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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

In fact it should be blogged about.

As one of those evenings beginning with low expectations, that in fact become a whirlwind of excitement and pleasant surprises, the Fire Festival, celebrated across Northern Ghana, was in one word: marvellous.

Now considering that we Guy Fawkes starved Brits were told that the Fire Festival had already taken place a couple of weeks ago with little public celebration, we were pleased to hear that our pal the Chief (of Tamale, not Matt) invited us to his house for fireworks and a bonfire. Boy was that a miscommunication.

Arriving at the Chief’s palace and seeing crowds of children and young people carrying everything from wooden crosses, to fake swords, toy guns, to machetes, and muskets loaded with gunpowder, there was the sense that maybe we were going to be in for a wild night. As the procession from the city centre to the outskirts of town began, with thousands of people marching to a drum beat waving burning sticks and their faces painted, our original thoughts were cemented.

Swiftly getting into the spirit of the evening, we headed into the crowd and marched in the procession, taking in the amazing sights; groups stopping buses, men going into mad physical frenzies and the occasional deafening shot of gunpowder.

 It was wild, lawless and wonderful.

The history of the Fire Festival was as mystifying as the event itself.  It was clear that while most of Tamale joined the celebration, most residents had different accounts as to why. While one said that it celebrated the landing of Noah’s ark after the flood, others would say it marked the first event of the Dagomba Festival. However I decided to stick with the most bizarre and hotly contested origin - an age old vendetta against a tree.

Trees are most definitely the true victims of the event, particularly during a time of year where they are already battling with nature for survival. The end point of the procession sees a tree set alight as the crowd throw their flaming torches against it.  As the story goes, one great king (or chief, depending on who you speak to) lost his son (or daughter) and when night fell, a search party had to light torches in order to search for the prince (or princess). After a few hours (or days) the price was found alive (or dead) under a tree. The search party decided that the tree was to blame for taking (or killing) the young prince (or princess) and so decided to burn it.

The great part of this story perfectly complements the sense of ambiguity and uncertainty walking through the streets of Tamale in the procession. During this night there is a belief, which I imagine is quite quickly disproved, that man is invincible and so can play with fire, knives and guns. In this undefinable state of being, the participants are driven to act as a body and a mind freed, dancing, chanting and screaming as if there are no rules. I think Guy Fawkes would approve.

Heading back into town the fun was far from over, flames out and dancing shoes on meant that street parties were in full swing under a blazing sky of fireworks (and a few leftover gunpowder shots). The famous dance skills of the Ghanaian people were on show once again, dancing in a kind of freedom and ecstasy that I don’t believe I have seen before, and only dream of seeing again.


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