1. 2015 almost 2016: Follow Mowgli

My brother ran over a kid. That’s how our New Year season began. A baby goat though, I should clarify, not a human child. 

Big brother was driving us to Kilifi, his girlfriend at the time riding shotgun, his right hand steering, the other gripping her hand. Me, being the youngest, was sitting sandwiched between my sister and my sister-cousin. I felt the kid’s body tumble and then crunch underfoot and I instantly knew it was dead.

We didn’t stop driving though, because, what happens when you have five youths in a car, a dead goat, and an aggrieved Maasai herder at 8pm in the night? Nought chance of getting away unscathed. 

This is how our trip started. At the time, I reckoned it must have been a bad omen but as it turned out, the tragic death of that kid goat may have been an inadvertent sacrifice to the NYE (New Year’s Eve) gods for blessed festivities. After all, we were heading to the Kilifi New Year Festival. 

My sister had learnt about it on Facebook and incited the rest to attend along with her. Being the lastborn, I refused to remain behind with the wazees while my older siblings went to have fun. Adamant last-born stubbornness always wins. And if it doesn’t, the threat to snitch on your older siblings for any of their transgressions over the past year – and which you always reserve as your last bargaining chip- always does the trick.  

It is dark when we arrive at Distant Relatives Eco-Lodge & Backpackers. My sister had reserved us accommodation on the Musafir

On regular days, the Musafir is a 70-foot traditional dhow which voyages around the East African Coast, from Kilifi to Kipini and on to Kilwa in Tanzania – documenting the journey through art, film, music, cultural exchange and community projects.

However, this time round it is not the regular season, it’s NYE, meaning the Musafir has been transformed into a dorm-style floatel (floating hotel) to accommodate Distant Relatives’ extra guests who’d flown, or – like us – driven in, to attend the NYE Festival. 

One problem though, how do we get to the Musafir? We pose this question to the barman, who responds with the most inane set of instructions I had ever heard up until that point in my life. 

“Go down the steps past the crows’ nests to the beach access gate and follow Mowgli to the beach. Once you’re at the beach, just shout ‘Paolo!’ and he’ll get you there.”

Why did this sound like the quest for an early 2000’s Nintendo Game? Who was Mowgli? Who was Paolo? Still, we went, with God leading the way into the mystery passage that would lead us to Mowgli. 

Meet Mowgli – DR’s Guest Relations Manager. 

We got to the beach access gate and shouted ‘Mowgli!’ into the emptiness of the night. A short silence in which the waves lapped gently on the nearby shore. Five minutes later, a cute German Shepherd pup emerged from the bushes- I imagined his job entailed he wait for any lost and clueless visitors and guide them home. He led the way to the shore, noise trailing the sandy path, asking no questions, tail wagging the entire way. 

When we got to the shore we yelled “Paolo!” as per instructions, the mystery of the experience getting even more intriguing. The name echoed through the salt-washed darkness and, hardly ten seconds later, a wiry Italian man appeared as if out of Alladin’s lamp. He squinted at us in the dark but said nothing, instead he herded us onto a little passenger boat and rowed us to the Musafir, which was anchored about 300 metres out at sea. 

We boarded the Musafir via rope ladders lowered to the boat by the crew. Exhausted after a long day of running over kid goats and trusting strange dogs with our lives, we fell asleep on soft foam mattresses, cloaked by billowy mosquito nets and fanned by the breeze, beneath the glare of a zillion stars- somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. 

As the sun rose on the first day of the festival, I – unfortunately- had to leave the real grownups to their festivities.

As an 18-year-old university student, I was not financially liquid enough to afford a ticket to the festival like the real working class adults. All I could scrounge up from pocket money savings only afforded me a taste of one pre-festival night. My mummy and daddy picked me up and as I waved goodbye to the festival from the rearview mirror, I swore that come hell or high tide, I would return. 

  1. 2016 almost 2017: The DJs are Gods or Did Someone Lose Their Phone?

We always seem to arrive in darkness. Thankfully this year, no baby goats were murdered on the journey. 

This year, I came with my sister, my sister-cousin, my best friend, and our childhood friend. It had been 12 months since my first visit to Kilifi NYE hosted at Distant Relatives Eco-Lodge and Backpackers and I still couldn’t afford the KES 10,000 ticket but, thankfully, I didn’t have to. 

My sister ran a jewellery store called House of Theluji (Theluji meaning snow, ice, bling) and through her business, had secured herself a stall to sell her wares- us four youngins tagging along for the ride as her helpers. 

Our strict orders were that we were here for work, not play- but as I came to learn that year, the boundaries between the two under the light of the NYE moon are often rather blurry. 

As soon as my shift manning the jewellery stall ended, I set out on whatever adventure would present itself out of the blue. One thing that shocked the Kenyan in me was how safe the venue was. For instance, at some point I left my phone on an unmanned table while frolicking around the festival, dancing at various stages. I returned an hour later to find my phone right where I had left it. I put this to test again shortly after, deliberately leaving the gadget unattended, knowing I was punching the limits of my luck; but then, what’s NYE if not the perfect opportunity to test your trust in a protective Higher Power? 

I returned three hours later to find a group of concerned caucasians gathered around my phone.

“Do you know whose phone this is?” someone was asking.

“We have no idea. It has been here for hours and we were thinking of taking it to ‘Lost and Found’,” offered someone else.

At this juncture, I meekly revealed myself and proved that I was the owner of the mystery phone by unlocking the screen, after which I thanked them for their concern. 

Okay, protective Higher Power, point made!

In the haze of the overhead Kilifi sun, I decided I wanted to be a DJ. 

