12-16 December 2010
It is December and it is the month of the festivals. There is a common factor in majority of the traditional festivals around the world. Many of these festivals follow harvest season. The people celebrate the incoming of food and cash with festivals. The major festivals of Bongo are harvest festivals and Azambene, the fire festival. Harvest festival is celebrated in some parts of the district and fire festival is celebrated in Bongo town and some other nearby small villages. I did not have any opportunity of seeing harvest festival but fire festival which ended today was the one which I could witness as it was in Bongo town.
Fire Festival or Azambene marks the victory of the local Frafra tribes people over some other tribe who had tried to invade these people. The Frafra people of Bongo defended themselves using fire. They created fire torches by making bundles of wood sticks and straw to keep the enemies away. This festival is celebrated in memory of this victory on some particular day as per the local lunar calendar after the harvest is over.
The activities of the festival included various competitions such singing competition for women’s groups and dancing and drumming competition. As they were competition, most of the groups performed very well as per the local standards. The singing of the women was not at all pleasant to my urban Indian ears however. One interesting thing about the singing competition is the meaning of the songs. One group with relatively more number of older ladies sang a song which was about older times when women did not expose their bodies much, behaved properly and had plenty of children. The next group was having relatively more number of younger ladies and the instantly prepared a song which conveyed how the times have changed and how women also have to change with it. How it is good to have few children so that one could better feed them and take care of their education. This group of course got the biggest of the applauses and also won the competition.
I missed the major action as I was strongly suggested to keep away from the chaos that exists on the main road of Bongo. This is how it happens as per the information given to me. First some gun shots are fired at around 7:00 pm from the chief's place announcing the official start of the fire festival. People light the torches by firing them and start whirling them around themselves first and run after the people who are around them in order to scare them away. It goes wild as many people get drunk and then play this game. Remaining at my house I could here the noise of the crowd on the main road but I could get an idea about it must have been as I saw the small kids playing near my house running after each other with fire. Some kids also came towards me while I was standing in the verandah watching the kids playing the dangerous game. As I shouted at them, they mischievously smiled and said that they were not really going to burn me.
Next day of the event was the grand closing ceremony of the festival with the Chief's Durbar. Here Durbar does not mean the gathering of ministry of the Kings but the open ceremony where Chief or King meets general public from his territory. The program consisted of various speeches which became very boring after some time Since local assembly elections would be held in this month, the speeches sounded political. Though it was a Chief's Durbar, it was sponsored by the cell phone service MTN and in between the speeches and interludes there were MTN advert slogans. It gave the whole event more of a feel of a commercial program than a royal one.
In the interludes between speeches, there were dances and music, most of which were good. The sub-chiefs and other dignitaries were lavishly throwing money on the dancers and music groups as if it was part of their display of power and wealth. The amount which they were throwing on the dancers was very big at least in view of the volunteer living allowances we are getting here. I wondered how they have earned this money which they were extravagantly throwing away. Some of the dancers made their performances lively only when baksheesh money started coming in.
In the evening while returning to the home, I saw that suddenly the main road had became full of street side Kebab stalls and the air was full of smell of roasted meat. Having bad experience of meat in Bongo, I made my way straight to my house and cooked Alefu leaves (a type of Amaranth), while everybody else in the village was enjoying feast.
Traditional dance party on the road
Bongo Paramount Chief with queen mother and his servants