OUT&ABOUT: The vibrant culture of the Makonde community

Wednesday September 20 2017

The Makonde originate from the Bantu of South-Central Africa. PHOTO| TOM MWIRARIA


I'm aboard an MV Likoni ferry crossing the profound Indian Ocean, destined for Kinondo village, Kwale County. I enjoy the cool ocean breeze.The Assistant Chief of Makongeni and an amiable administrator, Mr Mwatajiri, has arranged for me to meet a member of the Makonde community. I find him waiting for me by the roadside. If you choose a number between seven and eight and add a zero to it, you just might get this man’s age, if only a little older. He has a fringe of grey-white hair and his face is heavily lined. He greets me with a toothy smile and in flawless, coastal-spiced Swahili. We hit it off immediately.

Thomas Nguli is one of the thousands of Makondes who originated from Mozambique in the early 90's, but were never recognised as Kenyans until 2017.


Community leader Mzee Thomas Nguli. PHOTO| TOM MWIRARIA


The Makonde originate from the Bantu of South-Central Africa. They speak variants of Bantu languages: Shimakonde in Mozambique, ChiMakonde in Tanzania and Kiswahili.

As he leads me to the village, he explains to me the suffering of the Makonde who were shipped to Kenya by the colonialists.


“They treated us no better than goats. They’d rip away families by taking away their children and sending parents to work on different sisal plantations.

Many children never saw their parents ever again. We were fed only enough to keep us from starving as we laboured all day, every day. If you didn't work hard enough, they would whip your back until it was sore. If you made mistakes you were flogged and heaven help you if they caught you trying to escape.

When Kenya gained independence, we hoped to be recognised as citizens. It was a far cry from reality.

We couldn’t get education because we lacked important documents like birth certificates and national identification cards.”


In the village high street, I encounter two Westerners. Nguli tells me that visitors usually come to learn Makonde culture, others to offer compassion.

On each side is a terrace of mud baked and thatched houses. They are identical with a small window and narrow wooden door. A signature of Bantu architecture.


A little girl on the village high-street. PHOTO| TOM MWIRARIA

Some tell-tale signs of multiple-occupation. True to my hunch, a cat, a chicken, children and an elderly woman emerge from one of the crumbling huts.


More villagers emerge from the huts. Despite the conspicuous poverty, they are wearing bright faces. Nguli introduces me to each of them.


A Makonde family. PHOTO| TOM MWIRARIA

The kinship ties among the Makonde are deep. He untangles a web of kinship in the village. The Makonde are a matrilineal society. They trace their family line through the mother.


Makonde women. PHOTO| TOM MWIRARIA

Many men are polygamous and this causes them to move around villages. There are no chiefs among the Makonde. The community was under the authority of kinship group or litawa. The mwenyekaya is the head of the litawa. The Chirambo is a kinship unit. Chirambo was led by an elder (mkulungwa).


Makonde elders' seats. PHOTO| TOM MWIRARIA

The mkulungwa is esteemed for his wisdom but he has little formal authority. He secures the village health by appeasing the spirits and ancestors.


The elder later leads me to a revered keeper of Makonde legends. I’m accompanied by two more men. The younger one is an heir to age-old art. The tail end of a snaking path reveals a rickety hut. It lies in silence and isolated from the village. The only welcome is ominous howl of the wind, slowly being eaten by weather. Soon it will succumb to vagaries of nature without a witness mourn it. In the meantime, it shelters an elderly, lonely man and ironically—a plus-sized cat.

The traditional doctor is lying on a mat under the shade of a tree. Nguli introduces me as a lad with an insatiable appetite for African culture. The strong elderly man offers me such a strong handshake that it sways my small frame and makes my body tremble. Butterflies assemble at the pit of my stomach.

He exposes a top row of chisel-sharp brown teeth, then a faintly curves his lips and finally, a full blown smile. His eyes are alight, a sign of bliss and welcome. My frightful butterflies are now at peace. He introduces himself as Bilhali Samaki Likonkoa Majembe.


Samaki claims to heal human miseries such as diabetes, arthritis, asthma, infertility as well as administering potions. He says black art was very important among the Makonde. They would avoid physical confrontations with their enemies and would instead bewitch them.


Bilhali Samaki Likonkoa Majembe, a traditional healer. PHOTO| TOM MWIRARIA

The “doctor” tells me, traditionally, the Makonde people used to worship trees and plants. Plants were feared and worshipped because of their healing properties and intoxicating liquors. Alcohol graced ceremonies. A modern Makonde still holds alcohol with respect and superstitious awe. The Makonde living in Kwale are Christian and Muslim converts.


Samaki tells me that a new-born was ushered into the world with ululations, songs, dance and gifts, chiefly a chicken. A boy’s initiation (jando) includes circumcision. The leader of the ceremony is called the mkukomela. He holds the basket (cihelo) with the sacred medicines, carries a swatter (mcila), and wears charms (ihiridi) on his upper arm.


A young, married Makonde woman. PHOTO| TOM MWIRARIA

“The bride price for a Makonde girl used to be a huge roll of tobacco, animal hides or scrap metals which would be used to make utensils and weapons. The spoils would be shared amongst the elders, women getting the least” says Samaki.

On allegations of the Makonde being cannibals, he answers.

“Makonde people are not cannibals. The rumours were peddled by other communities because the graves were unmarked. The Makondes would plant grass on graves to symbolise life after death and also avoid a constant, painful reminder of the deceased so that the bereaved can heal”.


An evening dance in the village.

We return in twilight, drums are thumping, youths are performing a dance. They burst into a vibrant picture of a beautiful souls. It tingles me to move my frame though I have never been in a dance class. Dance and poetry is an important part of Makonde art. They were composed during births, circumcisions, weddings, harvest seasons and competitions.


Makonde youth engaged in community work. PHOTO| TOM MWIRARIA

The Makonde are famed as master carvers throughout Africa, and their edifices can be found in museums and tourist markets.