the 'slapping' festival

New years resolutions - every culture has its own way to close the year that has just passed, and to give their blessings for the year that follows. With its origins from the Zoroastrianism - one of the worlds oldest religions - Mwaka Kogwa is the traditional celebration of the Persian new year in Zanzibar. Mwaka Kogwa was brought by the Shirazi people - an ethnic group inhabiting the Swahili coast - and although it is celebrated in some other parts of the island and Mwaka Kogwa is a governmental approved holiday, it is not by all islanders considered as Islamic - the main religion on Zanzibar - and therefore not celebrated as such. The celebration is mostly an important tradition in Makunduchi, a village in the southeastern tip Zanzibar, where it’s extensively celebrated every July or August.

For four days rituals and celebrations are practiced throughout the village, but the first day is a particular one. In the centre of Makunduchi, on a big, open, and sandy field, hundreds of villagers come together. Women are dressed in their finest clothes, their colourful kangas in contrast with the deep red soil and green vegetation. And the men… Some of them are dressed casually in clothes they would wear any other day. Others are dressed like women, with long dresses and tops with bra’s underneath, wearing makeup, wigs, or masks. An exciting vibe floats around the field, people are buzzing, women, children and other visitors join in groups, waiting for something that’s about to happen. Then; a red dust of air, feet moving, people screaming, and the sound of men hitting each other. If you would not know better you would think you’re in a war zone. 

From a safe distance, I witness how from two sides men are running into each other with banana stems in their hands, slapping the shit out of each other. I’ve heard of the Mwaka Kogwa festival and their rituals several times, so I knew beforehand what to expect, but being this close gives you a certain rush and excitement throughout your body. I see serious, aggressive faces and happy faces, determined and uncertain faces. The sound of the banana stems hitting the skin is sharp. I am standing in the middle of a huge playground where the men of the village can get rid of all their aggression from the previous year, to start the new year with a clean sleeve. Everyone has a chance to fight and to settle their previous negative thoughts, and it is believed that after this ritual combat, there will be no future conflicts in the coming year.

Looking through the lens of my camera I only notice  how close I am because of the nearing sounds. Although it’s a friendly fight, I don’t feel much for getting stuck in the middle of it. But in a way it feels tempting. To let go everything that has been stuck in your mind, not only mentally, but also physically. To throw all your energy out there. It definitely sounds more exciting to me than lighting up some fireworks. However, by the time a local man offers me a banana stem to try, to hit him, how tempting it might feels, I don’t feel much for hurting him. I am not sure how much pain my beating could give him though; looking at the stripes on his back and arms he already got a good amount of hits.

But the new years celebrations are not only about beating each other up. Women get together in groups and sing songs about love and family. Children witness all the festivities from the side, and playfully cheer around, also with banana stems in hand. After this first day of the ritual combat, a hut gets burned, symbolising the end of the old year and the start of the new year. Days follow with celebrations, food, dancing, singing and drumming. happy new years!