Festivals in West Africa: Fetes des Masques

Dogon Dancers by Martha de Jong-Lantink

Festival Essentials

Where: Dogon tribal communities throughout West Africa
When: Annually in April and May
What’s it about: Commemorate the dead and celebrate the harvest.
What to Bring: a mask

In April and May each year all Dogon villages in the West African country of Mali celebrate the Fete Des Masques, the major festival of the year. It takes place as a memorial to the villagers’ dead and to celebrate the harvest.

What happens at the Fete Des Masques Festival?

Masks are the most important symbol of Dogon culture. There are various types of masks including those which protect against vengeance and masks which help pass on knowledge to the younger generation.

The Dogon perform these dances to help recount the story of the origin of the Dogon. Despite the fact that the Dogon have begun staging these dances for tourists, they remain one of West Africa’s most resilient cultures.

In the Bobo region of Burkina Faso, whenever there’s a major funeral – such as that of a village chief, which takes place six months or so after his death – it’s accompanied by a late night fete des masques which features Bobo helmet masks, as well as other types of masks.

Masked men dance to an orchestra of lute-like instruments and narrow drums beaten with curved canes. Each dancer, representing a different spirit, performs in turn, leaping and waving his stick and looking for evil spirits which might prevent the deceased from going to paradise.

Other Festivals in West Africa

International Festival of Voodoo, Benin
Apart from the colourful, annual Muslim celebrations in the northern towns, the other main event is the on-again-off-again International Festival of Voodoo which is held in Abomey. Enquire to the tourist office in Cotonou for more information.

Whipping Ceremony, Boukombe, Benin
Every four years or so there is the seasonal ‘whipping ceremony’ in Boukombe, which seems to go on until the young men are satisfied that they have literally beaten other men in neighbouring villages black and blue (and are themselves covered in bruises).

Zaynin Kanji