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

Updated on October 16, 2019
dwachira profile image

Danson, aka dwachira on Hubpages, is a Kenyan who enjoys sceneries, wild Safaris, people and culture.

A Swahili woman with Henna painted hands
A Swahili woman with Henna painted hands | Source

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.

Lamu Town
Lamu Town | Source
Lamu yachts
Lamu yachts | Source

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.

A former house of a mosque keeper
A former house of a mosque keeper | Source
A house in Lamu old town
A house in Lamu old town | Source

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.

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 - donkey race
Lamu Cultural Festival - donkey race
Lamu donkey sanctuary
Lamu donkey sanctuary

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.

The Ngoma dance
The Ngoma dance | Source
A Swahili woman with Henna painted hands
A Swahili woman with Henna painted hands | Source

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 | Source
Door carving is a popular tradition in Lamu
Door carving is a popular tradition in Lamu | Source

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.

Lamu Island
Lamu Island | Source
An old building in Lamu Town
An old building in Lamu Town | Source


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      My sister once visited Lamu and told me it is a nice place to take Safari, I would like to visit Lamu some day and this article with great Lamu photos has increased my interest.

    • dwachira profile imageAUTHOR

      Danson Wachira 

      7 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Hi healthylife2,

      The donkey race is interesting and i would like you to visit Lamu and try the Swahili dishes, you'll like it. Thanks for the visit, comment and support in sharing. Enjoy you day.

    • healthylife2 profile image

      Healthy Life 

      7 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      So interesting to learn about Lamu and the festival. I would love to attempt the donkey races.The pictures were beautiful too. The festival is coming up soon so shared!

    • dwachira profile imageAUTHOR

      Danson Wachira 

      7 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Hi Kris Heeter, looks like your trip to Kenya was memorable, thanks for the visit and comment.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 

      7 years ago from Indiana

      My trip to Lamu several years ago was amazaing - one of my most memorable trips. I loved the carved doors! One of the things I found incredible interesting too was the fact that there are no cars and no roads to speak of. We took a bus and then boat from Mombassa to Lamu (I would not recommend - it's a hard journey and dangerous - if we had to do it again, flying would be the way to go!).

      Another great hub and thanks for bringing back so many memories for me! Now I want to dig out my photos and videos!!

    • dwachira profile imageAUTHOR

      Danson Wachira 

      7 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      LaThing, you are very welcome to Lamu, Kenya. You will really enjoy it here. Thanks for the comment and visit.

    • LaThing profile image


      7 years ago from From a World Within, USA

      This is an amazing place! The island looks like it is a place from somewhere back in time ..... Seems Soooo peaceful! The picture are excellent.... Enjoyed reading this hub!

      Voting up and interesting ....

    • dwachira profile imageAUTHOR

      Danson Wachira 

      7 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Thanks sgbrown for finding time to stop by and read. Thanks too for your kindness and sharing, enjoy your day.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      7 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      This is a wonderful hub! Such great information and the pictues are beautiful! I love the carved door ways! Voted up and awesome and socially sharing!

    • dwachira profile imageAUTHOR

      Danson Wachira 

      7 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Thanks Angela Brummer, for stopping by, reading and the much needed sharing.

    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 

      7 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      Your articles are truely amazing! I will make sure to share this on twitter, facebook, google+ and with hub followers.


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