With 54 countries and island nations, there’s never a shortage of things to do in Africa. Here are some its best festivals.
With 54 countries and island nations, there’s never a shortage of things to do on the African continent. Festivals provide a great opportunity to experience the diverse culture, music and food, while also benefiting the local economies. Here are some of the best ones you should consider attending.
The Equatorial Guinea Bodypainting Festival ~ Equatorial Guinea
The Equatorial Guinea Bodypainting Festival is one of the newest festivals on the continent, having only been launched in 2019. But it’s already gaining fans and spurring tourism to the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. The festival includes tours, eco-adventures, and art workshops on mask making, pole dancing, and creative drawing, among others. Of course, the festival highlight is the amazing body paint presentations.
Timkat Festival ~ Ethiopia
Timkat is Ethiopian Epiphany Day, a celebration of the baptism of Jesus Christ, occurring across the country, but mainly in Lalibela, Gondar, and Addis Ababa. The festival happens every year on January 19 (January 20 in leap years), with preparations the day before (ketera) and three days of colorful processions, dance, music, prayer and a ritual baptismal re-enactment. This is one of the major religious festivals in Ethiopia and an excellent way to immerse oneself in Ethiopian history and culture.
The Voodoo Festival ~ Benin
The Voodoo Festival is a celebration of the voodoo religion that takes place every year on January 10th in Ouidah, Benin. This popular festival draws fetish priests, adepts, traditional chiefs and onlookers from across the globe. There are ritual sacrifices, dancing, drinking and drumming. Devotees assume the identity of gods, dressing up and transforming into that god as they do, with the realm of the magical close at hand.
Abu Simbel Sun Festival ~ Egypt
The Abu Simbel temples are two massive rock temples built as a monument to Pharaoh Ramesses II and his queen Nefertari and to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh. The temples remain in darkness all year, except for two occasions on February 22 and October 22, when a stream of natural sunlight illuminates the entire complex. Tourists come from around the globe to see this solar phenomenon and architectural marvel, and to enjoy music, dance, food, drinking, market shopping and more.
Carnival ~ Cape Verde
Carnival is celebrated on all 10 islands, but the biggest and liveliest celebrations happen in Mindelo on Sao Vicente island. The dates change each year, but the week leading up to Shrove Tuesday (February 25 in 2020) is filled with street parties and other events, culminating with the main parade complete with samba dancing, singing, live music, elaborate floats, and colorful costumes. Come ready to have fun because the celebrations start early in the morning and go on all day.
Sauti za Busara ~ Zanzibar, Tanzania
This 4-day music festival is held every February and showcases African music from across the continent. Highlights of Sauti za Busara include 400+ live musicians, a carnival parade, impromptu jam sessions and after parties, with a backdrop of the beautiful beach views and island breezes of Stone Town.
Bouake Carnival ~ Cote d’Ivoire
Bouake Carnival is the Ivorian version of Mardi Gras. This
weeklong celebration of life and friendship is held in late March in Bouake, the
second largest city in Cote d’ivoire. Tourists and locals join together to enjoy
great music, eat traditional foods, explore cultural markets, attend lively street
parties and parades, and hear music from local artists and musicians from all
over the continent of Africa.
Cape Town International Jazz Festival ~ South Africa
Touted as Africa’s Grandest Gathering, Cape Town Jazz Festival is one of the biggest jazz festivals on the continent. This 2-day festival is hosted in the beautiful Cape Town and known for its all-star lineup of local and international acts.
Festival of Urban Music of Anoumabo (FEMUA) ~ Cote
This annual music festival is a party with a purpose – the proceeds are used to build schools and hospitals across the country. Started by Salif “Asalfo” Traoré, singer of the Ivorian band, Magic System, as a way to give back to the Anoumabo neighborhood, this celebration has morphed from a neighborhood party to a major festival, drawing crowds of more than 100,000 people to Abidjan. FEMUA features a variety of Ivorian and Pan African music and has an annual theme aimed at spurring social awareness and change. Be warned — the festival starts late and typically runs until 5:00 am.
Harare International Festival of the Arts ~ Zimbabwe
The Harare International Festival of the Arts is one of Africa’s largest art and cultural festivals, held in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare. The 6-day festival and workshop program showcases Zimbabwean, regional and international arts and culture with dance, music, circus, street performances, fashion, spoken word, theater and visual arts.
