Mark Stratton asks Jim O’Brien to share the events that best showcase the diverse heritage it’s important to celebrate
Native Eye tells me. “Africa is of course modernising, but get away from the cities and into remoter parts and you can see incredible examples of colourful local festivals and ceremonies showcasing the breathtaking diversity of this great continent”.ost people associate Africa with wildlife, and only that. This does Africa a great disservice as it’s perhaps the best place for seeing traditional cultures untainted by the homogenisation sweeping the world,” Jim O’Brien of
Access to these festivals improves year upon year as pioneering tour operators lead groups to ever remoter cultural landscapes. Using a tour operator, or the very least, a local guide, is essential for accessing cultural events that are either hard to locate or require a native-speaker to explain your presence.
When I travelled to the Gerewol in Chad recently, the nomadic Wodaabe people coalesced to perform their extraordinary courtship display in remote savannah that I would never have reached alone. But accessing local guidance is also essential to make sure you approach communities in a culturally sensitive way.
The trials and tribulations of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, where tourism has created conflict between tribes and visitors over money, and spawned unscrupulous local tour operators, is a sobering warning of this. Negatively influencing a culture with your presence must be avoided at all costs, so a sensitively planned visit that benefits the local communities can help them maintain traditional practices in an everchanging world.
We asked Jim O’Brien, who has been organising cultural holidays for twenty years, to select the ten experiences he thinks should be on everyone’s list. Here are his thoughts:
Under the spell: Ouidah Voodoo Festival (Benin, picture credit Native Eye)
During my first visit to Benin’s voodoo capital of Ouidah I saw shrines of wax doused with the blood of sacrificed chickens to invoke ancestral spirits, and I watched with mounting disbelief screaming locals chased around by masqueraded Egungun dancers. Voodoo is Benin’s state religion and every January 10th, Ouidah showcases a national celebration of voodoo. It’s an unforgettable day of dazzling costumes and exhilaratingly bizarre juju ceremonies.
Africa’s quirkiest beauty contest: Gerewol (Chad, picture credit Native Eye)
With femininely made-up faces and shiny costumes assembled by a magpie-like love of bling, the young cattle-rearing Wodaabe boys gather on the Sahel to dance and sing to woo females. The rolling whites of their eyes and brilliant shine of toothy grins through rictus lips are considered to be the very essence of male beauty. Taking place around late September, I spent a week camping in the arid grassland to enjoy Africa’s most exuberant spectacle. You will not get better photographs on any safari.
Behind the mask: Mask Dances (Cote d’Ivoire, picture credit Native Eye)
With feet tapping at the speed of pistons the Guro mask dancers gyrate frantically as the moon rises. The Zaouli mask dance tells the story of a mystical daughter called Djela Lou Zaouli, and is often performed at celebrations and funerals, always by males. It’s one of an array of masquerade dances performed in this Francophone country, that includes the magical panther dance of the Senufo people, that will captivate travellers.
The sacred ark: Timkat (Ethiopia, picture credit Shutterstock)
Processions of crucifix-bearing priests in long gilded robes bearing biblical replicas of the Ark of the Covenant illicit a collective fervour from a febrile crowd. For three-days around January 19th, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church takes its ancient unchanged tradition to the streets in a ceremony known as Timkat: celebrating the epiphany. Addis Ababa hosts the grandest celebration, yet the intensity is just as great in wonderful Lalibela, or in Axum, where it’s rumoured the original Ark resides.
Secret Society: Bwiti ritual (Gabon, picture credit Native Eye)
Once the young initiates have consumed the pulped root of the iboga shrub, they are transferred into psychedelic semi-consciousness somewhere between Earth and the spirit world. Attending a Bwiti ritual with the Fang people is a rare and intoxicating privilege in a ceremony that retains its relevance in Gabon. Bwiti syncretically fuses Christian beliefs and iboga-induced spirit beliefs that are said to have emanated from forest-dwelling pygmy societies. These day Bwiti is used in rites-of-passage ceremonies as well as for traditional healing.
Solemn Farewell: Ashanti Funeral (Ghana, picture credit Native Eye)
Bidding farewell to the deceased in the Kingdom of Ashanti is a mournful yet celebratory event drawing in the entire community to mark the passing of a life. Outsiders are usually welcome to respectfully join mourners attired in the funereal colours of red and black and to witness the elaborate rituals. Funerals proceed with complex and powerful dances, drumming, feasts and the spectacle of Ashanti chiefs shading under gigantic decorated umbrellas.
To womanhood: Dipo Initiation Ceremony (Ghana, picture credit Native Eye)
After young female initiates emerge from the women’s house fresh from learning the skills of life, they perform the symbolic Klama dance, heavily wreathed in beautifully ornate beads. By now they have achieved the transition from puberty to womanhood. Well-known in the Krobo region, this rites-of-passage initiation can be witnessed every April. Before entering the women’s house the shaven-headed girls may undergo a number of time-honoured rituals including washing their feet in goat’s blood to beseech fertility.
Ethnic groups of Northern Kenya (Kenya, picture credit Bartosz Hadyniak)
Kenya’s arid north appears a forbidding place where eking out survival seems an eternal challenge. Yet the vitality offered by its myriad ethnic tribes has fashioned a living cultural landscape like few others in Africa. Travellers are rewarded by the renowned semi-nomadic herders, the Samburu, with their distinctive red kikoi and beaded jewellery; the nomadic pastoralists, the Turkana, whose men may dye their hair with coloured soil; and the Cushitic-speaking Rendille of north-eastern Kenya, who are pastoralists that still seek the wisdom and healing of witch-doctors.
Free the spirits: Dogon mask dance (Mali, picture credit Native Eye)
Sporadic violence around the Dogon escarpment’s communities means caution is essential to visit these remarkable UNESCO World Heritage villages to experience one of Africa’s most beguiling mask dances. The Dogon don ornate wooden kanaga masks, some resembling animal’s heads with a double-barred wooden cross perched on them, to perform the ritual dance of the dama. The meaning of the dance is to set free the souls of the deceased and send them away from the village.
Bovine love: Mundari cattle camp (South Sudan, picture credit Native Eye)
For all war-ravaged South Sudan’s problems, the Nile-dwelling Mundari people maintain an unaltered love affair with their cattle at remarkable encampments. Visiting the friendly Mundari is a photographic dream. They exist alongside colossus ankole-wartusi cattle (some 8ft high) and care for these long-horned bovines like members of their family. It’s humbling to meet a society so in tune with the environment and to watch them milk their precious cows, trade them as a dowry, or massage them with ash to keep the flies from them.