Ghana’s “masquerade”, the Winneba Fancy Dress Festival or, as it is more widely known, the Westside Carnival, used to be a down-market affair. No longer, as revellers from across the country join in the fun.
By Zubaida Mabuno Ismail, Bird story agency
It is 5:30 am on Christmas Eve and the Kaneshie bus terminus in the heart of Accra is teeming with life. Kuukua Essoum has braved the early morning chill to grab the earliest shuttle to Takoradi, the epicentre of the Westside Carnival.
“Ewuraba ko fom ma yenko” (“come, grab a seat, let’s go”), shouts one of more than a dozen touts, all chasing clients for their rides. Essoum obliges and boards the mini-van.
For Essoum, each passing minute evokes distant, youthful memories of travelling to the colourful festival in Takoradi. She cannot wait to return to the coastal city after being away for more than two decades. As the van departs. it’s the beginning of a trip down memory lane – quite literally.
The journey from Accra to Takoradi will take at least four hours, with a minimum of five stops along the 226 km coastal route. The potential for delays stirs anxiety; Essoum is keen to get there as early as possible.
In December 2021, Essoum was one of the thousands of visitors from all over Ghana thronging the coastal town to participate in the annual Winneba Fancy Dress Festival, a key part of the Carnival.
Takoradi transforms itself completely during the festive season and from Christmas Eve to the beginning of the New Year the city centre is a picture of pageantry and splendour as thousands of Ghanaians, many adorned in the patriotic colours of red, gold and green in horizontal stripes with a five-pointed black star – as well as other colourful outfits – join the celebrations.
Masquerading clubs march through the streets, each in their carefully tailored costumes, displaying complex dance moves as the crowd cheers them on. Each group is accompanied by a brass band, drumming and trumpeting a musical accompaniment to the masqueraders, keeping them in step and charming the crowd. It’s a celebration that, coinciding with Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties, echoes other celebrations across the continent – like the Cape Town Minstrel’s Carnival – acting to spice up the end of one and the beginning of another year in Africa.
Decades ago, the festival was associated with street children and the poor. For aeons, the idea of having fun by wearing plastic costumes and funny masks and dancing in the streets was regarded as anathema by local elites. But over the years, partly due to the growth in popularity of street parties and carnivals worldwide and with more and more Ghanaians travelling to some of the world’s street party capitals, Takoradi has become a major tourist attraction, both to foreigners and Ghanaians. In 2021, with international travel curtailed, the Westside Carnival became a major attraction for Ghanaians from every corner of the country, drawing record numbers of travellers.
Somewhere in the throng, Essoua has hooked up with her troop, making it to Takoradi in time to join the Sonato Masquerading Group as they make their way through the streets on Christmas Day, vying with scores of other masquerading clubs for top honours.
The festival is also sometimes referred to as Ankos, out of respect for the founder of the first masquerading club, known as “Uncle Osei”. Ankos is a play on his name. While the date of the first festival is hard to determine, it could well go back over a hundred years, to a practice initiated by German colonists in the Cape Coast area.
“Uncle Osei”, it is believed, migrated to Takoradi in the Western region of Ghana and popularised the culture by gathering street children and adorning them with plastic dresses for the annual event. As the years went by, the act grew and became a major annual fundraising event for Ghanaian society, with the participation of donors and organisers from all over the country, many of them creating masquerade clubs and organising fundraising activities around them. The top masquerade choreographers are widely celebrated.
While some masquerades clubs such as Ankos, Holy Cities, Tumus and Nyanta Boys have been around for as long as 40 years, there are many newcomers, formed to support beneficiaries – often through the payment of school fees and health insurance, apprenticeship training and other forms of sponsorship.
The Sunnato Masquerading Club is one of the largest clubs and counts among its members several of Ghana’s social elites.
Among its members is Dr Hazel Barrard Amuah.
“Sunnato is a brand name in masquerading, known for its discipline and dedication. Sunnato started about thirty-seven years ago and we started with rubber dresses. We used to put on anything that could get us to go out, from the house to house, where we could get some gifts,” Amuah told bird, explaining the club’s early money-raising activities.
“In Sunnato we ensure that children in our club are doing well in school… We also help each other so when people come to Sunnato and they need employment and we can help, we recommend, we endorse, and we help with employment.”
“Last two years we put seven people into employment placement. Also, we kicked out members who violated the rules and regulations of our club. So, we’re much disciplined when it comes to the membership of the club,” Dr Amuah revealed.
