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Culture & Festivals

Zanzibar Culture & Festivals

Festivals

Eid-al-Fitr is the festival at the end of Ramadhan, the month of fasting. Also known as Eid or Sikukuu (days of celebration, festival or holiday), this festival is a time of gift giving and of giving alms. The fasting of Ramadhan is meant to remind people what life is like for their less fortunate brethren and the alms giving at Eid (known as Zakat-el-Fitr) is a continuation along the same idea. Both fasting and the giving of alms are two of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. Because the Islamic calendar is different from that of Christians, the dates for Ramadhan and Eid change every year by about 11 days so check a local Islamic calendar if you’re looking to visit Zanzibar during Eid. Ramadhan is a holy month in which drinking, smoking, and eating in public are prohibited.

Dress codes should be strictly adhered to. Some restaurants are closed during this month and outside of town it can be difficult to get any food at all during daytime hours during Ramadhan. All three discos mentioned above are closed during Ramadhan. Eid is a nice time to see all the little girls in their new dresses and the boys in their new sneakers/trainers. The girls wear kohl around the eyes regardless of age, and the boys run around firing cap guns. There is a general feeling of celebration as people go from house to house visiting friends and relatives and attend Taarab concerts and discos at night. Ramadhan lasts for one full cycle of the moon and is followed directly by Eid, which lasts for four days. The festivities can be seen at the Mnazi Moja grounds across from the National Museum or at the Karikoo fairgrounds out by the Main Post Office.

The newest of the major religions, Islam was founded by the Prophet Mohammed who was born around 570 AD somewhere near Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Mohammed received messages from God at Mount Hira, near Mecca. After being chased out of his hometown he moved to Medina where, years later, he began converting people to Islam. He worked at converting people for somewhere between ten and twenty years before dying in 632. The five tenets of Islam are prayer (five times a day), testimony of faith, fasting (Ramadhan), alms-giving (Eid-el-Fitr) and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Haj). The Muslim calendar is different from the Christian calendar in that is starts on the Christian equivalent of July 16, 622 (the day Mohammed fled Mecca for Medina) and features a year of only 354 days based on lunar cycles of 29 to 30 days per month.

Zanzibar Music Festival

Every July this festival runs for one week and features artists and shows from around the world. Most of the performances are held at the Old Fort but there are other venues in town such as at Bwawani Plaza. Taarab and Ngoma are the big sell-outs during this festival but you can also catch performances from Arabia, Asia, and possibly Europe. Keep in mind that you’ll have to do quite a bit of asking around to find out where the shows are. They may be advertised on radio only and if you can’t understand Swahili, you’ll have to get the information by asking residents.

Mwaka Kogwa

A four-day-long celebration, Mwaka Kogwa is best observed in Makunduchi, a village in the south part of Zanzibar. The origins of this holiday are Zoroastrian (a Persian religion older than Islam). It is a celebration of the New Year and some of the events include huge bonfires and mock fights. These fights are between men who defend themselves with banana stems (in place of the sticks that were formerly used), and this fighting, in which everyone gets a chance, is said to let everyone air their grievances and so clear the air as the new year rolls in. As the men fight, the women stroll through the fields singing songs about life and love. They are dressed in their best clothes and are taunted by the men after the fight is over. The festivities vary from village to village but Makunduchi is where the biggest events take place. All are welcome for the festival because it is a local belief that anyone without a guest for this holiday is unhappy. The holiday is held every year around the third week of July, but check with a local tour operator to get the official dates. The dates are based on the Shirazi calendar and coincide with the Persian New Year called Nairuz.

Taarab Music

Taarab is a form of local music that is a mix of sounds and styles from India, Arabia, and Africa. Zanzibar Tours Taarab shows are as much about audience participation as they are about music. Although the music may be a bit harsh for Western ears, the show itself is great theater. Part of the tradition is for women to give money to the singer during the performance. This involves a very showy ascent to the stage and an exhibition of the night’s eveningwear, a slow approach to the singer and maybe a tease before giving over the ‘tip’. The audience howls at the antics of the other audience members and the Taarab singer carries on with the back up of a forty-piece band that includes horns, strings, and drums. Especially impressive is a horn-blower with the white cloth. Check the Old Fort for performances and check with hotel and restaurant staff to see if shows have been announced on the radio.

Ngoma

Ngoma is traditional African dance and singing accompanied by fast rhythmic drumming. There are performances around the island but they can be difficult to find and may be private. Try the Old Fort in town and ask around at hotels and restaurants. Some restaurants feature Ngoma on certain nights (Friday night at Emerson’s & Green Tower Top Restaurant is Ngoma night). Local shows are much longer than Western shows; a Taarab/Ngoma night’s schedule may last five hours. Ngoma was originally performed at weddings, harvest festivals, circumcision ceremonies and other celebrations.

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