When it’s cold, dull and wintry in the Northern Hemisphere, thoughts naturally turn to escape. Which is why winter is the perfect time to leave behind the gloom and doom of northern climes and head to Africa! At this time of year North Africa is cool and pleasant, while sub-Saharan Africa is hot and sunny — perfect weather for one of the many festivals around the continent. Here are 15 of the best African festivals to experience this winter.
1) Festival au Desert, Mali
One of the biggest and best festivals in Africa, the Festival in the Desert was started in northern Mali 15 years ago. Celebrating Tuareg music and culture as well as featuring international artists, tens of thousands would come from around Africa and the world and descend on the beautiful sand dunes of the Sahara outside Timbuktu. Currently suspended due to the instability of the region, a cultural caravan of peace featuring artists and musicians from the region will be traveling to Morocco and through southern Mali this year.
2) Klaapse Klopse, South Africa
Klaapse Klopse or Cape Town Minstrel Carnival has taken place every January 2 since the 19th century. Traditionally celebrated by the Afrikaans speaking Dutch, slaves would get January 2 off and were allowed to celebrate in their own way. Now, Klaapse Klopse is a huge festival celebrated by tens of thousands, featuring minstrels serenading throughout Cape Town in brightly garbed outfits.
3) Amazigh New Year, North Africa
Also known as Yennayer, the Amazighs (more commonly refered to as the Berber people) celebrate New Year’s Day on the 12th or 14th of January. Making up a large percentage of the population of North Africa stretching from Morocco through Libya, the day is celebrated with special dishes or a feast usually focused on the slaughter of an animal. Singing and dancing can also be found in many cities, towns, and villages throughout the region.
4) Voodoo Festival, Benin
If you’re headed to West Africa in winter, make sure you swing by Benin to witness one of the continent’s most fascinating religious celebrations. January 10 sees thousands of Beninese descend on Ouidah, the country’s spiritual home of voodoo or Vodun. Beginning with the slaughter of a goat by the high priest, the festival celebrates the ‘lighter’ aspects of the religion and much singing, dancing, chanting, drumming, and gin-drinking takes place.
5) Timkat Festival, Ethiopia
As one of Africa’s most ancient nations and one of the first Christian ones as well, Ethiopia has plenty of interesting cultural and religious festivals. Celebrated each January, Timkat (Epiphany) is Ethiopia’s most colorful and exciting. In the ruins of Gondar Castle, Ethiopian Orthodox priest’s parade tabots (replicas of the Ark of the Covenant) are taken to a specific area where they hold an all night vigil. In the morning, the tabots are splashed with holy water (with some participants receiving full baptisms) before being taken back to their churches with much fanfare.
6) Africa Cup of Nations, Equatorial Guinea
Africa’s bi-annual football (or soccer, for Americans) tournament is open to every country in the continent, although certain teams tend to always outperform others (Algeria’s Desert Warriors and Ghana’s Black Stars for example). After Morocco threatened to cancel or impose extreme restrictions on those visiting due to fears of Ebola, it was moved to Equatorial Guinea for 2015.
7) Festival on the Niger, Mali
Held in early February, Mali is again host to one of the best cultural festivals in West Africa. Segou is situated on the banks of the mighty Niger River, where five days of concerts, theater, dance performances, visual arts, and culinary competitions take place.
8) Swahili Music Festival, Zanzibar
From best in the west to Zanzibar, which plays host to Sauti za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom) Swahili Music Festival which is the Swahili event in East Africa. Buried under a mountain of snow and work in mid-February? Ditch it all for sun, sand, music, and food on Zanzibar’s sparkling shores. Featuring dozens of artists and musicians from Africa and around the world, if there’s a better way to spend four days in February, we can’t think of it.
9) Maynardville Shakespeare Festival, South Africa
For a markedly more toned down event, head south to Cape Town, where summer is in full swing in February. The Maynardville Shakespeare Festival is held in Wynberg, a southern suburb of Cape Town and the green wooded area that the Maynardville Open Air Theatre is set in is one of the nicest in the area. The production changes every year and 2015’s is Richard III. “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of…South Africa!”
10) Cavadee, Mauritius
In keeping with the sun-drenched theme, Mauritius is the place to be in late January/early February to catch a glimpse of the sometimes difficult to watch Thaipoosam Cavadee celebrated by the Indian Tamil community. Fire-walking, sword-climbing, and self-mutilation are all performed as those in the precession make their way to an alter (Cavadee) where food and other gifts are offered to the deity Murugan.
11) Ncwala Festival, Swaziland
The month-long Ncwala Festival is the most important in Swaziland and pays tribute to the king, Mswati III. This ‘Festival of the First Fruits’ is where ancestors long gone are venerated and the first harvest of the summer is also commemorated. The timing is dependent upon the king’s astrologers, but it usually starts in late December or early January.
12) FESPACO, Burkina Faso
The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (try saying that three times fast) or FESPACO for short is the largest film festival in all of Africa and held biennially. Dozens of film viewings, conferences, and events are held in the last week of February. Awards are given and FESPACO also serves as a sort of cultural conference and trade show for leaders in the television and film industry.
13) Cape Town Pride, South Africa
In what is one of the only openly gay celebratory events in Africa, Cape Town Pride is a raucous 10-day party filled with concerts, events, and other festivities. Now entering its 25th year, the parade is the most visible aspect of Pride. Every year has a theme like ‘Love is Our Diversity’ or ‘Pink Ubuntu,’ and there’s still time to vote on this year’s theme!
14) Coptic Christmas, Egypt
Similar to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Egypt’s large Coptic Christian Community follows the ancient Alexandrian Calendar and celebrates Christmas on January 7th. While it may not interest everyone visiting Egypt, attending an all night Christmas Mass at a Coptic church culminates in a large feast in the early hours of the morning, a once a year glimpse into some of Egypt’s oldest religious celebrations.
15) Marrakech Biennale, Morocco
The fifth annual Marrakech Biennale took place in 2014 but will return in February 2016 to ‘build bridges between cultures through the arts’ according to its official website. The festival celebrates art in many forms with five days of films, debates, drama, and dance performances.