The Makonde are well known throughout the world for their art. They live in what is now southeast Tanzania (the Mtwara and Lindi districts) and norther Mozambique (the Cabo Delgado district). The majority of Makonde live in Tanzania (980,000) on and around the Newalla Plateau while the rest live in Mozambique (360,000) on the Mueda Plateau (see Ethnologue Report). On top of the plataeu are dense thickets from which the Makonde get their name “thicket-covered plateau” (Stoner, 9).
Migration and History
It is thought by most historians that the Makonde migrated to their current location during the 1700s and 1800s from the Ndonde area of northern Mozambique. By 1800 the Portuguese noted that the Mueda Plateau was being populated by Makonde. There are probably health reasons that led the Makonde to settle on the plateau. On the plains, especially near the Ruvuma River, there are mosquitoes that carry malaria, tsetse flies that carry sleeping sickness, and bilharzia is often in the water. There is also the threat of flooding and animal attacks near in the river. Their creation myth indicates similar reasons for their migration to the plateau.
“According to the main version of the story, a man came out of the thick bush. The man was unwashed and unshaven; he did not eat or drink very much. One day he carved a human figure from wood and set it upright in the bush. During the night, the image came to life and became a woman. The woman became the man’s wife. Together, the couple washed for the first time in the Ruvuma River.
On the bank of the river, the woman delivered a stillborn child. They traveled a little farther, whether the woman delivered another still born child. Finally, they traveled to the plateau, where the woman gave birth to a third child. That child survived. Over time, the couple had many other children on the plateau. These children became the first ancestors of the Makonde.
The father ordered his descendents to bury anyone who died in an upright position in memory of his wife. She had come alive when the wooden figure of her was set upright, and she had become the mother of all the Makonde. He also warned them against settling in the valleys and near large stream because sickness and death lived there. Each village, he said, should be at least a one-hour walk from the nearest source of wather. If they lived any closer, they would be plagued by illness and death.” (Stoner,11)
Health reasons were not the only reason for their migration. The Ngoni, a people fleeing war in Zululand, began to raid the Makonde for land and slaves. The plateau with its thick bush protected the Makonde from slavery and war.
Most contact that the Makonde had with Europeans was unpleasant. The y first came under German influence around in the 1890’s. The only sign of German presence was to collect taxes. In 1905 the Makonde were apart of the Maji-Maji Rebellion to resist German rule; in this they attacked Christian mission stations in the Lukuledi Valley, and they defended their plateau under their leader Hamadi. This rebellion was crushed in 1906.
In WWI the British took Tanzania, then called German East Africa, and renamed it Tanganika. The Makonde also resisted British rule by not paying taxes or obeying their rulers. Famine struck in 1915 during the war. Many Makonde died when they were struck by small pox and the Spanish Flu.
Another impactful event experienced by the Makonde is the Groundnut Scheme in 1947. A British official decided to mass produce peanuts in Tanzania to feed into the oil market in Britain. Many Makonde people were recruited to work on this project; they benefited some from the wages but there were drawback in crimes. They continued resistance (mostly non-violent) to British rule until Tanzania’s independence in 1964.
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.
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.
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 maks 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.
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 controled 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.
- Stoner John. The Makonde. The Heritage Library of African Peoples. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 1998.
- Annotated bibliography: focuses on art but there are also other good resources
- Annotated bibliography: non-English but discusses other important sources
- SIL detailed profile of Makonde: slrk.info/cesa2006/backgroundinfo/notes/makonde/MakondeProfile-kde.rtf
- Encyclopedia Britannica article: can access complete article by becoming member
- Makonde on Joshua Project: this site is committed to highlighting people groups around the world who have had little or no witnesses to Jesus Christ among them. I judge their information inaccurate on a few accounts.
- Makonde Wiki article
- Ethnologue Report: info on their language
- Makonde man’s website about their culture: Babelfish translation from Portuguese
- Article on Makonde Plateau in Tanzania: from Rough Guide book
- Article on Newala: from Rough Guide book; central town among Tanzanian Makonde