5 FANTASTIC FESTIVALS
Ghana is a country known for its traditional festivals, music and dances. Festivals are without a doubt one of the best ways to experience the rich and diverse Ghanaian culture. Most festivals take place after the harvest and their purpose is not only to give thanks to the gods, but also to showcase and celebrate the rich culture of the various ethnic groups for all to appreciate.
There are quite a number of festivals taking place throughout the year in the different regions of the country, but if we had to narrow it down, these would be the top 5 festivals we recommend you catch while in Ghana!
Make the trip to Kumasi to experience the vibrant Ashanti culture to witness the Akwasidae festival, celebrated by the Ashantis and their chiefs. In line with the Ashanti calendar, it takes place every six weeks on a Sunday, and offers a glimpse into the traditions of the Ashanti people. On this day, the Asantehene (King of Ashante) meets his subjects and subordinate chiefs in the courtyard of the Manhyia Palace. The Golden Stool is displayed at the palace grounds and the surrounding communities descend in their numbers, with much singing, drumming and dancing. The durbar, which is the climax of the activities, provides an opportunity for members of the surrounding towns and villages to have an audience with the king. This part of the celebration is particularly festive, as the king partakes in a procession, carried by his men on a palanquin to the palace grounds, where he addresses the waiting crowd. Adorned in gold jewellery and regal Kente robes, it is a spectacle you’re not likely to forget soon. This stately affair includes a colourful parade of drummers, folk dancers, horn-blowers and singers. While you are in the area, don’t forget to visit the Manhyia Museum, which showcases historic Ashanti objects including rare artefacts, traditional umbrellas, and palanquins.
To experience the rich and fascinating Ewe culture, head to the Volta region for the annual Kente festival in Agotime. Held during the month of August in the Kpetoe traditional area, it showcases the best of Ewe Kente, as well as the opportunity to witness various other cultural ceremonies and rituals. The Kente festival is a truly colourful and joyous event, and if you stay in the local vicinity leading up to the climax, (which is referred to as the durbar), you will get to experience the excitement of the build up, including the procession of local women going to fetch water at the river to bring back to the chiefs palace compound. There is even a Kente weaving competition, where weavers are judged on both speed and design. The grand finale is held at the local sports ground and is a visual delight complete with colourful umbrellas, palanquin-riding chiefs and the chance to buy yourself some authentic Ewe Kente!
KROBO MILLET FESTIVAL
The unique culture of the Krobo, who are found throughout the Eastern region, is best experienced by making a trip to the heart of Krobo land, in Odumase-Krobo. We highly recommend attending the annual Krobo Millet (Nygma) festival, due its sheer colour, vibrancy and regal atmosphere. It’s also right on our doorstep in comparison to other festivals in terms of transportation time and convenience, only two hours drive from Accra. Should you wish to only attend the final durbar day, it can easily be arranged as a day trip.
The days leading up to the climax or durbar include gatherings by the queen mothers, chiefs and other leaders to discuss important matters in the community. There is also a stool cleansing ceremony and various rituals held in honour of the ancestors, including the pouring of libations.
The culmination of the event takes place at the local grounds along with drumming, the firing of muskets and other revelry. The highlight is definitely watching the chiefs depart their compounds, carried in palanquins, along the streets before entering the public grounds to address their community and deliver messages of wisdom and inspiration. The week long event is both a social and religious celebration, to express gratitude for the harvest and to ask for blessings in the form of good health, protection from enemies and future bumper harvests. The Millet festival is a thoroughly enjoyable event, especially if you are a fan of beautiful beads, (for which the Krobo are known) which you will get to see on display, adorning the chiefs, queen mothers and spectators alike. As you are in the area, you could also include a stop at Cedi Beads if you would like to learn more about the process of how beads are made.
FETU AFAHYE FESTIVAL
Fetu Afahye is celebrated by the chiefs and communities of Cape Coast in the Central region of Ghana. The festival is celebrated on the first Saturday in the month of September each year, though preparations leading up to the festival start in the last week of August. It is said that there was once a deadly plague in the town and that the local people asked for an intervention from the gods. It is believed that the inhabitants of the town were able to overcome the plague with the help of their gods and following this turn of events, pledged to commemorate the day with this festival. Gratitude is expressed by performing various activities focusing on cleansing, based on a call from local chiefs and leaders for general cleaning to rid the community of dirt. This concept of cleansing is not only limited to the physical environment but is also viewed as a spiritual cleansing. Activities leading up to the final day consist of rituals and the pouring of libations. One such ritual is a vigil that is observed at Fosu Lagoon on the last Monday of August. Large numbers of people gather at the nearby shrine to witness the priests and priestesses of the traditional area assemble to appease the ancestors and deities with libations and offerings.
