It’s funny. When you think of the Coast, one often conjures up visuals of palm trees and ocean. Not baobabs and forest; the coast less traveled.
Once a year in this little pocket of the earth, a 3-day festival occurs. One filled with sun, water, music, and magic. Over 3000 bodies on 30 acres of land, vibrating various energies and sweet release.
Nothing is as it seems.
Every structure on site: the 3 stages (Main Stage, Umojah Stage, Hidden Valley Stage) to the unicorns and shower swings- each a product of tireless human labour.
Imagine a group of friends decided to throw a New Year’s party but instead, they threw the biggest festival Kilifi’s ever seen. No corporate sponsorship – just regular folk, sharing their corner of paradise with the rest of the world.
I went as a volunteer- partly because I’m underpaid, shit at saving and I don’t have Ksh.9,000 begging to burn a hole in my wallet.
Partly because I wanted the experience of contributing to this massive thing. Of camping in the bush in my little tent big enough for only one. Of being part of a community of people from different walks and spaces of the world – finding ourselves in the same place for the same purpose.
I spent 8 days in Kilifi. A baby, compared to the volunteers who had been there for 20 days by the time I arrived.
I arrive in the dark with no tent and no torch. Luck is my homegirl, the first volunteer I meet has a spare tent that he & his girlfriend were happy to get rid of. The guy who promised to buy it off them never showed up. You know who showed up though, conveniently homeless – me.
Fate. It’s convenient.
I get lost every time I try to go back to my portable house from the kitchen. Mark, a kind man with locs grazing the top of his butt and a flashlight, would lead me back to camp any time he saw me stray a bit too far into the distance.
I feel like a bougie outsider, with my ironed clothes and un-sunburnt skin. They work from 8.30 – 5 and drink mnazi every day. By evening, their spirit is one of leisure but one of exhaustion as well. But it’s worth it otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.
After half a mboko of mnazi, my body decides it’s time for us to go to bed. Mark shines the way home for me.
Billy Blunts made a pipe from a maize cob and two hollow sticks. He’s part of the team building the Hidden Valley stage. Blunts is his real last name. How apt. I breathed in the smoothest hit I ever had, endorsed by mother earth herself.
Every now and then, I drown in my own face sweat. Jay, a lithe girl with spaghetti blonde hair and shiny obsidian skin suggests a ride on the shower swings. Her days are spent in a bikini for this purpose, this freedom to get wet anytime she wants. I take notes.
Rasta weaves through every activity on a daily. It’s in the way they do their work, in how they relate to each other. Rasta is respectful, and equally, it calls for respect.
Rasta is the art of letting it go. A verbal dispute in the morning calls for a group meditation after lunch to heal the community vibes.
Long moist days are capped with nights spent drinking mnazi and searching for weed under a light fluttering breeze. A sky pregnant with stars.
The administration house is where it’s at. Shade from the burning sun.
That was the theme of my trip: burning.
Tuk tuks are like taxis. Expensive.
It cost me Ksh. 400 to get to town from the plantations by Tuk Tuk and Ksh. 150 to come back by boda boda. Cruising down brown sandy side streets at dusk is more fun in a boda boda anyway. You can see the baobabs waving at you from all sides.
In the morning, I break up with my boyfriend. In the afternoon, I’m sorting dreamcatchers. In the evening, I’m at Distant Relatives BackPackers and Eco-Lodge with six other volunteers. I came to see Bruce J Rooke perform but I was late and missed his husky crooning acoustic set. He wasn’t mad, he’s a good friend. I’m the bad one.
Lucky Birdi’s set is a zig zag of electric synths under banging basslines and drums that slap harder that mvuli wood. His set merging into Lemi’s set like lost twins, reunited. Lemi had the tom-tom drums and ankara fabric weaving through the sound. In the heat of his set, I imagined me and a young Fela Kuti, rhythming the night away to this new funky electric Africa.
My break-up came at the right time. I felt like sleeping beauty, finally opening her eyes after what felt like an eternity of sleep. It felt like a weight off my shoulders. It felt free.
That was another theme: freedom.
Spent shrouded underneath a fog of hangover and fabric. Still, no regrets.
The festival begins tomorrow. I go to bed early. We have a long 4 days ahead of us.
30th December. Before the Baobabs.
I was put on media liaison together with socially conscious rapper, InsectDudu, and a girl from the area called Hope*. We made press packets and got to interact with photographers, journalists and artists coming in to document the festival. Reggie and Arriana rode from South Africa to Kilifi on a motorbike. Eventually, they’ll ride to Casablanca to raise funds to support young upcoming artists in South Africa.
Hope and Insect vented about working from 8-5 without a stipend, about the Ksh.2000 deposit volunteers had to pay. Even though it would be returned to them at the expiration of their contract, they didn’t have the 2 grand to part with in the first place.
