When we arrive in Axim late Friday afternoon, the normally quiet fishing town is already buzzing with excitement – and a few thousand lively guests. The party doesn’t start until later, but the drummers have been going all day. One group from higher Axim and another from the lower part of the port have met in the town’s main street for a percussion face-off and the lead up to the annual Kundum Festival.
Every year in late September, the Nzema tribe that inhabits one of the largest towns on Ghana’s western coast, only an hour drive from the regional capital of Takoradi, hosts visitors from all over the West African country ready for a weekend of non-stop celebrations.
“Tonight, we are going to have a lot of fun,” Graces, my friend and travel companion says. We’re impressed as we tour the streets and the preparations for the evening.
Kundum is the annual harvest festival, originally a ceremony to offer sacrifices to the ancestors for a bumper crop, and is now celebrated by the traditional chiefs and people. That’s about all Grace and I knew about the festival when we decided to travel an hour from her home in Takoradi to Axim to take part in the weekend’s activities. Because of a freak rainstorm we were late boarding the tro-tro, a dangerously over-loaded public mini-van, and we missed the slaughtering of a goat (I can’t say I was too disappointed). Instead, we stumbled into what is clearly one of the biggest parties I’ve been to in my five months in Ghana.
At the end of the street, large speakers are being set up for the evening’s festivities. When night falls, the local spots will be packed – and the alcohol will flow freely. Right now, the scent of grilled chicken and fish, to be eaten with akyeke – an Nzema dish that resembles couscous, and hot pepper, or “pepé” as they say in the local accent, is irresistible and all three of us share one large bowlful of the delicious cuisine.
While we chow down our supper, a group of local women fishmongers put on a private performance for us, singing and beating their maracas. When my companion gives them two Ghana cedis, one croons, “Medawase,” or thank you in the local language.
“May you bear twins,” the woman says to me, clearly intending it as the highest form of compliment.
From there, it’s time to explore the nightlife.
We are latecomers to the first club we enter. Over the blare of the music, one inebriated man leans in a bit too close to make small chat. He is overly enthusiastic. “I know we’re going to be the best of friends,” he says slurring his words.
Party-goers walk in and out of clubs that charge no cover and join the dancers on the street. On either end of the main strip – outside the Bubra and Hollywood spots respectively, speakers blast music for a street dance party that competes with the traditional drumming. Vendors have lined up to sell food or BBQ chicken and meat kebabs for those dancing up an appetite.
Two more girls have joined our group and the five of us hold hands as to not get swallowed by the crowd or dragged away by some eager young man. The ratio of men to women is sorely unbalanced, with men coming from as far away as Kumasi in Ghana’s Ashanti Region, to take part in the festival. Even when we explain that some of the girls with us are underage, they are reluctant to leave us alone.
Across the road from Fort Sao Antonio, next to the Ghana Commercial Bank, a new bar called the Rooftop has just opened its doors. The staff were still doing minor alterations to the décor earlier in the afternoon, but tonight the bar is stocked and there isn’t a place to sit down in the establishment. From the third floor nightclub, the view of the palace and the street dancing below is phenomenal. The street itself looks alive as we watch the ebb and flow of gyrating bodies.
“White woman,” two small boys no older than ten shout to me, “What are you doing out at this hour?”
“Excuse me?” I reply. “How old are you anyway?” I joke with them.
Without missing a beat, one of the boys retorts, “I’m 96, so I’m your grampa.” I laugh at the boy’s cheekiness as they walk away.
After dancing so much our feet hurt, we call it a night.
The next day, we head to Axim Beach Resort, located several kilometres southeast of the town, which boasts one of the nicest swimming beaches on the western coast. This afternoon they are preparing for an evening beach party. A special Kundum menu offers tasty, but overpriced lunch specials. The bar menu seems especially steep, considering we’ve become accustomed to drinking Choice Irish Cream in alcohol sachets for 30 peswesas (20 cents) an ounce.
By mid-afternoon, I’m afraid I am a little sunburned and ready for more akyeke. The hotel reception calls us a taxi which we agree to charter to town for 3 cedis (approximately USD$2). Only after we enter the cab do we notice the half-empty 625ml bottle of Star, a locally brewed beer, resting next to the driver’s seat. My companion and I gulp and have the driver pull over at the closest stop so we can walk the rest of the way. Apparently, no one is refraining from enjoying the weekend’s festivities.
Back in town, the parade of chiefs is about to begin. The procession coincides with the Paramount Chief’s birthday and brings in thousands of people from around the area.
One of Grace’s relatives invites us to eat lunch on his second floor flat overlooking the main street. From here we have the perfect view of the procession of extravagant floats, hoisted onto men’s shoulders. They carry the invited chiefs in traditional attire through the sea of awed spectators.
At the end of the line is Awulae Attibrukusu, Paramount Chief of Axim and the birthday boy. He and the other chiefs continue the procession through the town and congregate in front of the palace – the colonial Portuguese castle, Fort Sao Antonio. The second-oldest fort in Ghana is a relic of Axim’s history as the country’s busiest trading post.
This afternoon, the chiefs are joined by the country’s vice-president for a special programme of speeches and traditional ceremony. For most of the town’s visitors, though, it’s a time to socialize over a few beers. By eight pm, the spots-turned-nightclubs are once again blasting highlife, an infusion of jazz and African rhythms and the street carnival is a sea of jiving bodies. The drummers continue to beat while women with maracas sing and stomp in time.
One boy watches me try to master the traditional dance. “You are dancing off beat,” he tells me.
“Do you care to show me how it’s done then?” I taunt him.
Shy at first, he then breaks into smooth moves that fall beautifully in time with the music. I’m impressed for someone so young. We applaud him and he blushes.
Tonight we start at the Comba, another enclosed spot with an open roof next to the seashore. On occasions like tonight, it becomes a nightclub with a two cedi cover ($1.33 USD). After several hours, the place becomes crowded. I feel a tug on my purse and realize someone has undone the zipper. Fortunately, everything is still there, but I’m alert to pickpockets on the loose. Men also approach us to dance by grabbing our arms and other body parts.
We decide to rejoin the street festival, which is now less crowded. Behind us we hear a young voice calling out “Hello!”
“It’s your small boy from last night,” Grace points out.
I turn to see a group of ten-year-olds who seem a little too giggly. “Are you drunk?” I ask my “grampa.”
“Yes. I am drink,” he says, confusing his words. Then he laughs so hard he falls over. His friends are kind enough to help him up.
“Ok good night,” I say and reluctantly leave them to explain themselves to their parents.
By now, my feet are so sore I can barely walk. The party will continue into the wee hours of the morning and perhaps even the next day, but for me, I’ve had all the dancing I can take for one weekend. But Grace and I smile at one another, knowing we may just have discovered Ghana’s best-kept secret – and certain we will be returning next fall – for the biggest party of the year.