Zanzibar is a place to visit throughout the year, however should you like to do more than just visit the historical sites, indulge in the hot and spicy Zanzibari cuisine, lick the sun or enjoying a swim in the turquoise Indian Ocean – be advised Zanzibar has a cultural calendar which would suit anyone.
The festivities kick off in early February with SAUTI ZA BUSARA , this is a four day extravaganza of music, theatre and dance. The festival showcases the very best artist in music of the past and present and the up and coming talent in theatre and music. The main stage is at the Ngome Kongwe – the Old Fort, on Forodhani road. The Sauti za Busara festival is organized by BUSARA PROMOTIONS, which is a non-governmental and non-profitable body. Its aim is to promote and develop opportunities for performing artist throughout the Swahili coast.
The Festival of the Dhow Countries, hosted by Zanzibar International Film Festival( ZIFF ) takes place in June/July on both Zanzibar Island and Pemba Island. This festival brings to Zanzibar film, music, dance and performing arts from the historically connected “dhow countries” of East Africa, India, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other islands in the Indian Ocean. The main attraction is the film programme consisting of competition and non competition screenings. Documentaries and feature films compete for the prestigious Golden Dhow award.
In addition to the films, documentaries and video productions produced in the Dhow Counties region – a myriad of films and videos from all corners of the world are showcased during the festival. Throughout the two week , the festival hosts events such as workshops discussing film, dance, theatre and photography. Art exhibitions take place on various venues throughout Zanzibar town and in the villages of Zanzibar and Pemba. The music programme also features local Tanzanian artist alongside internationally renowned acts.
Held throughout the Zanzibar Archipelago, the annual Zanzibar Cultural Festival showcases the diverse traditions and celebrations of the region. Performers come from many countries around Africa, but Swahili culture is mostly represented. Zanzibari taraab music and traditional dances are performed by a rich ensemble of cultural troupes from Tanzania and abroad. Arts and crafts that celebrate local culture are exhibited and enjoyed. Around the archipelago, locals celebrate the cultural festival with workshops, cultural events and performances held in shifting locales. Street carnivals in Stone Town, small fairs, and canoe races also take place.
On the northern island of Pemba, the festival marks the annual bull fight, a remnant of Portuguese presence on the islands, where trained bulls prance after unarmed men in a humorous and festive version of the Iberian spectacle. The Zanzibar Cultural Festival occurs each year in July, directly after the international Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) Festival of the Dhow Countries
‘Mwaka Kogwa’ is the traditional Shirazi, or Persian, new year celebrations that takes place in Zanzibar and although the festival has its origins in the Zoastrian religion, the Zanzibaris have certainly taken it to heart. Although the festival is celebrated around the island, the village of Makunduchi, on southern Unguja, is the key focus of the ritual events and each year a large crowd gathers to attend the celebration.
Together with the usual singing, dancing, feasting, and drumming that goes with all East African festivals, Mwaka Kogwa includes specific rituals destined to bring good luck in the new year. To initiate the celebration, a play fight takes places and all the men of the village beat each other to vent their aggressions from the past year.
Real weapons were used in the past but now banana sticks are preferred because they are less violent. As they do this, the women of the village dress up in their best clothes and proceed through the village and the fields, singing traditional songs about family, love, and joy. Then, the mwganga, or traditional healer, lights a ritual hut on fire and reads which way the smoke is burning to determine the village’s prosperity in the coming year.
Finally there is a large feast in which all guests are welcomed and considered a sign of happiness and prosperity. Traditional Swahili food is accompanied by taraab music, and on the beaches the drums and dancing continue long into the night. Mwaka Kogwa takes place every year around the 23rd or 24th of July, but if you’re planning to time your visit to attend the celebrations, check with your travel agent to verify the date and for further details.
The NGALAWA RACE is an event not to be missed. This is a weekend long fundraising event for the Zanzibar Mental Health Hospital. The fundraising weekend grand finale is the famous Ngalawa Race. The boat race with traditional small fishing boats sets off from Serena Inn Hotel, and along the shore, hundreds of spectators from all over Zanzibar, Pemba and the world line up to cheer the participants.
Eid al-Haj (also called Eid al-Adha or Eid al-Kebir) is the Islamic festival of the annual pilgrimage, or haj, to Mecca. It is the second major holiday of Islam and a three-day festival of feasting and celebration in all Muslim communities in Tanzania. Eid al-Haj remembers Ibrahim (Abraham in the western tradition) and his son Ishmael (Isaac in the western tradition), who was almost sacrificed to God in obedience with his commandments. For Muslims, this holiday is about sacrifice, faith, and honouring the prophet Ibrahim. Along the predominantly Muslim Swahili Coast, and especially on the islands of Zanzibar, each family sacrifices a goat or sheep to commemorate the sacrifice.
A third of the meat is given to the poor, another third to family and friends, and the final third is kept by the family to be served in a lavish meal. Gifts are exchanged, prayers said and sermons attended, and after family and friends have visited each other the celebration culminates in a feast. Any family members or friends who made the pilgrimage to Mecca that year are welcomed home with much rejoicing. During the night there is live Swahili taraab music and much rejoicing. As with Eid al-Fitr, if you would like to visit Zanzibar during Eid al-Haj, please note that the dates of the Islamic holiday change each year. Contact your travel agent to find out when to travel.
The cultural Calendar of Zanzibar comes to an end with the Kizimkazi Cultural Music Festival towards the end of December each year. The village of Kizimkazi, on the south east coast of Zanzibar is the centre for this festival of “kambi ndani ya kambi” – which loosely translated means a village within a village. The festival houses artist, performers and volunteers, along with backpackers and other travellers while offering a multitude of activities – such as musical instrument instruction, batik painting.