Time ago, to the north of Mozambique, between the rivers of Lúrio and Messalo, ther lived a tribe that was different for carrying its own stigma, the same one that would mark them for the rest of their lives.
As time passed by, this tribe called Makonde kept cautiously moving its position to escape the age of colonialism. They searched isolated areas, and therefore emigrated to the mountains to the north.
Today this area divided by Rovuma river, the frontier between Tanzania and Mozambique, carries only one name: Makonde.
There I found people under the influence of time and evolution, transmitting to their heirs that tattooing their faces or sharpening their tooth was no longer essential.
At that moment I perceived that I was standing in front of the last generation of those who still conserve intact their oldest traditions.
Becoming a man
Pedaling the Makonde highlands, through its people I heard about their habits, which some of them, as they told me, should be abandoned according to the times.
Amuli Macheka, the territorial chief, told me with Francisco’s help (the translator) that between the males, even today the father is who takes the decision (basing on the attitudes and growth) when his son is ready to become a man.
At that point he is taken to the artisan of the tribe, who in a ceremony of initiation cuts the frenulum of his sexual organ. After that initiation the boy is sent to the wilderness, where according to tradition, he will become a man. He will stay isolated during some weeks, being only the godfather allowed to assist him daily, bringing him food and having the right upon the produce of the initiate’s hunting.
Tattoo the African way
In ancient times when the boy was sent out, he would have to stay there for a whole year. Having passed already the first 10 or 11 months, he was again visited by the artisan who went out to him. There the artisan, with his knife, would paint on his face during 15 to 20 minutes and when blood covered the boy’s face, he would rub a handful of charcoal ashes with both hands. After cleansing the face he would rub in the oil of nbalika, a local plant. During some days the initiated could not wash his face. The scars of the ceremony would leave him, for the rest of his life, an unmistaken sign… the sign of a Makonde.
Between the women, the female artisan of the tribe is the one to know them all and assists them at the time when they stop being girls. On the first menses she urges them to stay in their houses for several weeks without any contact to men. In the old times, this period of time extended, as for the boys, over one year.
During that time, she would learn from her mother everything about the female cares, as the domestic chores. They could only get outside to visit a friend who also is in the same period of preparation, but she has to cover herself completely as no man can see her.
In ancient times the female artisan would tattoo also her face marking her as a Makonde.
But they also had another distinctive sign: the girls would perforate the upper lip where a small stick was inserted, getting wider during the years. In the mature years, the face of the woman would be adorned by a piece of wood reaching to her teeth.
When I saw those pieces of wood, I couldn’t believe it: they had the size of a cork!
The time changes
Another fundamental custom in ancient times for the tribe, for both men and women, was to sharpen the teeth. The same artisan did it with a different knife as the one used for the tattoos, mostly before the moment of initiation.
Amuli underlined one time and another that those customs, the tattoos as well as the teeth, have remained in history and only the older ones remember them. “That was a difficult time, times have changed” he told me, wearing his blue suit, while he smiled and without wanting it, he showed me his sharpened teeth. “Now I whish that my children are able to go to school and grow up according to changes, so tomorrow they will be prepared” he ended.
Once our conversation was ended, I took my things and went away slowly, thoughtful. From a distance, an older lady was making signs at me and smiling. I searched my camera, placed myself and took a few shots. Afterwards I thanked her and then, without stopping to smile, she looked me at the eyes and told me: “Now… won’t you give me a tip?“