Maulid festival brings Lamu's Old Town to life

The decorated Riyadha Mosque and Islamic Centre in Lamu.

Photo credit: Kalume Kazungu | Nation Media Group

Lamu Island has roared back to life as scores of pilgrims and tourists arrive for this year's Maulid festival, which began on Tuesday.

The event, in its 135th year, is an Islamic festival celebrated annually by some Muslims to commemorate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in the holy city of Mecca in 570 AD.

The five-day festival takes place in the third month of the Islamic calendar and is always held at the Riyadha Mosque and Islamic Centre in Lamu.

The mosque is the oldest and most influential Islamic educational institution in coastal East Africa.

Abubakar Badawy, secretary general of Riyadha Mosque and Islamic Centre, said Muslim pilgrims, guests and tourists from all over the world had already started converging on the historic island to attend the Maulid.

The festival spokesman said the participants came from all 47 countries and foreign countries. The event will end on Saturday.

Mr Badawy described the Lamu Maulid as crucial as it promotes both religious and cultural aspects and traditions.

"Maulid has started today. We've received many guests so far. Our hotels and guests are already fully booked. We appreciate the Lamu Maulid. It is a celebration of a people's culture and tradition that is so dear to the people here, where history, the present and the future come together. Everyone is welcome," said Mr Badawy.

He noted that Islam plays an important role in Swahili culture and Lamu is known for its annual celebration of the festival.

According to Mr Badawy, the Lamu version of Maulid is unique in East Africa as it is always celebrated at the Riyadha Mosque, which was founded by Habib Swaleh in 1866.

Swaleh was an Arab who reformed the religious rituals of the festival and became famous for his highly artistic recitation of verses from the Koran, which today have a certain influence on Swahili poetry.

Since Habib Swaleh's time, the importance of music as part of the religious ritual has continued to grow.

"Today, thousands of pilgrims from mainland Kenya, the Arab world and other countries come to Lamu to listen to religious recitals of praise poems, music and dance, calligraphy and art exhibitions, among other colourful performances. The climax of these celebrations will be a procession to the tomb of Habib Swaleh," said Mr Badawy.

Apart from the religious aspects, participants are usually entertained with cultural dances and competitions.

The Goma dance, for example, is the most popular local traditional dance during Maulid. It involves men standing with walking sticks and dancing to the rhythmic beating of drums.

The Kirumbizi dance is also common during the festival. It involves a group of men staging a mock battle with traditional curved Arabic swords, all dancing systematically to the beat of drums.

During Maulid, an all-night prayer vigil is held around the Riyadha mosque, alternating with singing and narration of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, accompanied by song and dance.

On the last day of Maulid a procession of boys and men holding hands walks around the town and when they reach the city centre, the crowd bursts into song and dance.

Various competitions and races are organised, including the famous donkey race, which is considered the real showstopper. The donkey is a symbol of Lamu culture.

Other competitions include dhow sailing, swimming and football. Residents also compete in Swahili poetry, Koran recitation, henna painting and board games.

Ahmed Famau, a youth leader, says Maulid is a symbol of unity as it brings together people from different backgrounds.

"I welcome everyone to this year's Maulid festival, which began today. I have always enjoyed the events that take place during the last days of Maulid, especially the Zeffe (lively parade) that winds through the narrow streets of our old town, lined by cheering crowds. Let's enjoy it," says Mr Famau.

The Maulid festival is also a great shopping event that offers the opportunity to buy different household products and toys for children.