Makonde people


Makonde / Maconde

The Makonde are an ethnic group in southeast Tanzania, northern Mozambique, and Kenya.

The Makonde developed their culture on the Mueda Plateau in Mozambique. At present they live throughout Tanzania and Mozambique, and have a small presence in Kenya.

The Makonde population in Tanzania was estimated in 2001 to be 1,140,000, and the 1997 census in Mozambique put the Makonde population in that country at 233,358, for an estimated total of 1,373,358.

The ethnic group is roughly divided by the Ruvuma River; members of the group in Tanzania are referred to as the Makonde, and those in Mozambique as the Maconde. The two groups have developed separate languages over time but share a common origin and culture.

Makonde people Map

.In Kenya, a group of 300 Makonde people trekked from Kwale to Nairobi. The group was accompanied by human right activists and other human rights supportive stakeholders. They headed to the State House in Nairobi to persuade the President to push their recognition as Kenyan citizens. President Kenyatta gave them a warm welcome. After a well-prepared meal on Thursday 13 October 2016, the President ordered the relevant ministry to give the A-Makonde identity cards by December 2016.



They speak Makonde, also known as ChiMakonde, a Bantu language closely related to Yao. Many speak other languages such as English in Tanzania, Portuguese in Mozambique, and Swahili and Makua in both countries.

Makonde people


The Makonde successfully resisted predation by African, Arab, and European slavers. They did not fall under colonial power until the 1920s. During the 1960s the revolution which drove the Portuguese out of Mozambique was launched from the Makonde homeland of the Mueda Plateau. For a time the revolutionary movement FRELIMO derived some of its financial support from the sale of Makonde carvings, and the group became the backbone of the revolutionary movement. The Maconde of Mozambique, due to their role in the resistance to Portuguese colonial rule, remain an influential group in the politics of the country.

They speak Makonde, also known as ChiMakonde, a Bantu language closely related to Yao. Many speak other languages such as English in Tanzania, Portuguese in Mozambique, and Swahili and Makua in both countries. The Makonde are traditionally a matrilineal society where children and inheritances belong to women, and husbands move into the village of their wives. Their traditional religion is an animistic form of ancestor worship and still continues, although Makonde of Tanzania are nominally Muslim and those of Mozambique are Catholic or Muslim. In Makonde rituals, when a girl becomes a woman, Muidini is the best dancer out of the group of girls undergoing the rituals.

The Makonde are best known for their wood carvings, primarily made of blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon, or mpingo), and their observances of puberty rites.



Most Makonde are farmers; they practice what is called “stump cultivation.” In this stumps are left in fields to provide support for vines and to prevent erosion.  Makonde usually cultivate a few fields while leaving several fallow to replenish themselves.  The men are also taught to hunt.  Some Makonde men are blacksmiths and carvers; they sell their work to tourists and art dealers.

The Makonde also have two main cash crops.  The first is cashews which falls to the ground when ripe so it only has to be planted and harvested. There is also sisal which is a fiber that makes rope and twine.  Some Makonde work on sisal and cashew plantations and do not have land.  These cash crops have introduced private property into Makonde society.  With this the power of the village elder (mkulungwa), who controlled the land,  has been weakened.  The introduction of taxes has also changed Makonde society.  By being forced to pay money many Makonde have had to work on plantations for low wages.



The Makonde are a matrilineal society which means that they trace their family line through their mother.  Because of this men go to live in the village of their wife’s family.  Many men have several wives and this causes them to move between different villages.  However Makonde culture is increasingly male dominated as they become wage earners in towns and cities.  This change has lessened the balance of power and caused, among other things, women to move to the villages of the men.

Each Makonde group consists of several clans, which in turn consist of several extended families.The most important man of the family used to be the njomba, the elder brother of the mother. Clans are headed by a chief who is appointed by his predecessor who normally chooses his sister’s son called mwipwawe.

Currently there are no chiefs among the Makonde and people are under the authority of their  kinship group or litawa.  The mwenyekaya is the head of the litawa.  The chirambo is an organizational unit based more on geography than kinship.  The chirambo is usually lead by an elder (mkulungwa) of one of the first migrant kinship groups to the area.  The mkulungwa is held in high esteem for his wisdom but he has little formal authority.   Some of his jobs include allotting land to migrants, offering advise, or securing the village health by appeasing the spirits and ancestors.


Passage of rites

Boy’s initiation (jando)which includes circumcision, is the most important ceremony for boys.  The leader of this ceremony is called the mkukomela, or the Hammerer; he holds the basket (cihelo) with the sacred medicines, carries a swatter (mcila), and wears charms (ihiridi) on his upper arm.  This is a well paid professional position.

