Our picks for Africa’s best festivals and events are listed below. It’s worth planning your vacation to Africa around any of these top festivals and events.The festivals are arranged, as far as possible, in the order they appear during the year.
Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, South Africa
“Cape Town Minstrel Carnival” © Henry Trotter (creative commons)
In Cape Town the New Year is celebrated in great raucous style in the form of a carnival. The Minstrel Carnival used to be called the “coon carnival”. Its origins date back to the 19th century when freed slaves were given the day off on the 2nd of January. When American minstrels arrived at the Cape in the mid-nineteenth century, the styles and sounds of vaudeville were incorporated into local celebrations, and you can see its influence today. The parades are huge flamboyant affairs with grand costumes, wonderful marching bands, singing, dancing and more. The competition for best troupe is intense and continues every weekend in January.
Where: Cape Town, South Africa
When: 1 – 2 January (and following weekends)
“Touareg men, Timbuktu, Mali”Getty Images/Peter Adams
Three days of traditional Touareg art, music and dance takes place in Essakane, a desert oasis, two hours drive from Timbuktu, Mali. International acts from Europe and West Africa round out the festivities. Everyone camps in the desert with their camels close at hand. This is not a festival for those who like mod cons but it’s a truly unique cultural event that is well worth the trek. Check out this slide show from the New York Times in 2008. Taking a tour will make it easier for you to get there.
Where: Essakane, Mali
When: January 6 – 8
FESPACO – Film Festival, Burkina Faso
“Fespaco banner, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso”Fespaco
The Panafrican Film and TV Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) is Africa’s largest film festival and has been around for over 40 years. The festival is held every two years in Burkina Faso’s capital. While there is some glitz and glamor during the opening and closing ceremonies, the film festival is actually held in eleven dusty cinema halls throughout Ougadougou.
Where: Ougadougou, Burkina Faso
When: February 26 – March 5
Cape Town International Jazz Festival
“Jazz Musician, South Africa”South Africa Tourism
Southern Africa’s biggest jazz festival is held annually in Cape Town, South Africa. Jazz legends from all over the world perform for just two days at the convention center. More than 30,000 people have attended pastfestivals, so advance ticket purchase is absolutely necessary.
Where: Cape Town, South Africa
When: 25 – 26 April
Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, Morocco
“Copper Shop in the souqs of Fes, Morocco”© Sjaak Zijlma
This wonderful spiritual festival, held annually in Fes, allows you to bump into whirling dervishes from Iran as well as mystics, chanters and dancers from all around the world. A festival celebrating the local culture of Fes is held concurrently. Both festivals allow visitors a wonderful insight into traditional life in the old walled city. Sip some mint tea, enjoy sufi chanting and of course all that delicious Moroccan food.
Where: Fes, Morocco
Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival
“Gnawa Musicians, Morocco”
A music festival based on the traditions of Gnawa music has grown to include musicians from all over the world. This successful annual festival has been around for a decade and venues are dotted all around the picturesque town of Essaouira. Here’s a tour if you would like to join in the fun as a group. Gnawa music is a combination of acrobatic dancing as well as music. Its origins lie in a unique mixture of Berber, African and Arabic songs, religious rites and dance.
Where: Essaouira, Morocco
Zanzibar International Film Festival
“Woman with traditional blue head-covering, Zanzibar (Tanzania)”© Steve Outram
This festival is East Africa’s premier cultural event and it takes place annually on the historic island of Zanzibar. You can enjoy music, arts, literature, film and more, from all over Africa and countries bordering the Indian ocean. Dhow races take place throughout the festival. An excellent tour is available through Zanzibar Festival Tours based out of London. They’re offering a 10 night package, front row seats to all the events, and first rate accommodation.
Where: Zanzibar, Tanzania
When: July 2 – July 10
“Priest in yellow, Ethiopia”© Robert Eilets
Meskel is an old Christian festival that has been celebrated in Ethiopia for over 1600 years. It commemorates the discovery of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Some pieces of the cross are thought to have been brought to Ethiopia, hence the celebrations. In Maskal square, in Addis Ababa, a colorful procession of priests, deacons and choir singers walk around a huge pyre, bearing ceremonial crosses and wooden torches decorated with olive leaves. The torch-bearers move forward in unison to set alight the slender pyramid-shaped structure, topped with a cross made from daisies. The next day people go to the bonfire and use the ash make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
Curee Salee and Wodaabe Gerewol, Niger
“Gerewol, Niger” Dan Lundberg
On the edge of the Saharan desert, the Touareg and the Fulani nomads used to come together once a year for a week. They would dance, make music, men dress as women, women dress-up and they race their camels. The event was known as the ‘Cure Salee’ and was one of the most unique and colorful cultural happenings in the world. Today, the Wodaabe are staging a separate festival to avoid the tourists and commercialization that has been creeping into their celebrations. You can join a tour to enjoy the Gerewol.
Where: In-gall, Niger