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    Lamu Cultural Festivals & Lamu Maulidi Festival

    Lamu Old Town is a unique and rare historical living heritage with more than 700 years of continuous settlement. In 2001, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Since then the Lamu Cultural Promotion Group, a community based group, has been organizing the annual Lamu cultural festival to promote and preserve the unique Swahili heritage of the Lamu Archipelago. With support from international embassies, Kenyan authorities and local stakeholders, the Lamu Cultural Promotion Group continues to successfully showcase Swahili culture and traditions through this landmark event.


    Lamu is a small island off the Coast of Kenya. Steeped in history, it has been visited by people from all over the world. The inhabitants still uncover Chinese pottery from the 14th Century and the Arabic influence is seen through locals who can recite tales from the Arabian nights. The island has managed to keep its culture alive in the face of modernity, to pass on to future generations. A large part of Lamu’s charm lies in its throwback nature. Walking through the town, you are transported to another time and place. Lamu Cultural Festival is a celebration of both the past and the future, and the beliefs and traditions that are the heart and soul of the Lamu community. Most visitors to the Lamu Island fall in love with this relaxed and peaceful lifestyle, and visiting during the Lamu Cultural Festival is a chance to experience Lamu life at its most exuberant and joyous. Each year, Lamu comes to life during the annual Lamu Cultural Festival. Several competitions and races are staged during this week long festival. These events are designed to each encourage local skills or practices that are central to Lamu life. These include traditional Swahili poetry, Henna painting, Bao competition... Bao is probably the oldest known game in human history, with archaeological evidence suggesting that the game has been played throughout Africa and the Middle East for thousands of years.


    In order to preserve and encourage the art of dhow sailing, now threatened by increasing availability of engines and prefabricated boats, a dhow race is also held. The town’s finest dhows are selected to compete, and race under sail through a complicated series of buoys, combining speed with elaborate tacking and maneuvering skill. Other events include swimming, and at times a challenging cross country race along the waterfront, all the way to Shela village and back- all in the physically draining heat of the day. The real highlight of every festival involves the town’s most endearing symbol- the donkey race. Local donkey jockeys literally spend the entire year honing their riding skills for this event, and the winning rider wears his title with great pride. Being a winning donkey jockey requires a specific set of skills. As with most such races, small physical stature is helpful, but keeping a stubborn donkey moving and on course requires a definite talent. Lamu Cultural Festival is a celebration of both the past and the future, and the beliefs and traditions that are the heart and soul of this community. The three day festival will showcase traditional dances (ngomas), historical masterpieces, which have been an important expression of neighbourhood rivalries. Besides competitive ngomas, deep seated animosity among Lamu residents in the past was settled through competitions on water and land: Kiswahili poetry competitions, these will be some of the highlights of the festival. There will be displays of traditional handicraft, Swahili bridal ceremony and a Swahili food bazaar. The festival offers a modern sample of these time-honoured traditions against a rich backdrop of the beauty and splendor of the Lamu archipelago.


    This year’s festival will also feature a renowned lute player from Morocco, Omar Mazroui, adding a touch of Arab-North African Islamic influence, modern taarab groups from Zanzibar: ‘East African Melody’ and the ‘Sinachuki Kidumbak’, the popular Swahili taarab musician, Juma Bhallo, from Mombasa, and the young dancers/acrobats from the street children rehabilitation programme ‘Kuruka. The 13th Lamu Cultural Festival will take place in the World Heritage Site of Lamu Old Town from 21st to 24th November. The Lamu Cultural Festival remains the oldest and largest community cultural Festival in Kenya promoting the unique Swahili heritage of the Lamu archipelago. This colorful Festival continues to attract the support of both international partners and national stakeholders concerned with the preservation of a rich culture with outstanding universal values and the promotion of tourism. The Embassy of France and the Alliance Française of Nairobi have been supporting the Lamu Cultural Promotion Group in the coordination of the Festival since 2004 which has greatly raised the Festival’s profile in the region and internationally. The Festival celebrates time-honored traditions both on land and on water including traditional dances, crafts, cuisine, the art of poetry, the donkey races as well as the majestic dhow races. This year’s Festival wil host the French accordionist, François Catherin, who collaborated with local Lamu and Mombasa taarab musicians and presented a cross-cultural musical performance in front of thousands of people in the Mkunguni Square in front of the Lamu Fort. Maisha’.