Philip Fiifi Buckman, a legal practitioner whose masquerade outfit identifies him as “lawyer 1” (Amuah goes by her pet name “doc”) is one of Sunnato’s executive members. He was joining the parade for the 25th time in a row.
“Currently, we have the regional minister, all the chief executives, parliamentarians, lawyers and doctors, all joining these groups. Therefore, masquerading in the Western region has developed a new face. Masquerading has now become the new Christmas celebration and a Westside Carnival,” Buckman enthused.
Taking stock of the broad-based excitement that builds up these days, it is hard to imagine that just two decades ago, privileged families barred their kin from participating in the carnival. While today’s costumes are hugely elaborate, the event’s early and less glamorous origins are not forgotten, with proceeds going towards the upkeep and maintenance of the less privileged in the area.
An interested person needs at least 100 US dollars to join a club and rent the uniform. That money goes towards the club and its charitable endeavours.
“Sunnato has a membership of about 800 because this year, we had 810 costumes and all are gone (sold) so we’re assuming that 810 members this year joined Sunnato masquerading groups. In fact, Sunnato, our motto is, ‘arise and shine’, like the sun that has risen,” Buckman explained.
Planning is extensive. In the case of Sunnato, not only are the costumes exquisite, but the team has also mapped out a strategy to ensure that even the youngest in the group is protected from anything unforeseen, during the planned parade on Christmas Day.
Up against 30 different masquerading choreographers, Sunnato ‘s leadership is keen to win over the crowds. The fancy dress is sewn by local tailors and seamstresses in Takoradi, Sekondi, and Cape Coast. The designs are chosen by the clubs’ leaders months ahead of the actual festivities.
At a glance, the costumes appear identical and one might need the eye of an owl to differentiate the groups but the artistic prowess of the designers strikes the difference with just a tiny piece of Ghanaian fabric dotted in the middle of the star-like colourful designs
At a glance, costumes might appear identical and one might need the eye of a hawk to differentiate the groups but the artistic prowess of the designers comes through in how well they add subtle differences – sometimes just a tiny piece of Ghanaian fabric dotted in the middle of the star-like colourful designs.
Masqueraders’ costumes are complemented by a scary face mask, one synonymous with a scarecrow and reminiscent of a scene from a horror movie.
Each garment also has an attachment of cowbells, which add to the effect during the dance routines and which create an epic sound when blended with the sound of the drums and the brass band.
The overall effect is to create a gigantic spectacle in which people from all walks of society are, for that moment, completely the same – and completely equal, be that person a sitting judge or a local seamstress.
“The face of masquerading we have today is different from the one we had before. Today masquerading is…. for people from all walks of life,” said Amuah.
The Westside Carnival features both indigenous and exotic dance tunes and some of the competitors for top honours include Ankos, Bench Fancy Club, Sunnato, Tumus, Supreme, Yankees, Bhim, Unicorn, Emirates, Canada and USA.
“In the past, I would just wear any attire and join any group but some years ago, I joined Sunnato and have been a dedicated member. Since then, every year I proudly come out in my Sunnato attire,” Amuah said, spreading her arms for emphasis.
On the day of the festival, the streets are flooded with people from all walks of life, ready to cheer the masqueraders and dance along to the tunes of the bands.
In addition to the more horrifying face masks, there are also those that represent famous figures, like former US president, Donald Trump. As part of the dress code, each masquerader wears white socks and a pair of white sneakers and a pair of white hand gloves to match.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated travel restrictions halted the 2020 edition and revellers in the 2021 edition seemed eager to make up for that with extra energy, parading through the streets with their fanciful apparel. There was also a strong sense of regional pride for those from Ghana’s western region, which plays host to the annual event.
“I think it is part of our history and as a westerner, I am proud to be part of this interesting carnival that creates awareness, attracts tourism and contributes to the financial prosperity of the Western region,” explained Amuah.
Many are attracted to the festival because of the way it brings complete equality to every reveller. Once costumed, no one can differentiate between the rich and the poor as all participants are covered from head to toe, dancing energetically in the parade.
Out on the street, one cannot help but cheer on as the “bamboo man” from each group spearheads his club. The bamboo man is usually an individual who attaches bamboo extensions to their feet and walks high in the streets amidst cheering and chanting.
Somewhere out there, too, is Kuukua Essoum. This event should be big enough and festive enough to more than live up to her expectations and her childhood memories. As the curtains come down, the participants begin to look forward to the next one… here in Takoradi, masquerade fever may ebb, but it never dies!
Zubaida Mabuno Ismail / Bird Story Agency / Ghana.