Makonde woman with tatoo and labret - Photo Credits: Kaobanga
Apart from being fierce warriors and skilled wood carvers, the Makonde are famous for their traditional tribal tattoos, a symbol of the region they belong to; tattoos are painted on both the face and the body of the members of this ethnic group; motifs and patterns have mostly remained the same through time and they consist of lines, acute angles, dots, animals or plants.
The term used by the Makonde to refer to a tattoo is “dinembo”, that literally means “pattern/motif”, in fact, it is a particularly painful practice, halfway between a scarification and a tattoo.
For the Makonde the tattoo ritual is also a sign of courage to show that whoever decides to undergo this practice is “a real Makonde”, facial tattoos are particularly painful and the weakest people are sometimes buried up to their neck to prevent them from running away in front of the tattooist.
Tattoos are created by making incisions with a special tool called chipopo, these incisions are rubbed with vegetable carbon obtained from the combustion of a castor-oil plant. At the end, it is left to dry in the sun.
Once the tattoo has dried out, incisions are washed with water and greased with oil obtained again from castor-oil plant, giving the tattoo a dark blue color.
Tattoos have several purposes, depending on where they are on the body and the subjects they represent; women, for example, believe tattoos on the abdomen and thighs bear an erotic significance and the supernatural power to attract a husband.
On the other hand, palm trees and lizards are symbols of fertility, both for men and women, and are therefore a fairly common tattoo among the Makonde.
Getting a tattoo in the navel region has a magical significance. The Makonde believe this tattoo provides protection against evil spirits who could penetrate the body through any vulnerable spot.
The Makonde are also characterized by a form of body modification consisting of inserting a plate in the upper lip.
The Labret, as the lip plate is called, is made of black ebony with an upright needle piercing side to side. It passes close to the nose, a sign that the girl is of marriageable age.
It is believed that the size of the plate represents the social or economic status; the size, however, mostly depends on the mere relaxation of the skin, a sign of the need for a bigger plate.
Warriors of the past used to file their teeth to sharpen them and appear even more aggressive to enemies.
Unfortunately, these rituals are increasingly less practiced and facial tattoos are becoming extremely rare, as are the tattooists who can pass down this tradition from generation to generation.
Life, tradition and culture of Makonde people
Makonde tattoos and body modifications
Makonde history and migration
Rituals, beliefs and sculptures in Makonde culture