Thursday, 23 January 2014

An Invite to the Palace

Over the weekend we had the great privilege to be invited by one of the local chiefs to take part in the Damba Festival. A mix of local and Islamic traditions, the Damba festival is one of the premier events in the Dagomba Calendar. Originally a festival to celebrate the birth and naming ceremonies of the Prophet Mohammed, the Dagomba have overlaid their own traditions to the ceremony and it now includes a celebration of the local chiefs in a riot of celebration.

The kids were clamouring for their photos to be taken
The festival takes place over 10 days, culminating in a 2 day celebration: ‘Somo’ Damba celebrating the birth of the Prophet and ‘Naa’ Damba celebrating his naming. Chief Anusa, one of the local chiefs who works with another of International Service’s project partners (RAINs) invited all of the ICS and local volunteers to the celebration as his guests.

On Sunday afternoon our team met the team leaders in town before heading off to Chief Anusa’s Palace (Banvim-Sahanaa). As we arrived we were slightly confused by being encircled by men and boys drumming. We didn’t quite know what to do until Matt (RAINs team leader) herded us over to Anusa’s house. We sat chatting under the shade of the mango tree until it was time for the festival to kick off. The drumming got louder and various other local chiefs started to arrive followed by their retinues. A circle formed around the parade ground and the chiefs would enter and dance around the circle under a large parasol with lots of drumming and much to our initial shock accompanied by what we thought was gunfire. As part of the festival, many Dagomba pack straw into ancient rifles and shoot gunpowder. The huge boom and puff of smoke which rises into the air is more reminiscent of a bomb than a gunshot which is pretty intimidating when you’re not expecting it! The crowd had grown so big we struggled to get a decent view on the action so we were all clambered up into a tree, pulling up those that struggled, where we could get a great view of the parading.  

The best was yet to come as we headed off to the Dakpema Palace – the residence of the Paramount Chief of Tamale. We were received by Dakpema on his throne in the parade ground at Dakpema Palace: we quickly learnt that upon meeting a chief you must bow, stay low and clap. We sat down amongst the chiefs gathered on the floor around Dakpema at the edge of the parade ground. The crowds packed into the grounds and watched on as the centre was a bustle of dancing, drumming and more chief’s arriving to pay their respects to Dukpema. There were various dancing troupes and drumming groups who were all having a fantastic time getting into the spirit of things. It is traditional that if you like a performance you stick a GhC1 note to the performer’s perspiring forehead and many of the dancer’s enthusiastically came around to the chiefs hoping for tips! Towards the end of the celebrations, Anusa got up and danced with one of the groups which we were all very impressed by. Meriame was so awestruck that she got up and stuck a Cedi to his forehead!

Chief Anusa on his horse on Monday
As evening approached, Dakpema got up and he and his retinue danced over to the palace. Little did we know that we were going to have an audience with him! Anusa led us over to the inner regions of the palace and after waiting our turn, we went into a darkened green tinged room filled with sofas and large single chair at the head to have our audience with the paramount chief, who welcomed us and thanked us for coming to Tamale.
The finale of the Damba festival was on Monday, which Chief Anusa had also invited us to. We met after work at the old Victory Cinema and were introduced to some of the members of Danani dance troupe (a group set up by Anusa to train disadvantaged young people in cultural dance to urge them away from street life). They led us through town to the main parade, which was absolutely rammed with people. We took up position by the Central Mosque at the junction of the Tenchiman Rd and the main parade route. As each chief passed there was a new frenzy of their supporters trying to reach the front to show their support. The crowds were jostling and there were plenty of loud, booming gunshots. We watched the other chiefs go by until Anusa came by on his horse. We followed him along the parade route, at various points having to elbow our way through the teeming crowds. There were hundreds of people lining the streets that day. The Dance Troupe looked after us and led us through the crowds making sure that we were always together. We tried to make our way to the Dakpema Palace, but the crowds became too large and we were almost overwhelmed. After a short time in the middle of all of that we had to escape off to the side of the parade route.

I think that it is safe to say that we all enjoyed the Sunday festival more than the Monday festival, to be honest the crowds had gotten too big on Monday and perhaps we were suffering slightly from a little fatigue from the previous days celebrations. Although we were all falling asleep at the dinner table by the end of the second day we had found both days to be interesting insights into Northern Ghanaian culture and we learned a lot about the traditions of the Dagomba.

This week's post and photos brought to you by Jon

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