Lamu County reaps delicious fruits following 2nd annual Food Festival

Lamu County reaps delicious fruits following 2nd annual Food Festival
Swahili style rice served artistically in wooden bowls (Photo: Courtesy)

Starting Friday, Lamu County hosted of tourists for a celebration of Swahili cuisine and culture dubbed the Lamu Food Festival – the second chapter of the annual event.

Guests were treated to a wide array of activities from tours of the Islands’ thousand-year historical sites, sunsets dhow rides, water sports, late night fishing trips, cooking lessons and musical performances.

“We set out to celebrate and preserve Lamu’s unique culinary heritage, and we achieved it. The festival had over 1000 participants, with over 200 of them being tourists. We also had 150 students competing in the Hunger Games – a series of fun food-related contests aimed at passing down our culinary tradition” said Samia Omar, Lamu County’s Tourism Minister.

“One of the other major goals was boosting local business. We usually have set tourism seasons, and hotels close after these. Though Mid-April is usually off-peak, hotels have guests with some reporting full occupancy,” stated Ms Omar.

Using festivals to fight the effects of terror   

Tourism is a vital foreign exchange earner for Kenya, with most of the business being driven by foreigners keen to enjoy Kenya’s diverse wildlife and the country’s culturally rich coastal region.

Following numerous travel bans and advisories slapped on Kenya because of terror attacks in the region, these numbers have slumped, thus forcing the tourism industry to re-focus on the local market.

This local focus has paid off, especially with Nairobi’s ever-growing middle class.

“Lamu County had carried out an aggressive campaign since last year, and this gave me the desire to visit. So when I found that there were affordable flights and impressive tour packages, I booked my trip,” explained Wangari Kibanya, a Nairobi-based human resource practitioner.

After spending four days and three nights touring the islands, Ms Kibanya said that she will be a return visitor.

“It is definitely somewhere I will visit again. There is so much to do! I walked the beaches, practiced Yoga, went on dhow cruises, visited museums, and enjoyed Swahili food. Another major plus is the preservation of culture – Lamu is a cultural gem that all Kenyans need to experience,” said Ms Kibanya at the end of the weekend trip.

The county partnered with hotels in the area to give impressive discounts at eateries across the islands. Guests also had a chance to sample street food along the Lamu island coastline, an experience that was further enriched by live taarab music performances.

The Food festival is 9th of the 10 functions that the county has rolled out in the past two years in a bid to boost tourism to the archipelago located at Kenya’s northern coast.  According hotelier and Lamu Tourism Association (LTA) official Nina Chauvel, the efforts have paid off.

“The festivals have really made a difference. We have seen an influx in the number of tourists to the islands as a result, and this really makes a difference for all of us – from hotel owners, staff, dhow and boat owners, tour guides and even the fishermen,” said Ms Chauvel.

“In early March, we hosted the first annual Yoga festival and the response was extraordinary. We had nearly 250 guests from 20 countries – most of whom were new to Lamu. This was extraordinary,” she said.

In comparison to the numbers recorded by mass tourism sites like Mombasa or Malindi, these numbers are impressive – especially since most of the accommodation spots are boutique hotels and guesthouses.

Cooking Swahili dishes

cooking class

In addition to sightseeing and feasting on Swahili food, guests also got practical cooking lessons and recipes from the locals.

“Swahili food is special because it is a fusion of many cultural influences. Every people group that traded with our ancestors over the past thousand years left aspects of their culture behind, and that is seen in our cuisine,” explained Bi Zeinab at one of the cooking classes.

The Swahili culture emerged as a result if intermarriage and trade between people of Arabic origin and the Bantu speaking people groups that inhabited the East African coast. As such, Swahili food boasts of rich influences from both cultures, with additional influences from Persian, Indian and European cultures.

“I enjoyed the Swahili food because it is unique in its own way; their meals take a lot of time and effort to make. The simplest food we were taught to make – samosas – had nearly 10 ingredients! When you eat them, you can taste the difference. So learning how to make coastal dishes offered me value for my time and money,” said David Nahinga, one of the tourists.

The county also hosted an expo that saw 50 exhibitors, drawn from various sectors, showcase their wares.

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Joy Chelagat
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