The African festivals: Colorful time travel through astonishing history, rich culture and vivid traditions

Join Akwasidae in Ghana to witness the golden time of Ashanti Kingdom and become part of Jesus Christ's baptism during Ethiopian Timkat festival in the "African Camelot"

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If you love Africa and you are inspired to learn a lot about its traditions and culture, then visiting the continent during some of its biggest festivals is just a mission to cover!

There is no better time to see the very heart of Africa then the one when hundreds of locals gathered on the streets, showing the best of their cultural and historical inheritance. The festival season in Africa is really long and vivid and sometimes it is hard to plan which holiday to visit. Yet there are two festivals that everyone must see: Timkat in Ethiopia and Akwasidae in Ghana.

Timkat is absolutely spectacular event. The celebrations always start on 18 January, the eve of Timkat, and end on 20 January (except during leap years). The wisest you can do is to book your accommodation as early as possible. Keep in mind that hotels increase their prices during this period.

Timkat is a religious festival. Priests and deacons, bearing golden-rimmed silk robes and umbrellas, perform specific dances and songs during that time. Under the voice of traditional church drums, metal sistrum and pilgrims' clapping they lead the crowd in an white-sea looking procession – as everyone is dressed in white. Many travelers say this remind them of scenes, described in the Bible when the Israelis welcome Moses from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

And there is nothing strange with this as the Ten Commands are believed to be hold exactly in Ethiopia. In fact, Timkat s the Ethiopian Epiphany Day - a celebration of the baptism of Jesus Christ. Next to Genna – which is the Ethiopian Christmas, this is the second most celebrated religious festival in Ethiopia. And this is not strange also, as more than half of Ethiopia's population are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Since the religion was introduced to the country in the 1st century AD, it's been an important part of the Ethiopian identity. Statistic say that over 40 million people in Ethiopia visit the church and practise their religious beliefs on a daily basis.

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Ethiopians wear their best dress at Timkat, to represent new beginnings. There is popular phrase connected with this that says: "If you don't wear the dress on Timkat, you might as well cut it up." The biggest and most spectacular Timkat celebrations take place in the historic city of Gonder. The city is known as the "Camelot of Africa". It is an ancient capital, with royal palaces and castles bathed in blood and painted in gold. Gonder was chosen by Emperor Fasiladahs in 1636 to be his capital. his was where Ethiopia thrived and flourished in the 16th century. During its heydays, Emperor Fasiladahs built stately palaces, impressive castles, banquet halls, lavish gardens and a royal bath. Although the bath was used for swimming, it was more likely to have been built for religious celebrations, the likes of which still go on today.

Nowadays once a year the bath is filled up for the Timkat festival, to replicate the baptism of Jesus Christ in Jordan River. It usually draws in more than 200,000 pilgrims from all over Ethiopia and beyond. The ceremony is really spectacular. On Ketera - the eve of Timkat (18 January every year), the tabot (a replica of the Ark of the Convert) is removed from every major church in Gonder, then wrapped in rich cloth and silk and borne in procession on the head of the priest. According to the Ethiopian the Ark of the Covenant was abducted from Jerusalem to Ethiopia during the first millennium BC. Since then, it has become the most sacred element of the Ethiopian orthodox church.

The procession ends in 17th-century Fasiladas Bath before sunset. The Tabots are brought into the front of the pool, surrounded by bonfire and candelight. That night, the priests and faithful will be participating in a vigil around the tabots. The next morning (19 January), people awake very early in morning – 5 am. Pilgrims are dressed completely in white, with scarves over their heads, and burning candles in hand. Men have their heads bowed down, silently chanting their prayers, while women are down on their knees with their foreheads on the ground. The mass goes on all the way until 7am, when the sun has risen and daylight has come.

Priests and deacons then slowly descend to the poolside in preparation for the big reenactment of Jesus Christ's baptism. After several speeches by the important members of the church, the Archbishop proceeds to bless the bath water with his holy cross. The minute his cross touches the water, the pool becomes a riot of splashing water, shouts and laughter as a crowd of hundreds jumps in, symbolically renewing their baptismal vows.

