Published on July 9th, 2012 | by Chris Wotton0
Hit me with your banana stalk: Zanzibar’s Mwaka Kogwa festival
As destinations for wacky festivals go, the Zanzibar Archipelago of islands off east Africa’s Tanzania – itself a paradise for divers and beach bums – is pretty idyllic. But far from letting the island play host to a celebration of chilled relaxation, the Mwaka Kogwa festival in Kae Kuu, an open space in the town of Makunduchi in Zanzibar’s southeastern Unguja region, is a four-day outpour of pure aggression!
The festival takes place during the Shirazi, or Persian, new year at the end of July, and is traditionally a purification ritual which allows for the settling of old scores and means those who take part start the new year fresh and in harmony – everyone has had a chance to fight, so there are no old grudges left undealt with. The celebration arrived in the region as a result of immigration from the Middle East – particularly those from Iran, since they were the first immigrants to arrive in Tanzania on a large scale – and continues to be celebrated in this part of southern Zanzibar today.
Choose your weapon
But don’t expect things to be too violent. Nowadays it’s more of a playful affair – think gently hitting someone with banana tree stems, known locally as ‘makoa’, rather than the deadly sticks of yesteryear. In fact, this is such an amicable affair there’s not even any call for a referee! Participants can surrender just by raising both hands – but more often than not, they’ll take a fresh ‘weapon’ instead and just carry on fighting. This carries on until there are no unscathed banana palms left in the area!
This ‘fighting’ is a strictly male affair, with the women donning their best clothes and singing traditional songs about family and village life in the local dialect – plus the odd hint to their beloved about presents they ought to be buying them! The torching of a pyramid-shaped hut, made especially for the occasion and thatched from the leaves of coconut trees, signals the end of proceedings. A local magician steps into the house, which is then set alight. As the flames roar, he emerges unscathed and throws himself into the nearest bush – onlookers then extinguish the fire by throwing stones. Another traditional ritual, this is meant to ward off deaths from any house fires in the year to come.
During the festivities, a pole is wrapped in a piece of coloured muslin is placed near a large, magical rock which is said to save people from falling into a nearby well while they enjoy the celebrations. The pole pacifies the devil and the local chief, or Sheha, lies in a traditional Swahili bed in a metal-roofed hut on the other side of the rock. Meanwhile, with the fighting over, everyone returns home for an open-air banquet to which strangers are always welcomed – in fact, villagers are said to be put out if they decline an invitation! Traditional dances take place in flamboyant dress, and the party continues on the nearby beach as the coming year is well and truly ushered in.
This year’s Mwaka Kogwa festival takes place from 19th July.