Festivals in Zanzibar, Mwaka Kogwa Festival

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The island of Unguja and Pemba, known collectively as Zanzibar, have a wealth of tradition and culture. One of the oldest traditional festivals is the celebration of Mwaka Kogwa. The festival originated in Persia and is older than Islam.It marks the arrival of the new Year, or Nairuz, according to the Shirazi Calendar. The Shirazis were the first foreigners to settle in Zanzibar in any number and many aspects of their culture were absorbed by the Swahili and given a local context.

The festival is celebrated in many parts of Zanzibar, but it is in Makunduchi, south-easten Unguja, that the ancient rites are most enthusiastically and elaborately followed. People flock to Makunduchi from all over, and the president of Zanzibar, Dr. Salmin Amour Juma, and the secretary General of the O.A.U. Dr.Salim Ahmed Salim, have both been guests of honor, officially opening the festivities.

The Fight

There are many different rituals involved in seeing out the old year, and welcoming the new. The Mwaka Kogwa usually lasts about four days. However, it is the first day which is the most interesting and exciting.
In the canter of the town is the Kae Kuu, a large, open space, and it is here that the action starts at about 11 a.m. Two brothers from the southern part of Makunduchi take on two brothers from the northern part in a ritual combat. In pre-revolution days sticks and cudgels were used, but now these have been replaced by banana stems (makoa). The fight is governed by a number of loose conventions or rules, which are normally observed by the participants without the need for a referee. When somebody feels he has had enough, he simply raises both hands and surrenders, or changes his weapon. Matters are complicated by supporters of one side or the other joining in, and it becomes hard to find an un scathed banana tree in the area.

It is believed that since everyone has a chance to fight, or to vent their feelings, there would be no conflicts in the town for the coming year. The past year's misunderstandings and disagreements are exorcised, and the new year can be started with a clean slate and in harmony.


While the fighting is going on, the women, who do not take part, move around the field singing, dressed in their finest. Their songs contain comments and messages about love and village life, and are mainly directed at the men. They are sung in local Swahili dialect of Makunduchi, Kikae. For example: "Msinkatia Kitenge", "Nyama yangu haitende".Which means, "If you dont buy me a peace of cloth, you will not make love to me". Up until recently the men did not reply to the women, but this has changed. Now the men run about in groups, with their weapons held over their heads, singing in unison, such responses as:
"Wanawake wakae hatumwebuni,

Wamjini wajaa mitaani."

In English "We no longer need you, we prefer the city women, they are everywhere today."

The Hut

When the fight is almost over and the combatants are exhausted, a small pyrapid-shaped hut, of coconut thatch, is built at the eastern end of the pitch. A local resident, believed to have some magical powers, then goes inside, and the hut is set alight. After a moment, when the flames are roaring, the man rushes out and throws himself, usually unscathed, into a nearby bush. Everyone then throws earth and stones on the fire to put in out. Thus it is believed, that in the new year, if someone's house should catch fire, there would be no loss of life.

The Large Rock

On the western side of the field is a large rock, next to a square-shaped well, surrounded by a three foot wall. this is a magical rock, and will prevent anyone from accidentally falling into the well during the festivities. Nearby the rock is a small hut, with a new thatch, or makuti. Inside is a pole wrapped it either a new red, or white, piece of muslim. This, it is believed, will propitiate the devils, who might otherwise cause an outbreak of disease in the area.

The Sheha's Hut

On the other side of the magic rock is another hut, under a tree. This one is large enough for a medium sized man to stand in, and has a metal roof. Inside is a Swahili bed, and another pole wrapped in either red or white muslin. This, it is believed, will propitiate the devils, who might otherwise cause an outbreak of disease in the area.


After the fighting has ended people return to their homes to prepare for the feast. Cows have been slaughtered, and all manner of food is cooked. All the villagers join together for the banquet, which is held in the open. Strangers are welcomed, and it is said that if a villager does not have a guest he is unhappy.

In the evening, everyone dressed as flamboyantly as possible, flocks to the koba ground. Here the traditional ngomas of Makunduchi, such as Mpe-chungu and Dandaro take place. The dancing goes on well into the night, interspersed with taarab and even disco music. Many people continue celebrating on the nearby beach until the new year is well and truely welcomed. Makunduchi is about one hour drive from Zanzibar town. Lodging is available at nearby Kigaeni beach.