The Carnival of a Lifetime at the Elmina Bakatue festival in Ghana

We leave Accra at 7am on a Tuesday morning, and I feel a rare sense of excitement and freedom that solo travelling brings. We are headed for the coastal fishing town of Elmina, about a 3 hour journey away. We are unsure what to expect but it is the annual local Bakatue Festival in Elmina and I am a part of an intimate tour group with two other lovely ladies, Bella and Claire. Apollo and Cindy, who own Jolinaiko Eco Tours have organised this trip for us.

As the landscape becomes more green and lush, we see rows of pineapples being grown and harvested and enjoy the usual quirky sites of Ghana roadside life –  the ever present blurs of bright colours of container stores, seen from the car windows, mean that boredom is impossible on a road trip here. These vendors sell snacks, religious statues, toiletries, car parts, alcoholic beverages (should the crazy traffic all get too much) and even coffins. Old colonial buildings stick out and I wonder about their past lives. We leave the city of Accra behind, as well as thoughts of kids who are on school holidays, and our usual Tuesday morning routines.

We enter Elmina (also known as Edina to the local Fante people) and there is a stretch of road where piles of round blue parcels on wooden tables keep catching our eyes, each table has a lady’s name written boldy on it in white paint –  SOPHIA…ZENABU….GRACE… the ladies wave their hands and call out to get our attention….Apollo explains that they are selling Fante Kenkey, which can take a few tries on the tongue and cause some occasional switching of F’s and K’s, considering some of the other foods we have come to know in Ghana are Fufu, Kelewele and Banku.

Fante Kenkey is kneaded corn dough cooked in dried plantain leaves and is an enjoyed staple food in Ghana. The blue plastic wrapping means it is the special type of Kenkey of the Fante people in this region. Hungry travelers stop by the taxi load to buy it and the ladies selling it remember the faces of their customers and loyalty to the same lady is most important!! (don’t you dare forget her name!)

Suddenly we know we are close to our destination as we see the sea, and waves crashing against the rocks, and through the thick salty haze, the white Elmina castle comes into view on the horizon.  Framed by palm trees in the foreground, this structure built by the Portuguese in 1482 that appears small from this distance, played no small role in the history of the transatlantic slave route. At the height of the trade 30 000 slaves were passing through the castle each year, and this continued for 300 years.

We check into our hotel for the night – the Golden Hill Parker, which boasts an incredible hilltop view of the whole of Elmina, including a number of the salt pans in this area, and an exquisitely large infinity swimming pool.

The four of us head into town and meet Felix, our energetic local guide who runs Ghana Eco Tours in Elmina. He speaks with the utmost passion and emphatically begins to tell us about the Bakatue festival and what today will involve. The word Bakatue, from the local Fante dialect, mean ‘draining of the lagoon’. Every year this festival is celebrated on the first Tuesday of July. Tuesday is regarded as the day of the sea god, and is usually the only day in the week when fishermen do not fish in the sea, so as to respect the god. The Dutch report existence of this festival as far back as 1847.

For the last six weeks there has been a ban on fishing in the lagoon, and today’s celebration will lift that ban and mark the beginning of the new fishing season. With a population size of approximately 35 000, a report in 2015 revealed that 75% of Elmina’s people derive their livelihood from fishing or other activities that depend on it like canoe building. This is a big deal in this fishing town.  

It’s time to take our seats at the top of some stands overlooking the lagoon and from that moment I feel we have been transported into a busy page of a ‘Where’s Wally?’ book. Where to look when there is simply SO much going on!! Every square centimetre of our vision at all times includes bold colours, movement and like the little magnifying glass that sometimes comes with the Wally books, I make wonderful use of the zoom lens on my camera with so many interesting details to focus on and capture. We have some time before the festivities begin and are in a constant state of awe at all going on around us, so much activity vying for our attention. The stands quickly fill up.

No one will go hungry with ladies selling refreshments below us in great big metal bowls on the top of their heads.  On sale are milky drinks, dried fish, fried cassava balls and plantain, cool drinks and boiled eggs with a bowl of salt on the side for sprinkling. Then a man in the front starts ringing a bell, reminding me of the old Saturday morning trips with my mom for groceries, where the lady stood ringing her bell to alert you to the specials. He is trying to sell a pair of light turquoise patent leather high heels!!!! Any takers?! 🙂

Our panoramic view from the stands includes the castle to our left, many colourful fishing boats parked on the sides of the lagoon, with flags from around the world flying high and fishermens’ clothing drying on lines of the boats made from long pieces of bamboo, people gathered in the boat yard where a large boat shell rests like the rib cage of a whale, and hundreds gathering in crowds on the opposite side of the lagoon.

We are all ears as Felix explains the hive of activity that is attracting much attention, behind us in the town. We peer over the wall at the big round grass hut nearby, surrounded by a low white wall. Against the backdrop of the busy town landscape with the Catholic church on the hill in the distance, roofs made of multi coloured sheets of corrugated iron, the ‘Dependable’ corner store, the ‘Thank God’ Beauty Salon, the ‘Let Them Say’ building and ‘He Lives Ent’ directly behind it, the hut cannot help but look totally out of place to our Westernised eyes! Yet to the people of Elmina  this varied landscape is totally normal and the grass hut is most sacred, and is in fact a shrine, and in it resides the Benya deity of the lagoon. And today is about thanking this deity and asking for a bountiful fishing season ahead.

