The best cultural experience at the Kilifi festival

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Festival culture has been taking the “developing” world up in a storm for a few years now, and it’s an interesting moral question whether a group of mostly middle class, mostly white, people should disembark en masse in a rural area of a developing country, indulge in hedonistic behaviour, listen to loud music which they’ve likely imported, and then take a plane back home after a couple of days.

It was great to see how Kilifi New Year Festival, though not totally exempt from this, did interrogate the issue, with talks investigating whether festival culture can change the world and transform lives, and most importantly whose lives it does transform. Though the talks needed much more time and exploration, it was wonderful to see the attempt at self-scrutiny was there.

From a musical perspective, Kilifi was a tad underwhelming. Engagement with local musical traditions was very little – where was the taarab, for example, a string instrument widespread on the Kenyan coast? The acts were mostly DJs, some local and some flown in from as far as Jamaica, but there was a lack of live gigs, bar a few exceptions – which was a disappointment to many festival-goers, black and white, Kenyans and internationals.

This however was not completely the fault of the organisers. A Kenyan performing artist expressed concern at his fellow musicians and Nairobi based DJs, who apparently asked for rather VIPish working conditions which the festival budget couldn’t afford to satisfy (private cars, flights from Nairobi, executive accommodation, etc.), hence the need to turn to international artists, which ended up being more affordable than local ones.

The Umoja stage played mostly reggae DJ sets, though it occasionally slipped into pop-ish sets which felt a bit misplaced, while the Hidden Valley one was dedicated to EDM and ran almost 24 hours a day like the main stage, Funktion One, which blared out pretty heavy techno for the vast majority of the time. While this would be fun after a proper musical progression, say at 1 am or thereabouts, it felt a bit heavy-handed at 6 pm or 7 pm, while people were trying to have a drink, a bite of food and some conversation.

Despite this, Kilifi was a wonderfully open, liberal and stimulating place where one could do anything and everything during the day – from chilling out at the Water Park with a water slide, vaporisers, and a dripping swing, to having a drink at the beautiful Baobab Deck, overlooking the valley below where the Burn took place. There were a Massage and a Sexual Health tent (both very busy all the time!), three areas dedicated to Mind, Body and Soul with all sorts of workshops, free classes, guided meditations, yoga and much more; and even a Swap Lab and a Switcharoo outpost, where one could swap clothes, objects and even skills. The Burn was absolutely stunning: a 30-metre tall statue of a rhino entirely built by hand with natural materials was burnt following a procession and a fire show, to commemorate the last male northern white rhino who died last year, bringing this subspecies dangerously close to extinction.

The real wonder though was the way the local community was and has been for years, involved in the making of the festival. Locals made all the builds and installations, and some of them were trained as lighting technicians and employed at industry standard rates, which is a considerable amount of money in Kenya. Also, on the first day, the festival entry was KES500 for all Kenyans. The environment was dutifully protected too, with recycling stations dotted everywhere around the festival grounds, and a no-plastic policy which meant people could either fill their own bottles with drinks or purchase a Kilifi cup to keep as a souvenir.

Set in a stunning rural location and showcasing incredible attention to design and detail, Kilifi was a real mind and eye-opening event to experience for a few days, and we’ll be looking forward to how it is going to develop even more in the coming years.

Words by  Arianna Meschia

Pictures by Gordwin Odhiambo and Arianna Meschia

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