Cultural Festivals

Home to fifty-four nations and countless different ethnic groups and cultures, it is not surprising that Africa hosts a spectacular range of annual festivals. Some are influenced by faith, some by music and dance, and many are a celebration of each country’s unique cultural traditions.

With over 3,000 ethnic groups and around 2,000 different languages, Africa's rich cultural diversity is unparalleled. The continent is home to some of the most spectacular cultural festivals on the planet – everything from food and music to art and nature – in truly spectacular locations such as isolated deserts, medieval cities, cloud forests and enchanted islands.

Visiting a country during festival time is such a great way to enhance one's journey and experience the destination at a deeper level. It is also a great way to interact with the locals as most people are proud of and happy to share their culture with outsiders. Here are some of our favourite local festivals around the continent:

Timkat – Gondar, Ethiopia (January)Timkat is one of the most important dates in the Ethiopian calendar. It is an Ethiopian Orthodox celebration that marks the Epiphany, or baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. The three-day festival is held in towns and cities across the country, but the epic one occurs in Gondar. Here, thousands of pilgrims dressed in white robes accompany a replica of the Ark of the Covenant from each of the city's churches to the royal bathing pool known as Fasiladas' Bath. After a candlelight vigil, the waters of the pool are blessed, and celebrants take to the water to renew their baptism vows. The capital, Addis Ababa, also holds a massive celebration where its streets are beautifully decorated with green, red and yellow to represent the Ethiopian flag, and priests dressed in richly clothed vestments walk the streets in a procession holding ornate umbrellas.

Sauti za Busara – Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania (February)Held every year in February, the Sauti za Busara (Swahili for “Sounds of Wisdom”) is an African music festival, bringing an explosion of East African music and culture to the shores of Zanzibar. This festival takes place in historic Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the festival’s main venue is in the Old Fort, a stunning piece of Omani colonial architecture which has stood for over 200 years and remains the oldest surviving building in town. This amazing setting for the festival brings up to 20,000 people together in celebration of the wealth and diversity of music and culture from the region. The festival has built an enviable reputation, regionally and internationally, for its quality of music, friendliness, and peaceful atmosphere. This 4-day extravaganza closes with a must-attend grand finale party, with music until dawn, at one of Zanzibar’s fantastic beach locations.

Lake Turkana Cultural Festival – Northern Kenya (June)The Lake Turkana Cultural Festival takes place annually in Loiyangalani, a small town located on the southeastern coast of Lake Turkana. The name means “a place of many trees” in the native Samburu tongue and is home to the El Molo, a vanishing ethnic group. The festival is designed to help foster economic development as well as celebrate and preserve the culture of the communities living in the northern part of Kenya. They include the Turkana, Samburu, Gabbra, Pokot and Borana. Prepare to be mesmerised as these ethnic communities showcase their traditional singing and dancing in their colourful costumes. There is plenty of delicious food to enjoy as the lifestyles and cultures of these communities are brought to light through performance. The journey to the location, through the savannah, is part of the adventure.

Gerewol Festival – Southwest Chad (September)The Gerewol festival is a beauty pageant with a twist. This colourful, centuries-old festival is a competitive male beauty pageant, where men put on makeup, dress up and perform a series of enigmatic dances to attract a new wife. Every year at the end of the rainy season, the nomadic Wodaabe tribes gather together after having travelled across the Sahel on foot, camel or donkey. The men rise early to paint their faces with red ochre, draw on white dots, pile on jewellery and splash on a slick of black or blue lipstick during preening sessions that last for hours.
They then dance in long lines each evening in front of groups of women, arms interlinked, eyes wide and lips parted to emphasise how tall and how white their teeth and eyes are. They bounce and bend in a bid to imitate the grace and elegance of the long-legged white cattle egret and chant ‘va va va’ with wide smiles, rolling eyes and fluttering cheeks. The Wodaabe are polygamous, and during the dance, a woman who wishes to be ‘stolen’ from her current husband by a more attractive mate taps him on the shoulder to indicate her choice. Bearing witness to the Gerewol festival is a rare opportunity for travellers to experience such a unique spectacle.
Meskel – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (September)Meskel is a Christian festival that has been observed in Ethiopia for over 1,500 years. It commemorates the discovery of the original cross upon which Jesus was crucified. In Addis Ababa's Meskel Square, the celebration is marked with a colourful procession of priests, deacons and choir singers who walk around a huge pyre, bearing ceremonial crosses and wooden torches decorated with olive leaves. The torchbearers set fire to the pyramid-shaped structure, then the faithful use the ash to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
Kwita Izina – Kinigi, Rwanda (September)Rwanda is home to almost half of the world's mountain gorillas, so it is not surprising that their main festival is a celebration of these gentle giants. Kwita Izina takes place in September every year and it is a ceremony where each baby gorilla born in the previous twelve months is named, following the tradition of the Rwandan naming ceremony given to each newborn human baby. Obviously, the gorillas do not attend; however, the week-long programme of festivities, which include traditional music, dancing and performances by local students and artists, does attract thousands of revellers each year.

Omo Valley Tribal Festivals – Omo Valley, Ethiopia (all year)Ehiopia’s Omo Valley is home to eight primary tribes and another ten sub-tribes, each possessing their own distinct language and culture, despite their close proximity to one another. Due to the uniqueness of each tribe and their individual customs, there are always fascinating and colourful festivals and ceremonial events being celebrated throughout the year.

Some of the more intriguing are: the Hamar tribe’s coming-of-age bull jumping ritual in Turmi; the Mursi tribe’s Donga stick fighting tournament where tribal warriors battle for honour; the Hamar tribe’s Evangadi dance, where young boys and girls perform their courtship dance to find a mate; the Dassenech tribe's Dimi circumcision ceremony where young men don leopard skin and ostrich feathers for the event; and finally the most unusual, the Bodi tribe’s Ka’el festival where young men feast on a diet of blood, milk and honey over a three-month period leading up to the festival, and the one with the fattest stomach is victorious.

No matter when you visit this fascinating region, you will be sure to find some unique local celebration taking place.

Most festivals are a time of celebration, so it is a wonderful opportunity to see how the locals honour their culture and traditions, and in doing so, keep them alive.

There is a festival, celebration or special event happening somewhere in Africa every month of the calendar, and your A2A Travel Consultant will be happy to advise and guide you if you are interested in observing or participating in a festival or two during your trip.

Let us help arrange your
Cultural Journeys

Every safari we arrange is unique and customised to suit each client’s interests and budgets.

Contact our consultant to plan a custom travel itinerary for you.

Ready for your trip?
Let us help you plan everything.

We do not subscribe to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ philosophy. Sample itineraries and cost estimates are meant purely as a guide. To find out more, please contact one of our expert travel consultants to plan a customized itinerary based on your budget and interests.