The annual Lamu Cultural Festival in Kenya is a showcase of tradition featuring much of what earned the island off Africa’s northern coast its World Heritage Site designation in 2001. Coming up November 15-18, 2012, the three-day festival offers a unique opportunity to explore the history, people, sights and sounds of Africa.
Lamu Island is home to Lamu Town, Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town and one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa. The town’s history dates back to 1441 and can be explored via a number of museums.
A full schedule of traditional dances, handicraft displays, competitions on water and land, Swahili poetry, donkey races, dhow races, henna paintings, Swahili bridal ceremonies and music. Since its inception as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, the festival has been a celebration of the island’s unique Swahili heritage.Getting there is tricky but, like so many other travel experiences, getting there is a great deal of the fun.
Scheduled flights daily from Nairobi, Mombasa, Diani Beach and Malindi land at close-by Manda Island airport (MAU). From there, dhow ferries bring visitors to Lamu where there are no vehicles. None. No tour busses, taxicabs, rental cars or even public transportation. This is about as close to the Africa of hundreds of years ago as we can get.
It is possible to hire donkeys to ride around the island though.
A Chinese and Kenyan archaeological team has discovered evidence that Chinese traders visited Kenya in the 15th century. A coin minted between 1403 and 1424 and a sherd of porcelain dating to the early Ming dynasty were found in the remains of a village. The excavation by Peking University and local archaeologists was searching for clues to the voyages of Zheng He, who led a fleet of more than 200 ships on numerous trips across the Indian Ocean.
The coin was of a special make used by representatives of the emperor and the porcelain may have came from a kiln reserved for the use of the royal family, so these finds are evidence of an official visit.
An article on BBC gives further details, and adds that China is renewing its historic ties to Africa. In 2008 China had $107 billion in trade with the continent, a figure that’s been increasing dramatically every year. This trade outstrips every other nation including the United States. During my trip to Ethiopia I saw Chinese engineers with Ethiopian road crews building highways and bridges, and the Chinese are beginning to build factories too.
In the past few years there’s also been a dramatic increase in Chinese tourists. Ten years ago I never saw a Chinese tour group in Oxford or London; now I see them every day. The face of travel is changing.
While the discovery is big news to Western archaeologists, it only confirms what the Chinese and Africans knew all along–that there have been centuries of ties between the regions. Residents of Lamu, a port near the excavation site, have a tradition that they’re descended from one of Zheng He’s shipwrecked crews. Many have Chinese features. DNA tests show some of the residents do have Chinese ancestry. When I was in the medieval trading center of Harar in Ethiopia I noticed several people with vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. Perhaps Chinese researchers should conduct some DNA tests in Harar.