Celebrations on the Kenyan Coast
When the tide is low enough, you can stroll along the beach path between Shela and Lamu Town, as the Kenyan coastal heat guides your way. You will pass donkeys, the island’s alternative to cars, slowed by overstuffed bags and aggressively prodded by the young boys guiding them. You will encounter women darkly covered in buibuis, hands patterned with henna. You will peer out along the water, and while the sun’s bright haze blinds your sight, you will see dhows skimming along the water. This was our experience as we entered Lamu town by foot on Maulidi, the celebration of Mohammed’s birthday.
Our first destination was the small milkshake shop where we could rehydrate on avocado shakes. But this was not to be; crowds of people were lingering on the foot path and men were commanding order, as boys eagerly mounted onto their donkeys.
Then it began: the unleashing of a dozen donkeys for the traditional Lamu donkey race. Onlookers pressed themselves sideways to avoid the galloping donkeys that were unceremoniously zipping past the Shia Ithna-Asheri mosque, cheered on by their owners. That was only the beginning: the day proceeded with dance, music, dhow races in the water and celebrations that left the town in a jovial state.
Hours after the festivities, we retreated back to quiet Shela. Sweat-drenched stains were washed away, bellies were satisfied with a succulent coastal feast of fish curries and coconut rice. In the late evening from the rooftop deck, underneath the extraordinary wave of the Milky Way, the salty air hugged my skin.
In the distance, I saw dimmed candlelight diffuse, and I heard haunting musical beats so fresh and new to my ear. The Taarab music from a single home gently arched and crescendoed, floating to the sea below. Listening, I felt as if I was given a rare treasure, a sound so perfect, a warmth so embracing, that I must hold onto it tight and never forget it.
I must, months later from the cooler confines of my apartment, thousands of miles away, search relentlessly for the semblance of what touched my ears that evening in Shela. Knowing that aromas can take me in an eye blink to a place near or far, to a person or to an event, I crave the rich music that would reel me back to the land of memories and wanderings. I search for the Taarab music from the night the sea breeze massaged my hair. I am relieved that the music I found still brings back a small fragment of nostalgia for my time on the Kenyan coast. Under the sheet of the Milky Way, under the spell of the chants, no other life seemed so sweet.