From boys to men – with the help of Pwevo, the ideal woman

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This blog post is special in the sense that it is a nearly direct translation of a description written for the Pwevo mask, which is part of the UNESCO collections from Zambia. The description takes us all the way from Moesgaard Museum’s exhibition ‘The Lives of the Dead’ to a secret rite de passage in Zambia, where boys become men with the crucial help of Pwevo, the ideal woman. Enjoy!

The Pwevo mask from Zambia is carved out in wood, decorated with plant fiber hair. Moesgaard Museum received the mask back in 1973. Pwevo is the name of the specific type of mask, that is also known under the names Pwo, Nalindele and Mubanda. Pwevo is a makishi, an ancestor spirit. Together with the over 100 other kinds of makishi masks, the Pwevo mask participates in the mukanda. The mukanda is both a ritual and an education and circumcision camp. Mukanda was still practiced in 2015.

Mukanda is a rite de passage in which young boys are introduced into the world of men and during which the spirits of the ancestors come to live through the makishi masks to teach the young boys good morals and acceptable behaviour, especially towards women. They also have to teach the young social and craft related skills, knowledge about sexuality, song and dance, as well as the collective historical and religious knowledge, a grown man is expected to possess. The makishis, ancestor spirits, have to furthermore protect the camp, society and the privileged and secret knowledge of men.

A part of this secret knowledge contains the origins of the makishi masks – the men from the village have made them and no women, children or uninitiated boys know how to bring the ancestors into this world through the masks. A makishi is brought to life by breaking a bottle of oil over the grave of a deceased relative and the makishi then gains the name of that specific relative. The mukanda camp itself is 6 by 9 meters and the rituals and the learning of these secret skills can take a couple of months or an entire year. For the boys, who are in school, a shorter mukanda is organized, which can be completed during a vacation from school. Mukanda takes place along the Zambezi river, close to its source in Western Zambia, Eastern Angola, as well as Southern Congo. The Mukanda is practiced by a people, who politically and culturall have been connected to the Lunda kingdom; groups who call themselves Chokwe, Luchazi, Lunda, Lwene, Mbunda, Ndembu, Ngangela, Lwimbi and Mbwela.

The Pwevo-makishi plays a central and prominent role in the mukanda ritual

Pwevo is Zambia’s most popular and well known makishi-mask. She is the original primordial woman – a femal ancestor spirit, who summises everything good, beautiful and what is right for the women. In their performance, the Pwevo-dancer shows how the ideal woman moves, speaks, looks, dances and acts, while also underlining the important role of the woman in society as the one who brings life. She is a protective spirit, who has a positive influence on those, who are being initiated and on society as a whole. In Moesgaard Museum’s exhibition The Lives of the Dead (2014-), you can see this Pwevo-mask and other versions of her together with other beautiful makishi masks, who look completely different from Pwevo.

How the Pwevo-makishi’s head and body are constructed and used

The different facial tattoos, visible on the masks, can be found today on the faces of older women in Western and Northwestern Zambia. Pwevo normally represents the mature woman. The eyes can be filled with glass from the inside, maybe to highlight the gleam in the eyes of the ancestors. The masks’ shapes varies from region to region with different sizes and shapes for eyes, different skin colours, teeth and more. Oftenly, one mask is the result of many different mask-makers creations, where each small task is taken care of by a specialist of for example hair weaving, carving of the mask or knitting the accompanying garment. Many makishi-masks are exclusively made of bark and other plant fibres and cloth. But the Pwevo masks are typically carved in wood, like this Pwevo. The hair is made as a wig which is then secured to holes along the edge of the mask. The hair is made up of weaved plant fibres, coloured with mud, ocher or like today – motor oil. The dancer can replace or change the hair and swap out the decorations after their own preferences. In that case, the mask can be much older than the hair. Some makishi masks are destroyed almost immediately following the mukanda ritual. Other masks are preserved, especially the wooden masks, which are passed from generation to generation and kept in special shrines or burited together with the dancer at his death.


A lot of attention is paid to the proper fastening of all different elements of the mask. The dancer has an assistant with him, who picks up whatever pearls or small fibers which fell off during a performance. This is crucial, as if any of the members of the audience gets hold of these pieces they would be able to create powerful medicine, which could hurt the dancer or the mukanda camp. Smart dancers spit in their masks before they put them on in order to symbolically honour the ancestor which they are about to represent. Dancers also put some white clay called pemba onto the mask’s inside for the same reason.

Some dancers look out through the eyes of the mask while dancing. Others wear the mask on their forehead and look out through the knitted fiber net which makes up the neck of the makishi. Together with the mask, a whole garment is worn, made of knitted or crocheted plant fibres or cotton. A pair of artificial breasts belong to this garment as well. They are made of wood and fastened to the garment. This is necessary because the man wearing the Pwevo and performing the dance does not have any breast. As a skirt he wears long pieces of fabric and on his feet he wears rattles. Big bundles of cloth have been tied to his hips and back with rattling objects inside to emphasise the rhytm of the dance and its movements.

The Pwevo-makishi participate in rituals of passage and political elections

The Pwevo dancer makes acrobatic dances, where he hands from poles and walks on stilts to emphasise the supernatural powers of the Pwevo. Mothers, grandmothers and sisters of the young boys, who are being initiated, participate actively in the Pwevo’s performance. They dance with her and celebrate the newly initiated by singing and giving money or alcholic drinks to the dancer. The best female dancers challenge the Pwevo dancer to test if he matches their standards. If not they can conspire to chase him out of the village and then the rest of the men would have to find new and better dancer to represent Pwevo. During the last three days of mukanda, where the newly initiated are reintroduced to society, a procession is made with all the mashiki who have been involved in the mukanda (almost a dozen ancestor spirits!). Here the female relatives of the now men are decorated with body paint and get pearls woven into their hair before dancing together with Pwevo. Pwevo dances here to underline the bond between the mukanda and the women and the transformation which the women go through as they let go of their little boys and get them back as grown men once the mukanda is finished.

Some times Pwevo performs side by side with other makishi to showcase all her positive attributes. She can dance with Ndondo, which is an ancestor spirit with the indecent behaviour of the fool; he threatens the audience with weapons, crawls around on the ground and begs for money and squeezes the women’s breast. He thereby pose a great contrast to the extraordinary well mannered Pwevo. The audience is through this dance taught about what unacceptable and acceptable behaviour is. At the end of the mukanda Pwevo performs alongside Chisaluke, which is a mature, male ancestor spirit with a leadership status. Together they visit the elderly leader in the region to ask for permission to end the activities in the camp. They bring with them gifts and beer brewed in the village. The leader will gratefully accept the gifts from the ancestor spirits and give their blessing, at which the end of the mukanda begins.

Pwevo, additionally, has the responsibility for musical accompaniments belonging to rituals and dances during the entire mukanda. Pwevo’s performances are also used as entertainment for the audience at the annual confirmation of local leaders and at electorate meetings and other political events during the national election.

//Katrine Mandrup Bach

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