Significance of Ghanaian Festivals
Festivals are very important occasions on the traditional calendars of the various traditional areas. All the festivals have political, social, and religious significance for the people who celebrate them. They are celebrated for many reasons. The following are some of the reasons:
1. To mark the beginning of a traditional year.
2. To offer thanks to the Supreme God for His care and protection, and to offer thanks to the ancestors and the spirits for their protection during the past year.
3. To remember and mourn those who had died during the year.
4. To mark the beginning of harvesting of a staple food, e.g., yam or rice, and the beginning of a new agricultural year.
5. To perform the customary purification of the land and the people by the chiefs and the traditional priests. This purification is to strengthen them spiritually and socially to enable them to face the coming year successfully.
6. To renew the people’s loyalties to their chiefs by paying homage to them.
7. To settle family disputes, quarrels, or misunderstandings.
8. To review the past year’s activities and to resolve to correct past mistakes and plan for the future.
9. To give the youth the opportunity to know one another and in some cases choose their life partners.
10. To continue the traditions.
11. To teach the youth about their traditions.
The period for the celebration of festivals differs from community to community. In some communities, it is a week-long celebration whilst in others it is a two-week celebration. The last day of the festival is usually marked by a colorful durbar.
We shall now see how some festivals are celebrated.
Celebrations of Some Festivals:
(a) The Akuapem Odwira Festival
i. Preparation for the Festival
‘Odwira’ is an Akan word which means purification. Therefore, the Odwira festival is a period of cleansing and purification. Before the festival, a period of forty days is declared for meditation and rest. Do you remember we said in Book 2 that there are nine ‘Adae’ on the Akan traditional calendar? The period for meditation and rest is declared at the end of the eighth (8th) Adae. This period is known as ‘Adaebutuw’. During ‘Adaebutuw’ all the ancestors are expected to rest and are not to be disturbed in any way.
There should be peace and calm in the whole traditional area. A ban is, therefore, placed on the making of noise. Activities such as singing, drumming, and dancing are not allowed. If somebody dies during this meditation and rest period, there should be no wailing and no elaborate funeral. A ‘proper’ funeral can be organized for the deceased only after the ban has been lifted.
All those who have religious functions to perform during the festival period must enter into meditation for the whole of the ninth traditional month. This means they will meditate for forty days. The forty days’ meditation will enable them to prepare themselves spiritually so that they can perform their religious functions well.
ii. The Festival Period
The Odwira celebration lasts for a week. It starts on a Monday and ends on a Sunday. Special rituals are performed on each day. We shall discuss briefly what happens on each day.
The path leading to the royal mausoleum is cleared. The purpose of clearing this path is to enable the ancestors who are believed to join the celebrations to travel home safely.
This day is an important day in the festival week. Before the Odwira festiva, Akuapem citizens are not allowed to eat new yams they have harvested from their farms. Therefore, it is on this day that the ban on the eating of the new yam is lifted.
Another important activity for this day is the fetching of the sacred ‘Odwira’ symbol from the royal mausoleum. This is done early in the morning by the ‘Adumhene’ (Chief Executioner) and ‘Abrafo’ (State Executioners). They go to the mausoleum with a sheep and a drink. They bring the Odwira which is in the form of a prepared sacred mixture and present it to the ‘Okuapehene’ (Paramount Chief of Akuapem) in the afternoon. After the presentation, the ban on singing, drumming, and dancing and all forms of noise making is lifted. Drumming and dancing start at the chief’s palace.
This is a day for remembering relatives especially those who died during the past year. The day is marked by wailing, drinking, and drumming. People put on mourning clothes and fast throughout the day. The chief sits in state and receives condolences and greetings from people. In the afternoon, the chief in turn goes round to greet and offer condolences to all stool occupants.
This is a day of general feasting. In almost every house, delicious meals are prepared. People are free to visit any home, including the chief’s palace, to eat. The day is not a feasting day for the living only; the ancestors are fed.
In the afternoon, bowls of mashed yam (some mixed with palm oil, some not) and boiled eggs are carried in a procession from the chief’s palace to the ancestors at a shrine called ‘nsorem’. This is a palace where, it is believed, most of the ancestors were buried.
