Festivals of Africa: all you need to know

KATHERINE ATKINSON

Festivals are an important part of any culture, not only in Africa, but worldwide. “All over the world people are going back to culture as a way to identify themselves,” says Dr Fraser McNeill, a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Pretoria. As South Africans, it is important to understand other African cultures and festivals “because they teach difference” and encourage “ethnonationalism,” says Dr McNeill. While ethnonationalism is important, it can be potentially dangerous because of the divide it creates among different groups of people. Dr McNeill notes that “every one of these nationalisms is underpinned by an idea of tradition and culture, so these festivals are a celebration of that.” The following are some festivals which take place in Africa:

 

Festima
Every other year, many countries in West Africa such as Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso celebrate Festima. This is the largest international Art and Mask festival in West Africa. Al Jazeera reports that during this festival there is a mask wearer who frantically dances to music. This allows for the mask wearer to transform into a spirit who can communicate with ancestors. Dr McNeill says that worshiping ancestors “is extremely important” as “you can communicate with them, they can define your destiny, they can help you out of trouble” and you can “blame” them when things go wrong. Dr McNeill notes that ancestral worship is not “weirdly ‘African’” and uses the example of Christians praying to God or Catholics praying to saints for blessings to emphasise this.

Apart from ancestral communication, the masks play a vital role “during commemorations of rites and the cycle of life,” says Al Jazeera. The masks are made of leaves, straw, wood and textile. This biennial festival last took place in the town of Dedougou, Burkina Faso from 26 February to 5 March 2016.

 

The Gerewol Festival, Niger
During the Gerewol Festival, the Wodaabe men of Niger elaborately decorate themselves and dance for women so that they may be chosen as a woman’s lover, says BBC. Although this seems like a reversal of Western ideals, which dictates that women must dress-up for men, Dr McNeill says that this performance is “probably parody.” He elaborates and says that if Niger were a “matriarchal society then [the performance] might be reflective of the truth” but he is sure that Niger is “a largely patriarchal society.” This means that this performance could be some form of “political critique,” says Dr McNeill.

BBC says that the men beautify themselves by coating their faces with red ochre, wearing black lipstick and black eyeliner and drawing a white line along their nose to make it appear streamline. Additionally the men wear ostrich plumes and pompoms to emphasise height, as well as braids and cowrie shells to symbolise fertility. Apart from attire, dance is a vital aspect of the festival. Afro Tourism states that “several dance routines [take] place with the men standing shoulder to shoulder and moving around slowly in a circle.” The women may then choose the man she is interested in by tapping him on the shoulder.

 

Timkat, Ethiopia
According to The Guardian, Timkat is an Orthodox Christian celebration of Epiphany in Ethiopia. Timkat remembers the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. “Tabots” or models of the Ark of the Covenant are paraded through the streets. The “tabots” make their way from the churches of Gondar to Fasilides Bath, a swimming pool filled for the festival.

 

Voodoo Festival, Benin
The Voodoo Festival commemorates Benin’s religion of Voodoo, which has been the country’s official religion since 1990, says CNN. The annual festival takes place in the city of Ouidah on 10 January and is said to be Benin’s most colourful and vibrant event. Not only does it include voodoo dolls and dancing, but also drinking, especially the drinking of gin. CNN says that the festival starts with a priest slaughtering a goat in honour of the spirits.

Dr McNeill notes that the Voodoo religion carries a “negative weight” to it because of “inherent racism […] reflected in media,” however, it is actually “about creating spiritual harmony.” CNN says that the Voodoo religion believes that there is “one supreme being and other lesser divine beings, and that the world of the living and the world of the dead are intertwined”.

 

Homowo Festival, Ghana
Homowo, which translates to ‘hooted at hunger,’ is a harvest festival celebrated by the people of Ga from the “Greater Accra Region of Ghana,” says GhanaWeb. This festival commemorates the abundant harvest that was yielded after a mass famine occurred when the Ga people migrated to Accra. During the festival, the Ga people sprinkle a dish called “Kpokpoi” as an offering to their gods and ancestors for spiritual protection over the crops. Dr McNeill says that offerings are hugely important because “if you believe in these things then you have to take them seriously. You don’t want to offend a potential deity that could ruin your crops.” Furthermore, Dr McNeill says that within “any organised religion the concept of offerings is hugely important.” He draws parallels between offerings in African culture to tithing in Christian churches.

A month before the Homowo festival takes place, millet seeds are sown by priests and a ban on all noise-making in the region is instilled. However, during the festival there are vibrant displays of singing, dancing and drumming.

 

Image: robertharding.com

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