In my typical fashion I set out upon an adventure yesterday without a particularly good understanding of what I was getting myself into, but certain of the fact that it would prove to be an experience. The Northern region of Ghana was celebrating an annual festival called ‘Damba.’ I have asked a few people here about the festival and its cultural significances and received a variety of answer. Thus I have only been able to conclude that it is some sort of cultural festival that manages to cut across tribal and religious divides. The purpose of the festival is to give local chiefs the chance to ceremonially visit other chiefs in their area. This obviously provides an excellent opportunity for people to witness the wealth and prestige of the local chiefs, and the chiefs all live up to the part riding on horse back and acting as regal as possible.
The festival started off mundanely with some traditional drummers and lots of dancing outside of each chiefs’ palace. The drummers would walk from person to person drumming in exchange for token sums of money. Each person was expected to dance to the beat of the drummers, and while I took my turn as well, I fear that no one was impressed by the dance that the white man performed.
An hour or so later things started to get a little more interesting. Apparently Ghanaians have an affinity for guns. Each chief as he left his palace and paraded down the street with his entourage was accompanied by a group of people equipped with a veritable arsenal of antique and homemade weaponry. Their rifles (or possibly muskets) seemed in some cases to date back to at least the mid-1800s. From the looks of the people I surmised that they must constitute some form of local militia, though that is just a conjecture. The rifles were used at the beginning of the festival to provide each chief with a solute as he left his palace, exciting the fervour of the crowd. As the festival wore on however, more and more of the militia men took to using their rifles to scare members of opposing clans. I had been assured by a few Ghanaians that the rifles were not loaded with balls, and were just for the noise and the effect, but nevertheless it was a touch of a bit frightening. Luckily, also true to my usual form of being equipped for every eventuality, I had brought along a pair of ear plugs which I had happened to toss in my bag while packing for Ghana. I think these two little pieces of Styrofoam saved me from a truly terrible experience. More than a few times guns were fired just over the heads of people in the crowd, and I am certain that more than a few people suffered damage to their ear drums. I however being well equipped was not only saved from that trauma, but also impressed the militia men by not flinching when they fired their guns! It was an experience; by the time I left I was covered in red dust and black powder.
The festival started at just past 3 o’clock in the afternoon and continued well past dark. I would estimate that at least a hundred thousand people came out to witness the celebration in the packed streets, and everybody in town agrees that this was one of the biggest and best Dambas of recent memory. Strangely despite all of the commotion and excitement, a white guy with a camera was still more than enough of a sight to distract plenty of children away from the festivities in order to have their pictures taken.
My favourite part of the afternoon though was once the parade with the chiefs on horse back started down the street where I was standing, a minor panic ensued. As the first squadron of revellers started pushing, shoving, and shooting, people began to flee trying to get out of their way. Finding myself in the middle of it, and not too fond of the idea of being trampled, I managed to jump over a drainage gutter and take refuge with a man and his family outside of their house. I ended up standing with them for a couple of hours and watching the rest of the parade go by from a slightly safer distance. Coincidentally, the man who owned the house was the uncle of one of my friends from Jinonayilli, so I guess Tamale is not always as big of a city as it may seem.