Azgo Festival ~ Mozambique
The Azgo Festival is a contemporary celebration of arts and culture, with a strong focus on artists from Mozambique and the entire African continent. The four-day festival includes live music, films, dance, artistic and cultural development workshops and gourmet street food vendors.
Bush Fire Festival ~ eSwatini (formerly Swaziland)
One of Africa’s most popular events, Bush Fire is an annual 3-day festival which showcases music, art and culture from all over the African continent. Through its mantra “Bring Your Fire”, Bushfire encourages creative expression and social change, and invites everyone to contribute and engage through a program of creative workshops, discussions, art exhibitions and guest speakers.
La Biennale de L’Art Africain Contemporain/Dak’Art ~ Senegal
La Biennale de L’Art Africain Contemporain, commonly known as Dak’Art, is a month-long contemporary arts festival held every two years in Senegal’s capital of Dakar. The festival features art exhibitions with a variety of national and international artists, as well as in situ mural and sculpture creations, lectures, films, live performances, African culinary presentations, and more. The next edition of Dak’Art is in 2020.
Saint-Louis Jazz Festival ~ Senegal
Held in the former French capital of Saint-Louis, the renowned Saint-Louis Jazz Festival happens annually in May and attracts local and international jazz greats. The 5-day festival is in its 28th year and attracts close to 100,000 music lovers from around the world.
Windhoek Annual Cultural Festival ~ Namibia
The Windhoek Annual Cultural Festival is a new festival, which seeks to promote Namibian cultural diversity and provide a platform for upcoming artists and entrepreneurs to exhibit and promote their businesses. Participants celebrate their cultural backgrounds through traditional dress, dance performances and food. Additional activities include a battle of DJs, choir competition, battle of chefs, eating competition and talent show.
Fes Festival of World Sacred Music ~ Morocco
The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music is 10-day celebration held in Fes, in northern Morocco. The festival advocates music as a means of promoting dialogue and harmony between civilizations and is a combination of concerts, workshops and discussions on climate change, human and civil rights, social justice and other important issues.
Jazzablanca ~ Morocco
Jazzablanca is an international jazz festival held yearly in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city. The 9-day festival features local and international artists with a mix of famous and up-and-coming jazz, pop, rock, blues and funk. Food and fashion workshops are also held.
Zanzibar International Film Festival ~ Zanzibar, Tanzania
The Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), also known as Festival of the Dhow Countries, is an annual 10-day film festival held on Zanzibar island. ZIFF includes workshops and screenings of African films in various genres, including African Animation, TV series and Web series.
Panafest ~ Ghana
The Pan African Historical Theatre Festival, commonly known as Panafest, is a cultural festival held every two years for Africans and people of African descent. The festival is intended to bring together Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora around the issues raised by the transatlantic slave trade. The two-week festival includes a variety of cultural events, performance arts, dance and music workshops, speaking colloquiums, and tributes to the ancestors. The next Panafest is in 2021.
Chale Wote Street Art Festival ~ Ghana
Chale Wote has quickly become one of West Africa’s biggest and most popular events, with more than 100,000 attendees and 200 Ghanaian and international artists participating. The 10-day street festival includes street painting, graffiti murals, photo exhibitions, live street performances, extreme sports, African cinema, street boxing, a fashion parade, a music block party, design labs and more.
Gaborone International Music and Culture Week (GIMC) ~ Botswana
GIMC is a weeklong annual festival that celebrates the city of Gaborone through music, theatre, comedy, poetry, fashion and other cultural activities. Performers include local, regional and international artists.
Lake of Stars Festival ~ Malawi
Lake of Stars is an annual 3-day international music festival held on the shores of Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa. The activities include music, talks, poetry, theater, film, art and wellness activities from Malawi and across the globe. On-site camping is available and encouraged. The festival is on hiatus for 2020, but is expected to return in 2021.
Nyege Nyege Festival ~ Uganda
Held on the shores of the Nile River, the 4-day Nyege Nyege festival is one of the biggest underground music festivals in East Africa. Nyege Nyege is a Swahili word meaning an uncontrollable urge to move, shake, or dance and you’ll do just that at this non-stop party and celebration of Ugandan and African culture. Nyege Nyege showcases an eclectic mix of music genres from Africans and the diaspora, including electronic music, Ugandan dancehall, Balani (Mali), Kweito (South Africa), Kuduro (Angola), Cumbia (South America) and more.
