There is more to it than you expect coming to Africa on a holiday. The different festivals and events on Lamu Island will show you the diversity of the local culture.
Islam plays an important role in Swahili culture and Lamu has a reputation for the yearly celebration of the Maulidi Festival. Celebrating the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, it is held during the third month of the Muslim calendar –between February and April. This version of the Maulidi, unique in East Africa, is believed to have been developed in Lamu by the Holy Habib Swaleh by the end of the 19th century. Swaleh was an Arab who reformed the religious rituals of the festival and became famous for the highly artistic performance of the verses of the Koran that has nowadays a certain influence on Swahili poetry. Since Habib Swaleh’s times, the importance of music as a constituent of the religious ritual has increased continually.
Today, thousends of pilgrims from the Kenyan mainland and the Arabian world come to Lamu to listen to the religious recitals and attend the colourful performance of dancers and musicians from various ethnic groups. On the final day of the celebrations, a procession heads down to the tomb of Habib Swaleh.
Lamu Cultural Festival
Another highlight in the cultural life of Lamu is the Cultural Festival, usually held in the last week of November. The purpose of this festival is to promote the Swahili heritage and preserve the local culture of the islands. Founded in 2001, it is supported by various international embassies and private sponsors. The festival is very popular and the agenda reflects the richness of Swahili culture. Readings and performances by storytellers express the old skills in Swahili poetry. On the main square, there are plenty of musical performances. All the traditional dances (ngoma) from the islands of the archipelago are put into one single venue in the streets of Lamu Town.
During the festivities, the magic of the past turns alive. Traditional displays like dhow building, henna painting, fish trap making, palm weaving and bao games are shown.
The donkey races along the Lamu seafront and the dhow races are thrilling and a feast for everyone. It’s fascinating to watch the various types of dhows: the bigger one Jahazi, the smaller Mashua or the fast and indeed most elegant Mozambique dhow. The dhow regattas are a big attraction and certainly the highlight of the festival.