Makonde - Introduction

I have found no information whatsoever about the Makonde community in Kenya beyond a few details I noted myself. If anyone has any further information about them, or about Makonde religion and beliefs, please get in touch. Thanks!
In this page:
Facts & Figures


Makonde woman and childThose of you who know already something about East Africa will doubtless be wondering why I've included the Makonde, who of course live in northern Mozambique and in southern Tanzania. The answer is simple: a small group of Makonde migrated to Kenya some time in the early part of the twentieth century, and have remained there ever since.
   They came to work the sisal estates between Mount Kilimanjaro and the Taita Hills, which the European colonists established on land expropriated from the Taita and Taveta people. I don't know whether they migrated voluntarily, or were brought by the colonial authorities (German or British?) as forced labour.
   The Makonde have certainly been in Kenya since 1938, when the now Greek-owned Mwatate Sisal Estate was founded.

Traditional Makonde HouseBeing Bantu-speaking agriculturalists like the Taita, relations between the two peoples were good. Despite a limited amount of intermarrying between the two peoples, the Makonde have retained their independence and many of their traditions. Their independence is a trait found even in Mozambique.

The creation of the Makonde is recounted in a myth which also explains the birth of the tradition of wood carving, for which the Makonde have become world-famous:

In the beginning, there was a male creature who lived alone in the bush. He was not a man, for he was unbathed and unshorn.
   The creature lived alone for a long time, but one day he felt very lonely. So, taking a piece of wood from a tree, he carved a female figure, and placed it upright in the sun by his dwelling. Night fell. When the sun rose again the figure came to life as a beautiful woman who became his wife. They conceived and a child was born, but it died three days later.
   "Let us move from the river to a higher place where the reeds grow," suggested the wife. This they did. Again she conceived. Again a child was born, once more surviving only three days.
   "Let us move higher still, to where the thick bush grows," the wife said. So once again they moved. A third time a child was conceived and born, this time surviving to become the first Makonde.

Makonde lipiko mask

Facts & Figures

Also known as: Maconde, Makondé, Macondé, Wa-makonde, wamakonde, wamahonde(?).

Ethnic group: Bantu-speaking

Neighbouring tribes: In Kenya: Taita, Taveta, Maasai. In Tanzania and Mozambique: Makua, Yao, Swahili, Ngoni and others

Language: Kimakonde (a Bantu language)

Population: Kenyan population unknown. I'd guess a few thousand at most. They are one of the five largest ethnic groups in Tanzania.

Location: The Makonde Plateau of northeastern Mozambique and southeastern Tanzania. Many moved to Tanzania in the 1960s-1980s to avoid the civil war. The Kenyan population is a tiny pocket of early twentieth-century immigrants, who live in the plains between the Taita Hills and Taveta, on the Tanzanian border.

Way of life: The Makonde traditionally practice slash and burn agriculture (swidden), cultivating maize, sorghum, and cassava, in addition to hunting. In Kenya, they work the sisal estates of Taita-Taveta district, lying between Mount Kilimanjaro and the Taita Hills, and presumably also have their own shambas (farms). They are world-famous for their wood carvings.

Religion: Unknown, though if their traditional independence is any indication, the majority presumably still keep their original beliefs.

References: This information has been gathered from a number of sources. The best general sources about Kenyan culture are Andrew Fedders & Cynthia Salvadori's excellent "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya" (1979: Transafrica, Nairobi), and the equally good series of booklets produced by the Consolata Fathers in Nairobi, sadly now out of print. Specific sources that have been of help in writing this site are credited where appropriate.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography