October 28, 2017

The Festival of Exodus

Image: Travel with April
Hogbetsotso festival takes place on the first Saturday of November each year, commemorating the migration of the Anlo Ewe people from Notsé town in Togo to Anloga town in Ghana. Legend has it that these folks escaped a wicked king back in the day by traversing backwards, so their footprints would be deceptive to observers that would only conclude that the people were going into town.
Image: Vindice 101
Image: N D C
Agbadza, also known as "the chicken dance." Image: JY Midey
Celebrations are marked by a peace making period, marking a new beginning and a time of harmony for the Anlo's; a purification of ceremonial stools, a general cleaning of the villages, a pageantry display by the village chiefs in colorful regalia, with villagers paying homage to them. This is also a time to see the Agbadza at its best—a music and dance routine popularized and trademarked by this group, seen in parts of Ghana, Togo and Benin.

August 31, 2016

Does South Africa's naked festival exploit young girls?


Ever heard of Umhlanga?


South Africa's Reed Dance is an eight-day annual festival in late August, early September that takes place in the royal palaces of both the kings of Swazis and the Zulus, in Ludzidzini Royal Village in Swaziland, and Nongoma, South Africa respectively. This event draws tens of thousands of virgin girls from the respective regions, as well as spectators from all over the world to the event. Umhlanga was created by a Swazi mornach back in 1940, an adaptation of a much older traditional rite from the 1800's called the Umchwasho, a traditional chastity rite for young girls. The King of Zulu land, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu adopted this tradition in 1991. Since then, it has quickly grown into a highly anticipated event with Southern Africa's dignitaries in attendance and a yearly tourist attraction.

A test for virginity?


So, the purpose of this festival is to ensure chastity before marriage which is highly regarded in the culture and as a way to fight sexually transmitted diseases, namely HIV/AIDS. The eight-day event proceeds with a number of rituals, namely, virginity testing which all unmarried and young girls must undergo to be able to participate. A highly regarded madame would be responsible for conducting this test, which is rudimental at best since there's no medical professional involved. The girls spread their legs open for a hymen check. Others include the girls traveling to the fields for reed picking. The girls must pick the strongest and the tallest reeds so not to risk them breaking, for broken reeds mean the girl has been sexually active. The reeds they must either present to the king or the queen mother during the ceremony to help repair the royal compound's perimeter. The girls would gather and bathe in a body of water the day before they present themselves to the royals.

All unmarried virgin girls are expected to participate in this, including the royal family. They are usually distinguished by their feather crowns and usually play prominent roles during the entire ceremony. During the ceremony, the girls proceed to the palace in traditional attire made of beaded tassels and pieces of cloth worn around the waist, as well as beaded neckwear, bracelets, anklets and colorful sashes. Breasts and bottoms are exposed. They dance in procession towards the palace with their reeds in tow. They may also carry the bush knives used in cutting the reeds as a symbol signifying their virginity.




Here's the head scratcher


King Goodwill Zwelithini introduced this festival to the Zulus as a way to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic by delaying sexual activity until marriage. The decades long tradition in Swaziland encouraged chastity and fostered solidarity among the women. What I'm not able to understand is why so much emphasis is placed on the women? If you happen to be curious, look up Southern Africa's virginity testing on YouTube (how about I give you a head start here?) that they conduct on girls as young as twelve. The madame performs the test with her bare hands sometimes with men looking on. What I would like to know is how this tradition averts the act of sex amongst teenagers and how an intact hymen is a sure-fire proof that a girl has not had sex. It has been reported that these girls have been known to avert failing the test by stuffing meat and lace in their vaginas. From my research on this subject the emphasis on educating boys and men on the matter of sexual abstinence is not nearly enough. While it's almost taboo for the girls to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage, it is okay for boys. While this may be effective in scaring the young girls straight, what about the violation of her privacy and the right to her own body? A girl has to be subject to such public scrutiny while a boy doesn't. What about the many incidences of rape or child sexual abuse perpetrated in higher percentages by men? In Africa, this is as high as twenty percent compared to the rest of the world. In South Africa alone a child under seven is being raped every three minutes, infants have been gang raped by men, causing the need for reconstructive surgery. A twelve year old girl is ashamed and afraid to speak up on sexual abuse. What it does at best is cause emotional turmoil for the girls that fail the test who may have to live out the rest of their lives as women scarred with the stigma of sleeping around, a lower value is placed on them, their bride price lowered, they become societal moral pariahs. 

