A common misconception many people have is that the African calendar is simply a long string of months and days in which to count days off. This is in fact a very misleading image of what the calendar actually is. The calendar in Africa is a very different thing to its European or Asian counterparts. The African calendar does not follow a standard month-by-month schedule like the others do. Rather, each month is treated as a new year and the old year is not even mentioned.
The African calendar, being such an irregular and varied book, is rife with cultural and geographical variation. For example, consider the fact that there are 12 months in the year in Africa and 6 months in Europe and Asia. Add to this the hundreds of days between Christmas and New Year’s Day in each region and it is easy to see how the months in the African calendar fly by. In fact, it is not uncommon for someone to add extra months to the calendar by accident or due to the normal habit of leap years when counting backwards. Because of the irregularity and wide-ranging nature of the African calendar, it is no wonder that the accurate date for the current month is unknown at times.
This is not to say that the traditional calendar, which remains largely unchanged from our time, doesn’t have its uses. For example, during the time of festivities like the Advent and religious festivities, which are very common in certain regions, each region has its own version of the Christian calendar, which is also used for calculation of days of the week. At other times and in certain countries, the Islamic calendar is used as the calendar of the country. The African calendars, by their nature, have great volatility and are prone to sudden changes.
For example, in Southern Africa, the month of January is typically known as Akada, when festivities for the Id-at (priest) begin. This is followed by Nusa Dondonu, which mourns the death of the previous king, including his procession and funeral. February is Kanyada, which mourns the defeat of the Zulus by the Soweto tribesmen. This is followed by Okata, the month of celebration of the fruits of the season, beginning with the maize harvest. This is followed by Kambia, which is the month when Akada and Nusa Dondonu converge and are succeeded by Okata.
In Western Africa, months are named after the islands that they cover: the Isle of Axem, which are situated between the Azeez and the Gulf of Guinea; the Isle of Bight and the surrounding islands of the Sahel and the Red Sea; and finally the Island of Benin, which is situated between the Gulf of Guinea and the Gambia. Each of these months is then followed by its respective name in the local diaries, which give important and useful information about the various aspects of life in the months. This makes it easier to track seasonal trends and to determine which months are festive and which ones are not.
In addition, there are some minor calendar quirks that make life in Southern Africa even more interesting and diverse. For example, months are named according to the month in which they fall, as opposed to the days in which they are counted. For instance, a January calendar is followed by six days of festivities, whereas a July calendar has twenty-one days of festivities. This is not only done to facilitate the counting of days but also so that every month has exactly the number of days it says.
Of course, we cannot forget the most obvious feature of any African calendar: the lunar cycles. Theodic months, which fall on the calendar’s alignment of the Moon, have names that coincide with the phases of the Moon that it crosses. This feature, which is very common across many calendars, makes it easy for anyone to track a phase of the Moon and determine which month it is. For instance, a Moon that occurs in a Cancer phase will be known as Bambi, while a Moon in an Aquarius phase will be known as Bumba. The diurnal months follow precisely the lunar cycle, being named according to the days and nights that the Moon covers during a month.
There is another aspect that makes observing a calendar change fun and exciting: every new month has its very own animal. The first month, MBA (pronounced ah-bee), represents the first day that a young child is born. The first animals that spring to mind are the ox, the horse, the goat, the chicken, the rat, the seal, and the lion. These represent the different qualities and abilities that each member of a society has, which is why they also help to shape the beliefs and customs of that society.