Everything culminates on the Saturday with a massive procession through the streets of the town; complete with chiefs on top of palanquins and a parade by the local inhabitants dressed in colourful outfits. There is a carnival-like atmosphere accompanied by singing and dancing. The highlight of the day is witnessing the Asafo military unit (unique to Cape Coast and surrounds) proudly displaying their traditional Asafo flags, which are visual representations of the traditional warrior organizations synonymous with the Fante ethnic group of this region.
Travel to the Tamale and then further afield to the Savannah region, Upper East and Upper West to experience the distinctive culture and traditions of the northern ethnic groups of Ghana. We found it difficult to choose just one festival from this vast region, so we decided to go with two! Our top picks are the Damba festival in November and the Feok festival in December.
The Damba festival is an ancient celebration of the Dagombas of northern Ghana (Northern Savanna, North East and Upper West regions). It is said to have arrived in Ghana from the north of Nigeria at some point around the first quarter of the 18th Century. In recent times, it has also spread to neighbouring ethnic groups such as the Mamprusis and the Gonjas. The significance of the festival is to commemorate the birthday of the Holy Prophet of Islam, Mohammed, however the celebrations serve as a glorification of the chieftaincy. Festivities take place in the third month of the Dagomba lunar calendar in accordance with the phases of the moon. The festival is comprised of 3 distinct parts: Somo Damba, Naa Damba and Belkusi Damba, falling on the 11th, 17th and 18th respectively. It is considered the most important festival amongst the Dagombas.
For the first ten days or nights after the appearance of the new crescent moon, the town becomes a hive of activity – prayers are offered to the ancestors and families visit friends and exchange gifts. An electric atmosphere starts to build in the surrounding communities. The festival is an occasion to buy new clothes and everyone gets dressed up for the celebrations. Men wear colourful, hand-woven smocks, and women wear traditional hand woven cloth around their waists, along with flashy jewellery and beautifully made-up faces.
Now that the celebrations have officially begun, important rituals and ceremonies can commence. One such ritual is the gathering of the chiefs at the palace, where a bull is slaughtered in traditional Islamic convention. Those in attendance walk or jump over the bull three times while verses from the Holy Quran are recited. After the bull is slaughtered, the meat is distributed amongst the community for feasting.
The 17th is the penultimate day, and is the most significant of the 3 days. This is when the Naa or Chiefs Damba is celebrated along with the shooting of muskets, displays of dances representing battle exploits and the singing of war cries. Chiefs in beautiful regalia, including traditional boots and pants, arrive on horseback to partake in the festivities. Even the horses are dressed up, wearing decorative fabric covering their entire bodies so that only their legs are showing. The chief and his subordinates sit on animal skins and colourful rugs, surrounded by their adoring subjects. Everyone is jubilant as they sing praises of the chieftaincy and rejoice in their rich culture. The chief gives money to the most impressive musicians as a token of his appreciation.
The atmosphere is electric with everyone wearing colourful outfits, singing and dancing along to the sounds of the drums and gonje (stringed musical instruments typical of this region of Ghana). The dance moves on display are almost hypnotic – a flurry of colourful smocks twirl, whirl and spin in a circular motion. It’s almost as if the smocks worn by performers were specifically designed for this particular dance! Members of the audience can give money to dancers they find especially entertaining.
The final day of the festivities takes place on the 18th to officially close the Damba. At the durbar grounds, the chiefs and other affluent members of the community ride in on horses. Some of the horsemen perform special dancing with their horses much to the delight of the crowds, who cheer them on excitedly. The joyous singing and dancing continues well into the night as everyone bids farewell to Damba until next time.
The Feok festival is a truly spectacular celebration of the traditional culture of the Builsa ethnic group of the Builsa Traditional Area of the Upper East Region. Held every year in the third week of December, it commemorates the bravery of the Builsa warriors in their victory over slave raiders who threatened their peace during the 19th century. Preparations commence one to two weeks prior to the grand finale or durbar day, and involve consulting the ancestors and performing traditional rituals such as the pouring of libations.
During the lead up to the big day, there are many activities in the town, such as archery competitions and educative programs for the community. The highlight of the festival is without a doubt the war dance: a re-enactment of the final battle, when the Builsa warriors defeated the slave raiders in a victorious display of prowess and bravery. Performers of the war dance wear smocks embellished with protective amulets, charms and other talisman, such as animal skins. These are believed to give them protective powers and it is said that during battles, these garments could deflect the bullets of their enemies, thus leaving them unscathed and gave them the impression of immortality. Warriors also wear horned helmets and carry bags containing bow and arrows along with wooden weapons over their shoulders. The movements demonstrated during the dance depict those of a wild buffalo ready to attack. These actions, coupled with their determined facial expressions, emphasize their unwavering dedication to protecting their people and defending their territory. Dancers do not speak or sing during the display to illustrate their concentration and mental focus. As the warriors dance, local women run beside them, cheering them on, and fanning them as they perform under the hot sun. Musicians and drummers add to the charged atmosphere and once the performance is over, the locals spill out into the surrounding streets to continue celebrating until the early hours of the next day.