Popular Kenyan tourist event also symbolizes divisions


LAMU, Kenya — The 10th annual Cultural Festival in late November took this small car-less island by storm: the streets were flooded with 50,000 visitors, women paraded around in ornately designed buibuis (long black Muslim dresses), Bollywood rhythms echoed around every corner, street vendors sold Swahili samosas, and donkeys ran wild. While the rest of Kenya is focused on implementating the country’s new constitution, the island of Lamu was in party mode.

Lamu, one of the largest islands in the Lamu archipelago off the northern coast of Kenya, is the hub of Kenya’s Swahili culture. The Swahili culture blends the Muslim religion with Arab and African influences and is distinctly different from the cultures in Kenya’s upcountry. The celebration of this culture is on the rise as the number of people who come to the Lamu Cultural Festival has increased every year. So one question arises: Will Lamu always be a part of Kenya?

The people of Lamu are not only different from the rest of Kenya, they are also physically and psychologically removed, seemingly totally uninterested in the country’s affairs. The biggest news in Kenya — that Kenya’s minister of education and many other members of parliament are charged with corruption — isn’t their main concern.

With sparkles in their eyes, Lamu residents are consumed with who won the Cultural Festival’s donkey races, traditional dhow sailing races, and swimming races. And this disconnect between Lamu and the rest of Kenya reoccurs on a daily basis: By the time the newspapers arrive on the island, around 3PM each day, “the news is already history” explains Saudi, a local who has lived here his whole life.

For the festival, the majority of visitors came from nearby islands and the costal towns of Kenya such as the country’s largest port, Mombasa. Many of the visitors were drawn to Lamu, as it is a religious center for the Muslim population of Kenya. While only 10 percent of Kenyans are Muslim, on the coast 90-95 percent are Muslim.

The festival also attracted high profile individuals from the international community. The U.S. embassy was an official sponsor and thus Ambassador Michael Ranneberger attended along with the Italian ambassador, the former Austrailian ambassador, and many other high ranking officials from countries including Germany and Sweden.

These countries contributed more funds to the festival than the Kenyan government, a fact that infuriated many Lamu citizens.

WIth their feelings of being disconnected and mistreated, Lamu citizens vented their frustrations. 

“The reason we want to break from Kenya is because they have a cake and they do not share it with us;we don’t get any piece,” explained Adam, a librarian at the Museum Fort in Old Town Lamu. Many other citizens do not consider Lamu to be a part of Kenya. and dream about an independent Lamu.

“When Lamu breaks from Kenya, I will be the president,” said Musini a dhow captain who lives in Old Town. A smile crept onto his face, but his sentiments were genuine.

But not everyone thinks Lamu will make a break from Kenya anytime soon. Mbarak, the curator of the Museums in Lamu, explained that the world will not support Lamu in any attempt to secede from Kenya because it will set a bad precedent. Lamu’s secession would encourage other small communities in Somalia and Sudan to break away from their country as well. “So,” he explained, “It would not be good for Kenya or for Africa.”

Economically, Kenya relies on the coast: tourism contributes about 60 percent to Kenya’s GDP. Tourism decreased following the terrorist attacks in Nairobi in 1998. But today tourism is reviving in Lamu and on the whole of the Kenyan coast. So the Kenya does not want Lamu or any regions on their coast to secede.

But there is a one small window of opportunity for Lamu secessionists. In 1963 Kenya signed a 50-year lease with the Sultanate of Zanzibar, who previously ruled the 10-mile strip of Kenya’s coast of which Lamu is a part. The lease runs out in 2013. So Lamu’s dream of breaking free from Kenya could actually come true if there is enough gumption to fuel a secession movement. Lamu’s relationship with Zanibar remains unclear.

It is unlikely that Lamu and the 10-mile strip will actually break from Kenya but it is important to keep an eye on this coastal region in the next few years.

As for Lamu, party time continued throughout December. Ali, a local working at a seafront restaurant explained, “all of December is party time in Lamu; no one sleeps.”