An important fire is lit in the middle of the village which is expected to burn during the whole ceremony.  Drummers provide the beat for dancing before the ceremony.  On the day of the circumcision the boys are taken out in the country side to have the operation; afterward they live under a shelter (likumbi). During the healing process the boys are taught by the men about hunting, farming, and sex; they are also  They are taught community morals like respecting their elders.  This ceremony tests the youth’s discipline and obedience.  After the boys heal they leave the likumbi and burn it down with the fire from the village center.  Upon graduation the boys receive a new name and become men.

The girls initiation (ciputu) is less formal.  A female elder instructs the young women and chooses a house to conduct ceremony.  Young girls are taken into the initiation house for several days of instruction, singing and other activities.  After this the girls are led home by their mothers for a period of seclusion.  Then they are taken back to the ciputu house to be bathed.  On the next morning the girls leave the house for final instruction on sex, marriage, and women’s duties.  At graduation they are anointed with oil, dressed in new clothes, and return home.  The process is completed with a special mdimu dance.  The age of this ceremony was around 10-12 but today women are choosing education before early marriage.

The mapiko mask dance is an important element in these are other important Makonde ceremonies. They are worn by men who dance to display their power and to scare women and children.  During the boys initiation ceremony the mapiko dancer reveals his identity to the boys; in this the dancer symbolically reveals the secretes of manhood.



In matrilineal Makonde society, female lineages owned the land. When a man married, he went to live on the land that belongs to the wife`s family, or moves between the households of several wives. These means Makonde people practices polygynous and single marriages.

Currently, the Makonde men have stopped going to live on their wife`s family land as they have become wage earners. Woman`s family now receives a form of dowry called "paying the rifle" for their daughters in a case of possible marriage

Makonde art

Makonde art can be subdivided into different areas. The Makonde traditionally carve household objects, figures and masks. After the 1930s, the Portuguese colonizers and other missionaries arrived at the Makonde plateau. They immediately showed great interest and fascination for the Makonde wood carvings and began to order different pieces, from religious to political “eminences.” The Makonde sculptors, after noticing such interest, decided to carve the new pieces using pau-preto (ebony wood, Diospyros ebenum) and pau-rosa (Swartzia spp.) instead of the soft and non long-lasting wood they had used before. This first contact with the Western culture can be considered to be the first introduction of the classical European style into the traditional Makonde style. Since the 1950s years the so-called Modern Makonde Art has been developed. An essential step was the turning to abstract figures, mostly spirits, Shetani, that play a special role. This shetani style originated in the early 1950s by master carver Samaki Likankoa, whose patron Mohamed Peera, an art curator in Tanzania played an instrumental and decisive role in influencing the modern makonde art movement. Some Makonde sculptors, the best known of whom is George Lugwani, have embraced fully abstract style of carving without discernible figures. Makonde are also part of the important contemporary artists of Africa today. The most internationally acknowledged such artist was George Lilanga.

The ex libris of ritual Makonde art are the unique Mapiko masks (singular: Lipiko), which have been used in coming-of-age rituals since before contact was made with missionaries, in the 19th century. These masks are painstakingly carved from a single block of light wood (usually 'sumaumeira brava') and may represent spirits ('shetani'), ancestors, or living characters (real or idealized). The dancer wears them so that he sees through the mask's mouth and the mask faces straight when he bends forward.

Makonde art Makonde art Makonde art

Tattoo Anthropology - Dinembo: Tribal

© 2006 by Lars Krutak

Among the Bantu-speaking Makonde, tattoos were and continue to be far more elaborate than those of other indigenous peoples living in Mozambique. The resonance of tattooing tradition here can partly be attributed to the landscape in which the Makonde inhabit, a place characterized by relatively inaccessible high plateaus that deterred European and Western contact until the turn of the 20th century; and also to Makonde cosmology and myth which to this day praises the deeds, knowledge, and superior physical attributes of the "great" ancestors of the past, especially tattooed women who became god-like after death.

Traditionally, Makonde tattoos were considered as regional indicators and each tribe preferred specific motifs that were laid down in a variety of set patterns. The face and other parts of the body contained chevrons, angles, zigzag and straight lines with an occasional circle, diamond, dot, or animal figure. Today these patterns have remained largely intact since each generation of Makonde tattooists has only slightly modified their oeuvre, obeying traditional principles that guide their work. To date, the only major innovation within tattooing tradition is the technology itself; and the old triangular tattoo knife has been replaced by a finer razor-bladed model that cuts the skin more evenly and accurately.

