May Speaker: Mtepe, The Dhows of East Africa

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“Shungwaya”, a full-sized replica of the Mtepes (dhows) that were last seen in the Lamu archipelago off Kenya’s northern coast in the 1930s, is on exhibit in the House of Wonders Museum in Zanzibar. –photo courtesy of Kaskazi Environmental Alliance

Each month CWB finds a speaker of wit and experience to talk about his or her special knowledge. It is also an opportunity for CWB members to meet one another and the staff. The program runs from 7pm to 9pm, with opportunities to ask questions. May’s 3rd Friday lecture will be held on May 20th.

What is a “dhow,” and why is it such a strong symbol of the Swahili culture and history?  Why did this vessel become the heart and symbol of East Africans who felt that they were cursed into making a living from the sea?

The first written account of dhows was made in a Greek book believed to have been written in the mid-1st century.  Later, Lamu, an isolated archipelago off the northern coast of Kenya yet the most conspicuous melting pot in East Africa, rested its fortune on the dhow, a hand-sewn, single-masted wooden boat that skimmed the islands’ shores through monsoon winds to harbors as far away as China and the Arabian Peninsula. The vessel carried a single mat sail, lateen or square, and featured a sharp overhanging bow and stern.

With time, technology caught up with the elegant sailing boats, rendering them irrelevant as commercially useful vessels.

And today, as the era of the dhow passes, what is happening to an entire culture’s knowledge and the legends that have been handed down from father to son?  Discover the answers to these and other quandaries in the documentary “The Mtepe “Shungwaya” Sails Again: Tribute to the Boat-Builders of Lamu, presented by Mahmoud Jillo, president and CEO of the Kaskazi Environmental Alliance.

The documentary follows the extensive research, planning, and creation of the Mtepe, a full-sized vessel built in Zanzibar in 2003 as the centerpiece for an exhibition on the Dhow Culture of the Indian Ocean, now on display in the House of Wonders Museum in Zanzibar.

The event is free (donations are welcome) and light refreshments will be available.

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