Sankpala is on fire
“You ready?” Adams asks me.
Jesus. I haven’t heard so many gun shots since I lived in Philadelphia.
Yeaaaap. I’m ready. Ready as I will ever be. Adams, please don’t leave me alone out there. He grabs two tightly bound bundles of hay and we were on our way. I’m pretty sure they belong to my landlord, and Adams doesn’t seem to think anything of it.
The Fire Festival is celebrated in the northern regions of Ghana. I have been looking forward to it since before I came to site. I had no idea it would be so soon. I would have taken pictures, but I was scared to take my camera into the depths of my village in the pitch dark with a bunch of Ghanaians waving branches of fire. Words will have to suffice.
Adams and I are practically jogging to the chief’s palace. “I’m not sure if they started yet.” Adams is a nurse at the clinic by day and carpenter extraordinaire by night (he has made all the furniture at my place). He is the son of the late chief and believes it as his duty to keep an eye on me. When people talk about generosity and kindness innate in Ghanaians, they are talking about people like Adams.
I knew we reached for sure when billows of dust were climbing the dark sky. Is that a traditional dance? “No, its just kids fooling around.” Hundreds of Sankpalians are covered in white powder with their own bundles in hand. Some are wearing fake armor or have white designs painted on their brown bodies. The drums and chunky bells are deafening, children are dancing and yelling and I’m just trying to take it all in through the dust. Adams is narrating everything that moves. He shows me the basins of water with herbs soaking in them. “The woman will throw these on the people after the fire.” To put out the fire? “No. It’s just what they do.” A man wearing little more than leopard shorts and a whistle comes up to us and starts yelling at Adams in Dagbani. The only word I recognize is ‘photo’. “He’s a magic man,” Adams explains. “It’s a gift that was passed down to him. He has a crocodile.” Oh. He’s also very drunk. Adams smiles and goes on to tell me that the Fire Festival in one sense celebrates the new year, but traditionally it celebrates magic. People believe that during the celebration, a bullet will not even be able to penetrate you. That explains the gunshots.
The chief finally arrives. He gives the children a pep talk on not setting each other on fire this year. And to apologize if you accidentally step on someone’s foot as you are running through the village with your torch. Then he lights the bonfire. I’m suddenly consumed with fear. Adam hands me my own torch. Go time.
We light our bundles and run. The sight is unlike anything I’ve seen, hundreds of people running through the village with their torches, lighting the bushes, grass, and trees along the way. And you have to run or the thick smoke will consume you. I tried to hold my breath for as long as I could. Don’t catch on fire, don’t catch on fire. I pass Alhaji as I run. “Hi! I think we took your bundles!” Adams grabs my arm and straightens it out. I almost set him on fire.
We finally stop to catch our breaths and Adams takes my bundle and attempts to throw it in a tree, still ablaze. Before it leaves his hand, a girl snatches it and keeps running. This doesn’t faze him either. “So once you reach the market, you can’t come back with the fire. You have to get rid of it. You come back with branches to dance with.” He snatches a handful of green branches from a small girl and hands it to me. She slips her hand into mine just as all of Sankpala breaks into a chant. “Sakago! Sakago!” What does it mean, Adams? “I’m not sure what the translation means.” I shrug and wave my branches. Sakago! Sakago!
When we reach the chief’s palace again, everyone runs into this massive circle continuing their chants. “If you go in there you won’t come out,” he warns. Oh, I’m fine, right here. Watching. Drumbeats are rocking the earth below me. The air is thick with the smell of dust, sweat and apateshe, the local liquor.
Suddenly a gunshot goes of just yards from us. Everyone stops for one moment and four more shots go off. Then as if cued, the chants and running continue.
“The men are going to do a traditional dance.” We make our way to another circle - Adams somehow pushes us through to the very front. Why are these men still carrying bundles? Boom. Oh, those would be rifles. My right eardrum has just been murdered. Boom. And there goes the left one. “My ears are ringing, lets get out of this one. The women are going to dance next.” Ringing? Mine are bleeding. The women line up to do their traditional dance, the Tora. But drunk men keep jumping in front of them. Adams is getting really frustrated. “They aren’t happy unless everyone is watching them.” They finally begin - four women at a time bump hips and click their heels as everyone sings the high-pitched traditional song. I have got to learn this dance by next year. The smell of alcohol is getting stronger. Are those men with the rifles drinking apateshe? “Yea. I think we can head back now.” Sounds good to me.
The two if us and the woman who fries yams down the road from me walk back. The drums and gun shots get farther and farther away. I yawn and smile.
This. This is why I love Africa.