The Makishi Masquerade

The Makishi masquerade is performed at the end of the mukanda, an initiation ritual for boys between the ages of eight and twelve. 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.  


Usually 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. The mukanda involves the circumcision of the initiates, tests of courage and lessons on their future role as men and husbands. Each initiate is assigned a specific masked character, who is with him throughout the entire process. These characters include Chisaluke,who represents a powerful and wealthy man with spiritual influence; the Mupala, the “lord” of the mukanda and protective spirit with supernatural abilities; Pwevo, a female character who represents the ideal woman and is responsible for the musical accompaniment of the rituals and dances. The Makishi is another masked character, representing the spirit of a deceased ancestor who returns to the world of the living to assist the boys.

The end of the mukanda is celebrated with a graduation ceremony called chilende. The whole village attends the Makishidance and the audience is entertained with pantomime-like artistry until the graduates re-emerge from the camp and are reintegrated as adult men into their communities and families. This ritual has an educational function of transmitting practical survival-skills as well as knowledge about nature, sexuality, religious beliefs and the social values of the community. 

In former times, the mukanda was held for several months and represented the raison d’être of the Makishi masquerade. Today, it is often reduced to one month in order to adapt to the school calendar. Together with the increasing demand for makishi dancers at social gatherings, party rallies and for tourists, this leads to the loss of the dance’s original spiritual and sacred dimension. Furthermore, this tradition faces strong opposition from Christian churches.