The most important ceremony takes place in the evening soon after nightfall. The Black Stools are taken to the stream for the ceremonial cleansing. The purification that gives the festival its name ‘Odwira’ is then performed. This ritual symbolizes the cleansing of the traditional area and the people. This is one of the few occasions when the Black Stools are taken out of the stool house. Before the stools are taken out, the gong is beaten to warn people to stay indoors. This is because it is a taboo to see the Black Stool. The end of the ceremony is marked by firing of musketry. After this, the chiefs go to the stool room to renew their allegiance to the Paramount Stool.
The highlight of the festival is a grand durbar of chiefs on this day. The ceremony starts around noon. The Okuapehene, the queen mother and senior chiefs of Akuapem are carried in state palanquins for a parade through the principal streets of Akropong. They are accompanied by drumming, dancing, firing of musketry and a lot of merrymaking.
At the durbar, the senior state linguist pours libation for the prosperity of the state. The state executioner too recites the state’s pledge to the omanhene. The omanhene then delivers his welcome speech and outlines his programs to the people. In this speech he wishes the people well.
The durbar lasts until late in the evening amidst drumming and dancing.
Another durbar is held at Amanokrom which is the seat of the ‘Gyaase’ division of the Akuapem Traditional Area.
This day is set aside for the ‘Krontihene’ of Akuapem to hold his special durbar as part of the Odwira festival.
The Damba festival which was originally a traditional festival is now a traditional and religious festival because it is combined with the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed. It is, therefore, celebrated by both Muslims and non-Muslims in the Northern and Upper Regions of Ghana, especially among the Dagomba, the Wala, the Gonja, and the Nanumba. The main aim of celebrating this festival is to remember the birth and naming of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (S.A.W.). It is an annual affair which falls on the twelfth day of Rabii-Al-Awwal, which is the month the Prophet was born.
The Damba is celebrated in two parts. There is the ‘Soma Damba’ which is the first part. The ‘Soma Damba which the people also refer to as ‘Mauludi Nabiyi’ is to mark the birth of the Holy Prophet. The second one is the ‘Naa Damba’ (the chief’s celebration) and it is to remember the naming of the Holy Prophet.
The ‘Soma Damba’ festival is celebrated on the tenth day of the Damba Moon. Everybody prepares towards this day. Every evening of the nine days, drummers with gourd and tomtom drums (donno) gather in front of the chief’s house. They entertain people with good traditional drumming. People join in the merrymaking with dancing and singing. Women in each quarter of the town organize their own singing and dancing.
On the morning of the ninth day, rice provided by the chief is spread on a mat. Some Muslims gather round it and pick out stones etc. from the rice. This is done to clean the rice, and while doing it they sing praises to Allah. This rice will be cooked for a feast on the evening of the ‘Soma Damba’. Other important activities in preparation for the ‘Soma Damba’ are that, in the evenings, Muslims meet, hold prayer sessions and give sermons about the festival and talk on Islam. They also sing praises of him as they call him Allah’s greatest Prophet. They also renew their Islamic faith.
It is a celebration for all Muslims so whilst the elders are engaged in purely religious activities, the youth sing and dance traditional dances to entertain themselves in the evenings. Such evening activities continue late into the night or, in some cases, throughout the night.
The celebration reaches its climax on the tenth day. The night activities of drumming and dancing cease in the morning of the eleventh day of the moon. The drummers take a rest and prepare for the second celebration. This first Damba is not as grand as the second one. Even the chief does not take part fully in the first one.
The ‘Naa Damba’ which is celebrated by the chief as the name indicates, falls on the seventeenth day of the ‘Damba Moon’. Unlike the first festival, this one is marked by a colorful display of traditional costume, dances, and many other activities.
Around noon on this day, the people, accompanied by their chief, slaughter a bull provided by the chief. While this is gong on, praises of the Prophet are sung. The women use the meat to prepare the festival meal. This meal is eaten in family groups.
In the afternoon of this same day, the drummers as well as the people in their colorful dresses, go to the chief’s house to pay homage.
