When: July or August(scheduled July 19 this year 2012)
Where: Southern Zanzibar, Tanzania
The Shirazis (Persians) were the first foreigners to settle in southern Zanzibar. They brought with them their traditions which have been adapted to the local context. One such tradition is the celebration of ‘Nairuz’ according to the Shiraz calendar. Nairuz means “New Year” and while it is celebrated in many parts of Zanzibar, it is in Makunduchi in southeastern Unguja (one of the two islands that make up Zanzibar) that Mwaka Kogwa (Swahili for “show of the year”) is carried out in full color and enthusiasm.
About the Event:
Mwaka Kogwa is indeed a “show of the year” (scheduled July 19 this year) as Tanzanians flock to the small village of Makunduchi to witness what would appear a publicly sanctioned brawl using banana stems (they used sticks and cudgels in the past but these have been fortunately replaced). The Nairuz celebrations start just before lunch in Kae Kuu, a large open space, where two brothers from the north of Makunduchi face-off with two brothers from the south.
These two groups then attack each other with banana stems in a ritual physical combat. There are only loose conventions that govern the fight, but there are no official referees to mediate in case things get rough, like when supporters of each group (only men) also face-off and take or throw a beating. The women join the mock fight by hurling verbal abuse and taunting (which often contain sexual innuendo).
When the ‘combatants’ are exhausted, they proceed to build a small thatched roof that is set alight by the local ‘maganga.’ Then everyone around throws earth and stones to extinguish the fire to ensure that there will be no lives lost in the coming year when any of their houses catch fire. The local magician then makes predictions for the coming year depending on the direction of the smoke.
At the end of this ‘purification’ ritual where past disagreement and misunderstanding with neighbors are exorcised, the villagers get together for a banquet. Strangers are welcome, and they should never refuse an invite to the banquet lest the hosts be displeased.
Makunduchi may not have adequate hospital facilities, but it sure does have guesthouses open for tourist accommodation. Mwaka Kogwa is well-attended by local luminaries, but mostly it is a regional affair and not really sought out by mainstream travelers (because determining the dates are mostly left with local ‘maganga’). Nonetheless, outsiders are welcomed to the festivities. The locals believe it is auspicious to have guests.
From the point of view of Western travelers, the occasion may appear primitive and even barbaric (because it could really get riotous). Travelers therefore need to respect whatever rituals they encounter along the way, and observe the event with an insider’s perspective. Passing judgment is unfair, as the context with which these affairs are conducted is defined by culture.