As some residents of African cities were preparing themselves for Halloween parties, their counterparts in Kigali were dealing with a strange announcement from the Ministry of Culture and Sports dated 1 November 2013. Halloween parties were banned in Rwanda and organisers of Halloween parties specifically instructed to halt their preparations. The minister justified the ban citing the foreignness of Halloween and the need to promote Rwandan Culture.

Some Rwandans were not happy about the ban. Mukiza Edwinwas one of the unhappy Rwandans. His Twitter feed on 1st and 2nd November reveals the discomfort with the ministerial ban:
“Meanwhile between Kubandwa and Christianity, which is part of Rwandan culture and which isn’t?” he tweeted. [Kubandwa is the Kinyarwanda equivalent of ancestral worship.]

Another Rwandan, Christian Murera, makes the same point in her tweet: “in fact that is one of the few events we share with the western world. We didn’t have Christmas but we always had Halloween,” she tweeted. Mukiza replied“So the Halloween theme should just change name to Guterekera/Kubandwa party.”

Would localising European cultural practices make them African? Would Halloween pass the Rwandan ministry of culture and sports’ test of Rwandaness were it translated into Kinyarwanda? Most importantly, would the Halloween parties attract their present patrons were they to be branded in African languages?

Two Ugandans celebrate Halloween. Photo: Gilbert
Two Ugandans celebrate Halloween. Photo: Gilbert

The Rwandan ban of Halloween parties reveals the response the Rwandan government prefers in dealing with the globalisation of culture. The critics of the ban view it as a redundant attempt at curbing the impact of globalisation whereas the government reasons that Rwandan culture deserves protection; it is for a similar reason that the French maintain their exception culturelle. Is the government restricting a form of cultural exchange by banning Halloween parties? Does the celebration of Halloween in African cities reflect a form of cultural exchange, made possible by globalisation?

A day after the ban, Edwin Mukiza offered a satirical look at the situation through a series of tweets, comprising a mock-interview of the minister:

“Interview with Culture Minister. Q. Hon. Minister, What have you done to promote Rwandan Culture?. A. “I have banned Halloween…..”.

“Q. But your head is clean shaven; was that part of Rwandan Culture? A. You see, one has to look smart. Besides we live in a global world.”

In these tweets, Mukiza is suggesting that even the minister can’t reject globalisation, he has to shave his head clean. The blurring of cultural boundaries makes it relevant to question what Rwandan or African culture today means and how much of this culture is influenced by external cultural practices. When a cultural practice as Halloween crosses borders, does it still maintain its roots or do the newer practitioners of the practice now own it, too? Can contemporary celebration of Halloween in African cities ever be called an African practice?

Edwin Mukiza, when asked what Halloween is, suggests a revealing description in a tweet: “It is when people wear crazy attires and drink lots of beer. All in the name of fun. (The African definition)”. Is this what Halloween means in Scotland? Edgar Batte, writing this time last year in Uganda’s The Monitor newspaper, said: “Halloween was first celebrated in the 16th Century and it represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows with costumes won traditionally modelled after supernatural figures such as monsters, ghosts, skeletons, witches, and devils.”

The All Hallows Eve parade in Perth, Australia. Photo: Dundee Channel
The All Hallows Eve parade in Perth, Australia. Photo: Dundee Channel

Despite the connection of the celebration of Halloween to ancestral worship, it is unlikely that the demographic that attends Halloween parties in African cities are into the habit of African ancestral worship as is known. They probably look down on such, and term it “witchcraft” and other derogatory labels. The African Halloween can thus be described as a typical consumerist activity where a certain elite in African societies – known for their penchant for consuming everything manufactured in the West – come out in their numbers, donning typical Halloween costumes, but essentially use the date as an excuse to party away.

Kampala now has a vibrant Halloween celebratory culture. This year, there were several Halloween themed parties on the 31st of October at Mish Mash (Halloween Fright Night), Venom (Ghostbusters), Cayenne Restaurant (Halloween Fashion Party), Laftaz Comedy Lounge (Thriller Halloween Party) and on the 2nd of November at Club Beaujolais (Halloween Body Fashion Nite) and Gatto Matto’s Haunted Halloween Party. Unlike Rwanda, the Ugandan government seems to care less about what residents of Kampala do with their time and what cultural practices they participate in. Can it be said that this Ugandan government policy of not interfering with celebration of European cultural holidays is pro-globalisation? A deliberate effort at promoting cultural exchange? Can we indeed, characterise African celebration of Halloween as typical cultural exchange? Akua Djane disagrees. She writes in The New African:

“If Halloween came to Ghana from Nigeria for example, Ghanaians would call it “juju”, evil, occult. Something never to be practised! Ghanaians would have said: “What? You want me, my husband, and my children to go out dressed as ghosts, witches, and Satan? You want us to go to our neighbours and ask for a “treat” for our children? If they don’t get a treat, we should advise our children to play a trick on our neighbours? Are you crazy?” Yes, this would most likely be the response if Halloween had African roots and was introduced to Ghana from Nigeria or some other African country. But because Halloween came from “the whites”, Ghanaians and other Africans have embraced it, no questions asked! Poor Africa.”

Students in Uganda with pumpkins prepared for Halloween celebrations. Photo: Uganda Studies Program
Students in Uganda with pumpkins prepared for Halloween celebrations. Photo: Uganda Studies Program

The Africans Djane talks about are those with access to an infrastructure that exposes them to Western culture. As Mukiza tweeted, it is a minority of Africans that know about and celebrate Halloween. We may call this demographic a sort of elite, typically educated, exposed to the world beyond their borders and with some purchasing power. Can we say that this elite is important for cultural exchange? That all civilisations should have a class that is receptive of cultures other than their own? The problem comes with the particular history and context of Africa and the growth of this particular class. As Dabiri writes in Afro-Rebel (or why I am not an Afropolitan):

“It seems again that African progress is measured by the extent to which it can reproduce a Western lifestyle, now without having to physically be in the West. This doesn’t appear to signal any particular departure from the elites enduring love affair with achieving the lifestyles of their former masters.”

Whereas there is nothing wrong with the world becoming a global village and culture-sharing, if one end of the spectrum shares in the pursuit of a sort of approval, if the sharing is a mimic-act, then there is a problem. There is no exchanging in the true sense, there is no giving while taking. Africans consuming what is produced elsewhere in a search for ‘progress’ can’t be defined as a cultural exchange. Djane is more brutal. She accuses the celebrants of Halloween in Africa of hypocrisy, writing:

“It is so hypocritical the way we are killing our beliefs, traditions and cultures to buy into anything that comes from outside Africa. Even if that thing goes against everything we once believed in, it doesn’t matter as long as it comes from the white man’s land. Our people will not only accept it but will practise it even more fervently than the originators!” (article referenced above)

Does Djane’s perspective justify a ban on the celebration of Halloween parties in Africa? As Mukiza tweets, “how one uses one’s free time is no one else’s business… As long as it is not illegal.” The point Mukiza raises is important: personal liberty and the liberal mantra of individual freedom is important for Africa but something needs to be said about turning Africa into a field for cultural export, of Africans turning into consumers of everything and not producers of anything. True exchange involves sharing and mutual respect. It is thus important to think about the reasons that inform our celebration of Halloween, beyond the ‘we wanna have fun’ mantra. We need to think about the culture we produce and whether globalisation provides us with space to exchange with others on a level-playing field. Those who do not produce should not consume, but banning their consumption is to use a sledge hammer to swat a mosquito.