Makonde passage rites, beliefs and wood carvings are closely related to each other.
The most important initiation ceremony in Makonde culture is boys circumcision. The main role is played by the Mapiko dance, where the dancer wears the Mapiko mask, the personification of the evil the boy has to fight.
Two types of masks can be used during Mapiko ritual dances: a “máscara facial”, covering the face, or a “máscara capacete”, covering the whole head. Both masks are made from wood and their shape is usually heightened and bizarre, with hair and bright colour decorations.
This dance symbolizes the return to earth of the spirit of a dead man, represented by the dancer, who comes back to scare women and children. Only men can defeat him.
As the dance plays out, another figure appears, the Mashapilo, who is an evil spirit spreading disease and desolation. The dancer embodying it dances on very high wooden stilts tied to his feet.
At the end of the ritual dance, a great fire is lit in the middle of the village, that is expected to burn during the whole ceremony. The boys are then taken out to an isolated countryside, where the operation is performed by the Mkukomela, or the “Hammerer”, who oversees the whole ceremony.
Afterwards, the circumcised boys live for several days in this area under a shelter called Likumbi.
During the healing process, the boys are taught by the men about hunting and farming, and also how to properly interact with the other members of their community, being taught notions on how to respect their elders and approaching sexual intercourse.
At the end of the healing process, the Likumbi is burnt to the ground at the centre of the village. From that moment on, the boys receive a new name and become men.
Girls initiation consists of a less formal ceremony: a female elder leads the girls in a hut, called “Ciputu,” where they are educated and taught songs and dances. At the end of this first step, they go back to their mothers’ home for a period of isolation.
After being secluded for a while they are taken back to the Ciputu hut, where they receive instructions on women’s duties, marriage and sex. At graduation, the passage rite is completed with a special dance, called Mdimu, where the girls are anointed with oil, dressed in new clothes.
The girls are now ready to get married. They perform another ritual to foster female fertility, that consists of carrying around a doll carved in wood.
Sculpture plays a major role in the legend telling of the birth of the Makonde people.
As legend has it, once upon a time, in the African woods there lived a lonely creature. One day, he saw a beautiful tree and started working on it, carving a feminine figure of peerless beauty. During the night, the sculpture, that had been left leaning against the tree, turned into a real woman. The creature and the woman fell in love and reached the river where she gave birth to a stillborn child. So, they decided to travel a little farther, where the woman delivered another stillborn child. Finally, they travelled to the plateau, the same place where the Makonde live today, and the woman gave birth to a third child, who survived. Over time he grew up to become a man, the first ancestor of the Makonde.
This myth about the origin of humankind explains the reason why female figures are the main and most frequent subject of Makonde statues.
Life, tradition and culture of Makonde people
- Makonde tattoos and body modifications
- Makonde history and migration
- Rituals, beliefs and sculptures in Makonde culture
- Makonde carving