Kenya’s festival year

HR-IMG_9128From camel racing to storytelling, Kenya has it covered with its range of annual festivals. msafiri guides you through some of the most famous and some of the lesser-known cultural celebrations

What does culture mean to you?
You may think of the closest things to your heart – your home, your way of life, the colourful rhythms of your lifestyle. You may remember your identity, where you come from and why you are proud of both those things. Culture resonates because it’s about the sharing of our most treasured gems, from one generation to the next.

It’s because of this beauty encircling our existence that we need to celebrate our cultures; to feed and perpetuate our identities and most importantly to share them with each other. That’s where cultural festivals come in handy. Kenya is a dynamic and vibrant multicultural country with over 50 traditional cultures represented and at least a dozen urban ones. Almost every other week you will find a festival in one corner of the country or another, celebrating heritage with food, music, dance, art, poetry, folklore and family-oriented activities.

The Turkana people adorn themselves with colourful beads and lesos (or kangas). The Turkana Cultural Festival held annually in Loiyangalani captures all their glory. Visitors can interact with the locals and share in their culture by dancing with them and sharing an array of their traditional delicacies.

Ever wanted to ride a camel? Then you could opt for the annual Camel Derby event, usually held right outside Maralal town. The event attracts spectators as well as camel racers, where competition is tough. The race usually begins at the heart of Maralal town with camel jockeys concentrated in high competition gear to find out whose camel will end up as the victor.

Happening right at the centre of the ‘city under the sun’ is the Nairobi International Cultural Festival – where countries from all over the world congregate in one global village, where they are encouraged to display their cuisine, music, fashion, dance, handicrafts and fashion.

Located on the north side of Mombasa, Lamu is undoubtedly one of the most culturally rich places in the country. A World Heritage Site since 2001, the island is characterised by its old, coral stone buildings. It represents the traditional Swahili life in an unspoiled way demonstrating the cultural influences that have come together since the 14th century from various continents. It’s no wonder then that the century-old Lamu Cultural Festival has an abundance of activities to do. The festival is a celebration of the Lamu people’s heritage, comprising Swahili poetry, henna painting and Bao competitions, as well as the famous donkey races. The festival also provides visitors with the opportunity to fall in love with the peaceful aura of this old town.

Renowned as one of the best vacation destinations, Mombasa has, for a long time, hosted the Mombasa International Festival, presenting its visitors with a new way of life – the Mombasa Raha way. The coastal festival is a meeting place for people from all walks of life, young and old alike, coming together to share in the fireworks, dances and delicacies of the coastal people.

Just south of our border, in the heart of a magical wilderness is the unique Serengeti Cultural Festival, a celebration of both humans and wildlife. The event is held annually in July at Mugumu town in rural Mara. The festival is an open-air event that gives visitors a game-viewing safari and a chance to watch traditional dances from the locals.

Within the country’s capital, we have a festival that fuses music, literature and poetry. Storymoja Festival, as the name suggests, is the unification of people with one story, and one heritage. It’s the African metropolis for storytelling and a narration of our identity as Kenyans.

Still within Nairobi, we have the SawaSawa Festival hosted at Sarakasi Dome. Targeted towards the youth, the event is an avalanche of energy, an urban mecca where the young perform and share their talents with their peers.

Below are the top five Kenyan cultural festivals as recommended by

Lamu Art Festival

(Lamu Painters Festival & Shela Hat Contest)
Through a series of misfortunes Herbert Menzer, a former restaurant owner, mistakenly chanced upon Lamu back in 2006. He was charmed by the island’s magic upon arrival. Years later, with a passion for art and inspired by the unique beauty of the island, he founded the Festival. The first edition of the Shela Hat Contest took place in 2010 and the Lamu Painters Festival took place in 2011 in collaboration with Lamu County.

The Lamu Painters Festival enables artists from Europe and Africa to express their notions of Africa and Islam by observing real life situations on the traditional Swahili islands of Lamu and Manda. Painters have the opportunity to study real people, honouring their customs and making new friends in addition to being exposed to a new kind of artistic expression of Lamu life.

Where to stay?
Peponi Hotel
The famous old marvel of the island, Peponi is a humble little hotel run by the Korschen family, who opened it in 1967. It still retains much of the character and charm that it had then. Small and personal, it is the perfect hideaway.
Shela Houses
Located at the edge of the picturesque fishermen’s village of Shela, these four rental homes, Bembea House, Jaha House, Habibti House and Fishbone House, are hideaways of elegance, where traditional Swahili architecture mixes with contemporary design. Perfect for groups of two to 10 guests.

Fact Box
When: Every February
Where: Lamu Town and Shela Village
Next Festival: 5-19 February 2017

Rusinga Cultural Festival

Ukiere woona. That’s how you say ‘good morning’ in the Suba language. A language spoken by people so few in numbers that they are often wrongly grouped as Luo. A language facing such a genuine threat to its existence that UNESCO has listed it as ‘Vulnerable’ in their Red Book of Endangered Languages. The young Rusinga Cultural Festival couldn’t have been more urgently necessary.

