Traveling to Lamu to attend last Sunday’s Mad Hatter Dhow Race was a journey and a half.
As I didn’t want to miss my 9am flight from Wilson airport to Manda Island (where all Lamu-bound visitors must land) I first took Kimani’s boda boda taxi to the airport gate; then Maingi’s four-wheeled taxi into my airline entrance.
In fact, I’d almost missed the flight since police stopped my boda man who, as it turned out, didn’t have his license with him. I pleaded, implored and finally we got away (no chai given), but Kimani was spooked and dropped me before we’d reached the gate.
Fortunately, Maingi came to my rescue and I made it in time to board the flight, first to Mombasa, then to Lamu where it was already after noon and scorching hot.
Again, I was blessed when my friend Herbert sent Captain Nasir and his dhow Lady Gaga to collect me and the German sculptor Joachim Sauter to take us straight to Shela jetty and the Peponi Hotel, the favorite watering hole of ex-pats and Kenya cowboys who come periodically to Lamu.
Peponi is where I met Herbert and the three judges of the Shela Hat Contest, one of three competitions involving locals and promising substantial cash prizes to the winners that weekend. On Saturday the 5th Shela Hat Contest would stimulate more grassroots creativity than ever before, in part because all of the top thirty winning hats would win a minimum Sh2000 and a maximum of Sh50,000. Then while the judges were deliberating on which hats were the most imaginative and well crafted, there would be five Tug of War contests with the three winning teams also getting cash prizes of tens of thousands per team.
And then on Sunday, all classes of Shela citizenry would show up at the seashore to watch the Mad Hatter Dhow Race which also promised major cash awards to the winning dhows. The dhow crossing the finishing line first would win sh80,000; the second one, sh60,000 and the third Sh40,000, so there would be lots of tension in the air.
Herbert had also called in two young Kenyan filmmakers from Routes Adventure to cover the Hat Fete, but they would stick around through Sunday so they could shoot the Dhow races. Herbert kindly lent his media friends, including the filmmakers, photographer Eric Gitonga and me his speed boat so we could quickly follow the dhows all the way around the race.
This was the most thrilling feature of the weekend since the dhows are propelled by wind. But we had the advantage of a proper engine and speed that could make our boat virtually fly across the water. We also had an excellent pilot and navigator who both had experience following previous dhow races. They both understood instinctively where the boat needed to be to get the best shots of the dhows in motion. They also knew how to crisscross between the dhows while keeping sufficient distance so as not to interfere with the wind on which the dhows relied.
Both the navigator and pilot are local guys so they, like everyone from the village had a personal preference and cheered on their respective team. In fact, emotions ran so high that when we went back to shore to see how the race would end, we found there were already rumors of who would win and who had cheated so they’d appear to be first.
Ultimately, the judges would sort of the winners and losers. But they would have help from Herbert’s filmmakers who’d brought along a drone that had been following the race. Hopefully, its footage would rise above the high-pitched emotions and provide visual evidence of who really won.
Meanwhile, bystanders were busy dancing on the beach to the electronic sounds master minded by the Chinese female DJ Qiu Qui who’d come all the way from Beijing to attend the Dhow Races.
After the emotional high-pitch of all of these contests, our evening was relaxed and low-key. By dawn I was set to board Lady Gaga again and fly back home to Nairobi.
My one regret was not taking the chance when I had it to ride a donkey, the preferred mode of transport in Shela. But the moment passed while I was preoccupied watching the way drones have a peacetime utility, following the dhows and seeing if it was the dhow called Lady Lulu or Galaxy who ultimately won this year’s Mad Hatter Dhow Race.