MAULIDI: HEART AND SOUL OF LAMU

Many of the world’s destinations loudly boast an opportunity for the traveller to “enter another world”. Off the shores of Northern Kenya, the island of Lamu offers this experience in its purest form.

Arrival at Lamu is something of an experience itself. Most travellers arrive by air, soaring low across the rich blue waters of this tropical archipelago to land on the strip of Manda Island- Lamu’s closest neighbour.

From the plane, new arrivals are led to a nearby jetty and a waiting dhow. Sailing across the channel from Manda to Lamu is to arrive the same way centuries of traders, explorers and adventurers first entered this antique town. The sea front throngs with activity- donkeys, porters and merchants bustle around the dhow docks and jetties that surround the massive gateway to the town’s central fort, still flanked by its original cannon.

As visitors climb from the dhow onto the docks, they are usually hit by the heat of the tropical sun. But as soon as they step into the multitude of streets that lead into the stone town, the air becomes cool and rich with the heady aromas of spice and perfume from the markets.

The streets of Lamu are never much more than eight feet wide. This means that there are no vehicles to be found here (with the exception of a single car belonging to the local District commissioner- which can never leave the single thoroughfare of the sea front). This is for a good reason, the proximity of the stone walls cools the air and blocks the rays of the sun.

The traditional Islamic dress in Lamu remains the kanzu (robe) and kofia (embroidered hat) for men and full length bui bui for women, both ideal for staying cool in the heat.

Here, everybody walks, or rides a donkey. These creatures are a ubiquitous symbol of Lamu. They spend their days wandering among the narrow streets, or working on the seafront, ferrying cargo to and from arriving dhows.

For any visitor the sense of having left the rest of the world behind is immediate. Immersed in this richly exotic atmosphere, almost all visitors to the island fall in love at first sight, an affection that tends to grow with the duration of your stay. For some, affection becomes addiction, and the island sees many return visitors. Life here is lived at its own particular pace, and the pace of events never exceeds the speed of a sailing dhow or the passage of the tropical sun.

“Stepping back in time” is a description often used to describe a trip to Lamu, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. This is not some staid museum of frozen cultures- but a modern and thriving community with a very important difference.

Lamu has learned the value of its history, and the importance of traditions and customs. This is a very strong community, with strong values that are based around a fascinating culture that grew and expanded with the sprawling stone town at the islands heart.

If this sounds like an insular society, think again. Lamu has been a port of call for travellers for at least the past 400 years.

Some believe that the island has actually been settled since the 7th century, although the first written history of the island begins in 1402. Local legend speaks of the lost city of Hadibu, an Arab settlement now buried beneath the rolling dunes of Shela beach.

In the 14th Century, Lamu was established as a Swahili trading outpost and settlement. The town became an important landmark on the Northern sea trade route, and one of the great centres of Swahili culture.

Lamu prospered after battles for control of the area with the neighbouring islands of Manda and Pate. On Manda, ruins of the original town of Takwa still remain.

Lamu’s Swahili culture was distilled by the local Bajun people. The Bajun are an indigenous tribal group, centred around the Lamu archipelago, whose origins and history have become blurred with the Swahili to the extent that one of their sub-clans, the Shiradhi claim to be direct descendants of Shirazi Arabs. Their language was the genesis of Kiamu, a Swahili dialect that is the true language of Lamu.

There is an excellent Museum in Lamu town with good exhibits on Swahili culture in general and Lamu culture in particular. The staff are very helpful and have a wealth of local information.

The labyrinthine streets of Lamu town itself are a historical attraction in themselves. These narrow streets are all built upwards along a gentle slope, letting the rains wash the town clean. The Old Town was recently declared a World Heritage site, and exploring the town on foot is a wonderful way to soak up the atmosphere of the living, breathing history of Lamu.

At the centre of town is the impressive Sultan's Fort, built by the Omanis in 1808. The Fort has been through various changes over the years, including conversion into a prison. It is now a museum and its forecourt is home to Lamu's largest open market.

Lamu saw many visitors over its long history, including traders and explorers from Portugal, China, Turkey and much of the Middle East. Its culture was inevitably influenced by most of them, producing this truly unique society.

Lamu has another, very unusual link to history. The streets of the old town are home to a large population of cats. Visitors to Lamu will certainly notice this, and they may also notice their rather unusual physical appearance. Their distinctive thin bodies and high pointed ears resemble those of Bubastis, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess.

The cats of Lamu are the only cats on earth to bear the same physiques as the cats depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics and statuary. One popular theory suggests that these cats may be the only remaining descendant of a breed of cats only found in ancient Egypt and now extinct in North Africa. Traders may have carried the cats to Lamu on dhows, and they thrived on this island outpost.

Other breeds of cat have since been brought to the island, and as a result the local gene pool has been distilled. Yet the distinct Lamu cats still survive among the winding streets, and remain a remarkable reminder of the island’s long and exotic history.

Each year, Lamu both antique and modern comes to life during the Maulidi festival.

Maulidi is the popular name given to Milad-un-Nabi an Islamic festival held during the third month of the Muslim calendar to celebrate the birth of the prophet Mohammed.

This religious festival has its origins in Egypt in the 8th Century, but the unique East African version is believed to have been developed in Lamu by Habib Swaleh Jamal Lely- an Arab from the Comoros Islands who came to Lamu in 1866. He established the great Riyadha mosque in Lamu town and began to celebrate a purely East African version of Maulidi.Maulidi celebrations in Lamu take several different forms, but at the core it is a festival both joyous and devotional that strengthens the communities cultural unity.

