Mwaka Kogwa

The Islands of Unguja and Pemba
Genre : Festival
Principal country concerned : Column : History/society

Historical Background

The Islands of Unguja and Pemba, known collectively as Zanzibar, have a wealth of tradition and culture. One of the oldest traditional festivals is the celebration of Mwaka Kogwa. The festival marks the arrival of the new year, or'Nairuz' according to the Shiraz (Iran) calendar. Shirazis were the first foreigners to settle in Zanzibar in any number, and many aspects of their culture were absorbed by the Swahili people and were given a local context.

The festival is celebrated in many parts of Zanzibar, but it is in Makunduchi, south-eastern Unguja, that the ancient rites are most enthusiastically and elaborately followed. People flock to Makunduchi from all over Tanzania and beyond. Retired president Ali Hassan Mwinyi and former O.A.U. Secretary General, Salim Ahmed Salim have both been guests of honour, officially opening the festivities of Mwaka Kogwa which are officially recognized by the goverment.

The Fight

There are many different rituals involved in seeing out the old year, and welcoming the new one. The Mwaka Kogwa usually lasts about four days. However, it is the first day which is the most interesting and exciting. In the centre of the town is Kae Kuu, a large, open space and it is here that the action starts at about 11 in the morning.

Two brothers from the southern part of Makunduchi take on two other brothers from the northern part in a ritual physical combat. In the pre-Zanzibar revolution era, sticks and cudgels were used as fighting weapons but have now been replaced by banana stems (locally known as'makoa'). The fight is governed by a number of loose conventions or rules which are normally observed by the participants without the need for a referee. When one combatant feels that he has had enough beating, he simply raises both of his hands and surrenders, or changes his weapon for a better one and continues fighting.

Matters become complicated when supporters of either side join in the fight and it becomes hard to find an unscathed banana palm in the area. It is traditionally believed that since everyone has had a chance to fight, or to vent any hard feelings, there would be no future conflicts in the town in the coming year. Past year's misunderstandings and disagreements are exorcised and the new year can be started with a clean slate and in harmony.

Mwaka Kogwa Songs

While fighting is going on, women (they not take part in the actual fighting) move around the field singing; dressed in their finest. Their songs contain comments and messages about love and village life, and are mainly directed at the men in combat. They sing in Kikae, a local Swahili dialect of Makunduchi. For instance; "msinikatia kanga Njama yangu haitende!" - meaning "he who does not buy me a new pair of khanga (a traditional Zanzibari piece of cloth) will not make love to me!"

Up until recently, the men did not reply to such provocations, but this has now changed. Men would run in groups with their weapons held over their heads singing in unison, in response to the songs sang by the women with songs such as:- "Wanawake wa Kae hatumwebuni,, Wa mjini wajaa mitaani!" - meaning "We no longer need you, we prefer the town women who today are available everywhere you put your foot!"

The Hut

When the fight is almost over and the combatants exhausted, a small coconut thatch pyramid-shaped hut is built at the eastern end of Kae Kuu. A local magician goes inside the hut which is then set alight. With the flames roaring, the magician rushes out and throws himself unscathed into a nearby bush. Everyone around then, throw earth and stones on the fire to extinguish it. Thus it is believed, that if someone's house should catch fire in the new year, there would be no loss of life.

The Large Rock

A large rock found on the western side of the Kae Kuu pitch is considered magical and would prevent people from falling into a nearby well during the festivities. Nearby the rock, a pole wrapped in a new red or white piece of muslin is believed to propitiate devils who might otherwise cause disease outbreaks. One the other side of the rock, in a metal-roofed hut with a Swahili bed in it, les the'sheha' (paramount chief) - s/he is the traditional lord of the ceremonies.

After the Fight

People return to their homes to prepare for the feast after fighting has ended. All the villagers join together for a banquet that is held in the open. Strangers are welcome and villagers are said to be displeased if a guest does not join them. In the evening, everyone, dressed as flamboyantly as possible, flock to the'Koba' ground where traditional dances of Makunduchi such as'Mpe Chungu' of Mzuri Kaja village and'Dandaro' of Kajengwa village take place. Celebrations continue on the nearby beach until the new year is well and truly welcomed.


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