Here's another, on the one hand, this tradition continues to enforce moral chastity while on the other hand thrives on exhibitionism when these girls are not allowed to wear any clothing as they parade themselves for the general public. The excuse to maintaining the tradition at status quo is that the tradition that exists today and that from the past is inextricably linked, it is not in their place to change it. It has been rumored that the king of Swaziland attends these events to find a bride, he's currently on wife #15.

This annual event has attracted perpetrators from across the globe who take images obtained at the festival and release to pornographic sites. 

Girls marked as virgins become the target of men infected with HIV/AIDS who think that sleeping with a virgin will cure them of the disease.

Women have long been exploited in many parts of the world in the confines of religion and tradition for their bodies, many want them covered and not to show a sliver of skin, others like this one, want full exposure, all in the name of keeping them out of trouble. 

We very much live in patriarchal societies where women continue to be viewed as properties and commodities. In the debate of men vs. women, what's good for the goose is not good for the gander.

August 24, 2016

Ethiopia's festival for women

Image by Rod Waddington

Celebrating the "tall green grass"


Ashenda, also known as Shadey festival is celebrated in Northern Ethiopia, namely the Tigray, Amhara and some parts of Eritrea regions. They commemorate this festival after Filseta—a two-week fasting observance by the orthodox church to honor the ascending of the Virgin Mary. In some regions it also honors Jehphttah's sacrifice of his only daughter. The celebration is mostly for the girls and women. Ashenda means "tall green grass." The girls traditionally collect grass along river banks, swamps, wetlands; each grass measuring at least 80-90cm in length. Merchants also sell some grass in the marketplace in preparation. The grass is made into an ensemble garment worn on top of their traditional cloth known as the Tilfi. They also adorn themselves in jewelry and their traditional hairstyle.

"Never pick your wife during Ashenda"

©Rod Waddington
The women are all gorgeous and charming during the celebration in their adornment and makeup. They swarm the men like bees who must give them money before they leave them alone. The women divide themselves in groups for the parade. They sing, dance and beat drums from the city square traveling in packs, visiting homes and collecting donations. It's like American halloween, only for women. The men know to have in their possession wads of cash. The celebration go on as long as 1 week in some parts of the region.

This time of year is especially exciting for women and young girls as they eagerly anticipate it. They get to show off and make some money. Some are of the opinion that it objectifies women. In true African fashion, there's a feast to follow a fasting observation, with dishes painstakingly prepared well in advance. There's also a coffee ceremony.

Ashenda's significance

The celebration is significant to the people of Northern Ethiopia and has gained popularity over the years attracting tourists that flock the region. Although the festival is for women and girls, the men also participate on its major days, playing admirers and bodyguards. It has religious, cultural, economic and political importance in that it fosters strong ties amongst the group and it's preserved and passed down the generations.
Image by Heejoo

August 17, 2016

A Zanzibar's new year: The Fighting Festival

Mwaka Kogwa

While many of us in the West and the regions colonized by it may be used to celebrating the New Year in January, there are many places in the world where this is not the case. Take for instance Kae Kuu, Makunduchi, Zanzibar, they celebrate the new year between July and August going by the Persian calendar, Shirazi. Mwaka Kogwa festival is a new year celebration marked by a healthy dose of whooping with banana stalk. When the Swahilis adopted this tradition by the Middle East many years ago before Islam, sticks and clubs were used. This aggressive ritual is also a cleansing one meant to settle scores, to enter the new year with a clean slate.

Mwaka Kogwa festival lasts 4 days and many rituals are performed. 2 brothers from the Southern Makunduchi engage in a whooping fight with 2 brothers from the Northern part, then it takes off from there. A winner is declared by the lifting of both arms in the air to call a truce, but since there are basically little rules and no referee, another supporter could replace the fighter and the fight continues, all which are considered healthy. While the women don't engage physically in the fight, they cheer on, singing songs about life and love. They sing songs that taunt the men and often their sex lives would depend on it. They would demand gifts. For the fight to be over, someone (or the banana stem) must tire out, this is believed to be an exorcism of all negativity that allows them to look forward to the new year with a positive light.
Other rituals include the building of a pyramid thatch hut which is set ablaze by a local spiritualist who runs out in time to a nearby bush while the onlookers put the fire out. This is believed to protect them in the event that if someone's house would catch fire, no life would be lost. They also engage in rituals that would prevent the outbreak of a disease.

