Where better than the ‘best preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa’ to celebrate all things
On 22nd to 25th November, Lamu will be celebrating its heritage at the Lamu Cultural Festival. And Lamu, one of the earliest ports to be established on the coast of East Africa, has quite some heritage to celebrate.
The island is a unique fusion of cultures and peoples. From around the 7th century AD, dhows from such far ﬂung places as China, Arabia and Persia were trading with the people of Lamu, bringing spices, pottery and fabrics – as well as ideas, customs and beliefs. In 1498, the Portuguese – under the command of famed explorer Vasco da Gama – ﬁrst visited the island while ﬂeeing up the coast from Mombasa where their arrival had precipitated hostilities from the local population. They returned in fury a couple of years later, conquering ﬁrst Mombasa then Lamu. Raids from Turkey and Pemba amongst others failed to topple the rule of the Portuguese until Lamu was wrested from their grasp in 1652 by the Omanis. Under their lengthy and moderate protectorate the island ﬂourished, becoming a centre of poetry and learning, arts and architecture. The turn of the nineteenth century heralded more of the upheavals that have been so much a feature of this island's life. Zanzibaris seized the island in the early part of the century, followed shortly afterwards by the Germans who established the ﬁrst post oﬃce in East Africa there before being ousted by the British whose fervour for colonisation swept across the whole region. By this time, the people of the island had meshed and mingled with the peoples who had settled there and become the melting pot of cultures and traditions that it is today.
The island retains the atmosphere of its early days. Alleys too narrow for cars weave through the Old Town. The houses, many of which date back four or ﬁve hundred years, have the inside courtyards, carved doors and intricate niches of Yemeni and Arabic lands, while the markets that bustle on the seafront and in the alleyways are all Africa. The port, dhows and cargo boats pitching and manoeuvring, is a constant hum of movement, sound and colour. Donkeys whiney as they're loaded with sacks, then lumber, ears ﬂicking and nostrils ﬂaring, past pans sizzling with mandazis, pots steaming with biryani and ﬂat-plates sputtering
with frying ﬁsh.
Scents of cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric thicken the hot air, enticing the young men tethering dhows, urging on donkeys and shouting of their wares. Children sucking baobab seeds hurtle past women clustering around newly docked dhows to inspect the day's catch and clutches of old men poring over wooden boards of Bao.
It was all this that Ghalib Ahmed Alwiy, known to all as Bush, wanted to showcase when he came up with the idea of the Lamu Cultural Festival in the year 2000. The island had been hard hit by El Nino: the road from the mainland had washed away, tourists were eschewing the place and young people were leaving to ﬁnd work elsewhere. 'We had to do something to tell the world about Lamu,' says the enterprising Bush.
And tell the world they did. The festival is a compendium of treats. The town square, decked out in ribbons, banners and streamers, holds the opening event: singers, dancers and drummers bring the ancient marketplace to life, drum beats ricocheting oﬀ trees, dancers spinning in the ﬂoodlights, and onlookers participating with songs, hand-claps and foot-beats. Lamu's donkeys, usually seen as a lowly mode of transport, come to the forefront in the keenly fought donkey race, careering along the seafront at a rate rarely seen in these gentle beasts. The choppy channel, usually heaving with boats, is the venue for the swimming races, while the path from Lamu to Shela is where the cross-country running races take place.
Lamu's traditional cuisine is highlighted in the Swahili cooking contest during which local chefs pit their dishes against each other, using recipes that have been in their families for generations. Swahili food is on oﬀer throughout the festival at the food bazaar where displays of traditional handicrafts sit side- by-side with Swahili bridal shows and local arts. The ancient game of Bao, said to be the oldest known game in history, is played skilfully and artfully at the Bao contest. Ancient poetry readings captivate today's poets and writers; henna painters adorn the wrists of hijab-clad ladies; musicians serenade the passers-by.
On the last day of the festival, the dhow race brings the whole island to the seafront. These elegant boats that once ploughed up and down the trade routes are now an icon of this island; from a young age Lamu youths hone their skills in sailing and racing them. Generations of know how come together in this competition, as the dhows, belying their heavy wooden frames, skim from buoy to buoy to complete the course in the quickest