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  • Writer's picturewassa123


In addition to celebrating R and B’s birthdays, we were in Grand Bassam for Abissa, an annual celebration of forgiveness, rebirth, and spiritual life that comes from the Nzema people. It’s a weeklong celebration that kicks off on the last week of October, so for us, Halloween day.

B's Face Paint!

It was clear that something big was happening that Sunday. Busloads of people appeared in Grand Bassam, everyone was dressed to the nines, and everywhere I turned, someone wanted to give me Kaolin, a traditional clay-based face paint.

I always appreciate opportunities to experience new cultural experiences as an outsider and my brain’s attempt to find familiarity in the unfamiliar. I am not a big festival goer at home, and I think the largest crowd of people I’d been in before Abissa was probably a protest of some sort.

The streets of Grand Bassam were packed with festival-goers, both locals and tourists. An electrifying excitement buzzed around us as we walked around, the air was heavy and hot, and the sky was streaked with pinks and oranges as the sun set. You could feel the swell of energy as we made our way to the main festival grounds. And that’s where the magic began.

The main festival ground was basically a giant dance party, with drummers elevated on a small tower with mics and speakers. As far as the eye could see, there were people, and if they weren’t running through the crowds, they were dancing.

For me, it was incredibly moving to be surrounded by so much joy. Watching people from three-year-old toddlers to elderly women dance their asses off was honestly liberating. For a while, my friends and I were watching dancers (both performers and regular people) from a slightly raised platform, but once I spotted some familiar faces in the crowd, I threw my shoes off and joined them. When I appeared in front of K, A, E, and A, I was met with sweaty hugs and teased that if I didn’t dance, the police would escort me out. (they were escorting the inevitable drunk fighters) So we danced, and danced, and danced, and danced, kicking up sand, rolling up our dresses, and letting the occasional spray of cold water cool us off. As the sun went down, blinding lights snapped on, extending the thousand-person dance party well into the night.

I danced so much I sweat through my new dress. Everyone else was drenched. It was a great night.

Unfortunately, I didn’t stay for all the festivities. In the rest of the week, my friends got to see the King arrive, dances of grief and forgiveness, and the closing ceremonies.

On the note of making the unfamiliar familiar, my cohort members and I noticed a tradition that seemed particularly interesting: on the first night, the men wore wigs and dresses, or otherwise traditionally feminine clothing. And these weren’t colorful party wigs or parodied outfits, it looked like they’d raided their mom’s closets, found a 40-inch Brazilian wig, and decided to make the festival their personal runway. This clear practice of queerness in a traditionally queerphobic culture has been on my mind, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to write about it alone. So, my brilliant cohort member E, who studies African history, culture, and queerness, lent her talents to help me think this through. Read about it here.

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