Lamu comes to life as thousands gather for 2023 Maulid festival

Muslims outside Riadha Mosque in Lamu County during past Maulid festival. [File, Standard]

Thousands of local and international tourists have started arriving in Lamu County head of the annual Maulid festival scheduled to start on Wednesday. 

Local traders are expected to reap big with an estimated 30,000 guests expected to attend the religious and cultural fete.

Lamu Riadha Mosque Centre CEO Hussein Bahasan, who is the organizer of the event, said they are expecting more guests this year compared to last year.

The festival was affected last year because of Covid-19 which restricted movement and affected most social events.

Maulid or Mawlid is a celebration to mark the birth of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, usually commemorated on the 12th of Rabil Awal, the third month in the Islamic calendar.

“Some 15 bulls will be slaughtered for the guests during the three-day event. Some guests started to jet in today. We are all set to host the biggest Maulid festival after the Covid-19,” said Bahasan.

He said Islamic scholars from Yemen such as Sheikh Habib Omar Bin Hafidh, Comoro's Mufti Sheikh Said Abubakar Jamalily, and Tanzanian Mufti Sheikh Abukabar Zubeir have confirmed attendance.

“So far, Kenya Ports Authority, UNESCO, and some maize millers have confirmed their support for the event, but we are still appealing for more help," said Bahasan.

Mr Badi Twalib joins the Muslim faithful in celebrating Maulid festivals at Jomvu in Mombasa County on November 13, 2022. [File, Standard]

He added: “Kenyan Muslims in various towns celebrate the Maulid on different days of the month of ‘Rabil Awal’ before the grand finale is held in Lamu Island."

He said that after the introduction of the East African version of the Maulid in the 19th century by the late Habib Swaleh and the establishment of the Lamu Riadha Mosque, the county has become a vital religious centre.

“This has remained a major annual festival in Lamu, attracting Muslims from East and Central Africa, the Middle East, and even the Western world," said Bahasan.

The event also attracts researchers and scholars of Islamic religion and the Swahili language, who join in to study the rich cultural heritage of the area which has remained unchanged over centuries.

The festival takes place in and around the Riadha Mosque and Islamic Center while the cultural activities are held around the seafront and at the Island’s Mukunguni square outside the Fort.

Residents of Lamu County in celebrate Maulid aboard their dhows on October 26, 2021. [File, Standard]

The main religious activities involve poems to praise Prophet Muhamad and the recitations of the Holy Quran that will be held inside the Riadha mosque throughout the night, according to the programme.

In the afternoons, tourists and residents gather outside the mosque to watch cultural activities staged by elders from the nearby islands of Faza and Kiunga, among others.

The best-known cultural activities are the Goma dances involving men standing together holding long walking sticks and swaying gently according to the rhythms of drums in meditation.

Other elders armed with Arab swords stage mock fights using their sandals as shields, amid the sound of beating drums. Meanwhile, youth participate in the “Kirumbizi’, a fighting-like dance.

During the climax, on Friday, groups of men and youths join together and stage a grand procession through the island’s narrow streets amid drum beats and songs in praise of the prophet. The procession ends outside Riadha Mosque where special prayers are offered.

The vice chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims Mohdar Khitamy, who is also among the Lamu Maulid Raidha Mosque Committee officials, noted that public celebrations of the birth of the prophet Muhammad started about four centuries after his death. The festival was originally for the ruling class of Muslims.

“The first official celebrations were held in Egypt towards the end of the 11th century while the East African version of Maulid was introduced in Lamu in 1866 by late Habib Swaleh Jamal, an Arab from the Comoro Islands," said Khitamy.

The local county government is among the partners working with the Riadha Mosque Maulid Committee to facilitate the fete, which is also meant to preserve the traditions and cultures of residents of Lamu.

There will also be sports. Other activities include traditional Swahili poetry, Henna painting, bao games, donkey races, dhow races, swimming, tug of war, football, and athletics.

Lamu County Tourism Minister Aisha Miraj said: "We have joined the Riadha Mosque Committee to support the cultural activities of the Maulid festivals."

“We are supporting these activities because they are aimed at encouraging local skills and practices, which are central to us and our way of life. They are also a major boost to tourism," she said.