Makishi - what is it?


The Makishi dances are performed at the end of the Mukanda, an initiation ritual for boys between the ages of six and sixteen. This ritual is celebrated by the Vaka Chiyama Cha Mukwamayi communities, to which the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people belong who live in the northwestern and western provinces of Zambia and among the peoples of Angola and Zimbabwe.

At the beginning of the dry season, the young boys leave their homes and live for one to three months at a bush camp away from their villages. The young boys' separation from the outside world is to mark their symbolic death as children. While in the initiation camp, the initiates are referred to as tundanji, who do not belong to the world of the living.

  Masked and costumed dancers representing Makishi, or the dead, arrive from the forest to instruct the young initiates in the proper codes of behavior to adopt as they enter adulthood. Dances are performed with masks painted in colourfulgeometric patterns. Today traditional characters such as the “man struck by lightening” or the “dance master” have been joined by such modern day inventions as “the engineer” or “the beer drinker.”

The Cikunza mask is usually worn by an older man with experience of the world, since he is responsible for teaching the boys the skills and knowledge they need for adult life, including hunting and issues around sex. The man takes care to disguise his appearance, so the mask is designed to cover his face while the fringe hides his neck. His body is painted and he wears a fringed skirt around his waist. When he dances he places his feet firmly apart on the ground and twirls his hips to create a fanning motion with the skirt. Cikunza sometimes carries a sword (mukwale) in his right hand and a spreading branch (citete) in his left. He uses these in the mukanda to scare off intruders to the camp because what the boys learn must remain secret.


The Cikunza character signals the beginning of the mukanda and collects the boys from their homes, leading them to a secret camp in the forest. This camp is called 'the place of dying' because it is believed that the boys 'die' and are reborn as men. There, the boys are circumcised. The main secret they learn is that the spirits are actually men wearing masks. In a solemn ceremony, they remove masks from the figures to reveal relatives, neighbours and other men from the village. The boys then swear an oath that they will never disclose this information to anyone who has not been initiated.

The rites perform several purposes. Initiation marks the entrance into the adult community. It also joins the initiate with all those who have gone before throughout the history of the group. The initiate is able to take part in the rituals of the society, to marry, and to accept a responsible role within the community. The ceremony also brings the community together for a common purpose of welcoming the young people to its midst.


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