Felabration ~ Nigeria
Felabration is an annual music and arts festival commemorating the life of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician and human rights activist known for pioneering the afrobeat music genre. The weeklong celebration includes a wide range of activities, including debates, symposiums, afrobics dance competitions, art exhibitions and competitions, and music concerts.
Mombasa Carnival ~ Kenya
The Mombasa Carnival is one of Kenya’s biggest and most
popular festivals, held every year in November. This lively street party revolves
around two parades, which converge on Moi Avenue and display Mombasa’s diverse cultures
with an array of floats, traditional dress, music concerts, and dance. A mix of
traditional and contemporary artists join the celebration.
Afrochella ~ Ghana
Afrochella is Africa’s answer to America’s Coachella. This annual one-day festival seeks to highlight the thriving talent from and within Africa and features African music, culture, art, fashion and food. Related happenings, including panel discussions, charity events, and parties, are held the week of the festival.
Afropunk ~ South Africa
Afropunk is an annual alternative arts festival that includes live music, film, fashion, and art produced by black artists. The festival debuted in Brooklyn, New York and has since expanded to locations across the globe, including Johannesburg, South Africa. The two-day Afropunk Joburg features live concerts, panel conversations, battle of the bands, and food and craft markets.
Calabar Carnival ~ Nigeria
Called Africa’s biggest street party, the Calabar Carnival takes place the entire month of December in the city of Calabar in southeastern Nigeria. It attracts more than 2 million revelers and has participants from 25 countries. The festivities include street parades, battle of the bands, concerts, art shows, street parties, food competitions, fashion shows, sporting events and non-stop parties. Carnival week, the final week between Christmas and New Year, is when most of the highlights occur.
Victoria Falls Carnival ~ Zimbabwe
The Victoria Falls Carnival is a 3-day blowout party held annually at the end of December. The party starts on Day One with a Carnival train ride and secret bush party. Day Two features an electric safari concert with the best live house, African, indie and electro-pop music. The party culminates on New Year’s Eve, with a concert and year-end countdown complete with fire breathers, traditional dancers, and a host of African music artists. All of the fun is held in the backdrop of Victoria Falls, one of the biggest and most famous waterfalls in the world.
Senegal is a country in West Africa, which surrounds The Gambia on three sides and is bordered on the north by Mauritania, on the east by Mali, and on the south by Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. Dakar is the capital and largest city of Senegal, and it sits on the Cap-Vert peninsula, the westernmost point of Africa.
Although Senegal is a majority Muslim country, with more than 90% of the population practicing Islam, the vibe is vibrant and diverse. Culturally, the traditional/religious and the modern/worldly live side by side in relative peace. It’s not uncommon to see men in traditional garb prostrate on the sidewalk to pray, while others dressed in secular clothing pass by. Likewise, one may hear the Muslim Call to Prayer while exiting a nightclub in the early morning.
But despite this clash of cultures, one thing seems universal — the Senegalese take great pride in their appearance. The women dress in elaborate, colorful outfits with matching headwraps, even for a trip to the market. The men are earnest about staying in shape and most are tall, lean and muscular. The Senegalese take their reputation for great hospitality just as seriously. They are known for their “teranga”, a Wolof word which characterizes the value of sharing and treating the other as the most important person in the world. If you’re lucky enough to befriend a Senegalese, chances are you’ll be treated to a cultural or culinary treat. This travel guide will help you plan your trip to Senegal so you can experience Teranga firsthand.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND
At only 7 hour and 15 minutes from New York to Dakar, a flight to Senegal is one of the shortest from the United States to the African continent. Delta and South African Airways fly direct to Dakar from the United States. Jet Blue, Emirates, Turkish Airlines, and a host of other airlines offer connecting flights to Dakar.
The Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport is the largest airport in Senegal and is situated near the town of Yoff, north of Dakar. The drive to the city is approximately 20 minutes. Taxis are readily found outside the airport and rates should be negotiated beforehand; fares to most locations in the city should be no more than 3,000 to 5,000 CFAs. Taxis are cheap, safe and everywhere making it easy to explore the city.
Senegal no longer requires visas for U.S. citizens for stays of fewer than 90 days. For longer stays, U.S. citizens should obtain visas from the Senegalese Embassy in Washington DC or the Senegalese Consulate in New York.