During this period, the people including all the elders and sub-chiefs gather in front of the chief’s palace to drum and dance. After they have danced for some time and all are seated, the Imam and the chief linguist take the drummers into the palace, and they lead the chief and his wives out in a procession to the dancing ground. When the chief and his group appear they are met with shouts of joy and jubilation. Everybody rushes to meet them. As soon as the chief is seated, the drummers start the Damba beat. This is the start of the celebration. Whilst the Damba beat is being performed, the chief would occasionally take the floor and dance to the beat. When this happens, all present become happy and rush to present money to the drummers. While the dancing is going on, gifts of money presented to the drummers are passed through the chief. Similarly, when other dancers too take the floor the money given to them goes to the drummers.
The activities for the following day are the display of horsemanship and “seeing the Damba off”. On this day, anybody who owns a horse decorates it beautifully. The chief’s favorite horse is also decorated. Then, in the morning, these people ride on their decorated and colorful horses through the town to greet friends and important people. There is still singing and dancing everywhere in the town.
In the evening, amidst drumming and dancing, a long procession starts from the chief’s house to the outskirts of the town where the festival is rounded off.
The word ‘Homowo’ means ‘hooting at hunger’. It is celebrated by the people of the Ga-Adangme traditional area. It is to remind them of their victory over a great famine which they experienced in the olden days. The Ga-Adangme traditional area is Ga Mashi (Accra), Osu, Labadie (La), Teshie, Nungua, Kpone, Prampram, Ningo, and Tema.
The customary rites for sowing millet or corn (nmaadumo) begin the Ga traditional calendar and mark the preparation for the celebration of the festival. The festival is celebrated in August each year on different days by the different Ga groups.
Like the ‘Odwira’ of the Akuapems, before the Homowo festival, a ban is placed on drumming, dancing, merrymaking, and all other forms of noise making in the Ga-Adangme traditional area. The ban starts with the ‘nmaadumo’ and lasts for thirty days. Special rites are performed by the priest and the Gbese Mantse to mark the end of the ban.
The sowing of corn is done by the seven principal priests (Agbaabii) of the traditional area. It is sown on different days by the various shrines, for example, ‘Dantu’ on Monday, ‘Sakumo’ on Tuesday, and ‘Naa Korle’ and ‘Naa Afieye’ on Friday. In the evening of the ‘sowing day’, each shrine priest keeps vigil with prayers to ask the earth god to bless the land with an abundant harvest.
Certain rituals are performed on each day of the Homowo week. Among the people of Ga Mashi, the celebrations start on Thursday. On this day, all citizens working or living outside their home-towns are expected to return home to join in the celebrations. They are called ‘Soobii’ (Thursday people) because they arrive on Thursday. In the past, they all arrived at a particular place and waited until relatives and friends met them and brought them home. This arrival place was known as ‘Mukpono.’ They came with headloads of foodstuffs and vegetables to show that they had overcome famine. The procession to their various homes was accompanied with drumming, singing, and dancing. The merrymaking continued until the early hours of Friday. In other places where the Homowo starts on Tuesday, the travelers arrive on Monday.
Two important rites are performed on Friday. The first rite is the ‘Twins Yam Festival’. During this festival, special rites are performed for all twins of Ga Mashi. It is on this day that the buffalo horns, believed to represent those who have twins, are brought out for a special ritual. All twins are dressed in white, and they eat a festival meal prepared for them. In the evening, all twins go in a procession to the seashore with their parents and relatives to throw away the leftover of the festival meal. The procession is accompanied with drumming and dancing.
The second important rite is the ‘Akpade’. In this rite, elderly women mark the two sides of the doors of a house with ‘akpade’ (red clay). The purpose of this rite is to protect the people from evil spirits. At midnight the Ga Mantse and the chief priest visit the town. Before they set out, a gun is fired to warn people of the visit. The firing of the gun is also meant to scare away evil spirits. The Ga Mantse and the chief priest go to the stool room at ‘Modjawe.’ Here, the Ga Mantse invokes the soul of the famous Ga King, Okai Koi, and invites all good spirits or ancestors to attend the celebration. It is believed that the ancestors will bless the coming year and drive away all evil spirits from the land.
Saturday which is the Homowo day is known as Kogbamo’ by Ga Mashi and ‘Koyeli’ by Teshie, Nungua, and others. It is the day everybody eats the popular festival meal called ‘Kpokpoi’. Kpokpoi is prepared from steamed corn dough mixed with palm oil and served with palm soup and fish.
