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Kenya: Lamu Island Celebrates Cultural Festival - 2002-09-12


Lamu Island, located off the coast of northern Kenya, is the oldest settlement on the East African coast.

Juma Bhalo sang until dawn in Lamu's ancient town square. He was participating in just one of dozens of events that were offered during the three-day cultural festival.

There were also competitions - in sailing, swimming, donkey racing and calligraphy - as well as traditional dances and displays of skills like woodcarving or the building of dhows, a type of sailboat that is popular in Arab regions.

Lars Korschen, the owner of Peponi Hotel, says the festival transformed the normally sleepy little town. "I've never seen this many people on the sea front. It's amazing that they can pull everybody together and you can have a scene like this because it is going full on as you can see," he said.

Festival organizers hope to use the event to showcase the island's rich history. Lamu is believed to be the first place that Arab, Indian and Portuguese traders landed when they sailed to East Africa a millennium ago.

The island soon became an important trading center as well as a hub of Islamic teaching and Swahili culture - a culture which blends African, Arabic and Indian influences. The influence of those three cultures endures in Lamu today. The town also retains a strong Islamic flavor. Five times a day the muezzin's call to prayer echoes from the island's 23 mosques. Women dress in head to foot black bui buis when they pass through the town's narrow, winding lanes.

But Lamu's trading days are long gone. And traditional skills like dhow-building are rapidly being lost.

Ghalib Alwy is chairman of the Lamu Cultural Promotion Group. Mr. Alwy says one of the purposes of the festival is to revive such ancient crafts. "Our forefathers sailed to India, Zanzibar, Madagascar, all these Indian Ocean ports," he said. "All their boats are now at the dry dock collapsing. We don't build those dhows anymore. The older generations are retired and they did not pass this knowledge to us and we feel like we are losing so much. This is why our organization is coming up to bring such kind of ideas, techniques, performances, accomplishments, back to ourselves now."

The Islamic art of calligraphy is another dying tradition that the festival is working to promote.

Mbarak Abdul Khadir, education officer at Lamu Museum, says the idea of a calligraphy competition came about when a new mosque was being built on the island. "One reason that encouraged us to introduce this program is that when the Sofa mosque was being constructed in the 1980s we had to import somebody from Iran to do the calligraphic work," he said. "So to us it was a very embarrassing thing. So we said that we should have our own calligraphers [to do] that work."

The U.S. Embassy, which is sponsoring the festival, brought a calligraphy expert from the United States to judge the competition.

Since this year's festival was such a success, Lamu intends to hold a cultural festival every year.

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