In African agrarian societies, cultivation and its different phases often dictate the social and religious calendar. The time of harvest, in particular, is a special one for obvious reasons. Indeed, the survival of the community depends on the yield of good and plentiful crops. It is therefore no surprise that much care is taken to ensure the fertility of the land. Offerings and sacrifices to the ancestors and other spiritual entities credited for sending good crops to the living are performed before sowing. The purpose of such rituals is to place the ancestors and other divinities in a favorable disposition toward the living, thus encouraging them to bless the living with enough food. This entry looks first at the series of rituals that surround agriculture and then focuses specifically on harvest festivals.
Among the Moba people of northwest Togo, for instance, an elder will offer a libation to the ancestors, asking them for a good harvest. A feast, known as Nyatun, takes place in September, prior to the beginning of sowing. Beer is made from sorghum for this special occasion. For 3 entire days, the people dance and have fun. On the third day, an animal is sacrificed to the ancestors. After harvesting, the festivities resume, on a grander scale, lasting for about a month, with much dancing, and culminating with another sacrifice, to which all the family lineages are expected to contribute. Before the sacrifice takes place, however, divination is performed to find out what animal should be offered.
The Avatime people of Ghana pay even greater attention to the presowing period and engage in many rituals whose purpose is to appeal to the ancestors and divinities so that the Avatime community will have much to reap at harvest time. Their farming year starts sometime in June, when a particular constellation of stars has appeared in the sky. The Sunday after the constellation appears, libations are poured to the rice gods in each village. What follows is a series of rituals, every other Sunday or so, when the priests go to a sacred place in the forest and pour additional libations. This is repeated one more Sunday, which ends with the priests dancing alone at first and then together. As they dance, their movements imitate the movements associated with the planting and preparation of rice. The next day, Monday, all go into the fields so that planting may start. During the period leading up to the beginning of sowing, loud noises must be avoided altogether. No dancing, no drumming, no singing, and no mourning may take place because the spirits are believed to be at work, preparing the land for successful sowing. Therefore, they should not be disturbed, but left to focus on this most important task.
Toward the end of November, the rice is ripe and ready. Preparations for the harvesting rituals get underway, with more libations being poured and the sacrifice of a black male goat that has been castrated. Cowries are tied to the goat's neck, and red and white marks are made on its forehead with clay. The meat is cooked, along with rice, and offered first to the rice gods. Only then can people start eating as well and rejoice together.
Harvest feasts and festivals are in fact quite common throughout Africa. In reality, since ancient times, the harvest period has been one of great collective rejoicing in Africa. In Kemet (or ancient Egypt), the Africans held a harvest festival during the spring. This festival was dedicated to Min, the ancient Egyptian god of vegetation and fertility. The Pharaoh opened the festival by collecting the first ears of grain. The Pharaoh also participated in the festival parade. The latter was followed by a great feast, complete with music, dancing, and athletic activities and demonstrations. In Nubia also, the time of harvest was one of great dancing.
This tradition has remained alive in other African societies equally concerned with agriculture. The masquerades organized by the Eastern Igbo as part of their harvest festival are also well documented. The Ogoni from Nigeria have also commonly celebrated the harvest of yams with masked dances. The Homowo Festival of the Ga people from Ghana has become well known. It starts with sowing by spiritual leaders during the month of May. Like the Avatime, the Ga also observe a ban over drumming and loud noise. The word Homowo in Ga means “to hoot at hunger; to make fun of hunger” and is related to the Ga story, according to which at some point in their history the Ga people almost starved due to the absence of rain. When the drought was over and plants started growing again, the Ga people held a special Homowo celebration to rejoice and give thanks to the spirits.
The actual Homowo festival takes place in August, and thousands participate. All Ga people are expected to return to their father's house to take part in the celebration. Homowo Day is on a Saturday. In preparation, large quantities of food are cooked. A special ritual dish, known as kpekpele, is prepared with steamed fermented corn meal and eaten with palm soup prepared with smoked fish. On Homowo day, offerings of kpekpele are made throughout the cities to show appreciation and gratitude to the ancestors. After the rituals have been performed, the streets fill up with dancers and drummers, and kpekpele is shared.
The festival known as Yam Festival has also become a quite popular holiday in Nigeria. The first yams to be harvested are offered to the divinities and the ancestors as a way of thanking them for their benevolence and generosity. The Yam Festival is held not only in Africa, but in other places with large West African communities, such as the United Kingdom. It is also the same spirit of giving thanks and expressing gratitude for the blessings of life bestowed upon by the ancestors that informs the African American holiday, Kwanzaa, created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga.
- Brydon, L. (1990). Putting the World in Order in Avatime, Ghana. In A. Jacobson-Widding, and W.van Beek (Eds.), The Creative Communion. African Folk Models of Fertility and the Regeneration of Life (pp. 271–284) (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology, 15). Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International.
- Corwin Hoffman, J. (1995). Harvest Festivals Around the World. Parsinappy, NJ: Julian Messner, Silver Burdett Press.
- Karenga, M. (1997). Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
- Zwernemann, J (1990). Ancestors, Earth and Fertility in the Belief of Some Voltaic People. In A. Jacobson-Widding, and W.van Beek (Eds.), The Creative Communion. African Folk Models of Fertility and the Regeneration of Life (pp. 93–110) (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology, 15). Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International.