They hated that no-one cared to find out whether they had a tent to sleep in or not, or whether Hope could afford the Ksh.300 bodaboda home and still have enough to eat the next day.
Hope left at the end of the day and never came back. InsectDudu stayed. He sees the disparity but he also the opportunity. He’s trying to raise a point and he will not leave until that point has been made.
Volunteering is for the rich who want to know what it’s like to be poor, the professional savers & budgeteers, and for the broke.
Volunteering is not for the poor. It’s not for the people whose daily reality is struggling to make ends meet. You don’t earn money as a volunteer. In fact, you spend money. The work is really all there is to it. Whether it fulfills or not, is one man’s white bread and another man’s wholemeal.
31st December. Day 1.
A group connection session led by Ronan and Gayle taught us to vomit bullshit. Any bullshit that comes your way, purge that shit. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Not that they were teaching us bulimia.
“Kilifi is a city full of hippies,” someone muses.
“There are 4 white people for every black person,” someone else muses.
“But we all found ourselves here. We’re all here for the same reason- we’re here to experience something that will change our lives.” The stranger with the shell necklace sips his baobab juice and grins.
I get sucked into the Main Stage in the middle of my afternoon rounds by Eric K (editors note: of no relation) playing electric sunshine and flowers through the Funktion One sound system. I love having a dancefloor to myself, it’s like the moment you didn’t have to share a room with your siblings anymore.
Regardless of color or language, we are here because we are trying to liberate ourselves. It’s safe to be you on these grounds. We’re here. We’re alive. We’ve accepted it. But most importantly, we’ve accepted ourselves.
“We are the generation of transition.” The DJ at the Umojah Sound System Stage chants into the microphone.
We love ourselves for what we are and while we know it can always get worse, it can get better too.
The countdown begins 10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1.
Happy New Year.
“You have started the new year on a journey. Your whole year will be a journey.”
I need to stop having these kinds of conversations.
It’s a bushman’s carnival. By day 2 (day 6 tbh), I’d danced at all the stages. Showered under all the swings and mushrooms. Climbed all the jungle gyms and wooden animals. Slept on all the decks and teepees.
In the admin. house, renamed ‘The University’ for the duration of the festival, there’s a forum on racism at 2pm. A discussion on feminism at 3pm. Sexual Wellness and Secrets of the Yoni at 4pm. Documentaries showing back to back for most of the night.
At 7pm, I had a micro-racist experience at the Umojah Stage aka The Reggae Stage. After two hours of gyrating and dutty whining, I was tired. I reached for my bag which I had stored in a pocket in the subwoofers. ‘Coincidentally’ at the same time, a white woman decides to adjust her bag which was sitting next to mine and move it further away. I guess it can’t lay on one side for too long lest it gets bed sores.
Flatline: She thought I was trying to steal her bag.
Flatter line: Racist.
95% of my time was spent at the Umojah Stage. Umojah was where I’d go to escape the harsh EDM boom booms and lose myself in smoke and irie.
Flattest line: Not even racism could ruin the Umojah Stage for me.
It’s almost midnight. I join the burn procession for the sole purpose of face glitter and a bedazzled rhino horn hat. This year’s structure is a 30-meter tall man with a rhino mask on, in memory of Sudan – the last male Northern White Rhino. I name him Sudan Man. I’m so caught up in the circus of it all, I lose my fellow rhinos.
Henry, straddling drums made from recycled plastic, and the man on the Kayamba communicate with no words- only hand gestures, facial expressions, and pure rhythm. They play perfectly in sync despite only having met 5 minutes ago. I accompany them on the shakers. Our feet digging up mini-storms of dust with every downbeat.
They set Sudan Man on fire and cinders of his body fly into the air. The sky is painted with glowing dots of burning wood and makuti. I sit down on the ground and watch Sudan Man burn until he’s nothing but a pile of ash. The fire cleanses me of all the bullshit of 2018. I reflect on all the choices I made and the ones I did not, and how they all led me here.
To this fire. To this earth.
It’s my birthday.
2nd January. Day 3.
The music goes hard all night and all morning. Fast Pumping EDM at insane decibels. Despite this, the beauty of the Main Stage’s Funktion One Sound System is that regardless of how loud it gets, you can still have a conversation with the person next to you without having to shout in each other’s ears.
7am. I’m sitting on a jungle gym specially built for hyperactive adults to climb. From up here, the stragglers walking around look like sleepless zombies, waiting for the last of their mnazi, MDMA or whatever they’re on to leave their system so that they can fall into the sweetest slumber of their life.
I take in the final hours of the festival and hold it in my lungs. I buy my last Rollex and eat it on the baobab deck, feet swinging over the forest.
Eventually, I go to sleep.
It’s 2019. I am 23 years old.
For more images, follow James Patrick here:
For more on the Beneath The Baobabs Festival, follow Distant Relatives and Kilifi New Years here: