This past week Mamprugu celebrated the Bugum Kyuu (Fire Festival). This annual event has a long (and controversial) history in the region. Each year the people come out at night with bundled straw torches which they light and run around town with. All the men who own guns come out and shoot their guns in to the air. It’s a pretty loud and wild event.
Part of the controversy over the festival is the number of injuries and crimes that occur during it each year. This year the hospital only had 3 patients (that I heard of ) come in with burn injuries. One was very severe because his gun has misfired on him. In the large city of Tamale south of us, gangs of youth get pretty rowdy during the festival attacking innocent bystanders and harassing young women. In years past the municipal government has tried (unsuccesfully) to ban the festival.
The Muslims (primary in the Dagonba region south of us) claim the tradition goes back to when Noah’s sons came off the ark and lit torches to see if anyone had survived. The Traditionalists refute that idea and say that the tradition pre-dates the arrival of Muslims to the area. In Nalerigu, everyone I talked vouched for the traditional story and said the Muslims had simply accosted their tradition in order to make it a Muslim holiday.
Here is the traditional story as it was told to me by several Mamprusi friends:
Many years ago, the king’s son was out playing with his friends. He became tired and lay down under a tree to rest. He fell asleep and the others forgot about him.
That night after supper the king and the mother realized the child was missing when they called him to go to bed. They had each thought he was with the other parent.
The king ordered his people to go around the village looking for the missing son. There was no electricity so they all lit grass torches for their search. Fearing that a wild animal had taken him, the men brought out all their guns.
When they came to the edge of the village they found him under the tree in a deep sleep. Thinking that the tree (or an evil spirit in it) had stolen the child, all the people threw their torches on the tree to burn and shame it.
To celebrate the occasion the king decreed that every year they should commemorate this happy event. Then the people annually gathered at the king’s palace, where he would emerge with a torch and throw it down. All those with guns would bring out their guns and fire them off. Then the people would light their torches and go outside the village to throw them into the bush.
Today the festival involves lots of guns being fired, drums being played, and a general chaos of people running rampant with flaming torches. Unsurprisingly, the attendance was 98% male. The older men seemed very occupied with the traditional ceremonial events. The young men and boys were just having a hayday playing with fire.
Over the centuries the festival has evolved and acquired a few more superstitious elements. Now when people light their torches they twirl them around their head three times in order to have good luck in the new year. Some traditionalists slaughter a cow, sheep or goat and leave pieces of meat on the walls of their family compounds as sacrifices to their ancestors. Additionally, a large bowl of water is brought out from the Nayiri’s palace and chaos ensues as a mob fights over it. The belief is that anyone with any sickness or disease who baths with or drinks the water will be cured (that reminded me a bit of this story).
I had a friend who practices both Islam and traditional African religion tell me the legend of the king’s lost son. Then I was able to share with him a story my King told about a shepherd who cared so much for one lost sheep that he left 99 others to find it. When he did find it, he brought it back rejoicing and called all this neighbors to celebrate with him.
Oh, that the lost sheep of Mamprugu would cry out to the Good Shepherd so that he may bring them home and we may rejoice together!