    Lamu Maulidi festival


    A travel to Lamu for the Maulidi festival brings an out of this world experience. This tropical island having been in existence from the 7th century, offers a great exciting chance for a visitor to learn about culture and history of a people set in a stone town in this age and time. The town is in fact a documented World Heritage site. Each year, the Maulidi festival is celebrated in the island town. This is a four day Islamic festival held during the third month of the Muslim calendar to celebrate the birth of Prophet Mohammed. Maulidi celebration in Lamu is a joyous occasion that involves music, veneration and religious recitals. The festival is celebrated in the month of June at the Riyadha mosque where Habib Swaleh originally founded it in 1866. It’s indeed a celebration of a people’s culture and tradition held so dear by the residents that blends history, the present and the future. Lamu Island is covered in beaches with tiny villages covered in coconut and mango plantations. On arrival while one is air bound, there is the opportunity to have a view of the great blue Indian Ocean. Travel from the Manda airstrip to get to this ancient town is by dhow and on arrival, one is greeted by a rare sight indeed; donkeys as a form of transport. The island residents are warm and friendly to visitors. A visitor should plan a visit to some of these great places while in Lamu for the Maulidi festival: the Lamu Museum, Old Town, the Sultan Fort and Lamu’s largest open market. These places offer an opportunity to learn more about Lamu and the great Swahili culture. There is so much to see and do during Maulidi. The festival is accompanied by local traditional dances and the Goma dance is the most popular. It involves men standing with walking sticks and dancing to the rhythmic drum beatings. There is also a group of men who stage a mock fight involving traditional curved Arabic swords all dancing systematically to the beat of drums. A prayer vigil is held throughout the night around the mosque, alternated with chanting and narrating the life of Prophet Mohammed accompanied by songs and dance. On the last day of Maulidi, there is a procession into town of boys and men holding hands. When they reach the town centre, the crowd bursts into song and dance. The ceremony is inviting and visitors are allowed to join in. There are also several competitions and races held on that day. The residents compete and display awesome skills in Swahili poetry, Koranic recitals, henna painting, board games, and dhow racing, cross country racing, swimming and football. The real Maulidi show stopper is the donkey race. The donkey is a great symbol of Lamu’s culture and so this race is held in awe. Take a trip to Lamu and experience the Maulidi Festival. A visit to Lamu for the Maulidi festival will make one fall in love with the place. Lamu people are warm and very hospitable.


    About Lamu Island Kenya


    Few tourists who arrive in Lamu have much of a grasp of Swahili. There are two phrases that you’ll hear so often within your first day on the Lamu island that they’ll be firmly embedded in your brain: “hakuna matata” (no problem) is already an international catchphrase courtesy of The Lion King; and “karibu”, the sing-song Swahili welcome that you hear everywhere on Kenya’s little Indian Ocean paradise. This small island just off the mainland of Kenya is renowned as the most authentic Swahili settlement in East Africa. Even today there are virtually no vehicles: two ambulances, two tractors and a car owned by the District Commissioner are the only alternative to donkey transport. Without donkeys Lamu would come to a standstill and as you walk down the cobbled Main Street or along the waterfront you meet whole caravans of donkeys burdened with vegetables, sand, cement blocks… ‘Off-duty’ donkeys wander through the crowds outside the old fruit market, browsing for trimmings. If recent press reports are to be believed, Lamu is the axis of terror. A land of kidnappings, piracy and general mayhem. Surrounded by smiling faces and welcoming comments you’ll find it hard to believe though. You stroll the narrow alleys of the medina late at night with absolute security. Street crime is virtually non-existent in a tiny town where everyone knows each other and there is an unwritten code that travelers should be welcomed. Along the Kenyan coastline is Lamu town, one of the oldest towns along the East African coastline and only rivaled by Zanzibar in Tanzania. Lamu is an island region in Kenya and is the origin of Swahili people and Swahili culture. The history of Lamu town started in 1415 when a Chinese ship sunk near the coastline while on its exploration adventures of Africa along the East African coastline. The survivors from the ship settled at a place now called Lamu and married the locals. In 1506 the Portuguese invaded and took control of the island. The Portuguese invasion was prompted by the island’s success in controlling the trade along the Indian Ocean.


