I can’t think of anything that I love more about living abroad than getting to take part in cultural festivals. I love that Winneba, where I live in Ghana, has some wonderful annual festivals: Aboakyer and Fancy Dress. When I heard about what many people call Fire Festival in the North, I knew I had to go.
Activities for Ghana’s Fire Festival
Bugum Chugu, or Fire Festival, is celebrated in Dagbon, Bawku, Gonja, Mamprusiland and Nanumbaland, which are all ethnic groups in northern Ghana. It’s exact date is tied to the lunar calendar’s new year, so it changes every year. This year, it was on the evening of September 30.
During the afternoon, bundles of grass are made to be used as torches in the evening’s activities. Traditionally, families will feast in the evening and perform rituals to honor the ancestors. Prayers are said for good health and prosperity in the coming year.
After dinner, everyone will gather at the chief’s house, where he’ll light his torch, circles his head seven times while calling on the ancestors for prosperity before throwing the torch away. Then everyone lights their own torch and sets off for a large tree outside of the village. Once they arrive at the tree, everyone throws their torch at the tree and then returns home. There may be plenty of drumming and dancing involved.
Folklore Behind the Festival
There are two stories told to explain the Fire Festival.
One is that the festival marks the day that Noah’s ark landed after the Great Flood. Because the ark landed in the middle of the night, Noah and his family needed to light torches to find their way. When they found a big tree, they set it ablaze to see their surroundings.
The other story is that of a great king and his son. The son went out, possibly searching for a woman, when night fell and he got lost. The king called everyone together to light torches and create a search party for him. The prince was found asleep beneath a large tree. It was believed that the tree had a protective spirit inside of it, so the tree was set on fire to release the spirit.
Going to Bugum Chugu in Mamprusiland
I first heard about Fire Festival last year and had made plans to go with a friend. However, some extenuating circumstances arose, and I wasn’t able to make it. I resolved to go this year, and checked in with a new friend who lives in Mamprusiland if I could visit for Bugum Chugu. She happily agreed and let me know when the date was fixed.
Luckily, it happened on a weekend, so I didn’t need to use any of my vacation days to go. However, getting to Northern Region is quite the journey, about a 12-hour bus journey from Accra. Unfortunately, I was only going to be able to go for the weekend, essentially. But, I really wanted to go to this festival. So I booked my bus tickets and settled in for an overnight ride on Friday.
I spent Saturday morning lazing around in Tamale, the capital of Northern Region. (By the way, it’s pronounced TAH-mah-lay, not like the Mexican dish.) In the afternoon, I headed towards Maria’s village. We had some drinks in Wale Wale before heading to her village of Macondo.
I met some of the family members of the compound she lives in and she made sinigang, a Filipino sour tamarind soup, for dinner. It was all lovely. She lives without electricity and running water in her house, which is quite different from my life in the south, but I loved getting a chance to experience Ghanaian rural village life.
Just as she finished cooking dinner, we heard that the festivities were starting. We headed over to the chief’s house, where I met the village elders. With lots of drumming, a bonfire was set and the chief lit his torch. Almost as soon as he was finished, everyone seemed to rush and press in around the fire, eagerly lighting their torches. As soon as their torch was lit, they ran off down the road outside of the village.
Once it calmed down and the majority of people had ran off, we approached, lit our torches and ran off. Since the fire went out before we made it to the tree, the children told us to throw our torches to the side of the road and that was enough. It may not have been a lot of action, but I loved every minute of it. Maybe I’ll get to go back again next year.