The 2016 Shela Hat Contest took place at the Peponi beachfront on Valentines weekend. With 95 contestants and over 200 spectators, this was the biennale’s 4th edition. The inspiration for the event surfaced when sponsor Herbert Menzer and photographer Roland Klemp saw manual workers in Lamu fashioning creative head gear from found objects to protect themselves on construction sites. It was clear that Lamunians were naturally creative. The county government of Lamu has partnered with Herbert Menzer to encourage the people of Lamu to share their aptitude for the arts through the entertaining act of hat-making.
Almost all of the hats are made of recycled material including wire, wood, coconut shells, bark, sandal straps, flip-flop soles, feathers, foam and plastic. Competitors included contenders like Mia Miju, of Seafront café in Lamu town who took a sun dried white snapper he found on the beach, removed the backbone, filled it with old newspaper and set it on his granddad’s sisal hat that he found in his attic. For the final touches, he added pieces of shark bone to the sides. He chants down the beach: “Don’t think about it as food. See its beauty instead!” Another challenger was Francis Kariuki, owner of a small bead shop All Grace in Lamu town. He is a third-time participator who made a bonnet out of plastic water bottle tops. As aspiring artist, who paints landscapes, draws and designs t-shirts during the low season in Lamu, he tells us his dream is, “to be a big artist and to be taken away to another place.”
Runner up was first-time participant Katana Charo Kadenge, a young electrician from Lamu wearing a giant octopus made of cement bags painted in grey acrylic and decorated with shells. But the winner of the 2016 Shela Hat contest wore something more astounding. Abduljannah Soud from Lamu, who lives half the year in Sante Fe, New Mexico, wore a tall chimney stack emitting real smoke. His soaring pipe carried the message: Poison is coming. Lamunians get ready. Soud’s had addresses a political hot topic in the region. The 1 k megawatt thermal electricity generating coal plant coming to the Manda Bay area of Lamu County poses a serious threat to the local community and environment. Water will be contaminated, marine life endangered, the mangrove forests and fragile ecosystems destroyed. Speaking for the Lamunians, Soud carried a plaque: Do I matter? A powerful message.
In the award ceremony Governor Issa A. Timamy addressed the environmental hazards threatening Lamu. Plastic waste poses a serious threat to land animals including the donkeys that ingest discarded bags and marine life such as turtles that get entangled in floating garbage. Looking at Zanzibar who has lead the way on this issue, Timamy is devising a law that will banish plastic bags on Lamu Island. Having already installed solar lights at the beachfront, he says he is looking for sustainable answers to the energy needs in the county. The last chapter of the day, Abduljannah Soud closed with a more theatrical monologue about pollution. His mantra rings in our heads: “Take your plastic and leave with them!” He referred to nations that set a good example, paving the path to a greener tomorrow.
With giant sharks, flamingos and peacocks, snakes, elephants, thatch-roof huts and airplanes for hats, there were many eccentric characters parading the beach that day. It was a happy valentines for all!
Many thanks to Mohammed Sultan (Senior Chief), Hamid’Shuruti’Mohammed, Omar Mauli, Ahmed Mwarabu & the Shela Welfare Group, the members of the jury, Sophie Walbeoffe, Chelenge van Rampelberg, Eltayeb Dawelbait, and the people of Shela.