This exciting, raucous annual event is celebrated in most Mamprusi communities across the North East Region in remembrance of an old legend.
In Mampruli, the Fire Festival is called Bugum Toobu (Fire Throwing) or Bugum Kyuu (Fire Festival). Dagomba people who are related to the Mamprusi and live just south in the Northern Region call it Buɣim Chuɣu in Dagbani.
The Fire Festival falls on the ninth day of the traditional month of Bugum Gɔri. Traditional Mamprusi festivals are based on the lunar calendar, therefore the exact date of the Fire Festival changes from year to year. However, the event usually falls in the months of August, September, or October. It always occurs two lunar cycles before the Damba Festival. So one can look up Mohammed’s birthday and subtract about 58 days to get a good estimate.
While the festival is observed at the chief’s palace is most villages, the largest observance is in Nalerigu at the NaYiri Palace.
The festival officially begins an hour or two after dark when Muslims have finished their evening prayers and had time to prepare for the event. The chief will come out of his palace and throw the first flaming torch after twirling it around his head three times. In Nalerigu, the king’s emergence from his palace is always a sight to behold. His procession is made up of his elders, sub-chiefs, drummers, fiddlers, and other courtiers.
Once the NaYiri has thrown his torch, the crowds rush in to light their own torches from his flame. The chief’s warriors (kambonsi) will fire their guns into the air and then chaotic fun ensues as everyone (mostly young men) run around playing with fire.
It is a tradition to take a flaming torch and wave the fire around your head three times to bring good luck in the new year. Folks will then greet each other with “Naawunni kyɛ ka yuumni ti ya nya hoo nŋɔa taabu ka mari la nyɔvuri ni alafɛa n laa n-toori bugum,” which means “May God allow me to live through the coming year with health and throw fire again.”
In Nalerigu, a large bowl of holy water (blessed by the Gambaga imam) is brought out from the Nayiri’s palace and people rushes to fetch from it. The belief is that anyone with any sickness or disease who bathes with or drinks the water will be cured.
On the night of the festival, some traditionalists will slaughter a cow, sheep or goat and leave pieces of meat on the walls of their family compounds as offerings to their ancestors. They will then enjoy a meal together.
Some men perform dangerous stunts to show off their courage (though some would argue it is foolishness) and their tiim or juju (magical powers). You may see some cutting themselves with knives yet not bleeding and others touching flames and not being burned.
While the local youth certainly enjoy the chaos and pandemonium of the Fire Festival, the festival is safe to attend as a tourist or visitor. It is advised that one stay close to the chief’s palace and not stay out too late.
The gun fired at the festival are not loaded with shot or bullets – simply gun powder. Nonetheless, one should keep their distance as gun-related accidents can (and do) occur. The guns are also extremely loud at close range.
The following is the oral tradition, or legend, behind the celebration of the Fire Festival by the
Many years ago, the king’s son was out playing with his friends. He became tired and lay down under a tree to rest. He fell asleep and the others forgot about him.
That night after supper the king and the mother realized the child was missing when they called him to go to bed. They had each thought he was with the other parent.
The king ordered his people to go around the village looking for the missing son. There was no electricity so they all lit grass torches for their search. Fearing that a wild animal had taken him, the men brought out all their guns.
When they came to the edge of the village they found him under the tree in a deep sleep. Thinking that the tree (or an evil spirit in it) had stolen the child, all the people threw their torches on the tree to burn and shame it.
To celebrate the occasion the king decreed that every year they should commemorate this happy event. Then the people annually gathered at the king’s palace, where he would emerge with a torch and throw it down. All those with guns would bring out their guns and fire them off. Then the people would light their torches and go outside the village to throw them into the bush.
There is an alternate origin story mostly heard from Muslim Dagombas to the south. It tries to connect the Fire Festival to the time of Noah and the Biblical flood. The idea is that one of Noah’s sons didn’t make it onto the ark and after the waters receded, Noah and his family came out brandishing torches looking for him to see if he survived. This version was likely contrived by early Muslims in Dagombaland as a way for converts to justify a pre-existing traditional celebration.