Maulidi in Lamu normally takes place early in the month of June. Festivities normally commence in the cool of the afternoon. The main religious celebrations take place in and around the Riyadha Mosque.

The central square outside the mosque is partitioned into areas for men and women, and traditional dances- accompanied by local energetic drumming groups- are held.

The best known of these dances is the Goma. This involves lines of men standing together holding long walking sticks known as Bakora. Swaying gently to the rhythm of the drums, the men extend the sticks forward or interlink them among their drums. At the same time, other men pair off and arm themselves with traditional curved Arab swords. They stage mock fights to the beat of the drums, using sandals as shields.

More solemn are the prayer vigils held throughout the night, when the townspeople gather around the illuminated mosque and pray throughout the night, with sessions of group prayer and contemplation alternated with gentle song and chants that last through the night until dawn.

On the last day of Maulidi, the men of Lamu gather at the town cemetery and surround the town of Habib Swaleh. Following quiet prayers, groups of men and boys join together and begin a procession into town, holding hands and interlinking arms. The colourful, energetic procession winds along the seafront towards the centre of town, with the crowds singing and dancing together. This year’s procession was not quietened by an afternoon shower, and the people of Lamu sang and danced together in the rain.

Visitors to the island are welcome to watch and enjoy the festivities during Maulidi, but a measure of respect for local custom goes a long way. Seek local advice about where to go, what to do and wear. The people here are very proud of their culture and heritage, and are very happy to share their island with visitors.

In order to preserve Lamu’s traditions and cultures, Lamu’s museum uses Maulidi to stage several competitions and races. These events are designed to each encourage local skills or practices that are central to Lamu life. These include traditional Swahili poetry, Henna painting and Koranic recitals.

In the large open square in front of Lamu’s fort, under the shade of two spreading casuarina trees, many of the town’s men gathered for a 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.

The game is based around a basic board of four lines of shallow holes. Bao boards have been found etched into rock at many archaeological digs, though today, the boards are more commonly made of wood. Lamu’s ornately carved boards have become a local art form.

The game itself involves beads, seeds or stones being placed in the holes, and each player then redistributing these objects around the board by following a simple set order- with the winner placing theirs in a set pattern before the other can.

Play is simple enough, with a few well defined rules, but the game is incredibly complex- with endless possibilities for elaborate strategies and techniques. Players need to think quickly, and be ready to enact aggressive strategies and to counteract moves by their opponent.

Lamu’s bao players are talented and extremely fast. Games here progress at a breakneck pace, with fingers blurring across the board. There are three different versions of Bao played in Lamu- Bao la Kete, Bao la Dama and Bao la Dumna.

In order to preserve and encourage the art of dhow sailing, now threatened by increasing availability of engines and prefabricated boats, an annual dhow race is also held during Maulidi.

Dhows, built locally to a traditional lateen triangular sailed design, are an important part of Lamu’s life as a trading post, and are still used throughout the archipelago.The town’s 10 finest dhows are selected to compete, and race under sail through a complicated series of buoys, combining speed with elaborate tacking and maneuvering skill. The captains and crews are required to stay attentive to local conditions and wind, and this year’s race saw the boats facing a stiff wind ahead of afternoon rain. Spectators, including both locals and visitors, watched from the town’s piers and jetties, or from the comfort of rooftop restaurants.An extremely close finish brought the entire crowd to its feet, and to a chorus of cheers, the Dhow Feswal crossed the line just ahead of the Swabra and the Hodi Hodi.

Other events included a swimming race, and 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. This grueling race saw both local and international competitors weaving through the crowds and donkeys of the seafront, and across the sands to Shela- with some racers stopping to plunge quickly into the ocean to cool off along the way.At the finish line, it was Nicholas Kamau who finally took the title.

In a white sand field among palm groves behind Lamu town, sports fans crowded to witness Maulidi’s official football game- the Mazingira cup. This year’s game was hotly contested by two local teams Al Ahly and the Young Stars. A festive atmosphere pervaded the afternoon game, with the heat lightened by a strong sea breeze. Play was occasionally stopped by players downed by flying sand or disruptive pitch invasions by donkeys- but an eventful second half was wrapped up with a deadlocked tie. The resulting penalty shootout had the large crowd worked into a genuine frenzy, with both teams unable to watch as their star strikers battled it out. Al Ahly finally took the cup, but the game was declared a great success- and a sign of Lamu’s great communal strength. Both teams insisted on posing together in a victory photograph, and walked back to town together to celebrate.

But the real highlight of every Maulidi 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.This year saw the largest ever contingent of donkeys ready to race, and over a series of heats the islands best pundas (donkeys) were selected for the final.

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. During the heats, some donkeys simply waited for the sound of the starter’s whistle and with a spectacular kick, sent their riders airborne into the crowd. Being hit by the occasional flying jockey was no deterrent to the spectators, and a truly massive crowd filled the seafront, chanting and cheering on their favourites. As the final started the donkeys parted the crowd as they streaked the length of the waterfront before turning home again. Jockeys leant back at precarious angles to maximize their pace as they entered the home stretch.

Local champ Hassan Abass overtook the entire field to gain a massive lead, easily taking the title. The other competitors poured across en masse, followed by an entirely unrelated and lost donkey which was simply trying to deliver a load of firewood, and seemed genuinely baffled as the crowd cheered it across the line.

Maulidi is a celebration of both the past and the future, and the beliefs and traditions that are the heart and soul of this community. Most visitors to the island fall in love with this relaxed and peaceful lifestyle, and visiting during Maulidi is a chance to experience Lamu life at its most exuberant and joyous.
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