Lamu Donkey Race Celebrating Tradition and Community in Kenya

Fact May 2, 2024
Lamu Donkey Race Celebrating Tradition and Community in Kenya

Lamu donkey race ( Photo : Zollo Nyambu )

In the lunar month of Rabi' al-awwal, the vibrant residents of Lamu, a quaint island town off the coast of Kenya, come together to celebrate the annual Maulidi festival. Amidst the festivities, one event shines brightly—the thrilling donkey race. Lamu's donkeys, beloved companions and essential means of transportation for the locals, take center stage in this unique and exciting competition.

Old town of Lamu ( Photo : Alex Malombo )

The Charming Donkeys of Lamu

Donkeys are not merely animals in Lamu; they are integral to the island's way of life. They serve as a primary mode of transport, navigating the narrow streets and sandy pathways that weave through the town. During the Maulidi festival, these sturdy creatures are transformed into competitors, showcasing their agility and speed in a race that captivates both residents and visitors alike.

The Excitement Builds

On race day, the waterfront comes alive with spectators. Dhows (traditional sailing vessels) line the shore, and crowds gather eagerly along the coastline, eager to witness the spectacle unfold. The atmosphere is festive, filled with anticipation and excitement as the skilled jockeys prepare for the challenge ahead.

Lamu donkey race ( Photo : Zollo Nyambu )

Competitive Spirit and Tradition

The Swahili people of Lamu have a natural affinity with donkeys, relying on them daily for various tasks. This familiarity translates into fierce competition during the race, with jockeys vying for the coveted title of champion. The racecourse winds through the entire town, testing both the riders' skills and the donkeys' speed.

Preparation and Practice

Preparations for the race begin well in advance. Donkeys earmarked for the competition are carefully selected and trained in secluded areas. Practice sessions are held under the cover of night to ensure readiness and prevent distractions on race day. This meticulous approach underscores the importance of the event within Lamu's cultural fabric.

Lamu's Donkey Heritage

Lamu's historical significance as a bustling trading hub is deeply intertwined with the role of donkeys. For over 700 years, these animals have been essential companions, aiding in the transport of goods and people through the town's labyrinthine streets. Today, they continue to symbolize the enduring spirit of Lamu's heritage.

Preservation of Tradition

In a bid to preserve Lamu's unique cultural identity, the government implemented strict regulations in 2016, prohibiting motor vehicles, bicycles, and other modern forms of transport within the UNESCO-listed old town. This initiative has reinforced the donkey's significance, ensuring its continued relevance in the daily lives of Lamu's inhabitants.


1. What is the significance of donkeys in Lamu? Donkeys are essential to Lamu's way of life, serving as a primary mode of transport and playing a vital role in local traditions such as the annual donkey race.

2. How do donkey races contribute to Lamu's cultural heritage? Donkey races are a cherished tradition that showcases Lamu's unique blend of Swahili culture and island lifestyle. They bring communities together and celebrate the island's historical ties to trade and transportation.

3. How are donkeys trained for the race? Donkeys selected for the race undergo careful training and practice sessions in secluded areas, ensuring they are well-prepared for the competition.

4. What role do donkeys play in daily life in Lamu? Donkeys are used for transportation, carrying goods, and navigating the narrow streets of Lamu. They are a familiar sight and an integral part of the island's charm.


Lamu's annual donkey race is more than just a sporting event; it is a celebration of tradition, community, and heritage. Against the backdrop of this historic island town, donkeys continue to be revered companions, embodying the spirit of resilience and endurance that defines Lamu's timeless allure. As visitors gather to witness this spectacle each year, they not only witness a thrilling race but also partake in the living history of a place where donkeys reign supreme.

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