The crowd stirs and excitement rises when colourful canoe boats start to enter the lagoon, with flag bunting swaying in the breeze, men and women on the boats in matching Ghanaian fabric outfits sing and dance. Some wave white handkerchiefs in the air, others play drums and rhythmically knock wooden instruments together. The boats gently sway with all the movement, but are kept in balance by the well distributed dancing crew. The musical beat grows faster and the men paddling in smaller boats begin to do with more zeal, their muscular physiques rowing together like wheels on a train moving in perfect unison. At certain times it seems like the boats may collide and the crowd takes a breath in, but in the nick of time the rudders are turned and they smoothly glide past each other like shoals of fish in the ocean swimming so close but never touching.  

So loud but so exciting – a very colourful regatta!

Then there is more activity from behind. We hear cheers of anticipation. A long line of young women carrying wooden chairs on their heads is heading towards the lagoon area. These chair carriers are leading the royal procession, as Nana Kodwo Conduah VI, the Paramount Chief of Elmina, his sub chiefs and elders of the traditional council make their way from the royal palace, to the Shrine. The priests and priestesses are dressed in white with crowns of leaves on their heads, and they lead the way to drive out any evil spirits that may want to attack the Chief. They enter the Shrine area and gather there playing instruments and performing the necessary rituals and prayers to offer the sacred food of eggs and mashed yam mixed with palm oil, to the Benya deity.

The area in front of the stands now fills up with members of the council and the afternoon sun glistens on the gold of their crowns and necklaces. They are draped in rich Kente cloths with elaborate patterns and adorned with Ghanaian beads. They take their seats on the decorated chairs that have been carried in for them.  One of the chiefs has an unusual mask with two black horns, cowrie shells and a red felt strip covering the middle of his face and extending down his back. There are people filling every crevice of this area now, to our left young men stand on the roof top of the adjacent building, and behind us children can be seen sitting on the hill, getting a bird’s eye view of the happenings.  

The paramount Chief is carried in on a palanquin draped in white cloth. He has white paint down his arms, a thick leafed garland around his neck, and bracelets of twigs and foliage around his wrists. The Elmina people applaud as he now enters the shrine area.  I make friends with two delightful children who are intrigued with my camera and phone, they have the most expressive eyes and are happy for me to take their photo and to see themselves on the screen.

In the annual tradition, the offering to the deity which looks like a leafy wreath with dark berries, is bought from the shrine area, and men swim with it into the water of the lagoon. The lagoon ceremony then reaches a crescendo with one of the priests rowing to the middle of the lagoon to cast his net. The crowd is quiet and anticipatory, the result of this first fishing activity in six weeks is a telltale sign of the season to come – if it’s good the people of Elmina can bank on a plentiful year ahead. The priest stands on the edge of the canoe, his lithe body twists in an action that is clearly second nature to him, and the bundled up net in his arms opens up, spreading itself wide – hungry for the fruits of the lagoon. Momentarily, concentric circles of the translucent net can be seen in the air, just before it hits the water. Then we wait….

Minutes later, he pulls up a sack of fish – phew, thing are looking good!  The generosity of the lagoon is confirmed with two more castings, and the people cheer and are happy. Rifle shots are fired, rather unexpectedly to newcomers like ourselves, and there is much to celebrate! “It feels as though we are in medieval times!” my friend Claire exclaims.

Next up is possibly the most incredible carnival parade we will ever be so privileged to witness. We make our way to the town where the colonial Portuguese, Dutch and British influence is obvious with all the old buildings and colourful shutters over the windows. The chair carriers lead the procession as the royal party makes its way through the town back to the palace. They are joined by the community who fill the streets. The town is abuzz with colour, music and lively bodies. We stand on a balcony to get a better view and are in awe of the energy beneath us. A long rainbow of chiefs holding their staffs wind through the street. The more important chiefs start appearing underneath massive cermonial umbrellas and in decorated palanquins that are balanced on the heads of four men below! Women stand in front of them fanning them with pieces of cloth. The crowd dances to the trumpets being played. The chiefs grin and wave to us from their ornate thrones, that could be mistaken for elaborately decorated coffins. One chief stands in his palanquin and dances in front of us!  Huge drums are being played and boys on stilts appear. They are masters at this craft and dance and move so fluidly like flamingos with long legs. 

Later we join in the procession on the ground and the pounding energy of the singing and dancing, and vibrations of the drums can be felt throughout our bodies. You dare not stand still for a second or you will be knocked over by this strong current of people moving through the town. The flamboyant cheer of display is nothing short of spectacular. For a few minutes we are one with the crowd and the atmosphere is absolutely electric. We then walk along the beach as evening encroaches and make our way to a pub, after hours of sensory overload we happily sip a refreshing beer, our minds swirling with all the excitement and colour!

That night back at the hotel Bella, Claire and myself have a late swim under the stars and we are all still buzzing from witnessing such an incredible celebration. We felt like flies on the wall being privy to such a local celebration, and we know how lucky we are to have been a part of this day. None of us sleep very well as it seems that all the incredible colour and movement wants to be part of our dreams too, our brains just too saturated with such amazing sights!

The following day Felix takes us on a wonderful walking tour of Elmina through the same roads that were filled with excitement the day before and I plan on sharing about this experience in a separate post.  

When we leave Elmina that afternoon we ask Apollo if we can stop to buy some Fante Kenkey from the ladies on the side of the road. Our driver stops the van and the ladies rush up to us but then there is some commotion and fuss and they are arguing amongst themselves – it turns out that our driver had bought some Kenkey from one of the other ladies yesterday and now he is her customer and this impromptu stop in the van is messing with their system! So please remember – when you visit Elmina don’t forget your Kenkey ladies name 😉 

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