At the beginning of this month, my fellow study abroad students and I visited Cape Coast in the Central Region of Ghana to celebrate Fetu-Afahye. This festival commemorates the beginning of the new year for the Oguaa people living in Cape Coast and neighboring villages. According to their history, Fetu-Afahye began long ago when the gods helped their ancestors eradicate an catastrophic outbreak of a terrible disease that killed lots of people. “Fetu” means “Efin Tu”, or “dirt cleansing”, so an important part of the festival is to clean the town in order to prevent another similar calamity. Before the celebration, the paramount chief of the Oguaa Traditional Area, called the Omanhene, meditates and seeks counsel from the gods This significant tradition lasts six weeks, but I participated in the last few days of the festivities. Taking part in this celebration was true cultural immersion as I got an up-close and personal look at the traditions of the Oguaa people. Fetu-Afahye has an extensive history and practices that I didn’t completely understand, but I’ll explain what I observed to the best of my ability…
Thursday, 1st September
On the first night, we attended a vigil of the priestesses and priests in front of the Nana Paprata Shrine. Once we arrived, we were led down an unassuming sloping street between two buildings that opened up to a lively crowd with Ghanaians of all ages — chattering old men and women sat down amongst rowdy young boys yelling and teasing each other. This space that seemed like an unremarkable street intersection carried a rather surreal atmosphere as two floodlights illuminated the center. Some women swept the center of the space while people gradually made their way to the perimeter and joined the giant crowd encircling the now-empty rectangular “stage” marked by powdery chalk. The drummers nudged our group to the side as they arranged their benches and instruments.
Not knowing what to expect, we waited at least an hour before the vigil began. Older priests and priestesses dressed in variations of white and blue dresses danced on stage. With sweeping motions, they energetically jerked and danced around the stage with a hand duster. Then, one by one, the five or six younger priests and priestesses performed. To my understanding, they were being initiated. Unlike their older counterparts, they wore red cloths around their waists. When dancing, the young priestesses took off their tops and danced with only a skirt. Before they entered the stage, an older priestess wiped the powdered chalk over their eyes, which would help them see beyond. Their performances were supposed to be considered spirit possession as the ancestral spirits guided their movements. Some with stuttering steps and some with strong stomps, they danced around the stage. Synching their bodies to the drumbeats, the young priests and priestesses also bellowed incantations that foretold the future and were sometimes joined by others dressed in white. When each of their performances came to an end, they would move back towards the bag of powdered chalk. They fell into the arms of the priests and priestesses, which seemed to symbolize their own consciousness returning to their bodies. Some became weak and were carried back to the blanket where the young priests and priestesses were sitting. Leaving around midnight, I was quite perplexed by the evening’s events, but was curious of what the rest of the weekend would bring.
Friday, September 2nd
We departed for Cape Coast Castle where we found the bull that was to be slaughtered at the Nana Prapata Shrine later that morning. The sacrifice of the bull signals the climax of the purification ceremonies for the Oguaa Traditional Area. However, before attending the purification ceremony, we happened to meet some of the priestesses from the night before. We befriended one of the younger priestesses named Vivian, and a daughter of an older priestess, Grace. They wanted to show us a ritual shrine in the castle, so barefoot, we followed them down a short dank passageway that led to a table with sacrifices, food, flowers, and alcohol for the god Nana Tabiri. Soon after began the procession of the priests and priestesses, Omanhene, sub-chiefs, and elders to the shrine for the sacrifice. The bull was led in front of the procession, which they walked past the Cape Coast Castle onto the street.
Grace walked with me until we arrived at a huge crowd surrounding the shrine. Even though we were at the same place as the night before, everything looked different. The shrine was an open-air square space enclosed by brick walls and wooden fences with a silk cotton tree in the centre. Bodies pressed up against each other as everyone fought to have a glimpse of the slaughter over the walls of the shrine. Some looked through the spaces of the wooden fence. The Omanhene, sub-chiefs, council of elders, and priests and priestesses crowded into the narrow shrine. Grace asked if I wanted to see the tradition. Not expecting to get a front-row seat to the slaughter, I held her hand and followed her into the shrine. I ended up being a few meters away from the bull whose legs were tied up and was laid at the base of the silk cotton tree. Surprisingly, it didn’t struggle against its imminent fate. The ritual began when the Omanhene called on their ancestors to protect and advise the Oguaa people while pouring libation over the bull. Chatter and movement that filled the hectic air intensified when a man with a dagger began slashing at the bull’s neck. A few other men continued to hold the bull down. I could hear him hacking at the bull’s thick skin over and over. Warm dark blood trickled down its neck into a small pool between the tree’s roots. Soon, its large arteries slid out of the widening red cavity. The man hacked away with all his strength to get through the bone, and eventually, the bull’s head plopped on the ground. Besides being a bit queasy about blood, I wouldn’t say I was shocked by the slaughter, but rather intrigued about taking part in their tradition. Although my indifference of the bull’s slaughter might seem insensitive, I think it didn’t bother me as much because it was part of the larger Fetu-Afahye tradition that held so much meaning in the Oguaa community. Now that all the rituals were over, I prepared for the next day’s festivities.
Saturday, September 3rd
Fetu-Afahye ended with a bang. The hectic, narrow streets of Cape Coast overflowed with Ghanaians and foreign visitors following the bustling procession of the Asafo companies and chiefs. Asafo companies were historically traditional warrior groups that protected the Oguaa state, but they still exist for the sake of upholding tradition and often do community service. In Cape Coast, there are seven Asafo companies, and seven chiefs including the Omanhene, the paramount chief. During the procession, each of the Asafo companies dressed in matching bright colors and marched through the streets. Dancers and drummers were sprinkled throughout the parade. Following the companies were the chiefs regally sitting in their palanquins. Dressed in bright reds, yellows, blues, and greens, the chiefs waved to their people while drummers beating on huge drums marched behind each chief. Crowds swelled to the point where navigating through them was like squirming through a ball pit. The activity and excitement of the parade carried over to later in the evening when we all went out for the block parties. On this night of celebration, everyone drank, danced, and sang everywhere you looked. Cars and motorbikes crawled through the masses of partying people. Bar-hopping, we boogied on the streets next to looming speakers that blasted Ghanaian party music and eventually made our way to Oasis, a night club by the ocean. We danced and drank some more with the ex-pats and Ghanaians that crowded the club. What a night it was.
Reflecting on the entire weekend, it had been quite an adventure. Although we learned a bit about Fetu-Afahye before attending, I hadn’t known what to expect. It was really a unique experience to dive into the height of a Ghanaian festival. As I mentioned before, this was true cultural immersion. And although I’m having a difficult time reacting to what I experienced, one thing I do know is that I am glad that Ghana still carries many of its traditions. Despite its colonial history and British influence on many of its institutions, Ghana is still Ghana. Many of the ethnic groups and communities within Ghana have a tight grasp on their culture. Sure, there’s the whole argument about whether cultural preservation or modernization (Westernization) is better for development, but I believe it is so valuable that Ghana has upheld its traditions. Although the people of Cape Coast are mostly Christian (there is a church only a few steps away from the Cape Coast Castle), they still practice Fetu-Afahye as a way of keeping their culture alive — of honoring their ancestors and their history. Their traditions are not just an excuse to party, but rather a way to bond as a community and reinforce their identity as Ghanaians. I am grateful to have taken part of Fetu-Afahye and hope to explore more of Ghana’s cultural traditions.