Makishi carving

There were a number of different tribes whose areas converged on our part of western province. One of the tribes had this custom of when a number of boys in the area had reached the age when they could be admitted as men into the tribe they had to undergo a special rite of passage. The details of what happened were supposed to be very secret

There were these beings, like spirits of the ancestors - The Makishi - who were ghosts, all the women and children were scared of them.

The Makishi wore special outfits, so they didnt really look like men, yes sort of the same body shape but with big elaborate masks, the body wrapped in rough striped cloth.

They would come to the villages at night when the time was right and take all these adolescent boys off into the forest. When there the boys were lined up naked and one of the Makishi danced in front of them wielding a big knife and explaining to them that he was going to circumcise them with it. He describes the actions and the pain. But also that this was how they could prove that they were no longer children but were entitled to be considered men and warriors of the tribe. After the foul deed, secrets are revealed to the boys, or men.

Makishi poledance

They are shown that the Makishi are not ghosts but men. They are taught the secrets necessary to be a warrior of the tribe, what it is to be a man, but also they make their own Makishi costumes, and learn to do the Makishi dances and acrobatic moves. The boys and men in the camps of course have to be fed. So some of the Makishi go round the villages and demand food and other necessities from the villagers who of course are too scared to refuse. They came round the houses in the school compound and danced for gifts of food or money.

When the boys who were now full men, were ready to return to the villages, the message was sent out and a giant party organised to receive these new warriors. Food was cooked, beer brewed and musicians (drummers) gathered. We were so lucky to be invited to one of these parties.

The music was a continuous, rather monotonous drumming going on all through the night. We drank peanut beer, ate foods and some, I think, chewed certain “herbs”. The makishi came into the village and danced honestly you would not believe it, and think I am exagerrating or lying. One of the dances involved a small hemispherical hole scraped in the ground. One of the dancers comes with a long pole 3 to 4 metres, he runs, puts the end of the pole in the hole and his momentum lifts him, like a pole vaulter, but he stays up there balancing and moving around’ The people of the village are now going into like trances from the beer and the dancing, several hours of repetitive stamping to the rhythm.

It was an experience I shall never forget

*The picture with the dancer up the poles is taken from a Zambia Tourist board publication from the early 1970s *