Today is Fire Festival in northern Ghana. It's a holiday I'd never heard of before I came to live in a village here as a Peace Corps community volunteer. It's incredibly intense. And it's one of my favorite celebrations.
On Fire Festival — Bugim Chugu in the local language — drums beat a quick and pulsating rhythm that summons people to dance in a rotating circle of bodies, large and small, old and young, holding torches of burning grass above their heads. Children covered nearly head to toe in white powder float in and out of vision like otherworldly apparitions.
It's "a time of sacrifice to gods and ancestors," wrote anthropologist Wyatt MacGaffey in his book, Chiefs, Priests, and Praise-Singers: History, Politics, and Land Ownership in Northern Ghana. He quotes the Ghanaian scholar Ibrahim Mahama: "The people hold not only flaming torches but also swords, cutlasses, knives, bows and arrows, and cudgels. The mood of the people is warlike. the atmosphere is heavily charged and disturbed. It appears ominous to any person who has never witnessed the occasion before."
My Ghanaian friend Ruhiya explains that Fire Festival is a time "to truly embrace our own culture. Unlike many holidays, it hasn't been watered down over time. It is still a vigorous celebration of who we were and are."
Despite its intensity, this festival, held in the first month of the lunar year for the Dagomba ethnic group, is welcoming to strangers.
"We are all so involved in the celebration that we don't pay as much attention to the 'siliminga,' or foreigner, as we normally would," Ruhiya says. "It's gratifying to see other people get as involved as we are."
Danielle, a friend of mine in the Peace Corp, stationed about ten miles away from me, says Fire Festival is "liberating to participate in. It seemed like a time where my community let go of what they usually expect of foreigners and I was just another person."
This is noteworthy because foreigners here are typically seen as the representatives of NGOs and other organizations, not as people who would willingly join Fire Festival rituals. But last year, Danielle says, "We were dancing and celebrating as one."
The festival has various origin stories. The population in this part of the country is largely Muslim, so it's not surprising that the festival has Muslim symbolism. Some say it marks the time when Noah, a prophet in the Islamic tradition, finally made it to land. It was nighttime, the story goes, so Noah and his passengers on the ark had to light torches to make sure they'd truly ended their voyage.
As part of the festival, verses from the Quran as well as predictions for the coming year are written on a wooden plank, then washed off. The water used to wash the plank is considered therapeutic and is sprayed on the dancing crowd later to protect them from harm.
There's another explanation that predates the time when Ghanaians embraced Islam. A chief's son was missing and so a search party went out after sunset, torches in hand. After a long search mission, they found the lad just awakening from a deep sleep at the foot of a tree. The evil tree must have cast a spell on the boy, they figured, so they set it aflame.
That's why in my village, and many others, people head out to a nearby tree and pelt it with burning grass from the torches. The idea is to destroy any evil spirits that might lurk within — but not to burn down the tree. They pick one hardy enough to survive the flames.
I'll be dancing in the festivities on October 11 and leaving my community about a month later. My two-year Peace Corps service finishes up in mid-November.
I can think of no better way to say goodbye than by celebrating Fire Festival with the villagers I've come to know. The festival lets me see a different side of them — and lets them see a different side of me.
The neighbor who sells rice is now the woman who urges me to run faster and dance harder at Fire Festival. And rather than viewing me as a low-key volunteer, she sees me as the one who whips out crazy dance steps while attempting to ululate. I'm sure she'll chuckle at my goofiness for years to come.
I don't mind. I want my community to remember me as someone who participated wholeheartedly in their culture and had a good time doing so.