With its deep-rooted significance in the local culture, this festival incorporates fascinating rituals and customs, as well as the typical Ghanaian merriment! Keep reading to find out more about this special festival and how it’s celebrated throughout the town of Elmina.
The meaning of Bakatue Festival
Dating back to earlier times when Elmina was officially founded by the Portuguese, Bakatue Festival started out in the late 1400s as an event to commemorate the town’s inception. Over the years, the festival has also been adopted as a way of giving thanks for a year of good fishing and to forecast what the harvest will bring during the next fishing season - the word Bakatue translates as ‘draining the lagoon’.
The festival is celebrated on the first Tuesday of the month of July to coincide with the start of rainy season and also because Tuesday is known as the day of the sea god. As such, local fishermen honor Nana Benya - the god of the lagoon - by refraining from fishing on a Tuesday.
The Customs of Bakatue Festival
Various customs are carried out as part of Bakatue Festival and while these are traditions that happen every year and are part of the local culture, they can be especially interesting to international volunteers who may never have witnessed a Ghanaian festival before.
Many of the customs are carried out on the Monday before the festival, so it’s worth spending a couple of days in Elmina to witness the entire event. Alternatively, a daytrip is also ideal if you can’t take too long a break from volunteering.
The chiefs from throughout the region visit the town to pay their respects to the sea god, bringing a combination of eggs, mashed yam and palm oil to offer Nana Benya. Rituals are performed by the chiefs, priests and priestesses, as well as ceremonial drummers.
Often, you will be able to witness the ritual performed by the chief fetish priest, who acts as the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. The energetic performance includes dancing until a trance-like state is achieved as the priest communicates with the spirits.
The royal procession
As part of the event, the paramount chief from the Elmina area and his family process to the riverside, often via elaborately decorated palanquins. Once the royal family arrives at the riverside, the chief priest casts out a net into the water three times to symbolize the beginning of the new fishing season.
After the rituals have been completed, a boat ride-out is organized, and local women dressed in traditional Kente cloth and festive headgear board large boats and travel around the lagoon, accompanied by singing, chanting and drumming.
Music and dancing
When the customs have all been performed, the royal procession makes its way to the chief’s palace amid traditional music, after which the fun really begins as locals and visitors alike get into the party mood with singing and dancing in the streets while canoe regattas add excitement and color on the water.
What else to see and do?
Following the event on the Tuesday, many other activities are often organized for the rest of the day and, indeed, for the remainder of the week! Events include street parades and carnivals, a quiz and a sports gala, as well as a beauty contest where one lucky entrant is crowned Miss Bakatue.
Away from the lagoon, there are other attractions to experience on a visit to the town, including various historical landmarks. Elmina is a famous part of Ghana as a result of its poignant history; the town was formerly a slave outpost and the castle that still stands here was an important stop along the slave trade route.
You can learn more about Elmina’s heritage with a visit to the castle if you plan to stay in the area for a couple of days during Bakatue Festival, or take a walking tour of the town to find out more about the area’s heritage and admire other sites of interest too, like the Portuguese Fort St Jago, built in the 1600s.
Bakatue Festival is just one of many cultural events to take place in Ghana every year; no matter when you visit, you’ll find a variety of ways to witness the local culture. Download our country guide for more information about what you’ll see and do on a volunteer vacation in Ghana.