Forget Rio, Head To Carnival In Africa!

Africa is in a celebratory mood — carnival is coming! During the month of January many countries on the continent prepare for carnival celebrations that happen in February, in the three days before Ash Wednesday.

Here’s a look at some of the carnivals taking place around Africa next month.


It’s party time in Luanda, Angola, where you’ll find the expected colorful costumes and gravity defying headgear. Participants dance the samba/samba down the street in this carnival competition. As with most carnivals, there is a king and queen, dancers, and music everywhere. And the music is semba.

Brazil’s samba music and dance actually has their roots in semba of Angola. “The word ‘semba’ comes from the Kimbundu language and can mean to pray or invoke the spirits of ancestors or local Gods,” according to Our Africa. “Slaves were captured from the Angolan region and taken to Brazil between 1600 to 1888. They took their religion, music, and dancing with them. That’s how the semba/samba tradition became part of Brazilian life.”

Carnival in Luanda goes all the way back to 1857, and of course there are other carnivals at this time in Angola, but the one in the capital city is the biggest and most spectacular.

Angola is trying to make its carnival THE African carnival destination, and the Luanda carnival organization committee is spending a reported US $500,000 and upwards annually to do so.

Cabo Verde (Cape Verde)

Cabo Verde celebrates carnival on three islands. There is a smaller one on Santiago island in the capital city of Praia, and while it pales in comparison to the carnivals that take place in Mindelo, São Vicente, and in Ribeira Brava, São Nicolau, the city has been working to strengthen its carnival contribution. All three have special days for children to enjoy and parade in carnival or “carnaval” (Portuguese for carnival).

Still, Mindelo and Ribeira Brava dominate Cabo Verde carnivals for different reasons. There is a local saying that São Vicente has the show, São Nicolau has the heart.

Carnaval de Mindelo is a major spectacular–always pulling out all the stops. In fact, it has been called the most dazzling in all of Africa. It’s been turning the streets of Mindelo into an all out festa since the 18th century. Preparations start nearly a year prior, most typically in December. Obviously, folks on São Vicente take carnival seriously.

Cabo Verde, Part 2

Selma Alexandra Spencer Neves, a Cabo Verdean American who came back to Cabo Verde two years ago, found this out about SV carnival firsthand. Last year, she performed on one of the floats for SV carnival. “I had seen the SV carnaval on TV and realized they meant serious business. The groups actually compete so everything from the costume to the song to the dance steps have to be on point. I was invited by a friend of mine who is the president of the (carnival) group Monte Sossego,” she recalls.

The streets are packed with full-blown celebrations as the city goes into overdrive. Participants dress in outlandishly beautiful costumes; attendees wear wacky, wonderful outfits; live drumming and music blast loudly. And the city gets a major boost in tourism. Neves enjoyed her turn as one of the SV participants so much so she may go back again. “This year I was invited again to SV so I’m going again to Monte Sossego and I liked the float so much I asked to be on one again this year.”

On the island of São Nicolau many say theirs is the “real” Kriolu carnival, while SV’s is steeped in Brazilian influences. First off, there is no competition, carnival here is just for sheer fun, though there are unofficial rivalry among the groups. As Neves discovered when she took a turn as a SN participant. “When I went to SN in 2014 I still lived in the States. My cousin who is from SN invited me so I came specifically for the carnaval in SN. It was an amazing experience!” she recalls. “There are two rival groups in SN–Estrela Azul and Copa Cabana. “In the same household you may have people from the different groups and leading up to the carnival it’s like rooting for different soccer teams. Everyone arguing about whose song is better, whose rehearsal is more fun. My family was no different, and since the cousin who invited me told me i could be part of the group Estrela Azul I had to immediately join in on the discussions.”

SN’s carnival is steeped in 80 years of tradition, and according to local lore the concept was brought to SN by emigrant from the United States, and at the time it was a small celebration of the festivities of King Momo. By 1952 the first official group, Copa Cabana, was created. Then followed Estrela Azul.

