New Internationalist

Hooting at hunger

Issue 311

There’s a festival in Ghana where you can find a spouse, race a bicycle, drink your head out and even end up more optimistic than you began. Samuel Wiafe reckons it’s worth celebrating.

Samuel Wiafe
Defying the odds: scenes from Homowo in Teshie, including the se se procession. Samuel Wiafe

Homowo is an annual festival celebrated among the Ga-speaking people. It originated during a period of great famine which was eventually followed by a bumper harvest of grain and fish. The word homowo literally means ‘hooting at hunger’. The one I am going to describe is specific to the people of Teshie, near Accra.

The celebrations begin with the light rains in May. During this month the seven principal priests perform the initial rites – the ritual and symbolic sowing of corn. The main festival, however, starts in August with the Nsho Bulemo ceremony, which involves the pacification of the sea god. A bull is slaughtered by the chief priest and the carcass is cast into the sea. A few fisherfolk representing the seven principal clans embark on fishing expeditions. If they return with a good catch, that signifies a good Homowo will be possible, but returning empty-handed means the Homowo will have to be suspended or postponed.

This is followed by a ban on drumming, dancing or the burying of corpses. Night clubs and dance halls are closed down and all noisy activities are forbidden for another ceremony known as Gbemlilaa (‘Closing of the Road’). The idea of the ban is to enable the gods to perform their activities quietly.

Photo: Samuel Wiafe
Photo: Samuel Wiafe

After this ceremony the seven clans parade in groups for fortnightly street processions known as Kpashimo. These processions enable members of the groups to learn Homowo songs, as well as providing an opportunity for bachelors and spinsters to get a spouse of their choice.

Two weeks later the celebrations start in earnest with the arrival of Ga people who have travelled out of their traditional area and now return in joyous groups to be reunited with their families. They arrive with farm produce like pepper, onions, corn and okra, all of which form the main ingredients of the traditional Homowo food, Kpokpoi. This adds a lot of spice to an already exciting town.

At dawn on Tuesday feverish food preparations begin. Soon after midday the head of each household sprinkles the food around all the doorsteps of the Teshie people. The chief and elders also sprinkle at well-noted places where the gods settle – a ritual said to feed the spirits of the departed. Lunch is not served until all these rites and rituals have been observed.

Photo: Samuel Wiafe
Photo: Samuel Wiafe

Everyone eats as much as they want, irrespective of their class or social status. On festive occasions like this all households are open to everyone and all visitors are welcome. Family members who are not able to come home for the meal are sent theirs, wherever they may be, so they can taste and feel the love and unity of their children and parents.

Wednesday is set aside as a remembrance day. On this day people openly weep and others drink their heads out, remembering their lost departed ones. Also, minor and major quarrels and misunderstandings are settled amicably. Sunday marks the climax of the Homowo street procession. The seven groups wearing their colourful costumes go through the principal streets singing songs that praise well-behaved members of the community and rebuke the bad ones.

Photo: Samuel Wiafe
Photo: Samuel Wiafe

During the period of the festival, parties and sporting activities are held so that talent can be unearthed. In the sporting sphere there are competitions such as boxing, football, table tennis, a regatta and cycling. Other tribes as well as foreigners – especially our brothers and sisters from the diaspora – also take part, reflecting the national and international dimensions of the Homowo.

The following Saturday marks the official end of the festival. On the eve, a vigil is kept for the Gbé gblemo ritual which lifts the bans on drumming, dancing and all noisy activities. At noon the chief priest, dressed in an immaculate white loincloth and patterns made from white clay and red tree-bark, carries the se se (a large wooden bowl filled with spiritually purifying water) on the street procession amidst singing, dancing and drumming. The se se is presumed to be very healing and powerful, driving off evil spirits. All one needs to do is to put money into the se se for the potent water to be sprinkled over you. The procession continues until it reaches the community shrine, where the priest empties the se se. People from all walks of life scramble frantically for the money.

The excitement continues to the nearby beach where people joyously swim in the sea. It is believed they have washed their misfortunes, sorrows and calamities of the previous year into the water and can now look to the future with a lot of hope, confidence and aspiration.

Some people may think Homowo is a fetish. But I think it is good that we know and appreciate our culture.

Samuel Wiafe is a student of marketing and an aspiring writer who lives in Teshie.

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