The Mwaka Kogwa festival is an old tradition brought to the island of Zanzibar by the Persian Shiraz people who came to the islands over 1,000 years ago. In other words, it is the Persian New Year celebration that takes place in Zanzibar.
The Mwaka Kogwa Festival
A Brief History
The festival has its origins in Zoroastrian religion which is one of the world’s oldest religions observed by the Persians. Shirazi Persians were the first foreigners to settle in Zanzibar and had significant numbers during the early medieval period. Many aspects of their culture were absorbed by the indigenous Swahili inhabitants of the island and given a distinctive local flavour.
The Makunduchi area in Southern Ugunja is usually sort of the central place to celebrate the festival even though other parts of the island hold similar festivities as well.
Mwaka Kogwa Festival, Image Source: Go-Zanzibar.com
When & Where the festival is Held?
Mwaka Kogwa is a combination of tribal rituals and elements of Zoroastrian fire-worship and runs for all of four days and is typically held every year around the third week of July.
Celebrations include different activities like mock fights and the burning of a small thatched hut built for purposes of the festival. Mwaka Kogwa includes specific rituals that are thought to bring good luck in the New Year. Like most East African festivals there is a lot of drumming, singing, dancing, and feasting that goes on at the festival.
Women Participating in Mwaka Kogwa Festival, Image Source: AfroTourism.com
What to Expect: Activities & Experiences
At the beginning of the festival, the men from the village engage each other in a stick fight. This play fight is meant for the men to beat each other as a way of venting and letting out all their frustrations from the previous year. In the earlier times of the festival, actual weapons were used and there was violence seen then. Today, the men use banana sticks because they are less violent and don’t cause as much harm as real weapons would.
While the men are fighting, the women dress up in their finest dresses onyr lesos and go around the village and the fields singing traditional songs about joy, love, and family. As part of the ritual, the women taunt the men after the fight is over. Everybody is welcome to the festival including tourists to the island. The locals believe that anyone without a guest for this holiday is unhappy. For the tourists, there are tours organized to visit the festival and to explain and point out the customs of the locals.
After the men’s fight and the women taunting the men, a traditional healer locally known as the ‘’mganga’’ then arrives for the next ritual. This is the part where he lights a hut on fire and observes the direction that the smoke blows. The direction of the smoke is said to determine the prosperity of the village in the coming year as interpreted by the village healer.
Again, as is the norm in the coastal areas of East Africa, traditional Swahili food is prepared in plenty and is accompanied by Taarab music to mark the end of the festival. The drums, singing, and dancing continues long into the night on the beaches. The Mwaka Kogwa festival is sure a spectacle that tourists to the island can enjoy and indulge in.
It’s best for visitors to confirm and verify actual dates and other information from their travel agents while planning to attend the festival.