Thanksgiving in Ghana (hint - it's not a thing)


Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite holiday is, I always say Thanksgiving, but - this wasn't always the case. Growing up, we'd celebrate Thanksgiving in small ways - grew pumpkins, made pie - but beyond that, it really wasn't a big deal. 

Ghana doesn't have Thanksgiving, of course. But around this time, they do have a festival that is comparable. So, what's Ghana like on the last Thursday of November?

There's no chance of a white Christmas - The hot savannah cools to a mild 100 degrees Fahrenheit (at night you may catch an 85 degree wind, if you're lucky). They have two seasons - the wet and the dry season. Harvest concludes the wet season and so farming is completed and there's an abundance of crops. 

Instead of cornucopias they have helmets with bull horns - It's the time of the Foik Festival, which commemorates when the Builsa people expelled the Muslim slave traders from the Zambarama tribe.

The Zambarama came south from Niger and would violently attack tribes, grabbing men, women and children in order to sell them to the Ashtanis for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Villages were decimated and for a long period of time, they were left defenseless against the attacks. 

  • To put it into perspective, Ghana is about the size of North Carolina, but there's 70 different tribes and each tribe has their own language. Picture this - if you drive thirty miles in any direction, you'll encounter a new language, which also unlocks an entirely different worldview. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that people who speak different languages also live in different worlds because there are certain words and phrases that other languages don't have. 
  • For example, the Builsa only have words for red, black and white. If you were to describe yellow, there's no word for it. They say it in these terms - kutawti bolin - which literally translates to mean "the light is lit" and describes the yellow bulb that blooms on their peanut plant.

The way that Ghana was configured left them vulnerable to the slave raiders. All of these tribes were acephalous tribes without any overarching organization or alignment. Therefore, they didn't structure alliances. When a village was hit, there was no one to come to their aid. 

The primary chief in residence while my family lived there was named Azantilo. He spoke with my father about how this time was not so long ago - in fact, Azantilo's father was involved in the last fight against the slave raiders. Two in particular he mentioned, Samari and Babatu, were the most infamous slave raiders that were widely known throughout the north as the personification of evil. 

The Foik Festival celebrates the defense and defeat against the slave raiders, when the Builsa tribe was able to push them back. 

They do not turn down at their parties - Celebration goes all-night long, with food at different intervals throughout the night (even as early as 3 a.m.). All Builsa clans assemble (approximately 25), the chief speaks, they pour out millet water to the ancestors and then they proceed to assemble for a ritual dance. Dressed in traditional warrior outfits, the men dance in a large line while the women fan them. As drums beat, they sing - 

"ngawma kaw de kooka, pillim de kooka,

dokle noi po nganta, dokle noi po nganta."

This literally translates to, "The rat killed a hundred, but that's just something in the mouth to the cat."

To them, this means, "While the slave raiders killed hundreds of our people, we're much bigger than that. We devoured them."

While our celebrations look quite different on opposite sides of the worlds, we do have some things in common - they are both filled with joy, family and lots of food. 

Until next time,