The Makonde or Chimakonde People


The Makonde or Chimakonde, Konde, Maconde, and Matambwe are a large ethnic group in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique. They are spilt by the Rovuma River and, in the past, devel-oped distinct cultures. They speak a Bantu language called Makonde or Chimakonde, and it is spoken by over 1.3 million people. Some Makonde moved to Kenya in the 1930s for work, and other small minorities are found in Malawi.The Makonde are closely related lin-guistically to the Makua-Lomwe peoples of northern Mozambique and the Yao of Mozambique, Tanzania, and Malawi.

The Bantu peoples arrived in the region of southern Tanzania and northern Mozam-bique as early as 500 BCE. A group called the Mashariki Bantu peoples increased food production, used metal tools, and developed livestock raising, including sheep husbandry. When they reached the Romuva River, some proceeded down the river to the coast and on to South Africa, while others moved along a western route. By 100 CE, Bantu were firmly in place along the Romuva River. Among them were the Kusi, from whom the Makonde seem to descend.

The Makonde are matrilineal farmers raising crops of millet and sorghum as well as owning cattle and goats, though livestock have never been important economically. Hunting supplements farm-ing. They never developed a central politi-cal authority and each village, managed by a headman, is independent of each other. Village headmen are selected through the principle of matrilineal descent.The Makonde are well known for their art, mainly for their wood carvings.

The Makonde make masks, figures, and decorative objects mainly from hardwood. Among the collectables of Makonde art are the lipico masks, which are very lifelike and often include human hair insets. Other objects are wooden statues generally thought to represent their ances-tors. In addition, the Makonde produce a number of other daily objects with the human face, such as combs, pipes, canes, and boxes. Makonde art has become one of their main sources of income, as their work is sought by tourists as it is by museums.

The Makonde live in an isolated area and were not contacted by Europeans until 1910. Nonetheless, they were, no doubt, contacted long before by Arab and Swahili slave dealers. Today, around 80 percent of the Makonde are Muslims of the Shafi‘i school of Sunni Islam, while the rest are Christian or cling to their ancestral religion. In Mozambique, the Makonde played a sig-nificant part in FRELIMO’s (Liberation Front of Mozambique) resistance to the Portuguese.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geogra-phy. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

“Makonde Information.” (accessed June 10, 2010).

“Makonde—Introduction.” (accessed June 10, 2010).

Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years on Independence.New York: Public Affairs, 2005.