Frightened in Ghana

The gate to the compound where I live is usually locked with a deadbolt by 9 pm. However, tonight was Bugum Chugu — the fire festival of Dagbon. This was precisely the time when locals began gathering outside of the chief’s mud house in the center of town with bundles of tall grasses in hand. The air was thick with revelry as painted bodies weaved through the crowds, snack vendors effortlessly carried their wares atop their heads, and children ran round in an excited frenzy.

It was the first day of the Lunar New Year in the Islamic calendar, though locals told me that Bugum Chugu’s origins stretch further back than the influence of Islam in Ghana.
As the story goes -- A king lost his son when he went out to play with his friends. When both he and the mother realized he was missing they assembled a search party of warriors to go around each neighborhood looking for the boy. By the flame of grass-lit torches, they finally found him fast asleep beneath a tree. It was believed that the tree itself stole the child and hid him from his parents. It was therefore deemed that the tree was evil and the torches were thrown on it to shame it.

In present times, Dagomba revelers celebrate their history by painting their bodies in a war-like manner, carrying flames through the street, and even wielding knives and locally made guns to show their power. Gangs of participants take to the streets in large numbers, often neighborhood by neighborhood,  shouting war cries, beating their drums, and dancing wildly. The atmosphere is intensely feverish, and at times, downright scary. In some way, Bugum Chugu looks like a cross between Halloween in Brooklyn and a night on the playa at Burning Man.

The entire display makes it very apparent that Dagombas are fierce. If it were not for the attendance of women and children I might’ve felt I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, despite the hysteria of the crowds, people were welcoming and overjoyed to share their culture with me. The Dagomba are proud of who they are and where they come from, and I feel liked I kicked of the Islamic New Year with the blessings of the ancient Gods of this land.