Since 2014, I’ve attended each annual Fire Festival at the NaYiri’s Palace in Nalerigu. Today marks the occasion of the annual event and I’m in the United States so I won’t be throwing fire with my friends in northern Ghana. However, I did want to share an interesting Fire Festival historical tidbit I learned recently while doing research on Mamprugu.
The second European known to enter the kingdom of Mamprugu was a famous French explorer named Captain Louis Gustave Binger. He was traveling south from Ouagadougou to Salaga in hopes of then continuing west to Kong. He became ill and was forced to stop for about six weeks in Walewale in August and September 1888.
This layover in Mamprugu allowed him to write a lot about the customs and commerce of the Mamprusi people. He recorded these writings in his book “Du Niger au Golfe de Guinée par le pays de Kong et le Mossi” published in 1892. The book was full of fantastic engravings made by famed illustrator Edouard Riou (who illustrated Jules Verne’s fantastical novels).
There are several illustrations from Mamprugu based on Capt. Binger’s sketches and notes. One of them is of the Mamprusi’s Fire Festival:
The illustration accompanies Binger’s notes on September 17, 1888, his last day in Walewale:
September 17, 1888 – The population was up for much of the night with drumming followed by an excursion by torchlight. Children and adults alike, armed with thatch torches, filled the streets and went to burn their torches under the trees at the edge of the village. We saw hundreds of lights roaming around the fields; they stopped, then resumed their course, illuminating groups of black faces and naked torsos with a dull light. It seemed that one could burn oneself with the men, women, and children going around all naked.
The sound of the drums and one or two warthog’s horns ended up giving this scene a strange vibe.
As the drums had gone on most of the night, in the morning everyone was listless. Therefore, my departure from Walewale did not take place early.– Capt. Binger – translation mine
The only other European known to visit Mamprugu prior to this was the German explorer Curt Von François (~April 1888, Gambaga). Therefore, it is likely that Binger is the first white man to observe and document the tradition. It’s a shame he was more concerned with leaving for Salaga on time and didn’t bother to find out the story behind the Fire Festival.