As I said in my previous post (A Man Without a Donkey is a Donkey), tiny Lamu Island, part of the Lamu Archipelago,  is just off the shore of Eastern Kenya in the Indian Ocean. It is home to the medieval old Lamu Town (I know it is a lot of Lamu), with winding narrow streets where one can easily get lost.   Most people in Lamu Island are of the Muslim faith, and Lamu Town hosts a yearly religious festival called Maulid (Mawlid), celebrating the birthday of Mohammed. This past year, I attended some of the festivities.

Maulid is celebrated by millions of Muslims around the world as a sign of respect and adoration for Mohammed, whom they believe to be God’s messenger. The commemoration involves religious gatherings and food sharing, but the details vary significantly from country to country. The version held in Lamu manages to be devotional but also joyous and festive.

During Maulid, Lamu’s population swells as visitors from all over East Africa and beyond come to participate in the festivities. The locals wear their best attire. Women in their black bui-bui are in the street with their children, who can’t contain their excitement. Men wear their best kanzu (long dresses) and kofias (embroidered hats), and the entire town is decorated for the occasion.

In the courtyard of the beautiful Riyadha mosque and all over the waterfront, groups of men from various communities performed traditional Swahili dances. Though the dances vary slightly from town to town and island to island, the Goma dances, which involve men standing with walking sticks and dancing to the rhythmic drum beatings, are the most popular. To show their appreciation, people slip Kenyan Shillings in the kofias of the performers. (There must be a technique to it because I tried many times, and the money invariably fell to the ground. I finally gave up and handed the money to the performer if I could.) 

During the festival, children representing various schools come to the town square to sing or recite poetry. The festival is also an occasion for the locals to compete in their favorite activities. The donkey race is extremely popular, and everyone comes to the donkey sanctuary to watch the start of the race. From what I could see, the biggest challenge for the organizers is to get the donkeys to all start at the same time. (It is also a source of controversy; complaining about the refereeing is truly a universal human trait.)  It is not all about the donkeys. Large, enthusiastic crowds watched the majestic dhows race offshore, with the crews looking like they were flying in the air next to their boat. 

For the religious part of the celebration, the crowd gathered in the town square for a long evening of prayers, men in the front and women in the back. Though it was an impressive gathering, nothing compared to the excitement of the final procession, where every town and mosque in the archipelago is represented by its official group. As only men and boys of age are allowed to participate in the procession, women and ecstatic children gather on the side of the road to watch every group walks along the waterfront, singing and rejoicing with high energy. 

All and all, a special celebration in a special place. Without a doubt, what stays with me the most is the joy and excitement experienced by everyone during the festivities. Community expressions of joyfulness can be hard to find these days.

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15 Responses

  1. The joyfulness you’ve shared with your photos and writing seems infectious. How special to be in Lamu for Maulid, and it’s so interesting how it is celebrated there. I LOVE the people’s facial moments and gestures and postures, all expressing an incredible array of emotions. Thank you, France. I so enjoyed this! (I want to dance like the little girl in the yellow dress!)

    1. Kathy, I can so imagine you dancing like the little girl in the yellow dress and you would fit in perfectly. The little boy next to her was so into it, it was hysterical to watch. It was nice to see the excitement of the children, I don’t seem to see this as much back home. The celebration was lovely, the people were quite welcoming and nice, even when I made the mistakes of getting too close to the men section (a different world out there), they politely came to remind me that this was not my place. I also like the inclusion of the children in the ceremony where they come and recite poems or sing. As always, thank you for reading, Kathy.

    1. Dear Dipankar, No worries, very few people know where Lamu Island is. I did not until recently. And this is probably why it is still magical (but who knows for how long). Anyhow, as always, thanks for taking the time to read. Sending good wishes your way. France

  2. Joyce, I am sure you enjoyed Lamu, it is a pretty special place. The festival is quite lively, for sure. Thank you for taking the time to read and I am glad you enjoyed my images. I have looked at your work and it is quite stunning!!! Warmly, France

  3. Community expression and joy is so uplifting..they need a festival where the women do the procession and the men watch ..the community could experience this joy twice a year 😊

    The donkey race …I imagine was hilarious.
    Recently in Vietnam we watched a group of women celebrate international women’s day by having some fun activities ,one was to ride a bicycle as slowly as possible to win ..
    The way communities have fun in simple ways is indeed joyous .
    Hope you are well , thanks for the beautiful photos ..aren’t they wonderfully attired ! 🌺

    1. Emilie, Don’t expect a women’s procession anytime soon!!!! They get together and play music sometimes (a strange instrument made with a horn) but rarely in public. Things are not changing very fast on that front in Lamu. Yes, the donkey race was quite amusing for me but for them, it is serious business. Winners get a monetary prize so the incentives are there, and donkeys are trained especially to race like horses.

      Love the concept of the women’s bicycle race in Vietnam, at last, a competition in which I could do well. Where in Vietnam was this happening? I was in Ho Chi Mn City briefly in late February. Wonderful people, for sure. I am sure you had a great time.

      And yes, the Lamu people dressed well for the celebration. Women do as well under their bui-bui!

      1. It was in delightful Hoi An ..with all its lanterns .
        We loved everywhere we went to in Vietnam , all different . Ho Chi Minh was interesting and cosmopolitan but Hanoi seemed to have more charm . The Vietnamese are very lovely welcoming people..sweet natured .
        I don’t know why people go on about the traffic for pedestrians, they all drive pretty slow , at a constant speed and are polite ..here people run you down ..led foots 🤣.

        One thing that is very sad is the air pollution…a serious public health and environmental issue for Vietnam .
        Only on one day did we see any blue sky and it isn’t just from the transportation ..it’s from manufacturing and cement factories.
        Vietnam clearly has some super rich citizens but too many people work so hard and get paid a pittance …a world problem .
        Would recommend Vietnam to anyone as a destination , it’s fascinating, would love to return ..how funny you were there in February we went March 1 . 🤣🌺🥰

    1. Dear Francisco, Thank you for taking the time to read and for your kind words. All the best, France

    2. So sorry I missed your comment. Thanks for taking the time to read the story. SO glad you liked it. France

  4. Ah Lamu is beautiful. I was there in 1989. It was Ramidan. All day the town was quite then the call came at the mosque … a market with wonderful food was set up each evening and the town came alive. After the last day of the fast it was amazing, shoe boxes all over the street and a fair with a man powered ferris wheel. Food and lovely people. Thanks for sharing your story and photos and taking me back to a special time.

    1. Dear Ross, thank you for your lovely comments on my stories and images. I am so glad (and envious) that you got to enjoy these locations when I am guessing few tourists (and cell phones) were around. Being in Lamu during Ramadan must have been quite special indeed, I’ll make a note of that. It is a little paradise, isn’t it? Hope you are well and wishing you a terrific 2004. Best, France

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