Again, the costumes are colorful, and the drumming rhythmic, but the floats, made of plaster and flour paste, are unique in that they are designed to maneuver the very narrows streets and steep hills of Ribeira Brava. “To this day I’m still wondering how they managed to fit all of the groups’ floats in the small town square,” says Neves. And in CV, carnival fun starts way before carnival. “The rehearsals are just as fun as the carnival itself so it’s must if one is planning on going to SN. In SN the groups go out on three days–Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday (the actual carnival day),” explains Neves. “And the interesting part about trying out the costume is that they blindfold you so you only get to see your costume on the first day of the parade. They use fireworks to announce that the group is ready for the parade and to ask participants to go to the meeting point…The groups will then march to the town square where the goal is to be the first group to arrive as you’ll have more space to dance.”


Yes, Guinea-Bissau, which only has a handful of Catholics (as the majority of its people are Muslim), does celebrate carnival. For carnival in Guinea-Bissau the costumes are a little different than what you’d expect. People don the traditional attire of their ethnicity. A four-day event, carnival here too includes a “children’s carnival” in the capital and in Bafata.

Carnival is celebrated in many cities and regions, but the main one is the Carnival of Bissau, which is also well-known the Carnival of Bijagós tradition on Bubaque island. Additionally, there is also the Carnival of the Pepel (carnival of the animals) in the city of Quinhamel. Here, people not only wear traditional garb but also huge animal heads–tigers, roosters, rabbits, mice.


In the capital city Maputo, carnival consists of a series of public parades while carnival celebrations head inside at bars, clubs, or in private events. Still Carnaval de Maputo attracts about 9,000 people, including 3,000 dancers from local junior high schools. But in the city of Quelimane you will find a more traditional carnival, of course with African flair. The city’s lays claim to the country’s best carnival. Carnaval De Quelimane lures in more than 50,000 people from all parts of the country as well as tons of tourists. The area where carnival takes place is also called “Little Brazil.”


Nigeria boasts that its Calabar Carnival Festival is “Africa’s Biggest Street Party.” And it’s not really “carnival,” for it takes place in November usually. It is more to celebrate the upcoming Christmas festivities, as it starts off with a tree-lighting ceremony. There are musical concerts galore, attracting international acts, from Akon and American gospel singer Kirk Franklin to U.S. rapper Fat Joe and pop singer NeYo. And it’s a BIG party–32 days of events, activities, and parades.


In Africa most of the traditional carnivals are in former Portuguese colonies, but other countries are trying to lure in carnival tourists as well, including Seychelles, which recently started its own carnival for that reason–Carnaval International de Victoria. Now in its sixth year, the event has brought in top international stars such as Dionne Warwick and Grace Barbé to beef up its presence. This carnival doesn’t really center around lent; it is typically held in April. This year’s happens April 22-24.

South Africa

South Africa’s version of carnival, like Seychelles, has nothing to do with Lent and is a big tourism draw. There are carnivals in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and in Gauteng, whose carnival is just 10 years old. The Joburg Carnival is a New Year’s Eve event, patterned after Brazil’s world-famous Rio Carnival and launched in 2004. Troupes perform for prizes in categories such as best costumes, best choreography, and best troupe performance. There’s also Gauteng Carnival, which began in 2005 and had 3,000 participants and has grown so much since its early days that it was moved to Soweto in 2010. The newest SA carnival is Cape Town Carnival, which started in 2010, attracting about 11,000 people, and has quickly grown to attract a whopping 50,000. According to the carnival organization, the goal is to not only showcase the arts and culture of the city but to “create employment and training opportunities in costume, float design and production as well as large event logistics.”


Zimbabwe’s Harare international Carnival is relatively new, having started within the last two years with a goal to increase “employment and wealth creation, foreign revenue generation, industry expansion, infrastructure advancement and social goodwill,” according to its website. Held in December, it has a Brazilian style with a Zimbabwean flair, of course.

Related content on AFKTravel:

The 15 Best African Festivals To Experience This Winter
10 Nigerian Festivals You Should Know About
10 Amazing Food Festivals in South Africa

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