The official currency of Senegal is the West African CFA Franc (CFA), pronounced SAY-fah. CFA notes are available in denominations of 10,000, 5,000 and 1,000 and coins are available in denominations of 500, 200, 100, 50, 25, 10, 5 and 1. At current exchange rates (as of 3/1/2017), 1,000 CFA equal approximately $1.60 USD. Currency can be exchanged in banks and exchange bureaus in Dakar.
WEATHERSenegal is mainly a sunny and dry country with well-defined dry and humid seasons. The dry season (December to April) is dominated by hot, dry, harmattan wind and temperatures reach an average of 78 degrees high and 64 degrees low. The rainy season runs from June to October, with August and September being the rainiest months. Temperatures during the rainy season average 86 degrees high and 76 degrees low.
WHERE TO STAY
Most of Dakar’s Western-style hotels are located either in the downtown area or in the beachfront neighborhoods of Les Almadies and Ngor. Airbnbs and vacation rentals are also lodging options.
Senegal is a multilingual country. As a former French colony, French is the official language of Senegal. Wolof is the most widely spoken language, either as a first or second language. Many other native languages are spoken or recognized. English speakers are limited so you would do well to learn a few words of French or Wolof before you arrive. Common greetings include Asalaam Ailaikum (Arabic), Nan ga Def (Wolof), and Bonjour (French).
Goree Island (“Ile de Gorée”)/House of Slaves
Goree Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the location of the House of Slaves, a museum and memorial to the Atlantic slave trade. The House of Slaves is best known for its Door of No Return, meant to memorialize the final exit point of captured slaves before their forced journey to the Americas. The House of Slaves is open daily, except Mondays, from 10:30 am to 6:00 pm. Ferries to the Island can be taken from the terminal north of Place de l’Independance and cost 5,200 CFA for non-residents. The trip takes approximately 20 minutes.
Lake Retba or Pink Lake (“Lac Rose”)
Nestled between white sand dunes and the Atlantic Ocean, the Pink Lake is named for its pink waters caused by Dunaliella salina bacteria. It’s known both for its unusual color and its high salt content, which at 40% in some areas, is comparable to the Dead Sea. The pink color is more visible during the dry season (from November to June) and is less visible during the rainy season (July to October). Boat tours of the lake and 4 x 4 tours of the salt dunes are available and prices are negotiable. Be sure to bring your hard bargaining skills because tourist rates are highly inflated. The Pink Lake is located about an hour outside of Dakar.
African Renaissance Monument
This massive bronze statue sits on top of the twin hills of Collines des Mamelles on the outskirts of Dakar. The monument is a display of African pride, dedicated to the end of slavery and to Africa’s emergence from the European regimes that once ruled the continent. It is the largest statue in Africa.
IFAN Museum of African Arts (“Musée Théodore Monod d’Art Africain”)
The IFAN Museum is one of the oldest art museums in West Africa and it includes important art collections from across Francophone Africa. It’s one of the regular locations of the Dakar Biennale (“Dak’Art – Biennale de l’Art Africain Contemporain”), a major art exhibition by contemporary African and diaspora artists that takes place every two years.
Dakar has a number of traditional African markets — Sandaga, HLM, Kermel and Soumbedioune — that sell seafood, vegetables, fabric, jewelry, leather goods, and artwork. Marché Sandaga is the largest and most hectic with three levels of stalls. Marché HLM is geared towards fabric and is the place to go to buy African wax print. Tailors are also available to custom fit and tailor African fashions. Marché Kermel is located near the city center and has quality artisanal goods and textiles. Marché Soumbedioune is a popular evening fish market. Fresh caught fish and seafood is hauled in between 4:00 and 6:00 pm and grilled right on the shore.
The Corniche is the wide boulevard that runs along the Atlantic coast. It has sweeping views and is a popular place for locals and tourists to take a stroll. It’s also a popular place for locals to exercise at the large outdoor gym.
If you like your food spicy and well-flavored, you will thoroughly enjoy Senegalese cuisine. Senegal’s most popular dishes are made with fish, lamb or chicken and usually include rice and vegetables. As a legacy of French rule, Senegal’s bakeries serve baguettes, croissants and other pastries that rival those in France.
