Victoria Falls

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Rare costume restored for display

Rare costume restored for display

Rare costume restored for display

A rare ceremonial costume is restored and returned to pride of place in a Victoria Falls cultural museum.

While cataloguing and describing displays for the opening of  the Jafuta Heritage Centre at Elephant’s Walk, Victoria Falls, owner Gail van Jaarsveldt and archivist Thelma Newmarch realised that an original Makishi costume that had previously been on display had vanished.
It was found being used as a scarecrow, as the costume had fallen apart in many places and it scarcely resembled its former self. Gift Sithole took on the task of restoring the costume and constructing a frame to display it, and made many discoveries along the way.

Locally, versions of Makishi dances are seen every night at the Victoria Falls Hotel, but none of us had realised the deep spiritual significance and fascinating history behind each mask and costume. Makishi represent spirits of the ancestors during young boys’ circumcision and initiation rites. It is taboo to ask who is wearing each costume, with the dancers dressing in great secrecy and ritual.

Sithole was able to contact the leader of the local troupe, who has asked for his name not to be mentioned, to assist in restoring the costume correctly. He was amazed when he first saw the remnants, and was able to tell us that this was the costume and mask of the spirit known as Mwanaphalo. This Makishi is rarely seen, as he does not take part in the traditional parades and dances of the Mize ceremonies, so it was very unusual for a costume to be seen in public.
Instead, Mwanaphalo has the role of keeping the boys safe within the initiation camp. He is a fierce spirit that carries sticks and spears to ward off evil spirits, shown by the red eyes in the mask. During the boys’ separation from their families, Mwanaphalo will occasionally visit their home villages and dance in the houses of the boys taken by the Makishi for their initiation. He does a short energetic dance, bouncing on one stilt. If he does not return to a boy’s house, it is seen as a sign that something is wrong or that the boy has done poorly at the camp.

Our costume was in several pieces and the mask missing its fierce red eyes. The dance leader painstakingly reconstructed the costume using the traditional knotting or crocheting style unique to the Makishi. This process he kept a secret from us all, working in seclusion. The mask he restored with red cloth over the eyes and he remade gloves to cover the hands.

He explained that as costumes wear out, they are repaired and added to, so the addition of the more modern materials was acceptable. He also explained how in the past the colour red would have been obtained by staining the bark weave with blood, whilst black was created from charcoal from the blacksmith’s fire, with the white being the natural colour of the muzawu tree bark.

Once restored, the costume was to be displayed with a stick and a spear used to keep away bad spirits and the dance leader brought a traditional Makishi spear for the museum to use.
To see this beautiful and intriguing piece literally come back to life has been a most rewarding process for all involved; thanks to Sithole’s passion for authenticity that we discovered its background.

The restored costume and mask are now on display, along with a Chikuza walking stick and a choir master or master of ceremonies mask. Entrance to the centre is free and it has been wonderful that members of the Luvale tribe are coming just to see this rare costume.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 09, June 2012)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Victoria Falls

Zambezi Traveller Directory:
Elephant's Walk Shopping Village