When the meal is ready, the head of each family sprinkles some of the ‘Kpokpoi’ at all doorsteps of the house and the surroundings. The sprinkled food is meant for the spirits of the ancestors of the house. Each family head pours libation for their ancestors. At the same time, the Mantse (chief) of each area goes round with priests in a procession and sprinkles ‘Kpokpoi’ in the streets. This procession is accompanied by drumming, blowing of horns, singing, and dancing. The sprinkling of the ‘Kpokpoi’ is known as ‘Nishwam’. In every house both young and old scramble for ‘Kpokpoi’ from a common bowl. In the late afternoon, everybody joins in a festival dance called ‘oshi joo’ among the Mashi and ‘kpaashimoo’ by other areas.
The festival ends on Sunday with a ceremony known as ‘Noowala Hamo’ (Homowo Greetings). It starts early in the morning and ends late in the evening. On this day, people visit relatives, friends, and in-laws to exchange the ‘Noowala Hamo’. It is also an occasion to settle family disputes and misunderstandings.
The Glidzi Festival is celebrated by the people of Adaklu traditional area in the Volta Region. This festival is celebrated to commemorate the migration of the Adaklu people with other Ewe groups from Notsie to their present home. The festival is normally celebrated once every two years.
It is a week-long celebration which starts on Monday. It is celebrated by all the thirty-nine towns and villages which form the Adaklu Traditional Area.
Between Monday and Wednesday, all the citizens of the area return home for the celebration.
On Thursday, all citizens of Adaklu known as ‘Gbekowo’ go to Adaklu-Taviefe which is a small ancient town where it is believed the ancestors first settled. This is where the Adaklu Tro (The Adaklu Shrine) is. The day is spent welcoming visitors and there is drumming and dancing in the evening. During this period, secret purification rites are performed by the ‘Tronuaga’ (chief priest) and other priests and priestesses of the traditional area.
On Friday, at dawn, all ‘Gbekowo’ dress in beautiful traditional ‘adewu’ (battle dress). They carry guns and other weapons and climb the mountain called ‘Adaklu To’ to Trofe, the abode of the Adaklu shrine. There, they sacrifice a fat goat to the gods. Prayers are then said for the prosperity of the people and the nation. The procession then descends to the sacred lake called ‘Loglota’. It is believed the ancestors first drank from this lake on arrival at their new home. Here, they demonstrate the memorable and sacred event of clearing the grass around the lake to make it easier to get to the place. This is known as ‘gbenyenye’. After this ceremony the people return to Tsriefe where they continue with other rites.
On Saturday, there is a grand durbar at which the chiefs arrive in palanquins. The Fiaga, paramount chief of the Adaklu Traditional Area, sits in state to receive homage from his sub-chiefs and subjects. There is much drumming and dancing followed by the communal eating from a common bowl. The eating together from a common bowl is called ‘nyikuklu’. What they eat is soup prepared with beef (the meat of a cow).
To round off the durbar, the senior linguist of the Adaklu Traditional Area tells the people the story of their migration from Notsie to their present settlement.
The festival is brought to an end on Sunday with further merry-making.
Nowadays, there are changes in some aspects of our traditional festivals. For instance, ‘Soobii’ or ‘Dzubii’ no longer travel on foot to Accra for the Homowo celebration and they are not met at the outskirts of Accra.
Some people whose business requires the use of musical instruments feel they will lose much money during those forty days’ when a ban is placed on all forms of noise. Christians whose church activities involve drumming, clapping, etc., think the ban should not affect them and this sometimes brings misunderstanding between Christians and non-Christians.
There are some aspects of some festivals which allow the looting of foodstuffs by children and young men. People take advantage of this to steal other things from the market. Therefore, traditional rulers have been asked to ban this aspect of the celebration.
We have already seen that festivals are special occasions when every one tries to return home. Chiefs and traditional councils, therefore, take this opportunity to mobilize their people for development projects. In most cases, the activities for the durbar include fund-raising. Contributions are made by all citizens especially those who are away most of the time. Important government officials are invited and the chiefs take the opportunity to submit requests for the provision of social amenities. The government officials in turn explain certain important government policies and programs to the people.
During festival periods, youth organizations take the opportunity to consider development projects with the elders.