Makonde tribe initiation

The Makonde women are known for their strong and free spirit - I was very excited for this coming of age celebration of girls who have just completed their initiation into the world of women.

Bagamoyo, Tanzania

The first coming of age ceremony of the Makonde tribe I attended was in 1998. The whole village was celebrating the girls age group returning from a long initiation in a remote camp in the forest. The dancing went on all night and beyond, and the joy was great.

I then volunteered as an English teacher in a tribal art project for youth in Bagamoyo, and my whole world was slowly changing thanks for Mama Africa’s inspiration. The village of the Makonde tribe is well woven into my memories of my time there.

Twice a week we used to walk to the Makonde village for their famous dance nights. We used to hear the drums in the distance and set off. Sometimes walking in the moonlight and sometimes in complete darkness. The traditional dances of the Makonde tribe are sensual, daring and full of humor. Every time we went was an exciting experience for us all.

Much has changed since then. The dance nights have stopped long ago. Initiations have since shortened from a period of up to two years to one month, to accommodate the longest school leave. Each family celebrates the end of their daughters’ rite of passage separately. Celebrations of the whole village are no more.

And yet I was full of joy and excitement. The ceremonies continue on. It’s a lot to be thankful for.

How did I find myself at the celebration?

I get asked a lot how I get to ceremonies like this. First answer is that my mother earth takes me. A second answer is how she does it:

I had just returned to visit Bagamoyo for the first time in twenty years, and was on my way to the hotel when I noticed an old friend, Mwandale Mwanyekwa, a renowned artist in her tribe’s sculpture tradition, standing outside the gate of her house. The meeting was joyful and when I came to visit her the next day, she invited me to come that evening to a celebration of her family in honor of four daughters who had completed their initiation into femininity. 

The Makonde

The Makonde tribe, which originates in northern Mozambique, migrated into Tanzania for various reasons and few to southern Kenya as well. It is a tribe of strong free spirited people who are proud of their ancient traditions despite the changing world around.

The tribe is matrilineal, a reminder of ancient times in which all human communities were just that. This means that the lineage is traced through maternal lines, but more importantly, in matrilineal societies, women used to take central and vital roles in the community. The women of the Makonde are known for their bold spirit and independent character. Traditionally they have been the wood carving artists, an art the tribe is so famous for.

The initiation

The celebration was in honor of the four 13-14 year old daughters of the extended family which completed the coming of age initiation during the month long school holiday of December 2020.

I can’t tell you much more than that about the initiation, since it is highly secretive, and known only to the women of the tribe. The initiation is also kept secret from the men of the tribe. The men are responsible for initiating the boys into manhood, an initiation that is kept secret from the women.

Why? Because only women can truly know femininity, as only men truly know masculinity.

Women and men in tribal societies

Women and men need this sacred space, there is no desire or aspiration to share everything as in Western society. It is just as clear as the rising sun and the shining moon that women and men are two completely different worlds. Not equal, not the same, different. In my experience, this life view, which is very typical of tribal communities in general, brings with it a great deal of peace between the sexes.

So now- we celebrate!

The night starts with their women and men dance circle, spirits are high and the bold dance begins. A woman enters the circle and a man joins. The dance is very sexual and ends with a bang- a bang of the drum that is… the circle dance continues until another woman enters the circle and so on. everybody’s laughing and having fun. Even I went into the circle one time, or more like agreed to be shoved inside… Seeing a muzungu (white person) dancing got a lot of laughs and I enjoyed playing out my part over dramatically.

The women and men’s circle

After a while when the girls were almost ready, the women’s dance circle was about to start. I was invited to join to my delight. The drums were warmed up by the fire, and the dancing began.

The women’s circle dance

Now it was time for the girls to dance their first dance as women in front of their community. I can’t even start to imagine how they must have felt. Excited, terrified? Hoping they will not be called into the circle? Probably all together.

 But they were called, and they did it, of course. Step into the women’s circle just by the fire so that they can be seen by everybody. The men start to crowd around as well. Everyone are ready to celebrate the young initiated women.

The first girl enters with her head bowed. As the drums start she begins to dance with all her beauty. All around are calls of joy, love and support, now and then the women run to put gifts of money bills in the girl’s belt, and when the drums announced the end of the dance, people jump in the circle to hug and congratulate her.

First dance as an initiated young woman!

Each girl went through the same thing. Entering the circle tense and serious, and completing the dance proud and radiant, surrounded by the loving hugs of her family and her tribe’s members.

I remember myself a young woman in another tribe’s celebration in bagamoyo, can’t help but feeling a pinch in my heart – why wasn’t my womanhood celebrated this way?
This time, over twenty years later, after deepening into my own womanhood and accompanying so many other women and girls on that path, I only felt happiness. I was happy for the young girls and proud to be celebrating their blooming womanhood.

The night went on with dancing and drinking, but as I am not a Makonde I got tired and said my goodbyes…

I would like to leave you with this-

Women- can you imagine being initiated into womanhood? Taught by your mother, grandmothers, aunts, loving women neighbors and family friends all you need to know about becoming a woman?
Having so many teachers- women of different dispositions, gifts and abilities?

And men- into manhood?

The definition for a rite of passage is- a ceremonial event, existing in all historically known societies, that marks the passage from one social status to another (source).

The passage from girl to woman, the passage of birth, and the passage from woman to wise old woman.

The passage from boy to man, and the passage from man to elder.

Tribal life can show us how it used to be, it’s up to us to choose to be inspired and look for ways to bring it back to life in our families and communities.

I will share some of my ideas in another post soon. Would love to hear yours!



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Shahar gabai

Thank you Ella. Was interesting to read and beautiful to watch.
Good luck!

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About Me

Hi, I’m the Wandering Goddess.

My life in a nutshell – B.A. in anthropology, a life changing one year journey in East Africa at 26, followed by Shamanic initiation, tribal wisdom & femininity studies, then, giving in-depth workshops for women and girls, tribal storytelling to children… And at 50, coming back to my Mama Africa to bring you more inspiration on our original way of life.

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