Mwaka Kogwa

IMAGE: Banana stick fighting in Mwaka Kogwa festival. Photo:

The Mwaka Kogwa festival has just finished in Zanzibar. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend because of a conflict with my Kiswahili class schedule as I am based in Stone Town and the festival is held in the village of Makunduchi in the far south of the island. I was able to get some interesting insights on the festival from my host sister, Tashi, and by asking for information at the Zanzibar Tourist Information Centre.

The origin of the Mwaka Kogwa festival is rooted in the Persian New Year celebration which was brought to Zanzibar by the Shiraz people many hundreds of years ago. Some historians say that Zanzibar was a key entry point for this community in all of East Africa.

Mwaka Kogwa is held in the month of July every year. What makes this event in Zanzibar standout among many other similar celebrations that include singing, music, and dancing, is the performance of play-fighting among men with banana sticks. From what I have gathered, the event is meant to be cathartic in the sense that one has the special opportunity to battle against others, to act out aggression in a socially controlled and enjoyable way, which then allows all to have an emotional clean slate moving into the new year. An important ritual that concludes the festival is the destruction of a makeshift structure by burning it to the ground, with predictions made for the new year based on the patterns of smoke given off by the fire.

IMAGE: Burning structure in Mwaka Kogwa festival. Photo:

From an official perspective, which is to say a government perspective, the festival is an important one that should be supported and preserved, as it is an important part of Tanzanian cultural heritage. In 2018, the Tanzanian premier drew attention to the festival’s importance for the nation, the importance to safeguard it, and the positive impact it has on the economy in the tourism sector (see “Tanzania: Premier Calls for Preservation of Cultural Heritage”

I asked the friendly people at the Zanzibar Tourist Information Centre about Mwaka Kogwa and was told about it being a great show, that it was a Persian New Year celebration, and about the intense play-fighting with banana sticks. I was told it was a lot of fun and a great way to experience local culture.

In talking to my very knowledgeable host sister (she is just my sister now, and she is Mama Adila’s eldest child), similar information was related to me. Tashi is thirty-one years old and a madrassa (Arabic school) teacher. The big difference was learning that some people, primarily those Zanzibaris who regard themselves as strict Muslims, prefer to recognize and celebrate holidays that have an Islamic connection. I gathered that such people are not opposed to having others participate in the festival, it’s just that they are not interested. Many such people do not even have a sense for when the festival is being held. In addition, the festival is not one that neatly fits into the typical way of understanding as expressed by “this is our religion” and “this is our culture” because at the root of the tradition is actually a competing world religion, which is the South Asian Zoroastrian religion.

Overall, I find that people in Zanzibar are very tolerant and accommodating of the cultural and religious traditions of others. There is a long tradition of influences that are African, Arab, Muslim, Christian, and South Asian so people want to be respectful of others.