A cluster of desert islands tucked into Kenya’s north coast, Lamu and its neighbours have a special appeal that many visitors find irresistible. Together they form a separate spectrum of Swahili culture, a world apart from the beaches of Mombasa and Malindi.
To a great extent the islands are anachronisms: there are still almost no motor vehicles, and life moves at the pace of a donkey or a dhow. Yet there have been considerable changes over the centuries and Lamu itself is now changing faster than ever. Because of its special status in the Islamic world as a much-respected centre of religious teaching, Saudi aid has poured into the island: the hospital, schools and religious centres are all supported by it. At the same time, Lamu’s tourist economy has opened up far beyond the budget travellers of the 1970s. Foreign investors are eagerly sought and new guesthouses and boutique hotels go up every year, especially in Shela, which has more space to expand than Lamu town. Islanders are ambivalent about the future. A new port is quite likely, although it would contribute to the destruction of Lamu’s historic character.
The damage that would be done goes further than spoiling the tranquillity. The Lamu archipelago is one of the most important sources for knowledge about pre-colonial Africa. Archeological sites indicate that towns have existed on these islands for at least 1200 years. The dunes behind Lamu beach, for example, are said to conceal the remains of long-deserted settlements. And somewhere close by on the mainland, perhaps just over the border in Somalia, archeologists expect one day to uncover the ruins of Shungwaya, the town that the nine tribes that comprise the Mijikenda people claim as their ancestral home. The whole region is an area where there is still real continuity between history and modern life.
Lamu island itself, most people’s single destination, still has plenty to recommend it, despite the inevitable sprouting of satellite dishes, cybercafés and souvenir shops. It has the archipelago’s best beach and its two main towns, Lamu and Shela. Manda island, directly opposite, is little visited except as Lamu’s gateway to the outside world (the airstrip), though its own beach is beautiful and there are several delightful places to stay. Pate island, accessible by dhow or motorboat, but completely off the tourism radar, makes a fascinating excursion if you have a week or more in the area.