MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Fire Festival

b2ap3_thumbnail_Gill-and-I-walking-in-the-procession.gifIn Northern Ghana there is a legend about a tribal chief who had a son who would become chief after him. One night, the chief noticed the baby was missing. He gathered the whole village to look for the child. They carried torches with them to guide them through the night. Finally, the baby was found under a tree - the villagers believed the tree had stolen the boy. The chief rescued his son, and as a punishment, set the tree on fire. The villagers returned to the chief's palace and celebrated by singing and dancing, maintaining their torches to light up the night.
 
Now, in Tamale and other towns in the northern regions of the country, the fire festival takes place every November to celebrate the return of the chief's son.
 
Daniel, Gillian and I had heard about this fire festival, without really knowing the history behind it. We were told vague details about how it would begin around 8pm and it would involve some sort of parade, taking over the road so that no cars could pass. We waited, sitting on a curbside, looking for clues that this event was about to start. Around us, the excitement grew - children and families gathered, many holding sticks, lighting fireworks, and wearing different traditional outfits.
 
Finally, after an hour, we heard rumblings in the distance. Chanting, singing and drumming filled the air, and those children around us began to stream into the road. The three of us followed suit, walking into the intersection which had become eerily void of cars. Craning our necks to see further down the road, where the noise was originating, we could see a mass of people coming towards us from the direction of the chief's palace, carrying wooden sticks and branches that were ablaze. Once this group merged with ours, which had grown substantially as we waited, the procession began moving towards the center of town.
 
Let me describe exactly what I mean by procession. This involved people of all ages, from babies bagged on their mother's backs to elderly people using walking sticks. Young men, either shirtless or wearing traditional attire, were running through the crowd, firing rifles in the air or dragging machetes on the ground as they ran, creating sparks behind them. Mothers were constantly grabbing their children - those who were getting too far ahead and risked getting lost in the crowd, or those getting too close to one of the many open flames. The air was filled with smoke, song and screams every time an unexpected gun shot went off.
 
Basically, procession can be interchanged with chaos. Or maybe mayhem.
 
A young boy, Rashid, became my personal guide (which was lucky because I lost and found Daniel and Gillian several times during this event) taking my hand and telling me to 'watch out', or 'walk over here,' to avoid particularly excited youth darting through the crowd with various types of weaponry.
 
b2ap3_thumbnail_Women-holding-tree-branches-to-take-back-to-the-chiefs-palace.PNGWe got to our meeting place, where crowds of other people had also come to gather, and where unsuspecting trees and vegetation stood. In only a few moments, trees were lit on fire, and branches from trees still standing were vigorously chopped off and brought back into the crowd. We then turned back and started our walk of about 30 minutes, towards our starting place. The chopped tree branches were held by women high in the air, and would be taken back to the chief's palace to be burnt. At times, according to the song that was being sung and the instruments accompanying it, the crowd would turn and run momentarily in the opposite direction. My friend Rashid was particularly helpful in these moments, alerting me to turn and run with the group, instead of being trampled. (Or at least substantially jostled by people running by)
 
When we reached the intersection from which we started, Gillian and I separated from the crowd. They would continue on, returning to the chief's palace where they began, to celebrate with more singing, dancing and fire.
 
Of all the cultural events I have experienced here in Ghana, the fire festival was by far the most exciting and interesting for me. It was a night when everyone left their daily roles behind and became a villager from the legend, truly embracing the celebrations amidst an atmosphere buzzing with excitement. I am so glad I could experience this event and happy that I too, become a villager for the night.

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