Africa and the Middle East 7 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (4)

Maherero Day

Where? Okahandja, Namibia

When? August

How long? 1 day

This very local festival is unique to the Herero people of Okahandja, a quaint little provincial town that’s around an hour’s drive north of the Namibian capital, Windhoek. The Herero are cattle farmers whose history is littered with bloody conflicts, both with their tribal rivals, the Nama, and with German colonialists who almost wiped them out in the early twentieth century. On Maherero Day, the clans don traditional dress and parade through town in military style to honour their war dead, starting from the cemetery at the graves of two great chiefs, Kahimunua and Nikodemus, both felled by German bullets. It’s the women’s costumes that make the day a remarkable occasion – they wear elaborate dresses based on a style introduced by German missionaries in the 1800s with long-sleeved jackets and bodices over voluminous crinoline-like skirts. Topping off each ensemble is a huge cloth headdress shaped like cow horns, a symbol of wealth in traditional Herero society.

Mampoer Festival

Where? Cullinan, South Africa

When? May

How long? 1 day

The Boers have been distilling mampoer, South Africai moonshine, since trekking up onto the Transvaal in the 1830s and seeing the elephants getting blind drunk on fermented poer berries. (A less romantic version of the tale has a local chieftain named Mapuru showing them how.) Today, peaches and apricots are the favoured fruit for the volatile brew, which has an alcohol content In excess of sixty percent and delivers a kick powerful enough to save you from snake-bite – indeed, after a slug of this you wouldn’t care what bit you. Fortunately for those who like their spirits just so, this is one of the few places in the world where moonshine is legal, and even agricultural colleges and museums are allowed to make their own mampoer. Naturally enough, the festival is held at the local museum in the town of Cullinan, near Pretoria, and after a short time you’ll find yourself amazingly fluent in Afrikaans.

Maralal Camel Derby

Where? Maralal, Kenya

When? August

How long? 3 days

Residents of the quiet, remote town of Maralal, deep in the Samburu district of northern Kenya, are used to having camels around – the dromedary plays a crucial role in the lives of the nomads in this wild and arid region – but for a few days every August, Maralal is invaded by scores of the hairy beasts, in preparation for its prestigious Camel Derby. Camel riding is not a routine part of daily life in this part of Kenya – the animals generally carry goods rather than people – but their owners tend to be excellent handlers, with a canny eye for a mount with strength and speed. Winning the 42-kilometre “Professional Camel Race” means the world to the participants, and every year the title is hotly contested; for anybody else who feels like a go, there’s a novices’ event, which follows a twelve- kilometre course around town.


Where? Lamu, Kenya

When? May

How long? 4 days

On the Indian Ocean island of Lamu, Maulidi, the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, is the undisputed highlight of the Islamic year. The island atmosphere is usually laid-back in the extreme, but in the run-up to Maulidi, the narrow streets of Lamu town swarm with visitors from all over the region, and you’ll find yourself rubbing shoulders with pilgrims, who gather here for the all-night recitation of the Maulid. All are welcome at the four-day knees-up that concludes the festival, complete with dhow competitions, and donkey races along the waterfront.

Moulid of Sayyid Ahmed al-Bedawi

Where? Tanta, Egypt

When? October

How long? 8 days

Egyptians love a good moulid (festivals honouring local saints), and they don’t come much bigger than the Moulid of Sayyid Ahmed al-Bedawi, when the otherwise nondescript Nile Delta city of Tanta is besieged by some two million pilgrims, who converge on the triple-domed mosque where al-Bedawi is buried. Moulids are especially associated with Sufis – Islamic mystics, who use singing, chanting and dancing to bring themselves closer to God. Some fifty Sufi brotherhoods put up their tents around Tanta and set to work chanting and beating out a rhythm on drums or tambourines, as devotees perform their zikrs (ritual dances). In the less frenetic tents, you can relax with a sheesha (water-pipe) or a nice cup of tea, while scoffing festive treats such as roasted chickpeas and sugared nuts. The atmosphere is intense, the crowds dense, and pickpocketing rife (so leave your valuables at home). Tanta doesn’t have much in the way of accommodation, and most people just bunk down in the tents, but if that doesn’t appeal and you can’t get a room, it’s near enough to Cairo to take in on a day-trip. The climax comes on the last night, a Friday, when the Ahmediya, the Sufi brotherhood founded by al-Bedawi, parade with drums and red banners behind their sheikh.

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