Must-see African celebrations for every festival lover
African celebrations and festivals bring local traditions to life with singing, dancing and feasting. Leora Rothschild and her team at Rothschild Safaris share some of their favourites.
Timing your safari adventure around one of the many extraordinary African celebrations that occur each year isn’t entirely necessary, however, your trip will be significantly enhanced by an experience that will, out of sheer practicality, stay out of reach for most travellers. These African festivals are an incredible way to experience the local culture and a different side of this vibrant continent that many visitors never get to witness with their own eyes.
Ouidah Voodoo Festival
The complicated, often misunderstood, religion of Voodoo was born between Abomey and Ouidah in Benin. Today, nearly 80% of the nation claim Voodoo as their religion and the féticheurs of the country are much respected. The Temple of the Pythons in Ouidah is only small, yet is one of the most revered places associated with the practice. Here, the celebrations of the Ouidah Voodoo Festival take place in January every year. Afterwards, the procession carries down the Slave Route and eventually reaches the beach, where dances, trances, fetishes and sacrifices in devotion to the Voodoo gods are performed.
The Reed Dance
While this African festival begins in private – as 40,000 young women collect reeds to present the Queen Mother of the King of Swaziland – the sixth and seventh days are public. Guests can observe women dressed in traditional attire sing and dance in honour of the Queen Mother. The King himself attends on the last day. The purpose of the ceremony is to preserve woman’s chastity, pay tribute to the Queen Mother and encourage solidarity among women by working together.
This is the biggest festival in Ethiopia with an origin that dates back over 1,000 years. Visit Gondar, Lalibela and Addis Ababa in January to see the biggest of the ceremonies and join in the vigorous dancing that commences soon after the official part of the celebration is complete.
In September the Ethiopians celebrate an African festival even older than Timkat. Meskel festivities date back over 1,600 years and commemorate the discovery of Jesus’ cross, certain pieces of which are believed to have been brought to Ethiopia. During the celebrations in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, a colourful procession of priests, deacons and choir singers walk around a vast pyre bearing ceremonial crosses and wooden torches decorated with olive leaves. The torch bearers move forward in unison to set alight the slender pyramid-shaped structure, topped with a cross made from daisies. The next day people go to the bonfire and use the ash to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
Maralal International Camel Derby
Professional and amateur camel jockeys converge in the Samburu district of Maralal for a three-day festival every August. What began as a way to promote peace among local tribes has become a much-loved event in Kenya.
Marsabit-Lake Turkana Cultural Festival
In June, the southeast shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya explode into a celebration of the singing, dancing and culture of 14 ethnic communities in a rainbow of traditional costumes. With a relaxed atmosphere, the festival aims to promote tribal harmony.
Lake of Stars Festival
A three-day event on the sandy shores of Lake Malawi, the feel-good Lake of Stars Festival embraces African music and the arts. It is an international festival with visitors from 30 countries flocking to the ‘warm heart of Africa’ to enjoy events, workshops, theatre, acrobatics and film screenings.
Fes Festival of World Sacred Music
You get two for the price of one at this music festival: the local Fes Cultural Festival runs concurrently in June with a theme exploring a different aspect of culture every year. This festival is one of the most comprehensive ways to experience traditional life inside the old walled city. Go from watching the whirling dervishes of Iran to seeing mystics, Sufi chanters and dancers from all around the world taking ample time to sip mint tea, and of course, devour all that delicious Moroccan food.
Gnaoua World Music Festival
In June, the Moroccan town of Essaouira is home to a music festival based on the traditions of Gnaoua, an incredible combination of acrobatic dancing and instruments. It has its origins in a mix of Berber, African and Arabic songs, religious rites and dance.
The Festival of Roses
No one is quite sure how roses came to Morocco, but in the small town of El-Kelaâ M’Gouna – famous for its vast landscape of pink Persian roses in the Dades Valley – the end of the rose harvest is celebrated annually in May. It’s three days of revelry filled with food, dancing, singing and a carnival procession where the crowning of the Rose Queen (who will reign over the following year’s crop) takes place. This Moroccan festival attracts around 20,000 people every year.
Cure Salée and Wodaabe Gerewol
One of the most unique cultural African celebrations on the continent takes place in September, marking the end of the rainy season. The Tuareg and Wodaabe gather in the salt flats and pools near Ingall to prepare their cattle and goats for the trip south. It is also a time of traditional courtship and marriage. During the Gerewol, the young Wodaabe men are expected to test their skills in front of a crowd of women seeking husbands, showing off their expertise as riders, artists, dancers, musicians and artisans. The celebrations end with the men donning the traditional costume, headdress and elaborate makeup. While the official celebration is limited to three days, the festivities can last for weeks while nomadic groups remain in the area.
Cape Town International Jazz Festival
Jazz legends converge on the Mother City from all over the world to perform during a glorious two days at the end of March. First held in 2000, this music festival in South Africa is the fourth largest jazz festival in the world and the most significant on the African continent. After 2005 the festival outgrew its venue, and the Cape Town International Convention Centre has now become the new host.
Cape Town Minstrel Festival
One of the most iconic of all the festivals in South Africa, this one takes to the streets annually at the beginning of the year. Over 10,000 of the Kaapse Klopse, or Cape Minstrel, parade down the streets of Cape Town – an incredible sight to witness in their elaborate costumes – twirling umbrellas and playing a variety of musical instruments.
The southern right whales return to Walker Bay to herald the arrival of spring in late September, and they are eagerly awaited and welcomed by thousands of visitors in Hermanus every year. Whale watching is the main attraction, but this unique festival also celebrates an array of marine life through films, interactive exhibitions and ocean-themed adventures, accompanied by music, comedy, seafood and street parades.
The Knysna Oyster Festival
A celebration of sport, food and heritage, this festival includes a marathon, a cycling race, swimming, canoeing and scuba diving. It is one of the most anticipated festivals in South Africa and runs over what is billed as “the best 10 days of your winter”. Featuring over a 100 exhibitions, the oysters remain the star of the show.
In September of every year, all the gorilla babies born during the preceding 12 months are named at Kwita Izina to celebrate this amazing conservation victory. To add a little flavour to the event, the Intore warriors perform dance and song.
Zanzibar International Film Festival
Possibly the most significant cultural event in East Africa, this film festival is a riot of music, arts, literature, film and more from across the African continent every July. Partake in local and international discussion panels, workshops, 10 days of screenings and evenings of musical concerts, including a nightly gala.
International Festival of the Sahara
The small oasis town of Douz in Tunisia attracts over 50,000 people to celebrate the culture of the Sahara towards the end of December every year. The International Festival of the Sahara began in 1910 and has evolved into a four-day music festival of singing, dancing, feasting and fantasia. Think Arab horses ridden by daring riders, a Bedouin marriage, camel racing, and sloughi dogs catching rabbits.
At the end of the summer, the King of the Lozi, or otherwise known as the ‘Litunga’, departs from the Lealui Palace on the Barotse Plain, where the royal tribal head has resided for hundreds of years, and heads for the Limulunga Palace. The royal winter residence is located on higher ground to avoid the seasonal floods. The exact date of departure is a court secret, with details given only a couple of days before the journey begins. Kuomboka means ‘coming out of the water’ and this colorful festival takes place over several days, with a giant black and white dug-out canoe, known as ‘Nalikwanda’, forming the centre of the procession. The rhythm of the Moama drum, vibrant colours and chanting voices accompanies the Litunga along the expedition.
Australia and USA-based Rothschild Safaris is one of the premier tour operators specialising in luxury safaris to Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand. The company, founded and led by South Africa native Leora Rothschild, has been planning customised safaris since 1998.
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