Hayden shares the top 7 cultural festivals in Africa.

With more than 3000 ethnic groups and some 2000 different languages, the African continent is the very embodiment of cultural diversity. Combine this fact with the amazing biodiversity and natural beauty of the continent, and planning a holiday in Africa becomes an opportunity not to be missed!

Let’s explore our top seven cultural festivals from various countries across the continent to give you an idea of the immersive and exotic experiences you can expect to encounter when you visit this magical place.

7. Mombasa Carnival – November, Kenya

Kenya’s largest annual festival, organized by the Ministry of Tourism, is a carnival of floats, costumes, music and dance that perfectly showcases the region’s cultural diversity. Traditional and contemporary musicians perform, and the streets are lined with stalls offering all sorts of local delicacies, such as fresh coconut milk and the brewed concoction known as mnazi, which is made from coconut sap.

Participants often dress in traditional kikoy and kanga, and the parade finally winds its way down to the beach at Fort Jesus for a boat regatta!

6. Festival of the Dhow Countries – July, Zanzibar

Often described as East Africa’s largest cultural event, the Zanzibar International Film Festival, or Festival of the Dhow Countries, brings together the arts and cultures of several East African countries with those of India, Pakistan, the Gulf States, Iran and the Indian Ocean islands.

While the film competition is the main event, it attracts an enormous variety of cultural experiences from music, theatre and performing arts, to workshops, seminars and conferences. The festival sprawls between several beautiful and historical venues near the seafront in Stone Town, with a Village Panorama that extends the festival outwards to the rural communities.

5. National Arts Festival – June to July, Grahamstown, South Africa

Africa’s largest cultural event, this annual extravaganza sees the normally quiet streets of Grahamstown transformed into a hive of colorful activity which attracts local and international stars alike. Every available room becomes a performance venue, and every park or sports field becomes a flea market to showcase over 600 separate acts, from drama to music to stand-up comedy and everything in between!

4. Hermanus Whale Festival – late September, South Africa

Described as an ‘Enviro-Arts’ festival, the real stars of this show are the migrating Southern Right Whales, who are the main focus of this South African event. Hermanus is renowned as the best land-based whale watching destination in the world, and each year some100,000 visitors flock to the pretty seaside town to experience the whales, enjoy some truly delicious food and revel in great music and a festive atmosphere!

This is a great festival for the whole family, with kid’s entertainment, street parades, live shows, film, music, local arts and crafts, the Marine ECO Village, and even a Whales and Wheels Classic Car Show!

3. Maitisong Festival – April, Gaborone, Botswana

Now in its 30th year running, this annual event is a favorite among locals and international visitors alike. Music is one of the biggest attractions, with gospel, kwaito, and Afro-pop as just some of the styles on showcase. The event hosts both free and paid events so that everyone has a chance to get in on the action!

2. Abu Simbel Festival – February and October, Egypt

Fans of Ancient Egypt will adore this festival, which takes place twice a year on October and February 22nd. The magic of this festival is all in the timing – at these two times of the year, the sun aligns with the entrance of the Abu Simbel temples honoring Ramses II and his wife, Queen Nefertari, to illuminate two of the three statues within – leaving Ptah, the god of the underworld, in darkness.

Interestingly, the entire temple had to be moved when the Egyptian government made plans to dam Lake Nasser in the 20th century. This was achieved by cutting the monument into massive blocks for transport, each weighing 30 tons! Needless to say, there was some careful maths involved to get the temples to align again as they used to, although in the process the day had to be moved forward. Originally, the alignment would have occurred on the 21st of October and February.

Today the festival is celebrated by accompanying traditional Nubian dances, live music, and plenty of street food outside the venue – and it might be one of the coolest additions to an Egyptian holiday!

1. The Gerewol Festival – late September, Chad

If you’re up for having your beliefs about marriage and gender roles challenged quite a bit, then this has to be one of the most interesting cultural experiences a traveller can experience. Each year the nomadic Wodaabe tribes gather at the end of the rainy season, usually during the last week of September, for what has been described as the world’s most competitive male beauty pageant!

During this week-long festival, tribes gather on foot, via camel or donkey to come together to dance, feast, and most importantly – attract a lover or mate. The men, who carry a small pocket mirror with them at all times, spend hours preparing their clothing and makeup for the Yakke dancing – in which three female judges each pick a winner who will carry acclaim and fame for years.

The Wodaabe are polygamous, and it is the women who take the lead in partnerships. During the dance, a woman who wishes to be ‘stolen’ from her current husband by a more attractive mate taps him on the shoulder to indicate her choice. Being witness to the Gerewol festival is a rare opportunity for travellers to broaden their cultural horizons, and definitely worth planning a trip around!

We hope our top seven picks have encouraged you to consider visiting an African festival or two – it can really set the mood and make you feel more connected with the country you’re visiting!

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  • Laurence Baird

    I personally enjoyed the Whirling Dervishes in Khartoum. Good write up.

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