We spent this past week up in the small town of Akropong. We visited Akropong for a small retreat at the beginning of our time here in Ghana. Akropong is a quiet town, much less busy than the capital city of Accra. However upon arriving this time, it was clear that our experience would be different. We were here to observe and participate in the annual Odwira Festival.
The Odwira Festival is an event that coincides with the local New Year. The main purpose of the Odwira Festival is to pay homage to the ancestors. The story behind the festival starts when the people of Aquapem defeated the mighty Ashanti tribe and captured the Odosu, the Ashanti war “good luck charm”. It was believed that whoever possessed the Odosu would never lose a battle. The Odwira Festival shows respect to the Odosu. The thinking for many is that if the Odwira Festival is not celebrated or not celebrated correctly, the Odosu’s spirit will become angry.
So the festival starts out on Monday with the clearing of the path for the ancestors. It is difficult to decipher whether this is seen as literal or not. On Tuesday, the Odwira is presented to the paramount chief of Aquapem. What is the Odwira? Nobody knows, only those who are chosen to receive it and present it to the chief know. In fact when the time comes for the Odwira to actually be handed to the chief a sheet is hung up so that the spectators cannot see what is happening. On Wednesday, the paramount chief travels around to all of the ‘Stool Houses’ in the town. At each house libation (either palm wine or schnapps) is poured, drumming and dances are performed all with a message for the chief. We all had no idea what the meanings of the dances were. So we simply enjoyed the show. On Thursday, the ancestors are fed. All morning food is prepared. In late afternoon the food is brought before the chief and placed in containers to be brought to the ancestors. Women are chosen to carry the food. On the way these women become ‘possessed’ presumably by their ancestors. It is a community effort to prevent these women from falling or spilling the food. On Friday, the festival comes to a close with a large celebration. All the chiefs from Aquapem come dressed in their best kente cloth and gold jewelry.
While watching the ongoing events throughout the week I tried to compare this event to something I am more familiar with or grew up with. It was a challenge. The closest comparison I settled with was Halloween. In a way the Odwira Festival is Halloween for chiefs. There is a vague understanding of the purpose of the event, but nobody is certain why it is done. Just like Halloween. Instead of kids traveling around to neighbor’s houses wearing costumes and receiving candy, chiefs travel around to various Stool Houses wearing black Kente and receiving schnapps. The comparison is rather rudimentary and potentially insensitive but I think it serves its purpose. I was unable however to think of an event back in the United States that is so community oriented. At the last event of the festival, the Grand Dubar, this theme was on display. The entire town square was packed with well over 1000 spectators. It was amazing simply by the coming together of people. Also both the president of Ghana and his main threat in the upcoming election made an appearance at the event. Again I was amazed at the respect and unity the spectators showed toward both guests of honor.
The Odwira Festival was an experience that left me with more questions than when I arrived. But ultimately it was a beneficial experience. There are so many ways to look at this experience to guide reflection. Like most experiences here in Ghana, I will continue to reflect and glean knowledge.