Closer look: Halloween in Africa/Ghana

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Looking forward to the Halloween fun? In the following days, pumpkins will be hollowed out all over the world, creepy costumes made up and horror movies watched. Although the original festival has a long tradition and originated in Ireland, Halloween celebrations and parties have become a trend all over the world. But what about Halloween in Africa – or more specific in Ghana?

In our category “Closer look” we focus on everyday and cultural topics from Ghana. In this article we are currently dealing with Halloween. How did this Irish tradition spread all over the world? We take a look at the original idea of the Halloween custom and its worldwide spread. We also find out if and how the Halloween trend has reached Ghana and critically examine the “globalization” of this custom.

Origin and spread of Halloween

Today’s term “Halloween” comes from the English term “All Hallows Eve” and refers to the evening before the Christian feast of All Saints. Even the Celts celebrated the Samhain festival and thus heralded the end of summer. This pagan custom from the Celtic-speaking countries was supposed to protect people from the dark ages and their dark figures by dressing them up as undead. It is believed that the spirits of the deceased are granted access to the world of the living. So the spirits of the dead are said to have been on their way that evening. In the time when the days become shorter, it was assumed that the underworld is approaching our world. Various rituals and games were practiced to predict the future. It is interesting to note that due to this dark season, similar creepy customs around death and superstition developed in many parts of the world.

After Christianization in Ireland the Halloween tradition was connected with the memory of deceased relatives, saints and martyrs. The Allhallowtide – called “Allerheiligen” and “Allerseelen” in Germany – became an obligatory holy day throughout Europe from the end of the 12th century onwards. In general, Halloween is considered a day on which the death and rebirth of the world and everything in it is celebrated. In the northern hemisphere, it marks the beginning of winter, a time when nature dies because of the winter cold, while in the southern hemisphere it marks the beginning of a new season, when newly formed buds prepare for rebirth and growth in summer.

The hollowed-out pumpkins, so typical for Halloween and decorated with creepy faces, can be traced back to an old Irish history. In this legend, the crook Jack Oldfield wanders through the darkness with a lamp made from a hollowed-out turnip. As punishment for his crimes he is banished to this world between heaven and hell. In the USA, the turnip was later replaced by a pumpkin, as these were more easily available. The eerie faces carved into the pumpkins or turnips were originally used to scare off evil spirits.

The original Halloween festival was spread by Irish and Scottish immigrants in the USA. Especially in the southern states of the USA, the Halloween tradition was already partially recognized by the Anglican and Catholic colonists, but Halloween as a great holiday in North America only came into being through mass immigration in the middle of the 19th century. Initially, the celebrations were limited to the immigrant population. However, the celebration was quickly taken up by mainstream society and a commercialization of the Halloween custom began. After the Second World War, the Halloween tradition spread to Germany as well due to American influence. For about 30 years, Halloween customs have also been practiced in many other European countries.

African Halloween in Ghana and critical views

In West Africa the Halloween festival is not (yet) very widespread. If you ask people in Ghana, many know the tradition mainly from American movies. The meaning is rather less known to most people. In Ghana there is no need to cast out the evil spirits of the cold season and All Saints’ Day is not celebrated. So there is little connection to the Halloween custom. But similar legends of eerie figures exist in Ghana. The Aschanti tribe tells the story of the vampire Asasabonsam. This creature has curved iron hooks instead of feet and lives deep in the African forests. The Asasabonsam hunts people from the trees by jumping from them, hanging on his victim passing underneath, and hitting said hooks into the victim. It then pulls its prey up into the trees and devours it alive with its sharp metal teeth. Before it consumes the humanoid treats, it always bites off the thumbs first. Possibly to prevent a victim, if he can flee, from sticking his thumb out to stop a car on a road.

Especially in the big cities, however, there is a trend that Halloween is becoming increasingly popular as an American export. Although many don’t know why Halloween is celebrated, they still put on creepy clothes on the evening of October 31st and go trick-or-treating with their kids or to Halloween parties. There are also critical voices of many West Africans who see a possible upcoming Halloween tradition in Ghana as a destruction of African cultures. Because Halloween comes from “the Whites”, it is often not questioned. Witch persecutions and the belief in the devil still play a role in many parts of Ghana and the majority of the population does not want to have anything to do with occultism. It is particularly macabre that in many regions of West Africa, women who are called witches are still rejected and abused. On the one hand, these traditions are questioned and criticized – especially with regard to witch persecution and occultism – but on the other hand, at the Halloween festival, an exception is apparently made and the “imported tradition” is accepted. Ghanaians fear a destruction of African cultures and traditions by accepting and adapting everything that comes from outside Africa – without questioning. A further example is the increasing number of westernized “weddings in white”, which are taking place more and more, regardless of religious affiliation.

The commercialization of this festival is also questionable. Africa is an untapped market in which many companies see their chance. With Halloween in Africa comes the witch hats, costumes and various other scary costumes that are simply meant to be sold! Just like a few years ago with Valentine’s Day, the consumption of Halloween goods on the African continent is most likely to increase in the next few years.

Halloween is above all a festival from the global North, which was originally associated with the Christian tradition of commemoration of the dead and the veneration of saints. The original meaning of Halloween in Africa as a whole, as in many other countries where the commercialized version of the tradition was brought, is not really present. Halloween in Africa is mostly an adaptation of the modern Halloween festival in the Western world. However, it has not yet deeply rooted in the West African lifestyle. Halloween celebrations are gaining in importance especially among the Ghanaian youth, especially by those who are interested in Western culture. The older generation usually has no interest in this celebration. So Halloween is not (yet) part of the mainstream culture and society in Ghana, but it is becoming more and more popular.

Thought-provoking impulse concerning the African Halloween tradition in Ghana

Yes, the world is a global village and cultural change through the exchange between societies and cultures is often enriching. Unfortunately, in Ghana there is no “cultural sharing” in relation to the Halloween festival and many other “imported traditions”, but rather an adaptation to the “western world”. It would be a great pity if Ghana’s culture and society, which is so rich in traditions, adapts too much to the traditions of the global North. And why by the way do we in Germany and Europe actually know so little about West African traditions?

Well then: “Trick or treat?”