Generally speaking, Makonde men tattoo boys and women the girls although overlap between the sexes does occur to some degree. Makonde tattoo artists are "professionals" who learn their skills usually from their parents or from other family members. The general Makonde term for tattoo is dinembo ("design" or "decoration") and the tattooing process usually requires three or more sessions with the mpundi wa dinembo ("tattoo design artist") to produce the desired result. After the cuts have been made with the traditional tattoo implements (chipopo), vegetable carbon is rubbed into the incisions producing a dark blue color.

Tattoo clients, who pay a nominal fee, are held down in a spread-eagle fashion. Just before the tattoo artist begins to ply her tool, she mentally records which designs she will mark. Moving carefully over the skin, she cuts then presses the pigment to the wound until she has finished, leaving the client to dry her wounds in the afternoon sun. After several days, the face is washed and the black lines created by the pigment now begin to show more clearly. Six months later, the entire process is repeated again, but with each successive tattoo layer, a greater relief pattern appears. Finally, a third operation is made which completes the work.

Some girls lose their courage when it is time for the second or third operation and they never complete the painful tattooing. Those who run away are ridiculed and even threatened by the woman who acts as their "godmother" during the dinembo rite, because for the Makonde the tattoo ritual is a sign of courage and "To Show I am a Makonde."

Makonde people old tattoos

Pius received his facial tattoos from his father in 1936. By 1940, his body was covered with various designs of palm trees (nadi). He became a tattoo master when he was twenty years old after apprenticing with his father for several years. Photographs © Lars Krutak

Common decorative motifs such as spiders (lidangadanga), crocodiles (nantchiwanuwe), and even yucca root bundles (nkaña) may have had magical associations in the past. And today Makonde women continue to believe that the tattoos placed on their abdomen (mankani) and inner thighs (nchika) have the supernatural power to attract a husband. Of course, the motifs used to decorate these areas, usually palm tress or their fruit (nadi) and especially lizards (magwañula), are believed to enhance fertility.

However, the Makonde practice of tattooing the navel and pubic areas was perhaps related to the long-standing tradition of prophylactic "magic" aimed at warding off penetration or possession by evil forces that targeted vulnerable body passageways, namely the natural openings of the body. Armitage (1924) cites several instances of navel scarification among Bantu-speaking Gonja and Dagomba women in Ghana "put on to ward off or prevent sickness" while the anthropologists Nevadomsky and Aisien (1995) described five tattoos stemming from the navel ("the center of life") among the Bini women of Benin. Not surprisingly, the Bini prepared their tattoo pigments from leaves and lampblack, and at funerals mourners "rub a line of lamp-black on their foreheads to scare away the spirit of the deceased who tries to drag his relatives with him to the world of the dead."

Makonde people old tattoos

“Magical” lizard tattoos were sometimes worn on the chests and backs of Makonde men and women. They were believed to enhance virility for men and fertility for women. Photographs and drawings, ca. 1955.


The Makonde adhered to a cosmology dominated by a powerful impersonal force (ntela), the propitiation of ancestral spirits (mahoka) who were sometimes good or evil, and a concept of pervasive bush spirits (nnandenga) and sorcerers who were a form of malevolence.

The spirits of ancestors were often called upon to send cures for sickness, and to ensure success in the harvest or in hunting. Mahoka also served as intermediaries between the living and Nnungu, a powerful deity who was invoked during major droughts when the Makonde collectively prayed for rain.
On the malevolent order, spirits of the dead called mapiko only terrorized women and the non-initiated, while sorcerers created invisible slaves from humans called lindandosa that were sent to the agricultural fields to work their evil magic.

Because excessive fear of death pervaded Makonde belief, its stigma had to be controlled or pre-empted because it threatened the basic assumptions of cosmic order on which society rested. Thus, every woman understood that her participation in society could provoke the negative intervention of powerful spiritual forces made manifest as mahoka, nnandenga, lindandosa, or mapiko who were the ultimate guarantors of social, physical, and economic survival. In this sense, Makonde tattoo arts were an important tool for fostering productive interaction between human beings and spirits, because it is clear that the designs repeatedly tattooed on women helped to secure their commitment to the potencies that bring forth life and to the socialization process of initiation itself. Tattoos also constructed a common visual language through which these relationships could be tangibly expressed and mediated to provide the individual wearer with a means to control her surrounding world.

Similarly, Makonde sculpture and more utilitarian objects like gourds (situmba) and water pots, which embody feminine and reproductive qualities, symbolically reinforced this commitment to order and stability because they were often decorated with tattoo designs. As "ancestral implements" used for carrying water, beer, honey, and seeds for planting, gourds were considered to be female symbols par excellence. And like the tattooed bodies of Makonde women, they acted as conduits through which symbolic meaning poured; meaning that connected the human, spiritual, and ancestral communities of the Makonde of Mozambique.



  • University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art
  • Lars Krutak / Tattoo Anthropologist