The Fire Festival

At the time of going to bed as at 2am I could hear ‘jama’ songs in the distance. These are usually songs we sing or composed locally accompanied by drumming and dancing, and can be about anything at all -from morals in society to praise singing to hero worship or castigating or just plain rhythmic noise.

Kept wondering who it was all about but went to bed anyway because the body needed its rest.

Since I don’t listen to radio in Tamale, there was no way I could explain what the singing, drumming and dancing was all about., I left the morning politics shows back in Accra and even though some affiliated stations here still transmit the live Accra feed, I hardly listen.

It is later in the day as I sit in a taxi that the radio announcer appeals to people to maintain peace and decorum at the fire festival, that I realise what it’s all about. I have been in attendance for the past two years even when I wasn’t living in Tamale and I made it a point not to miss this one.

I won’t bore you with what the fire festival is all about since Wikipedia has already provided an insight into its origins and a brief history.

Being part of the fire festival is really worth the experience. There is one line in the Wikipedia article that I love so much and it says that the festival might sound dangerous to an onlooker. It’s true most people who come to observe this festival have heard about the brandishing of very sharp cutlasses and the indiscriminate firing of muskets, and thus keep a safe distance. But the fun is really being in the throng of people parading the streets amidst drumming, dancing and singing. That is when you get a true feel of what the fire festival is all about.

It is very interesting really to see a people perceived to be violent, having all the tools for a violent action, yet proceeding in an orderly chaos in celebration of a traditional festival.

I think this is a common case in Ghana as a whole country where we act like everything is wrong and threaten to take action yet we just fold our arms and look on just for the sake of peace. Nobody wants to be accused of being the one for disturbing the peace and that pretty much takes care of radicalism in all aspects of Ghanaian life and culture.

Unlike in other areas where the people have to be sensitised on issues at stake so they can comport themselves, here in Tamale everybody is already aware that there needs to be a fun filled celebration and are out to have as much fun as they can have without getting into trouble.

Guy steps on my foot whilst trying not to be scared at the sound of a musket and instantly apologizes. Heck! I was in one such event somewhere in Accra and same thing happened and guy was rather blaming me for not getting out of his way quickly enough.

Perceptions! Perceptions!

I have seen Tamale mob justice in action but this time mob action is rather there to stop any misunderstanding and potential fights. Tamale is full of youth bands and groups and it was lovely seeing them collaborate to have an intense fun filled festival. One would think that they will be clashing with each other but instead they were sharing crackers and aerosol sprays so they could blaze away.

One group in particular didn’t have girl dancers but had drummers and made lots of loud noise. But joining forces with the group with the girls made it more colourful because the gyrations were more. These northern girls can do a mean jig and the dance is all centred in their waist.

The fire festival this year was less rowdy and very short lived because it had almost fizzled out just after midnight with pockets of people who still had crackers and firearm ammunition still blazing away. The motorbike shows then began on the streets and riders showcased their skills.

In earlier years there have been cars involved in the skills parade and it’s amazing how with such large crowds there have hardly been casualties. Furthermore the motor king cabs had also had their own side show, with the rollerbladers delighting the crowds with their antics. This year all that was visibly missing.

I wonder if it is due to the economic hardships or that these displays cannot be done in the ‘first gear’ government system. They really add to the colour and fervour of the festival.

Various groups of people represent at the festival from all walks of life. There are the tourists, afraid to whip out their cameras for the sake of being robbed, until they see locals like me with our Nikkons and iPads walk through the crowd taking pictures and they realise they are safe.

There are the students from the south attending schools up north who are as curious as the national service personnel to see if what they heard of the festival is true. These ones stand on the pavements or on the stairs of storey buildings, an assuming safe distance from proceedings on the Main Street.

Groups of people also just come in to support their friends in the parade and they holla at them as they pass by where they are standing.

Groups of girls dressed to the nines also following the crowds and making themselves very visible yet coyly avoiding the prancing men who are also there more or less for the same purpose of getting the attention of these girls.

As much as there is a lot of drumming dancing and singing, there is also a lot of cross dressing, face painting and masks. Some folk disguise themselves so they can be noisy and rowdy in anonymity. This is our own Halloween too.

The fire festival later fizzled into a street carnival when somebody drove in some music system loud enough to draw attention whilst it drove around playing the latest tunes in hip life and dagbani music. The crowd could just not stay still. Dancing in the streets.

The final group of people present at the fire festival were the sellers especially ‘pure water’ sellers. Vendors were on hand to keep dishing out food to the hungry in their shops and this included the latest Ghanaian food craze, indomie.

As at one am, even mashed kenkey sellers were still in the town square hoping to make a buck.

If according to Wikipedia, this festival is to find Noah’s son who didn’t get on the ark then this son will be lost for over a million years and more and with all the fun folk have, it’s no wonder the son has never been found because nobody is really searching for him.

Festivals like the fire festival are the last vestiges of our tradition and culture and we do need to do everything within our power to maintain them. Our culture is our identity and without it we are a lost race.

It is therefore important that we don’t condemn our culture based on foreign and western perceptions or some misguided prejuces. It is important to understand what the particular culture or tradition is about and why it was instituted and this is an individual effort so we can defend our identity.

Like I always say, it begins with YOU!

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