Lamu’s Swahili Culture and Traditions

Maulidi Festival, Lamu
Men and boys celebrating Lamu's Maulidi Festival

Swahili derives its name from the word ‘Sahel’ or coast, and this is truly a culture of the coast. It was brought by the gradual melding of mainland African and Arabic cultures that arrived aboard trading dhows.

There was significant influence on the culture of Lamu from the local Bajun people. The Bajun are an indigenous tribal group, centered on the archipelago. Their language was the genesis of Kiamu, a Swahili dialect that is the true language of Lamu. Bajun woodcarving was adapted to the tradition Omani designs of the traders, creating the distinctively patterned doors and windows still seen throughout the town.

Kenyan Muslim WomanThe influence of Arabic culture brought a traditional form of dress, including long kanzu robes and woven hats for men, and the buibui for women. Traditional henna painting of the hands and feet remains popular with women, particularly for special events and festivals.

The traditional triangular sailed dhow and the donkey both become important elements of local culture, ideally suited for trade in both the narrow sea channels and narrow streets of Lamu.

In the large open square in front of Lamu’s fort, under the shade of two spreading casuarina trees, a common sight is men playing Bao a traditional African board game that may be the oldest known game in recorded human history. This strategic game is popular all along the coast, and there are three different versions played in Lamu Bao la Kete, Bao la Dama and Bao la Dumna.

Bao matches are a popular event at local festivals throughout the year as are donkey and dhow races, and competitions for elaborate and eloquent Swahili poetry, and Koranic recitals.

Islam has played an important role in the growth of Swahili culture, and Lamu has become famous for its celebration of the Maulidi each June now an important event for the Swahili.

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

The festival is celebrated with traditional dances particularly the Goma.This involves lines of men standing together holding long walking sticks known as bakora. Swaying gently to the rhythm of ngoma drums, the men extend the sticks forward and interlink them. At the same time, other men pair off and arm themselves with traditional curved Arab sword and stage mock fights to the beat of the drums, using sandals as shields.

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

Maulidi is a celebration of both the past and the future and the beliefs and the traditions that are the heart and soul of this community.

For students of the Swahili language and culture, the Research Institute of Swahili Studies of Eastern Africa (RISSEA) has a campus in Lamu. The institute, managed by the National Museums of Kenya, offers specialized certified courses in language and culture, homestays in Swahili homes and assistance with research and academic work in the area.

For more information book a trip to Lamu with Kibo Slopes Safaris this December, info@kiboslopessafaris.com or telephone 0719381519.

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