Barely a week after we arrived in Tamale, we got a chance to experience a fire festival in the Northern region of Ghana. Every first Friday night in November, people living Northern region come together to commemorate a time when people living in the Northern region came together to help the chief find his daughter who had gotten missing. They looked for her all day to no avail and when the night came, they used bushes lit with fire to look for her till she was found.
A co-worker was nice enough to take us to the Chief’s palace where the festival starts.
In darkness, we watched groups of people led by male youths dressed like warriors – with painted faces and carrying machetes along with their bushes rally around the front of the palace. After a prayer, a traditional ruler sprinkled a clear liquid which looked like water from a calabash on the people. The night of the fire festival is very important to the people of the Northern region, the liquid sprinkled is believed to give good luck and have healing powers. People wait for this one time in the year to get for this rituals.
In celebration they lit their bushes at the chief’s palace. They sang war songs and blew whistles as they proceeded to the next community on foot to light the bushes of people in that community. Bushes were replaced as they burnt out, and people joined them as they went. We drove ahead of them to another community about 5 minutes away, sat by the road side with members of the community and waited for the group to get to their community. Some people came around selling bushes as they waited. Across the street from us were young boys already playing with fire and doing tricks on the road.
Sitting there watching people of different ages, men, women, and children all gathered together interacting with each other and sharing inside jokes. At one point one of the youth burst into a song and every one joined in. There was so much laughter shared, I felt a sense of community and a happiness. Soon enough the group from the chief’s palace arrived, people lit their bushes from someone in that group and we continued to the next community together. The singing was louder and the crowd cheered on.
We drove ahead of them to the city center which was about a 15-minute drive. The city center was filled with youth already celebrating like the last community we had just come from. What was different was there were fireworks everywhere and local gun shots in the air. Young men dressed like warriors just like the youth we saw at the chief’s palace performed fire tricks and magic and people gathered to watch. After spending some time maneuvering through the crowd and walking through the city center, we heard singing from a large group of people with lit bushes. It was people from all the other communities from the chief’s palace to the city center. The crowd of people roared in excitement and proceeded to light their bushes from people in the group.
At this point, it was already midnight. Our coworker explained that, they will continue from community to community until they got to the middle of the city. There they will gather around and local magicians will show off tricks and magic. At the end of the night, they will gather around a tree and throw their bushes a big tree in the middle of the town. He said it is usually very rowdy and he advised us not to go. On our drive back he pointed out the tree to us. It was exciting to be part of the fire festival, that night remains one of my most memorable experiences in Tamale.