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Lamu Cultural Festival, History and the Experience of a Medieval Old Town

By Edited Oct 14, 2016 1 2
A Swahili woman with Henna painted hands
Credit: flickr photos

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 from Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi or dhows and yachts ferries arriving to Lamu town or Shela.

Lamu Town, Kenya

Lamu Town
Credit: flickr photos

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.

Petley's Inn is Lamu’s oldest hotel mostly preferred by tourists due to its waterfront location. Other high class hotels and resorts in Lamu town include the 20-room Bahari Hotel, Lamu Palace Hotel, the American-restored Amu House, Doda Villas, Swedish-owned Jannat House and Stone House Hotel. Tourism contributes heavily to the local economy with many locals providing dhows trips to tourists.

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Lamu yachts
Credit: flickr photos

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

Lamu Cultural Festival - donkey race

Lamu Cultural Festival - donkey race
Credit: flickr photos

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.

Lamu donkey sanctuary

Lamu donkey sanctuary
Credit: flickr photos

The Ngoma dance

The Ngoma dance
Credit: flickr photos

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.

Plenty of culinary to sample

Plenty of culinary to sample
Credit: flickr photos

Door carving is a popular tradition in Lamu

Door carving is a popular tradition in Lamu
Credit: flickr photos

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.

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Lamu Island

Lamu Island
Credit: flickr photos

A former house of a mosque keeper

A former house of a mosque keeper
Credit: flickr photos
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Comments

Feb 27, 2014 1:28pm
laydov
Very interesting article, a pleasure to read. Thank you!
Mar 17, 2014 7:18am
Owriter
Hi laydov, Lamu is a beautiful place, you should visit and experience.
Thanks for the visit and comment.
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