    For many years, Lamu Island was under the control of Portuguese who had a complete monopoly of trade, shipping and taxies on trade activities. The Oman Empire was a regional power by then. The empire controlled most of the middle East, East African and South East African regions. In early years, Lamu's economy was based on slave trade until when this trade was abolished in1907. Other trade exports included mangrove, turtle shells, ivory, and rhinoceros horns. These exports were shipped to the Middle East and India through the Indian Ocean. On numerous occasions, Lamu Island would try rebellion against the Portuguese but it wasn’t successful until 1652 when the Oman Arabs assisted Lamu to resist the Portuguese control. This marked the beginning of the Lamu Island town as it is known today, an island with diverse culture and preserved poetry, politics, cultural practices, festivals, arts and crafts as well as trade. Lamu Island is a place whose history is as mysterious and fascinating as the winding streets of it’s medieval stone town. The island itself is a serene place of rolling sand dunes and endless sandy beaches, where tiny coral made villages nestle among coconut and mango plantations and lateen sailed dhows ply the blue waters. The island can be accessed through daily flights rom Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi or dhows and yachts ferries arriving to Lamu town or Shela. One thing that will fascinate you about Lamu is the fact that there are no vehicles in Lamu town. The winding streets of Lamu are best explored on foot. Alternatively you can use the dhows that regularly carry passengers back and forth from Lamu town to Shela. To access the surrounding islands of Manda, Pate or Siyu, either you can take an organized dhow Safari or for the adventurous traveler you can just hitch a ride on a passing dhow and explore. It is also possible to hire donkeys to ride around the island. You will be surprised that donkeys here are an added asset and so there is even a special sanctuary clinic for them. One of the biggest cultural festivals in Lamu Island is the Lamu Cultural Festival that is held every year. The festival is held to celebrate the distinctive Swahili heritage and culture of the Lamu archipelago, honoring both the past and the future values and customs of the Swahili community. The festival has been held faithfully for years but it become more popular when the UNESCO declared Lamu Old Town a World Heritage Site in 2001. Other festivals that are held in Lamu includes Maulidi Festival, which is held every year during the last week of the month of Prophet Muhammand birth, Lamu Annual Painters Festival, Lamu Artistic Hat Competition and the New Year’s Eve in Shela. Lamu Cultural Festival is a collection of cultural activities that takes place for a whole week, day and night. It showcases traditional Swahili poetry, traditional dances, musical performances, Swahili bridal ceremony, handicrafts, Henna painting, dhow sailing, door carving and the biggest highlight of the festival is the famous donkey race. The festival is held during the last week of November and it draws sponsorship from various international embassies and private sponsors. Reading and performances by the various storytellers is one of the activities to enjoy at this festival. You will be amazed by the richness of Swahili poetry presented using old Swahili poetry skills. The main performance takes place at the main town square where all the islands of the archipelago converge to present traditional dances (ngoma) in a single venue that warms the streets of this medieval old town. The whole festival is a thriller where different activities takes place to the entertainment of everyone including non Swahili speakers, tourists and visitors to Lamu. Traditional displays that comprises of dhow building, henna painting, door carvings, palm weaving, Swahili bao games and fish trap making are presented. The donkey races along the Lamu seafront and the dhow races are thrilling to watch.


    Other presentations that are a must to watch include the display of various types of dhows. You will be amazed of how the Swahili people are capable of building big dhows called Jahazi in Swahili and even small portable ones called Mashua. The Sultan elegant Mozambique dhow is certainly one of the biggest attractions in dhows display. Throughout the festival there is a lot to sample in terms of Swahili culinary. The Lamu Cultural festival is a wonderful event to experience the mystery of a medieval old town with magnificent architectural art and unspoiled beaches of an enchanted island where culture was born and continues to live


    How to get to Lamu


    Lamu has its own airport but there are no direct international flights, but there are regular flights in from Nairobi. Most UK airports fly in to Jomo Kenyatta International and so it is quite easy to plan your trip. First Choice fly from London Gatwick. Lamu island is largely unspoilt but there are cabs to get you around and no distance is very far so you won’t find it difficult to see everything.


    Plenty of culture


    The Museum is excellent and is a good addition to everything you can learn at the Cultural Festival. It shows the history of the Swahili people and the slave trade. Working out the exchange rate of the Kenyan shilling is not for the faint-hearted, so take a calculator – entry fees vary according to season but if you are visiting for the festival you will find that the lower fees usually apply. Lamu nightlife is not very exciting because no alcohol is allowed, but even so you can have a lot of fun at the beach parties, with Reggae music around a campfire. Lamu is not very touristy so you will find yourself getting involved with the local people and what they do – remember the siesta, though because everything shuts right down. Resting in the heat of the sun is wise anyway be careful – it can easily become a habit!


    Things to do in Lamu Island


    Lamu Old Town has a labyrinth of streets with shops selling local handicrafts. They really are made on the spot, with carvings from driftwood a speciality. You will see donkeys being used as beasts of burden but don’t worry – there is a Donkey Rescue Centre for all of those who get too old to work and they also keep an eye on their working conditions. If you get a chance to approach the island by dhow you will really get an idea of how this place works – fishing is still very important and your visit will be incomplete without a trip to the fish market. As in all Muslim countries, it is polite to dress modestly – it is still warm in November, though, so take some thin but sleeved tops.


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