This annual festival will take you to the lost and forgotten land somewhere in the middle of Lake Victoria. Here, you will celebrate and experience two days of music, fashion, film, food, artistry, literature and sports (including boat racing, wrestling and ajua – a traditional gambling game). You will be transported back in time to the wealth of Suba culture. It’s the only remaining place on Earth where you can drink in this culture amid nature’s stunning serenades over a fresh water lake.

Where to stay?
Rusinga Island Lodge
A place of infinite beauty exuding an atmosphere of serene tranquillity, with manicured lawns that stretch to the edge of Lake Victoria. Their delicious home-cooked food and indulgent accommodation combine to offer an ideal base from which to explore the island.
Wayando Beach Eco Lodge
An affordable eco-lodge at the beach on Rusinga Island with bandas for accommodation and scenic views. When words like heaven, exceptional, hospitable and fantastic are used by Tripadvisor reviewers, it really can’t get any better.

Fact Box
When: Every December
Where: Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria
Next Festival: 22-23 Dec 2016

Samburu Maralal International Camel Derby

You haven’t really experienced the country’s northern side of the equator until you’ve been to the annual Camel Derby. This is Northern Kenya’s biggest cultural event and at almost 30 editions is one of Kenya’s oldest cultural festivals. The event promotes Samburu culture, peace, tourism, environmental conservation, and the economy of the Samburu nomadic pastoralist people.

The Camel Derby was started in 1990 by Malcolm Gascoigne, as a way of opening up the desert town as a tourist attraction. It has since been recognised as a serious international sport. The event has subsequently grown popular among adventure enthusiasts attracting visitors from all over the globe. The Camel Derby creates the perfect blend of culture, adventure and action. Magical Kenya describes it as more than just a race, calling it “an entertaining festival of fun and local competition that brings this small desert town to life”.

Where to stay?
The Yare Camel Camp
A famous cultural hotel and campsite at the heart of Maralal. You can get more than just accommodation here. They also offer guided nature walks and bird watching tours, camel safaris and you can even learn the lost art of traditional fire-making.

Fact Box
When: Annually (Late August or Early September)
Where: Maralal
Next Festival: 25-31 August 2016
Facebook Page: Samburu Maralal International Camel Derby

SAMOSA Festival

“One of a kind” is the perfect way to describe the SAMOSA festival. It is not modelled on any other cultural festival anywhere else in the world. Just like its name, the cross-cultural festival, which was established in 2005, throws all kinds of flavours at you.

The samosa, a popular staple of Asian and African cuisine, is much loved for the endless variety of tasty mixtures within it. The three points of the samosa represent the Asian/African/Fusion of cultures to enhance ethnic relations and foster nationhood.

SAMOSA originally stood for the South Asian Mosaic of Society and the Arts. The South Asian component was initially used to emphasise the Asian presence in Kenyan national history and culture. Today, the brand has expanded and is by no means an exclusive reference to the South Asian population – it has evolved to feature cultural productions and events that showcase the best of Kenyan society.

The festival uses all elements of culture: music, art, performance, theatre and discussion to promote interaction among all Kenyans, towards cohesion and integration. The 2016 festival will be held in the heavily populated area of Eastlands in Nairobi, predominantly home to people of Somali ethnic background.

Fact Box
When: Every other July/August (biannual)
Where: Nairobi
Next Festival: 18-24 July 2016

UuMuntu Cultural Festival

We sit huddled close in grandmother’s smoke filled hut. It is late at night and the howling of the hyenas sound so close that it’s hard to concentrate on granny’s tale. A tale about our ancestry, our customs and cultures. It is no classroom affair, rather one that is cosy as we crunch on roasted peanuts and put up a brave front against the sounds of hyenas drawing nearer, yet in reality they are miles away.

Granny is so enthralled with her tale, she gets up and, frail as she is, we cannot help but clap a beat to her intricate dance steps. Some of us beat imaginary drums on our laps, one of us pulls out the log from the fire and makes a sound with the cooking pot. As we make music, dance and song even the howling of the hyenas adds a beat to granny’s dance!
The beat of the African drum vibrates across our continent, like the spiralling smoke in the night from my grandmother’s hut. It’s a call to celebrate, to mourn, and to embrace the newborn. A call of the talking drums. of our grandfather’s victory at war, of the harvest in the fields; a celebration of courtship, of marriage… A celebration of UuMuntu; a people united through the handing down of dance and songs through generations. UuMuntu transcends from those happy nights of my grandmother’s hut to a village market, a global market where UuMuntu takes centre stage.

My grandmother would be proud that we have not forgotten her songs, her dances and the unifying force they played and still play within our communities. The festival of UuMuntu is about Kenya’s people sharing their celebrations of culture, strength and diversity through vibrant dances, colourful costumes and serene voices that chant their ancestry and tell their stories. UuMuntu celebrates our strength in our diversity.

Fact Box
When: Every October
Where: The National Museums of Kenya
Next Festival: 16 October 2016

Uumuntu in numbers
• The Festival is now in its sixth year.
• UuMuntu showcases the best performances from over 30 youth groups within Nairobi County.
• Vision 2030: The event aims to give young people an opportunity for social and economic development, supported by the Ministry of Sports, Arts and Culture.