
  • 11 x 17 inch paper with 2-inch drawn dots scattered around on it or toy tool bench
  • One large tin can
  • One bag of some type of dried macaroni or dried beans (depending on the ages of your students)
  • About the Art section on the Nkisi Nkondi (included with the lesson plan)
  • One color copy of the sculpture for every four children, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening

21st Century Skills

  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Nkisi Nkondi

Nkisi Nkondi


Artist not known, Democratic Republic of Congo

Who Made It?

This sculpture comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. We do not know the name of the sculptor who carved this particular object. An nkisi [en-KEE-see] is the result of a collaboration between a sculptor and an nganga [en-GONG-ga]. An nganga is a ritual specialist, a healer, and a mediator. Upon request, a sculptor would carve an nkisi in the form of a man, woman, or animal. Whatever the form, it is crucial that the figure suggests aggressiveness. Protruding tongue, hands on hips, wide eyes, and an open mouth are common aggressive details used by sculptors. Once the sculpture was completed, the nganga performed rituals and attached objects to enhance the nkisi’s power.

What Inspired It?

This nkisi is a device, record keeper, or tool for dealing with social issues. Minkisi (plural) have both public and private functions. Historically, they were used by individuals, families, or whole communities to destroy or weaken harmful forces, prevent or cure illnesses, ward off bad deeds, solidify contracts or oaths, and resolve arguments. Nkisi are intended to create a frightening effect; it is the sculptor’s job to create an image that implies force.

Ritual experts, or nganga, mediated between conflicting parties and aided individuals seeking help. In the case of a dispute, a representative from each side of the conflict would hammer a piece of metal into the nkisi figure. In disputes over land, for example, sealing an oath by hammering a nail into the nkisi would be sufficient to secure the land for generations. Contracts and personal vows could also be confirmed in this manner. A person’s word was sealed by attaching a personal item, usually drawn from their body—a piece of cloth, hair, or even saliva—to the nail or blade before it was hammered into the figure. Each party is then bound to honor the terms of the agreement. Nganga would memorize the circumstances attached to each nail and blade. In cases where an nganga was asked to cancel a vow, it was crucial not to remove the wrong nail, since each nail concealed an oath or agreement.



This figure is carved from wood that now appears to have some termite damage, particularly on the body. There are very faint traces of color on the face in black, white, and yellow. Thin lines have been carved above the eyes to form eyebrows.


In general, minkisi vary in size. This sculpture is about two feet tall. Smaller sculptures were owned by individuals, while life-size figures belonged to a village or community.

Male Figure
Male Figure

This nkisi is carved in the form of a male figure. Not all nkisi are male, some are carved in the form of women and others appear to be animals. The figure’s knees are bent and he is missing his arms and hands. His mouth is slightly pursed and it looks as though his eyes are closed.


Sculptures were activated by driving nails or other pieces of metal into them. The nkisi would recognize the parties involved by traces of their saliva or other personal items attached to the metal.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.