I have so many photos to share so please pardon me if this post is all over the place. I want to try cover a bit of everything in one post instead of resorting to publishing multiple posts about the Lamu Cultural Festival.
Lamu town is termed as “the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa” and there is no better way to showcase Lamu’s rich history and culture than with a cultural festival.
The annual Lamu Cultural Festival has been a celebration of the unique Swahili heritage of the Lamu Archipelago, 2001, the same year Lamu was declared a world heritage site. The festival is a showcase of traditional dances, displays of handicraft and competitions on water and land (donkey races, dhow races, Swahili poetry, henna painting), a Swahili bridal ceremony and musical performances.
The festival is spread over 4 days, the programme states that it starts on Thursday but most of the action takes place on Friday and Saturday.
I arrived in Lamu on Thursday night and on Friday morning I was up bright and early to watch the sunrise.
I left my room early to give myself a time allowance in case I got lost. This gave me enough time to watch the town come to life. I spent Friday touring Lamu Town so I missed out on most of what was happening on that day. However, I did make time for the dhow race and a women’s only event – a last minute addition to the programme.
I had expected the dhow race to be exciting. I was in for a surprise; I suppose it was exciting for the locals who had teams they were supporting as for me I was just left wondering when the race would end. They seemed to be racing in slow motion, mainly because there was barely any wind.
I didn’t catch the end of the race, by this time I had been on my feet all day and was ready to take a break.
The women only event was a bit of a disappointment. I had assumed that since men were not allowed that the women would be dancing chakacha (a traditional swahili hip swaying dance style). Instead they were perfoming Taarab (Taarab is a music genre popular in Tanzania and Kenya. It is influenced by the musical traditions of the African Great Lakes, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent.) music, no dancing at all. I didn’t stay long and went to went back to watch the dhow race.
Saturday however I woke up ready to experience everything that the festival had to offer.
One thing to note is that the times on the programme are merely suggestions, none of the major events started on time so the best thing to do is just be patient and wait or you will miss out.
The one thing I did not want to miss out on was the donkey race final. Donkeys are a big part of Lamu culture. Due to its narrow streets they’re the only form of transport on the island. There are about 6,000 donkeys and only 2 working cars on the island.
I watched the donkey race final from Lamu Palace Hotel thanks to a suggestion from my host Arnold of Jambohouse. This really was the best vantage point, I did not have to fight with the crowds plus I was able to get some great shots of the competitors. There was free wi-fi too, a rarity in Lamu.
The race starts at the Lamu museum, and takes part along the length of the seafront.
There were about 4 heats before the final race.
I thought the race was over and had walked to the starting point only to find that the race had not actually ended.
Be warned that it gets very crowded. Try as you might you will not be able to wholly experience the festival if you attend only once. It can be a bit overwhelming and you will have to pick and choose the events that you don’t want to miss out on.
I missed most of the musical performances taking place in the seafront since I did not have the energy to fight with the crowds.
I was able to catch one, a group of drummers only because they suddenly started drumming a few meters away from where I was.
I missed out on much more than I had intended to because I was just so tired. After the first day of walking my feet were swollen and aching .
Sunday the last day of the festival was pretty chill. I had been looking forward to the food bazaar expecting it to be a showcase of Swahili food but it wasn’t. There were only 4 items of food available, 2 of which were rice. The set up looked so pitiful that I did not even take a picture.
The very last event for the festival took part at the town’s main square
Would I visit Lamu again? Definitely. I would have to say the best time to visit Lamu is during a festival of which there are plenty.