With 54 countries and countless different cultures, the African continent is home to some pretty spectacular annual events and festivals. Some are influenced by religion, and offer visitors the opportunity to witness moments of great faith while gaining a better understanding of the beliefs upon which a country's culture is built. Others showcase Africa's incredible creative talent, through the mediums of film, art and/or music. In this article, we look at 10 of the festivals that are most worth planning your trip around.
Timkat is an Ethiopian Orthodox celebration that marks the Epiphany, or baptism of Christ. The three-day festival is held in towns and cities across the country, but the most famous occurs in Gondar. Here, thousands of pilgrims dressed in white robes accompany a replica of the Ark of the Covenant from each of the city's churches to the royal bathing pool known as Fasiladas' Bath. After a candlelit vigil, the waters of the pool are blessed and celebrants take to the water to renew their baptism vows. The rest of the festival is dedicated to feasting and dancing.
Where: Gondar, Ethiopia
When: January 18-20
Cape Town International Jazz Festival, South Africa
Southern Africa's biggest jazz festival is held annually in Cape Town. Jazz legends from all over the world perform for two days at the city's International Convention Centre, either on the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April. Now in its 21st year, the festival routinely attracts crowds of more than 37,000 people and tickets must be booked well in advance. Past performers range from global acts like Miles Mosley, Corinne Bailey Rae, and the Gipsy Kings; to South African favorites like the Ndlovu Youth Choir.
Where: Cape Town, South Africa
When: March or April
Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, Morocco
This spiritual festival has been held every year for more than quarter of a century in Fez, Morocco, and hosts musicians and dancers from all over the world. Over the course of the nine-day extravaganza, you might see Iranian whirling dervishes or Sufi chanters, dancers from America or groups singing sacred Gaelic hymns. Performances take place outside, in the city's Jnan Sbil Gardens or in the historic plaza in front of the Royal Palace. In addition to the scheduled performances, expect an abundance of delicious Moroccan street food.
Where: Fez, Morocco
Zanzibar International Film Festival, Tanzania
Established in 1997, the Zanzibar International Film Festival is East Africa's premier multi-disciplinary cultural event and takes place annually on the historic island of Zanzibar. Over the course of nine days, you can enjoy concerts, art exhibitions, readings, and of course, film screenings that showcase the best talent from across Africa and the Indian Ocean island nations. Dhow races also take place throughout the festival, while workshops empower and inspire the next generation of actors, directors, screenwriters, and producers.
Where: Zanzibar, Tanzania
Gnaoua World Music Festival, Morocco
Held every year in the coastal town of Essaouira, this festival was founded more than 20 years ago to celebrate traditional Gnaoua music, which borrows inspiration from the religious songs and acrobatic dance rhythms of Berber, African, and Arabic culture. Since then, it has grown to include musicians from all over the world. The festival lasts for four days, with performances taking place at venues dotted all over the town. In between shows, take the time to discover Essaouira's beautiful beaches and renowned seafood restaurants.
Where: Essaouira, Morocco
Eid al-Fitr, throughout Africa
Eid al-Fitr is a religious holiday observed by Muslim communities across the African continent. It celebrates the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. Although Eid al-Fitr is always held on the first day of the month of Shawwal, the start of each Islamic month depends on lunar sightings and therefore, the calendar date changes from year to year. Regardless of when it falls, the festival is celebrated with prayer, feasting, and family reunions. Acts of charity are customary, and strangers often give one another baked goods and other treats.
Where: Throughout Africa
When: Changes annually
Meskel is a Christian festival that has been observed in Ethiopia for over 1,600 years. It commemorates the discovery of the true cross upon which Jesus was crucified. In Addis Ababa's Meskel Square, the celebration is marked with a colorful procession of priests, deacons, and choir singers who walk around a huge pyre, bearing ceremonial crosses and wooden torches decorated with olive leaves. The torch-bearers set fire to the pyramid-shaped structure, then the faithful use the ash to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
Curee Salee and Wodaabe Gerewol, Niger
Every year members of the nomadic Wodaabe tribe gather near the desert town of Ingall to celebrate the end of the rainy season with the Cure Salee festival. The most famous aspect of the festival is the Gerewol, a male beauty pageant that sees the tribe's young men dress in elaborate costumes and make-up to perform traditional dances. They are competing for the approval of female judges, and many matches are made during this age-old courtship ritual. The week-long festival also includes camel races, livestock parades, and feasting.
Where: Ingall, Niger
International Festival of the Sahara, Tunisia
Attracting more than 50,000 people, Tunisia's International Festival of the Sahara celebrates the rich culture of the Sahara Desert and its people. It takes place every year in the small oasis town of Douz and has come a long way from its origins as a Bedouin marriage market. Today, the festival is a four-day affair filled with singing, dancing, poetry readings, and feasting. Races are a big part of the festivities, with young men competing on horse and camelback. There's also an excellent craft fair, and Douz's own fascinating Museum of the Sahara to explore.
Where: Douz, Tunisia
FESPACO Film Festival, Burkina Faso
The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) is Africa's largest film festival. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019 and is held biennially in the country's capital city. The festival begins with an opening ceremony in the national stadium and lasts for a full week with films being screened at venues across the city. The top prize is a statue known as the Golden Stallion of Yennenga. Safety concerns have marred the festivities in recent years, with the U.S. government issuing a Level 4 travel advisory for Burkina Faso.
Where: Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on January 13 2020.