As the fingers of globalization reach out and seep into every form of civilization on the planet, indigenous cultures are getting diluted. Africa has more than 3000 tribes that speak in excess of 2000 unique languages. Even with this kind of sociocultural diversification, many of the practices and core cultures are fading due to the constant exposure to foreign ways.
However, some cultures have weathered the western storm – using their food, art, music and divine traditions to keep them grounded to their ancestral roots. This steadfastness of the culture has birthed festivals all over the continent, showcasing the distinctive societies and ways of life of the African people.
Noteworthy festivals on the African continent
Here are 8 African festivals that do more than pique the interest of a casual observer. They grip the imagination and bathe the mother continent in a uniquely vibrant light.
1. Gerewol Festival
In other beauty pageants around the world, the women strut along the catwalk to showcase their stuff while judges score them. At the end of the rainy season in September, at the Gerewol festival at the edge of the Sahara desert in Niger, the script of the conventional beauty pageant is turned on its head.
The pastoral men of the nomadic Wodaabe tribe are the subjects of scrutiny. They paint their faces to accentuate their bright eyes and white teeth, making themselves more attractive to the female audience. It is from this Yaake dance that the women pick the men they fancy – either for a brief encounter or for marriage.
The Wodaabe culture is devoid of social stigma and, therefore, this exchange of partners is not frowned upon. A man can gain a second wife or lose his wife to another man.
Here is the beauty pageant with the men’s heads adorned in plumage and faces painted.
2. Festival of the Dhow Countries
Held annually during the first two weeks of July in Zanzibar, the Festival of the Dhow Countries seeks to elevate social and economic growth through film and other cultural activities. It is for this reason that the festival is dubbed the Zanzibar International Film Festival.
The festival was started in 1997 and showcases the arts from the dhow countries. These include the countries along the East African coast, the islands in the Indian Ocean as well as the Gulf States, Iran and India.
The dhow is a particularly significant form of transport that changed the culture at the coast of East Africa and further inland. The wind-powered sailboat brought the first Arabs to the coast and kicked off the Swahili culture – an amalgamation of the Bantu and Arab cultures – as we know it today. It is, therefore, only logical that the festival is named after the iconic sailing vessel.
Apart from music and theatre shows, the festival also offers workshops, conferences and seminars on the role of film in the development of rural areas. On the final night, the festival screens short films and also holds awards in various categories.
3. World Sango Festival
The World Sango Festival is held annually in August in honor of the Yoruba deity Sango – the god of thunder and lightning. Sango is believed to be the founder of current day Oyo State in Nigeria and is highly exalted by the Yoruba people.
According to a special report in The Economist, there are about 1.2 million Nigerians in the diaspora. The festival is a special kind of homecoming to many of these Nigerians. However, it also attracts over 20,000 people from over 42 other countries. It is no wonder, therefore, that the event is recognized by UNESCO.
The festival showcases dances and music from the Yoruba people as they praise Sango while draped in red attire – the color associated with the god. The festival is also a way for the subjects to connect with the Alaafin of Oyo, the earthly incarnation and perceived descendant of the deity.
4. Bushfire Festival
The Bushfire Festival is a melting pot of cultures over 3 days in the kingdom of eSwatini, formerly Swaziland. The music festival pulls in 20,000 people from all over the world to the small southern African nation.
Held on a family-run farm, the festival has blossomed and offers a wide variety of international, African and local music over the course of a weekend. This concoction of musical talent offered on 4 stages ensures that everyone in attendance has their tastes catered to.
The festival has partnered with numerous corporate sponsors and channeled the proceeds towards social responsibility and development of the monarchical nation.
5. Cape Town International Jazz Music Festival
Held in the last week of March or the first week of April, Africa’s grandest gathering is considered the fourth largest jazz festival in the world. For two decades, over 37,000 jazz music enthusiasts have descended annually on the southern tip of the African continent to take in the wide variety of jazz music on offer.
The festival features a star-studded lineup of musicians performing on 5 stages over 2 days. Revelers can partake in the sounds of household names in the jazz world as well as new musicians who are hoping to make a mark on the scene.
Hosted at the Cape Town International Convention Center, this festival is the largest music festival south of the Sahara.
6. International Festival of the Sahara
The International Festival of the Sahara is held in Douz in Tunisia. It was first held in 1910, mainly as a camel race by the French colonialists in the desert. Consequently, it was named the Camel Festival for those first few years.
After the country gained independence from France, the festival was preserved with then-president Habib Bourguiba encouraging the incorporation of more cultural aspects of Tunisian society. This saw the addition of desert horse racing and rabbit hunting.
The festival also showcases the North African culture through music, dance and food. The 4-day celebration of nomad life culminates in a Bedouin wedding and a poetry performance by the native poet Abdellatif Belgacem.
7. Nyege Nyege
Born out of the stifling humidity of the Ugandan rainy season of 2015, this festival has picked up steam in its bid to showcase the underground arts and music scene in East Africa and beyond.
Literally, Nyege Nyege means an uncontrollable urge to shake and dance in Luganda. It is, therefore, no surprise that there is an abundance of bubbling youthful energy every September on the shores of the source of the Nile river.
For 4 days, 200 budding musicians and some established names from across the continent and beyond jump onto the 5 stages in the Eastern city of Jinja in Uganda to whip the large crowd into a frenzy. The extended weekend festival is a microcosm of the lauded unique East African party vibe which is rife with inclusivity and sharing in the arts.
8. Festival International des Masques et des Arts
The International Festival of Masks and the Arts, FESTIMA, is held biennially in Burkina Faso in commemoration of the traditional religion and culture through African masks. The festival ropes in masks from other West African countries. Participants come from Mali, Benin, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
The festival highlights the animism that is ingrained in the cultural beliefs of the different ethnic groups. During the ceremony, participants wear masks and dance in rhythm to frantic music and drums. At this point, the masks are said to be animated by the spirits of the ancestors. For this reason, a translator usually follows the mask wearer and relays the message from the ancestors to those who are witnessing the mask dance.
Even though the majority of the West African states practice islam, they still treasure the festival because it is a significant anchor to their cultural origins.
This list does not do justice to all the cultural offerings that the continent has to offer. There are numerous festivals and events that don’t make it past the local communities who partake in them into the mainstream glare. However, these few provide a small glimpse of traditional threads that make up the rich cultural tapestry that is Africa.
Mark B. Mugaanyi has spent the last 10 years crafting content on a variety of topics including health, auto, technology and startups. Away from pounding on the QWERTY, he enjoys getting engrossed in a thick tome or getting first downs on Madden. To learn more about Mark’s freelance writing services, reach out here.