Odwira Festival

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    The Odwira Festival
    Friday, October 14, 2005, Akropong, Ghana

    How to write about the Odwira festival? After experiencing the festival, the massive build-up, and the aftermath, there is still so much I do not understand. I am sure I could come back many times and still not learn it all. Basically the festival is a celebration of where the people of the Akuapem hills have come from, and where they are today. It encompasses many traditional rituals as well as more modern elements, such as dances and parties. The best way to describe the festival is to describe it day by day.

    Lead up to the festival:
    For 6 weeks prior to the festival there are several restrictions that the villagers are supposed to abide by. They are: No loud music, no drumming, no whistling after dark (im pretty sure that still stands for some reason) and most importantly NO EATING YAM. Breaking these rules means paying schnapps and goats to the king or chief.

    Monday (Day 1) – This is the start of the festival, however not much really happens, the real kick-off is on Tuesday. Men from the 3 royal families in the village ‘clear a path’ between the ancestral burial grounds and the town. (I think they just clean up the path a bit).

    Early Tuesday morning – This was easily a highlight of the week for me, although I have no pictures. This is a day of celebration, and the restrictions on the village are lifted. It start with the “Splitting of the New Yam”. The yam is the staple food of the people where I live, and it looks like a long, huge potato, and tastes like a long, huge potato. To lift the ban on yams, and introduce the food into the village, a crazy ritual takes place. There is a mock battle held in the streets in front of the palace in our town. All the strong men from the village gather and wait for the new yam to be brought out from the palace. When they are, the strongest man in town holds the yam, whilst others try and punch it to pieces in his hands, or steal it from him. It really was just a rugby scrum of over 100 of the biggest men I have ever seen, all try to get to the person holding the yam. The guy holding the yam may drop it, and then another will pick it up, and get belted up by the crowd. If you can break the yam you may take it home to cook (if you can get away from people trying to steal it off you). I really have never seen anything like this in my life. Huge packs of men surging up and down narrow streets in rugby scrums. The adrenaline really did overflow and affect everyone. After one yam is gone another is introduced ( a total of 6). It was scary, fascinating, exhilaration and dumfounding all at the same time and I am sure I will never see anything similar in all my life.

    After the smashing of the yam Andy, Ed and I were invited to the house of the local chief, but im not sure why. We just sat outside and talked to ourselves.

    Tuesday Afternoon – In the morning, male members of the royal family departed to a walk to the sacred burial site of the ancestors of the village to inform them the festival would begin and to get their permission. The entire town lines the streets and cheers and screams as they return from the forrest to tell the King the festival may go ahead. The “Obrafo”, the ‘executioners’ who protect kings and chiefs walk along the streets firing off round after round on their shotguns and looking generally nuts. After this we all go home and eat yam and start to party.

    Wednesday – the “Fundra” or day of mourning. It is on this day that everyone remembers those that have died, especially in the last year. This is done by wearing black or red and consuming huge quantities of alcohol at strange hours of the day. Kofi, a farm worker who lives in our house, got us out of bed to drink a massive amount of palm wine that he had brewed, and then he and I went to one of the royal houses for a party. As a guest I was not supposed to buy a drink all day, and it seemed that everyone of Kofi’s 209 cousins wanted to have a local gin with me. This is the only day when I have ever been to 5 bars before midday. All in all it was a great day though.

    Thursday – The day of feasting. This day each of the royal families prepares food to be taken to a shrine for the ancestors to eat. It is carried through the streets of the town in the afternoon by woman from the royal families who have been ‘possessed’ and are surrounded by a heap of men making sure they don’t fall, and even more firing guns in the air. This was a really confronting part of the festival, as it showed that whilst Ghana is a very Christian country today, ‘black magic’ as some would call it, still exists. Different people will see this in different ways, some very skeptically, but it was definitely something I was wary of. Still, it was truly amazing to witness these rituals first hand. There was a lot of goat-slaughtering going (this seems to happen in every country bar Australia) on and a huge cooking competition in the square judged by some of the Queens.

    Friday – The Grand Durbar – This day was a day of parades and ceremony. Not only did many people come to our village to join in the festivities, but also many chiefs and queens from all over Ghana come to the festival. On this day they are paraded through the packed streets, carried on chairs or in special beds. People dance and sing, and most chiefs have a brass band follow them through the town. Oh yeah, lots of firing of guns. After a few hours of parading, the chiefs take their seats in the square for a massive ceremony which includes a few rituals, traditional dancing, Christians and Muslim prayers, and an address from the King on the region. It was all very interesting, although a little to sunny for a pasty white guy whose anti-malarial medication makes him get burnt by a full moon (yours-truly).

    Friday night – This was supposed to be the night for the Miss Odwira competition, and of course we attended. To be crowned Miss Odwira you must be beautiful, clever and a good dancer, and these are all attributes I like. We arrived at around 8:30, and were told for the next 6 hours it would ‘start shortly’. At 2:30 in the morning I had given up hope and went home, partly because I was tired, partly because an African friend of mine had very subtly set me up on a date with his cousin, who I was quite keen to get away from (long story, will go into it later).

    This is where the festival ended for me. Whilst it continued for another week, it was much more low key. I cant get into everything I did. I spent a lot of time in the hall at the palace watching stuff going on, talking to people, and partying with other volunteers and locals. It was great fun, a truly memorable traveling experience. My attempt at capturing this film on either film or in words is horribly inadequate.

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