Persian New Year in Makunduchi
By Michael Clarke One of the craziest events in Zanzibar takes place on or around 23 July. Bring all your grievances with somebody to an end – beat them up!
Yes, this is known as a festival, and I guess in its broader sense it is a festival. There are lots of happy people (strangely enough) and there is singing and running around and it’s in a big field. In the evening everyone gets pretty drunk, tries to get lucky and there is very loud music, so yes it has all the hallmarks of the kind of festivals I am used to. The only thing that is a tad different however, is that there is quite a lot of people quite intent on beating the heck out of each other and then something get sets on fire at the end. This is all completely normal.
The Mwaka Kogwa festival, as it is called in Swahili, freely translated means “the year to be clean” and is the traditional Shirazi or Persian New Year celebrations. Although it has its origins in the Zoroastrian religion, the Zanzibaris have certainly taken it to heart.
Shirazi Persians were among the first foreigners to settle in Zanzibar, among them the forefathers of late pop star Freddie Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar City.
Nowadays there is just one Zoroastrian family left in Zanzibar, it is said, but the little town of Makunduchi on the south-east coast was once the centre of the ShiraziPersian culture. Every year around the third week of July the traditional festival takes place there. It has been going on for years, the first time I was there was 15 years ago and it has got bigger and bigger ever since and puts Makunduchi on the map, although our brilliant Tanzanian president Mama Samia has already done that! She was born in here in 1960, probably in the better days of the town.
Mwaka Kogwa is a combination of traditional rituals and elements of Zoroastrian fire-worship. So, the idea is this, although it’s all got very distorted and people get very excited, Every year, the discrepancies and disagreements of the previous year between the village will be settled by a good old fight, and after the fight the score will be settled and everybody goes to bed. It’s a kind of preemptive strike for not fighting by fighting. People used to use sticks back in the day but it all got a bit bloody so the government stopped it but said you were only allowed to use banana leaf stalks.
Getting hit with a banana tree stalk is nowhere near as sore but it also isn’t just a pillow fight! The day starts with everyone congregating at the sports field. The women in very colourful kangas slowly run around the field singing songs about family and love. There is a grass hut constructed in the middle by the local witch doctor, or mganga in Kiswahili. Makunduchi is still known as a centre of witchcraft in Zanzibar today. After the women, it is the turn of the men, up to a thousand come into the centre of the field, the fight begins, and it’s pretty hardcore. Watching from the outskirts you just see a dust bowl arise and the flurry of arms and banana sticks flying around the place. Trucks full of banana stalks roam the field ready to replenish ammunition. At the end of the proceedings the hut is burned. Through the direction the smoke blows, the witch doctor determines the fortunes of the village in the coming year.
People then go to the beach and have a communal lunch of pilau before a few sound systems playing bongo flava and other Swahili greats popup and people dance and drink the night away. The festival is open to everyone and definitely worth a visit. Although it doesn’t sound like it, it is a very friendly event. Just be advised not to get in the thick of it!