|Celebrating New Year in Makunduchi , Zanzibar
Story by Ogova Ondego and Saphia Ngalapi
Pictures by Lee Naomba
Published January 5, 2007
Younger men fight in the centre of the field while younger women, in their best clothes, march around the field, singing and dancing, with men ogling and taunting them. All this is done in the name of celebrating the New Year in the middle of the Roman calendar as we know it. OGOVA ONDEGO and SAPHIA NGALAPI report.
Like Joshua of ancient Israel whose march around Jericho and trumpet sound sent the city walls tumbling down, young men carrying assorted weaponry march around the field singing “dirty” songs with sexual messages “Asiyemkatia kitenge naye yangu aitende (I will have sex with the woman for whom I bought a kitenge dress) and Leo Ijumaa tutawafanya (This Friday we shall lie with you)” before they break into a rugby-like warm up jog and chants. As soon as they feel they have warmed up enough, they get into the centre of the field known as Kaya Kuu in the centre of Makunduchi Village in southern Zanzibar to face off another battalion of young men from the neighbouring village for a real battle that takes two-to-three hours.
As soon as this is over, processions of younger women filled with song and dance and in their best clothes, march around the field, singing, dancing, and showing off as the men throw sexual taunts at them. The amused women hurl back good-natured “insults”.
As this happens, older men and women keep to the peripheries, supervising the religious aspect of the event popularly known as Mwaka Kogwa, or welcoming the traditional New Year.
The events at Kaya Kuu are wound up with prayers at the shrine and the burning down of a specially constructed traditional hut to mark the end of the year and the beginning of another.
Predictions of what the New Year has in store for the villagers and Zanzibar are often made from the direction of the smoke as the traditional hut, built by special people, is burnt.
“If the smoke sails straight to the sky,” explained Rajab Jirani, an elder, “it means there will be consensus on almost any matter in the country.”
To light the fire in the hut is usually a man who must escape as fast as possible soon after. If the person is burnt, it is believed calamities will befall the land.
However if he escapes successfully, then this is a sign that everything will be all right in the land, Jirani said.
The villagers throw spices in the fire at the shrine in the hope of being blessed.
The night before the grand gathering at Kaya Kuu, Mohammed Suleiman and Hajji Umadi of Makunduchi say, several bulls are slaughtered as sacrifice kuganga mji (to protect the villagers) and kuondoa mashetani (get rid of evil spirits). The people also recite verses from the Koran and pray for blessings from God.
Usually marked in mid or end of July, the 2006 Mwaka Kogwa was celebrated on July 21. Then, said Suleiman, 120 head of cattle were slaughtered as sacrifice.
Kassim Haji Ameir, an elder, explained: “In the past we fought using clubs and other crude weapons that badly hurt many of us that we had to be treated in hospitals,” he said. “This was ended after the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964 that overthrew the sultan and brought the late Abeid Amani Karume to the presidency. He ordered that we start using banana stalks as you have just witnessed today.”
“Torching the hut,” added elder Shumbaji, “symbolises the bidding goodbye to the past year and welcoming the new one.”
The crowds that gather at Kaya Kuu, comprising men, women, children and tourists from all over the world all retreat to the beach on the Indian Ocean for further festivities that run for four days and four nights non-stop.
Mwaka Kogwa, the Shirazi New Year that traces its origin to Zoroastrianism, has been marked in Makunduchi for a hundred years, we are told. Each year, its marking makes Makunduchi the scene of Zanzibar’s most spectacular ritual.
Initially known as Mwaka, it was the fourth president of Zanzibar, the late Idrisa Abdulwakil Nombe, who hailed from Makunduchi, who renamed it Mwaka Kogwa.
Hussein Said, a 22-year-old carpenter from Pemba, said, ‘Celebrating Mwaka Kogwa is a rebelling against God. I’m shocked to see people fighting. The government should ban such evil gatherings as they lead to sex orgies and the spread of sexually-transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS. Guest houses should also be razed as people usually have sex in them at this time of the year.”
Mwaka Kogwa has recently become a great attraction to people from all over Zanzibar and even the world holidaying in the Indian Ocean islands.
A levy of TSh1500 is usually imposed on each vehicle accessing Makunduchi for Mwaka Kogwa festivities.
Although Mwaka Kogwa appears to be an important cultural practice, it is not only receiving mixed feelings but is also giving way to voyeurism as many tourists seek out vulnerable people for sexual exploits.
Among accusations leveled at Mwaka Kogwa are that it causes people to worship idols locally known as shirki, something that goes against the teachings of Islam.
“Worshipping idols and ancestors goes against the Islamic faith to which the majority of Makunduchi villagers subscribe. This event should be banned,” a http://artmatters.info/wp-admin/post.php?post=512&action=edityoung man who identified himself as Abbas, said. “Moreover, many things that happen during this event, such as drunkenness, drug-taking, and reckless sex, can lead to people getting infected with AIDS.”
However elders defend Mwaka Kogwa against such accusations, saying whatever “bad things” are associated with Mwaka Kogwa are done by individuals and that they are not part of the rituals marking the New Year.