By Anouk Zijlma
My picks for Africa's best festivals and events are listed below. It's worth planning your vacation to Africa around any of these top festivals and events. Click on the headings for more information. The festivals are arranged, as far as possible, in the order they appear during the year.
When: January 19 (January 20 on a leap year)
Three days of traditional Touareg art, music and dance takes place in Essakane, 2 hours from Timbuktu, Mali. International acts from Europe and West Africa round out the festivities. Everyone camps in the desert with their camels close at hand. A truly unique cultural event that is well worth the trek. It's worth taking a tour, in the past few years there have been some safety concerns. In 2013 the organizers are doing their best to find a safe spot in the Sahara to hold the festival. Check the official web site for updates.
Where: Essakane, Mali
When: End of January/February (2013)
The Panafrican Film and TV Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) is Africa's largest film festival and has been around for over 40 years. The festival is held every two years in Burkina Faso's capital. While there is some glitz and glamor during the opening and closing ceremonies, the film festival is actually held in eleven dusty cinema halls throughout Ougadougou. In 2009, Ethiopia born director Haile Gerima won the coveted Best Film prize for his movie Teza, and received the Golden Yennenga Stallion, Fespaco's equivalent of the Oscar statuette. Read more about the 2009 Film Festival...
Where: Ougadougou, Burkina Faso
When: February 23 - March 2 (2013)
Southern Africa's biggest jazz festival is held annually in Cape Town, South Africa. Jazz legends from all over the world perform for just two days at the convention center. More than 30,000 people have attended past festivals, so advance ticket purchase is absolutely necessary. More about the 2011 Cape Town Jazz festival...
A music festival based on the traditions of Gnawa music has grown to include musicians from all over the world. This successful annual festival has been around for a decade and venues are dotted all around the picturesque town of Essaouira. Here's a tour if you would like to join in the fun as a group. Gnawa music is a combination of acrobatic dancing as well as music. Its origins lie in a unique mixture of Berber, African and Arabic songs, religious rites and dance.
This festival is East Africa's premier cultural event and it takes place annually on the historic island of Zanzibar. You can enjoy music, arts, literature, film and more, from all over Africa and countries bordering the Indian ocean. Dhow races take place throughout the festival. An excellent tour is available through Zanzibar Festival Tours based out of London. They're offering a 10 night package, front row seats to all the events, and first rate accommodation.
Ramadan refers to the 9th month in the Muslim calendar. All Muslims are expected to fast during the day for the entire lunar month. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food, drink, and other physical needs during the daylight hours. As a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice, Ramadan is much more than just not eating and drinking.
Fasting during Ramadan is strictly adhered to in countries where there's a large Islamic population. Muslims account for over half the population in as many as 28 African countries. The end of Ramadan is marked by the festival of Eid and celebrations last for several days.
Where: Throughout Africa
When: July 9 - August 7 (2013)
Meskel is an old Christian festival that has been celebrated in Ethiopia for over 1600 years. It commemorates the discovery of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Some pieces of the cross are thought to have been brought to Ethiopia, hence the celebrations. In Maskal square, in Addis Ababa, a colorful procession of priests, deacons and choir singers walk around a huge pyre, bearing ceremonial crosses and wooden torches decorated with olive leaves. The torch-bearers move forward in unison to set alight the slender pyramid-shaped structure, topped with a cross made from daisies. The next day people go to the bonfire and use the ash make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
When: September (2013)
On the edge of the Saharan desert, the Touareg and the Fulani nomads used to come together once a year for a week. They would dance, make music, men dress as women, women dress-up and they race their camels. The event was known as the 'Cure Salee' and was one of the most unique and colorful cultural happenings in the world. Today, the Wodaabe are staging a separate festival to avoid the tourists and commercialization that has been creeping into their celebrations. You can join a tour to enjoy the Gerewol. Check out this You Tube video of the festival.
Where: In-gall, Niger
When: September (2013)
Attracting more than 50,000 people, this annual festival celebrating the culture of the Sahara desert is quite a spectacle. The festival takes place in the heart of the Tunisian Sahara in the small oasis town of Douz. Originally a bedouin marriage market, the festival is now a four day affair filled with singing, dancing, feasting and camel racing. There's an excellent craft fair and lots of time to mingle with nomads from the surrounding areas as well as French tourists.
Where: Douz, Tunisia
When: December (2012)
There are approximately 350 million Christians in Africa. Christmas is celebrated throughout the continent by Christian communities large and small. On Christmas day carols are sung from the Congo on down to South Africa. Meats are roasted, gifts are exchanged and family visits made. The Coptic Christians in Ethiopia and Egypt celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January (rather than the 25th of December) because they follow a different calendar.
Where: Throughout Africa
When: 24-25 December (annual)