Festival: MWAKA KOGWA, Zanzibar
Settling Scores with Banana Stems!
The ushering in of a New Year in many parts of the world is often marked with great fanfare and festivities as the people look forward with excitement and great expectations that the coming year will be a lot better than the previous one. These festivals usually feature music, dancing, colorful processions of brightly adorned people and floats, and spectacular firework displays lighting up the nights. The first of January is not necessarily New Year day everywhere in the world. Different cultures and peoples celebrate New Year on days that fall within different months of the widely used and recognized Gregorian calendar. This is what the Festival MWAKA KOGWA of Zanzibar is all about.
Mwaka Kogwa: Get ready for the beating of your life!
Between July and August, is a feisty festival of Shirazi heritage that commemorates Nayrouz – the Persian New Year in Zanzibar. Historically, the Shirazis were the first set of non-Africans to settle in Zanzibar and over time aspects of their culture have been absorbed and given localized names by the native Swahilis. One of such is the Mwaka Kogwa.
Usually lasting about four days, Mwaka Kogwa festival is celebrated in most parts of Zanzibar. However, the most enthusiastic and elaborate displays of the ancient ceremony takes place in Makunduchi, a little town on the southeastern tip of Unguja (Zanzibar Island). From all over Tanzania, people flock in to see this unique celebration where the people whip each other with banana stems
Several rituals are held to ease out the old year while ushering in the new one, however the highlight and the most exciting event occurs on the first day the festival. At about 11:00hours, the action starts in Kae Kuu, a large open space in the center of town. Wielding banana stems, which have long replaced the cudgels and sticks which were used in the ancient times, a pair of brothers from the northern end will engage a southern pair in physical combat, thrashing each other.
No referees are involved in the contest, while the rules are loose and flexible. For one to be declared winner, his opponent must raise both hands in surrender. Usually, supporters of both side get involved in the contest, as it is believed that it affords everyone the chance to exorcise and purge themselves of the misgivings and acrimonies toward each other of the outgoing year. This they believe helps to usher in the New Year on a clean and fresh slate.
During the ‘combat’ which involves only the male, the women who are all nicely attired in their beautiful dresses move about the fields singing in the local dialect and taunting the men. They say things like: “If you do not buy me a piece of cloth, you don’t get to make love to me.” Although the men usually never respond, it has changed in recent times when they riposte with: “We don’t want you anymore. We prefer the city women who are available everywhere we put our foot.”
As the context draws to an end with almost all the contestants tiring out, a small pyramid shaped thatch hut is built at the eastern end of Kae Kuu. A local magician enters in and the hut is set ablaze. As the fire grows, the magician rushes out unscathed into a nearby bush, while the people extinguish the flames. This signifies that if fire breaks out in anyone’s house in the New Year, there will be no loss of life.
Banquet, Music, Dancing all Night Long…
With the day activities done, the folks go home to prepare a feast and a banquet is held in the open with everyone participating, strangers included. At evening time, Koba ground becomes the gathering spot as everyone arrives all beautifully dressed. Dancing goes on late into the night with music ranging from traditional songs to disco, while others carry the fun down to the nearby beach… Now that is something to look forward to when you touchdown in Zanzibar!