The Indian Ocean Islands – Festivals

5th March 2013

Zanzibaris do quite well for public holidays and festivals, as they not only observe Muslim celebrations, but also Christian and Hindu days, National holidays and traditional festivals.

Perhaps the most unusual annual festival held in Zanzibar is the Mwaka Kogwa festival, held in villages across Zanzibar but most famously at Makunduchi, in the southeast of the island around the third week of July. This traditional festival is a New Year celebration held according to the old Shirazi solar year – so it is unlikely that you will meet anyone who can tell you the exact date, unless you visit the village elders of Makunduchi who spend much of the rest of the year working it out. The New Year celebration originated from Persia (it coincides with the Persian new year festival of ‘Nairuz’), and the extent to which it relies on fire, flames and burning suggests Zoroastrian roots, although the events of the festival today have become entirely disassociated from religious beliefs. The festivities continue over 4 days, beginning with a widely renowned event in which a number of people, supposedly including a traditional medicine man, enter into a makuti thatch hut which has been built for the occasion. The hut is then set on fire, and the inhabitants must wait until the blaze has caught and then make their escape with a good sense of ritualistic drama. This popular event is followed by an even stranger ritual, in which all inhabitants from the north and south of the village gather into their respective groups, and while the men from each area fight each other with sticks, (more often banana palms these days), the women join in by shouting abuse. The outcome is supposed to clear the air for the new year ahead. Thankfully this show of strength is followed by communal feasting and recompense, along with singing and dancing for the following days. Women dress in their finest and most colourful clothes to walk and dance through the fields singing Swahili songs about village life and love – mostly directed at their menfolk. The Muslim community here is very strong, and, while they appreciate the absurdity of upholding such an ancient ritual that has little to do with their religious beliefs, they also remain deeply superstitious about abandoning the practice which ensures that crops and participants will be purified and endowed with good luck for the year ahead. And it is a lot of fun. Outsiders are welcomed to the festivities, as villagers are encouraged to invite guests.

The religion of Zarathushtra

Originating in Ancient Persia, the Zoroastrian faith was the very first of the great monotheist religions. Through its prophet Zarathushtra, it is believed that Zoroastrianism gave birth to the concept of heaven and hell, and the dual and conflicting forces of “spentamanus” (good) and “angramanus” (evil) continually jostling for supremacy among mankind. Zoroastrian lives are dedicated to the pursuit of good, and the fulfilment of the three basic injunctions of their faith – good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Ingrained in the Zoroastrian religion and teachings is a profound respect for the environment and the elements. Fire has a great spiritual significance within the Zoroastrian religion, and is its symbol of worship. Zoroastrians worship at fire temples, whose focal point is a constantly burning holy fire, consecrated and tended by priests, around which prayers are chanted. The rituals followed in consecrating the holy fire determine the status of any fire temple. The Zoroastrian concern for the environment is further evidenced by their method of disposing of the dead. Zoroastrians do not bury their dead, as this would contaminate the earth; nor are they cremated, as this would contaminate fire and air. Instead, Zoroastrians are laid to rest in towers of silence, which are large, round, open structures, generally built on elevated ground and set in tranquil gardens on the outskirts of the city. Through the ages, Zoroastrians have generally sought to avoid political or military conflict. When Persia was invaded by Muslims in approximately 772 AD, making it difficult for Zoroastrians to freely practice their religion, some fled to India where they were granted ‘political asylum’. These Zoroastrians, now known as Parsees, have adopted elements of Hindu culture; their dress, language, food and customs resemble Hindu practice rather than that of their Zoroastrian counterparts who remained in Persia. Others sailed further, following trade routes to the shores of Zanzibar, bringing with them the customs of their religion. In some areas these were taken on even before the advent of Islaam, and still play a part in traditional festivals on the islands today, notably that of Mwaka Kogwa (see Annual Festivals). World-wide migration of the Zoroastrians has continued gradually over the centuries, and even today, Zoroastrians are migrating from their homes in search of greater prosperity and stability. Although there are still Zoroastrians in Iran, the majority have scattered around the world, and can be found throughout the Indian sub-continent, America, Canada, Europe, Australia and Africa.

Also in July, usually around the 19th, the recently introduced cultural Festival of the Dhow Countries, or Zanzibar Film Festival (ZIFF) has now run for three consecutive years and gained great popularity and respect with each occasion. Each year it has been better organised and more richly attended by film-makers – and musicians from throughout the ‘Dhow Countries’ – a term used to describe any nationalities bordering the Indian Ocean and also the entirety of the African continent, despite the general lack of sea-faring borders of most of them. The festival is centred around an administration centre in Stone Town, with the majority of film screenings and bands playing in the Old Arab Fort, although a number of other venues are also secured for simultaneous events around the town. Tourists pay a small fee for entrance to events, or buy a pass for the entire festival, and locals are encouraged to attend free of charge. The majority of the films are cartoons or documentaries, often dubbed or subtitled, and these are then taken to rural regions of Zanzibar and shown in public screenings. These inspire forthright discussion and feedback and have been popularly received. The musical aspect of the festival has also developed a very worthwhile and diverse play list of performers, and the atmosphere in Zanzibar Town during this time is heightened immeasurably by the influx of talented musicians of all nationalities spilling out of every guest house and bar.

Dates observed in the Muslim calendar are determined by the observance of the moon, and consequently bear little synchronicity to the calendar year.

Muslim festival of Ramadhan is strictly observed towards the end of the year or beginning of the New Year, as a mark of respect for the month in which Mohammed received the first of the Koran’s revelations. He was said to have received the first revelation on one of the twentieth days of the month, on a night known as The Night of Determination – this is said to be the night on which God determines the course of the world for the following year. This is a devout month set aside for prayers and purity, and those following the Muslim faith fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset, and refrain from any act that may be considered a physical indulgence, such as eating, drinking of any kind, smoking, or sexual activity. Families and friends gather together after the sun sets to break their fast, and during this time the streets are oddly empty. Christians and visitors to Zanzibar during this time are expected to respect the restraint of their fellow men, and not to eat, drink or smoke in public areas during the day. Most local restaurants will remain closed during the day for the duration of Ramadhan, and while those catering to the international market remain open as usual, they often screen any open sides from the street. Tourists are also advised to be cautious in exploring the streets of Stone Town between the hours of 6pm and 8pm, as it is thought that only undesireables and miscreants will be haunting the alleyways at this time.

The festivities of Idd el Fitr follow the rigours of Ramadhan, celebrations marked by prayers and feasting and the exchange of gifts – particularly the giving of alms to those less fortunate. Idd el Fitr is also often referred to as Eid or Sikukuu, which literally translates as days of celebration, or holiday, and lasts for four days.

Two months later comes Idd el Hajj, the traditional date for the annual pilgrimage to be made to Mecca. Three months later is the date of Maulid, and associated celebrations in honour of the Prophets birthday.

Christian occasions such as Christmas and Easter are also celebrated and held as public holidays, as is the colourful Hindu Festival of Diwali.

The month of January is also highlighted with a traditional secular festival of dhow races. Hordes of Zanzibari fishermen compete to fulfil a route from Forodhani Gardens around Prison Island. Most of the races are played out in small ngalawa outriggers, and the collaborative energy of the event is supposed to chase away evil and to bring good crop growth for the New Year.

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