I was awestruck, to say the least, by how the DJs could control my emotions, purely through track selection and blending. It took a mere pressing of a button to energize me. The slow push of a fader was all it took to calm me down and subdue me. A bad transition could – however- disorient me badly and make me irritable. Introspection would arrive with the right drums, and I would feel a kindredness with the strangers around me- given the right BPM. 

It was an omnipotent power. Omni-present too, as the music seemed to follow me everywhere I went. Even on the lonesome shores of the beach, the distant thrum of the bass sat next to me on the sand. 

At around midnight everyone on the premises, all 1500 of us, single-filed our way to the beach, where a sole arm protruded from the surface of the sea, shooting 20 metres into the air. The Burn.

As the makuti arm burnt in a dancing cloud of flying cinders, I felt the woman behind me begin to sob. Soon, I began to feel the same sob well up in my breast. It was as if the orange-red lapping flames burnt all the losses, sorrows, pains and regrets of the past year, paving way for the blank slate of a new-born year. 

I couldn’t remember the last time I cried for no reason but cry I did, and far from sadness or grief, I had never felt better.

On January 2, 2017, I sat on the volleyball pitch at sunrise, taking stock of my gratitude for a new year and a new age. A fairy pixie in the form of a popular DJ pranced up to me in my solitude. He took my journal and wrote down the words ‘Poetise Your Sunrise’ before prancing away. 

Rumour has it he was tripping balls off 9 tabs of LSD when he wrote this 3-word haiku. I didn’t care. I found these words written in my journal by this DJ, at sunrise on the dawn of my birthday, extremely profound. I [regrettably] decided to have them tattooed on my forearm within the course of the year. Some memories are only all the more worthwhile when shrouded with a slight twinge of regret. 

  1. 2018 almost 2019: A change of venue; a change of name

As we were transiting from 2017 to 2018 someone told me that not only had the NYE event changed to a venue without a beach, but it had also changed its name as well, from the ubiquitous ‘Kilifi New Year’ to the more specific company name ‘Beneath The Baobabs’. 

I was so appalled at this that I decided to sit out the 2017/2018 edition in protest. However, in 2018/2019, I decided to open my mind and heart to new things. Knowing myself, I still didn’t pay 10k for a ticket, opting instead to go as a volunteer where I exchanged 5 hours of labour a day for free entry and enjoyment. 

As usual, I arrived in pitch blackness, having been dropped by my brother and his now pregnant wife. I crash-landed on the premises with just a sleeping bag, a duffel bag of clothes, and a pocket full of lucky timing.

The protective Higher Powers must have been working overtime that night because the first volunteers I met happened to be a couple eager to sell their spare tent due to a buyer who bailed out at the last minute. Because of this random coincidence, I had a home for the rest of the festival. My life as a volunteer first began with odd jobs in the field such as washing empty paint cans for repurposing and sewing sequins on butterflies made out of fabric, when someone in the office caught wind of my marketing background. 

I was then moved to media liaison, where I acted as the point person / fluffer for media personnel coming in to document the festival.

The zeitgeist of the time and my experience is best captured in these excerpts from journal entries I wrote at the time:

Journal Entries from a 2018 almost 2019

Imagine a group of friends decided to throw a New Year’s party but instead, they threw the biggest festival Kilifi had 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, poor 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 that is designed for 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. I was a baby, compared to the volunteers who had been there for 20 days by the time I arrived.

26th December:

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 and 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 that reach down to 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 to 5.00 and drink mnazi every day. By evening, their spirit is one of leisure but 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.

Rasta weaves through every activity on a daily basis. 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 go. A verbal dispute in the morning calls for a group meditation after lunch to heal the community vibe.

Long moist days are capped with nights spent drinking mnazi and searching for weed under a light fluttering breeze, the 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.

A group connection session led by Ronan and Gayle taught us to vomit bullshit. Any bullshit that comes your way, purge it. 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.

Regardless of colour 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.

1st January.

“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 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, an English man straddling drums made from recycled plastic, and the Giriama man on the Kayamba communicate without words- only hand gestures, facial expressions, and pure rhythm. They play perfectly in synchronicity despite only having met five 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.

  1. 2019 almost 2020: Baobab Mama

I am marketing manager of Beneath The Baobabs Festival. 

Between the previous year and this one, I quit my Nairobi job as a copywriter due to some unsavoury office politics, took a gamble, a pay cut and a demotion by moving to Kilifi as an intern, a position I had not held since I was 18 years old, before the first time I almost attended the festival; and somehow in the span of a year, worked my way up to marketing manager. A role I embodied with part devotion, part exhaustion. But it was worth the while. 

As I sat by myself on the dawn of my birthday, watching the last embers of The Burn fade out, sober as the day I was born, an ocean wave of deep unspoken fulfilment crashed within me – cresting as I witnessed the fruits of my labour ripen for all around me to consume and delight in its flavour. 

I had been christened ‘Baobab Mama’ by the other staff and volunteers, a name I had reserved for the 1000-year-old Baobab tree, which stood statuesque on the edge of the property’s valley. 

Grand yet humble, I had turned to Baobab Mama anytime I found myself at a crossroads, unsure of where each path would take me, nor what path to take. Baobab Mama guided me with each uncertain step. Her name became my name and similarly, I became her. 

Baobab Mama.  

  1. 2022 almost 2023: DJs Don’t Pay, We Play

It’s been 2 years since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and 3 years since I returned to the festival in Kilifi. I am neither child nor grown-up. Neither a volunteer nor media liaison person nor marketing intern nor marketing manager. 

Instead, I am what I wanted to be the first time I decided to be it- 7 years prior at my first Kilifi New Year Festival at Distant Relatives Eco-Lodge and Backpackers. 

My 2-hour DJ set is at sunset on New Year’s eve, right beneath the shade of Baobab Mama. And knowing me, I’m still not paying for my ticket. After all, DJs don’t pay. We play.

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