The celebration culminates in a feast that's elaborate and long prepared, livestock are slaughtered for the occasion. The feast is held in the open and everyone is welcome. No one is allowed to eat alone or it's believed that one is isolated and unhappy. The women go all out for the occasion dressed in their most colorful clothes. There's music and dance that go on into the night. A new year is born.

Mwaka kogwa festival is a tourist attraction in Makunduchi, Zanzibar, enjoyed by the locals and the many tourists that flock to the area during that period of time.
Images courtesy of Things to do in Zanzibar, Afrotourism


August 10, 2016

Today in Africa

In Ghana: The Homowo Festival 

Also referred sometimes by some as Ghana's thanksgiving or passover due to some similarities - the coming together and enjoying a bountiful harvest. Homowo festival is one of the biggest cultural festivals in the West African region today.

Hundreds of years ago, during their migration to the modern day Accra, the Ga people suffered severe famine in the region due to lack of rainfall that nearly ravaged them as people. They embarked on an agricultural restoration project that would eventually yield a bountiful harvest when the region finally saw a record rainfall in which they celebrated. Homowo Festival was born. Homowo, meaning "hooting at hunger" symbolizes a triumph over hunger and an abundance. It is denoted by a homecoming, a period of song and dance following a bountiful harvest in which its reaping is enjoyed by all and marks the beginning of a New Year according to their traditional calendar.

The three month long preparation and celebration goes from May to September, with the actual festival in August. It starts with a series of rituals at the beginning of the rainy season in May when the first crops, namely millet are sown and blessed by the traditional priest in anticipation of a fruitful harvest, there's a 30-day ban of drumming, music or loud noise which is believed to provide the solitude in which the gods need to work so as not to scare away the spirits of the dead, a period of rest for the farmers and fishermen follows in which the soil is sanctified and blessed leading to the festival week, picked by the traditional high priest in August, starting on a Thursday, lasting until Sunday. Two weeks before the festival is marked by song and dance, gift exchange, remembering the dead and settling of all debts and disputes amongst the people.

Thursday of the festival week is marked by a massive return of the Ga people to their homeland from all over the world, these Soobii, or pilgrims are known as the Thursday people, they visit their respective families in preparation of Homowo day. Friday marks the celebration of twins (or triplets, etc), they are covered in clay, and dressed in white clothing to symbolize purity and the high priest blesses them. Multiple births symbolize fertility for this group and therefore Friday is an especially blessed day and folks of multiple births receive special treatment. Friday is also denoted by gift giving, Friday night, Homowo eve is denoted by the firing of guns to warn the people to remain indoors to allow the wandering of the spirits of the dead through the streets.

Homowo day, Saturday is denoted by the preparation of a special dish known as Kpekpei, made of corn meal, palm nut and fish. Everyone would share in one dish, symbolizing the forgoing of age, class and importance and the focusing on oneness. Some Kpekpei is tossed at doorposts and areas of perceived spirit presence. By some suggestions, this is where the similarities lie with the Jewish Passover. Kpekpei and the unleavened bread play similar functions, also the Ga people apply read clay on their door posts to ward off evil spirits the way the Jewish apply sacrificed blood on their door posts to keep their first born son safe. People visited various homes and are welcome regardless of their  social or financial status. The day-long celebration comes to a head during the Homowo dance, a lively and uninhibited activity symbolizing the abandonment of social constraints and class and a "hooting at hunger" as if to say "what hunger, when there's abundance?"

Some sources believe that the term "Homowo" actually means "sleeping over hunger" or fasting, There's a period of fasting just before the feast, a sanctification period if you will. The high priests undergo a period of sacred atonement to usher in the festival and the new year. Regardless of what you actually believe, one thing is sure, this remains one of the biggest festivals celebrated in Ghana today.

Further reading can be found at African Events and Cheza Nami


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