Thiebou Jenn (also spelled as Thieboudienne, Tiep Bou Dienn, and Ceebu Jenn) is Senegal’s national dish. There are white and red (tomato-based) versions made with fish, rice, and a variety of vegetables like carrots, eggplant, cabbage, okra, sweet potatoes and cassava. It’s often served with a bissap sauce.
Thiebou Yapp is a variation of Thiebou Jenn made with seasoned lamb and rice.
Yassa is a spicy, lemon chicken or fish dish with carmelized onions served over rice.
Mafé is a stew of chicken, fish, or lamb simmered in peanut butter sauce with vegetables such as yuca, yams, potatoes, carrots, or turnips.
Bissap is a juice made from hibiscus leaves.
Gingembre is a tangy drink made out from ginger root and sugar.
Bouye is a drink made from the fruit of baobab trees. The pulp is pounded into a frothy, opaque drink that tastes slightly like a banana smoothie.
Ataaya is a sugary mint tea usually offered to friends and visitors. It’s served in three stages called the three concoctions.
On weekends, Dakar has a vibrant nightlife that doesn’t get jumping until well after midnight and continues until 6:00 or 7:00 am. The strip of nightclubs on Route de Ngor in Les Almadies is a popular hotspot on Friday and Saturday nights. Thiossane, owned by Youssou N’Dour, a famous West African musician, is also a popular nightspot. He often performs at the club on Saturday nights when he is not on tour.
The Petite Coast
OTHER NEARBY AREAS TO VISIT
The Petite Coast (“Petit Côte”)
The Petite Côte is located about 45 miles southeast of Dakar and is considered one of Senegal’s best beach areas. The drive is an easy 1.5 to 2-hour drive from the city. The main tourist hub is the sandy coastline that runs from La Somone to Saly. Places to visit include:
Reserve de Bandia
The Bandia Reserve is a small private reserve with a variety of indigenous and non-indigenous wildlife, including woodland birds, green monkeys, patas monkeys, warthogs, white rhinoceros, giraffe, kudu, eland and impala.
Saly is often called Senegal’s answer to the French Riviera and in fact is a popular destination for French and European tourists. The beachside town is the center of tourism in the Petite Côte and home to many hotels, nightclubs, bars, restaurants, shops and a casino.
Somone is more of a low-key retreat, less glitzy and more chilled than nearby Saly. Somone’s best-known landmark, the Somone Lagoon, is an area of natural beauty at the mouth of the Atlantic ocean. A boat tour (costing 15,000 CFA) showcases a birdlife reserve and the mangrove ecosystem.
Senegalese cuisine is a West African cuisine influenced by the fare of North Africa, Portugal and France, which held the country as a colony until 1960. The cuisine is derived from the nation’s many ethnic groups, the largest being the Wolof. There are several popular and beloved dishes in Senegal and I was lucky to try them all.
I arrived in Dakar around 2:00 am, and my hosts Phyllis and Eddy from Diasporic Soul were ready for me with dibi and rice to feed my tummy. Dibi, one of Senegal’s favorite street foods, is grilled lamb, cut into small pieces and usually served with grilled onions, mustard sauce and bread. We stayed up talking until after 5:00am and I got a firsthand taste of Senegalese teranga too (Teranga is a Wolof word meaning hospitality).
I woke up in early afternoon to the most amazing smell and learned that I would be treated to Senegal’s national dish, Thebu Jenn. Thebu Jenn is a flavorful fish and rice dish served with a variety of vegetables and it comes in white and red (tomato-based) variations. I had the white and it was heavenly. It was served with bissap sauce, made from hibiscus leaves with the consistency of creamed spinach, and xoon, the coveted crunchy rice from the bottom of the pot.
Thebu Jenn (aka Theboudienne), Senegal’s national dish
Over the next few days, I had Yassa Poulet and Poisson – fish and chicken versions of the popular dish made with onions, lemon juice and garlic and served with rice.
But the highlight was my attendance at a “ngente” or baby naming ceremony. It was a special day where family and friends gathered for a day of good food and celebration. After the baby girl was named, the men killed two sheep in the baby’s honor (I didn’t watch and only saw after it was done). Then the ladies all went to work preparing the meal. They cleaned the lamb, cut vegetables, and cleaned and cooked rice. It was fascinating to watch them work together and prepare a meal for 30+ people, all while dressed to the nines. The final product, Thebu Yapp, was the best meal I had during my time in Senegal.