Then most pilgrims go home to enjoy a massive feast with their families. The festival does not end until the third day (20 January), dedicated to the Archangel Mikael. With processions that are as magnificent as the previous two days, all of the tabots are carried back to their respective churches.

Not less spectacular than this us the Akwasidae festival in Ghana. It is the most important cultural event for the people of Ashanti Region in Ghana. The festival glorifies the milestones in the history of the Ashanti Kingdom. Its first celebration was during the attainment of statehood by the Ashanti Kingdom – after it defeated the Denkyiras in the battle of Feyiase, also known as the Ashanti independence war. The moral of the celebration is to invoke the bravery of Ashanti ancestors into the people and make them more strong and prosperous whiles showcasing their rich cultural history and heritage for the rest of the world to come and see. Akwasidae also gives the king a chance to share his thoughts with the people, advise them, cleanse the land and bring the people together under one umbrella.

During the festival there are different kinds of rituals performed to cleanse the land from any evil. There is also cleansing of the King's spirit and presentation of the ceremonial meal and drinks to the spirits of their ancestors. The festival is celebrated on a Sunday, once in every six weeks. In importance the Akwasidae Festival is next only to the National Day celebrations. The traditions of the Akwasidae Festival are connected with the Akan annual calendar. The calendar is divided into 9 parts. Each part lasts approximately six weeks (between 40–42 days in a period). The celebration of this period is called the Adae Festival. The Adae Festival has two celebration days: the Akwasidae Festival which is celebrated on the final Sunday of the period and the Awukudae Festival that is celebrated on a Wednesday within the period. The Friday preceding 10 days to the Akwasidae is called the Fofie which means a ritual Friday.

Akwasidae, according to the Ashanti cultural archive records is an ornate ceremony, commemorating the date that the Ashanti Golden Stool was magically brought down from heaven. Ritual libations of blood and schnapps are poured onto the thrones of the former kings as offerings to them and to the ancestors.The festival features a golden stool alongside the central feature of attention - the Ashanti King, who is carried on a palanquin through the procession of Ashanti people who have come to pay homage to him. A visit to Kumasi during an Akwasidae celebration is an invitation for spectacle. The king goes in a procession in a palanquin decorated with gold jewelery and he sits under large bright umbrella. He also witnesses a colourful parade, from his palace grounds at Kumasi. Participants of the parade include drum beaters, folk dancers, horn-blowers and singers. The Golden Stool (throne) is displayed at the palace grounds in the presence of the king. People are singing and dancing while the king holds his durbar on the occasion of the festival. During that people have the liberty to shake hands with their king.

The king also pays respect to the skeletal remains of his ancestors. He visits the Bantama Mausoleum and offers worship not only to his ancestors' chairs (stools), but also to the skeletal remains of his ancestors. He pays respect to the honour of Abosom (lesser gods in the Akan tradition) and Nsamanfo (spiritually cultivated ancestors).

Important part of the festival are the glorious stories of the past Ashanti kings. It is a spectacular part of the Akwasidae. In front of the king stand other chiefs in the shade of their umbrellas, sword carriers, bearers of ritual knives, armed guards with loaded rifles and nobles with ostrich feather fans. Sitting next to the king are found the dignitaries of the court. The royal speaker is standing by the king's side and holds in his hands a golden scepter as a symbol of the Asantehene power. The Queen mother, the most important woman in the realm, is also present and surrounded by her court exclusively made up of women. To accompany the ceremony, "griots" tell the glorious stories of the past Ashanti kings, musicians play drums and ivory horns giving the rhythm to the ceremony and women wrapped in bright red clothes dance performing traditional steps.

Not to mention, charity is an important part of the festival. During the last Akwasidae of the yea special attention is given to make food offerings and donations for helping people. Food offerings include special items such as eto (mashed African yam) garnished with hard-boiled eggs.

Written by: Biserka Borisova

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