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.Read More
- Lamu island
Practically within shouting distance of Lamu town, Manda – with next to no fresh water – was only recently almost uninhabited but is now the site of several new luxury homes and a couple of boutique resorts. Aside from the allure of the pristine beach, it is also the site of the main airstrip on the islands, and the location of the old ruined town of Takwa (favourite destination of the dhow-trip operators). Significant archeologically for the ruins of Takwa and Manda, the north side of the island is also the location of the fabulous Manda Bay lodge.
Only two hours by ferry from Lamu, totally unaffected by tourism and rarely visited, Pate island has some of the most impressive ruins anywhere on the coast and a clutch of old Swahili settlements which, at different times, have been as important as Lamu or more so. There are few places on the coast as memorable.
Pate is mostly low-lying and almost surrounded by mangrove swamps; no two maps of it ever agree (ours shows only the permanent dry land, not the ever-changing mangrove forests that surround it in the shallow sea), so getting on and off the island requires deft awareness of the tides. Its remoteness, coupled with a lack of information and limited transport on the island, deters travellers. In truth, though, Pate is not a difficult destination, and is an easier island to walk around than Lamu, with none of that island’s exhausting soft sand.
It’s wise to take water with you (five litres if possible), as Pate’s supplies are unpredictable and often very briny. Most islanders live on home-produced food and staples brought from Lamu and, although there are a few small shops on the island, it’s a good idea to have some emergency provisions (which also make useful gifts if required). Mosquitoes and flies are a serious menace on Pate, especially during the long rains. The shops sell mosquito coils but it’s also worth carrying some repellent for use during the day.
According to its own history, the Pate Chronicle, Pate was founded in the early years of Islam with the arrival of Arabian immigrants. This mini-state is supposed to have lasted until the thirteenth century, when another group of dispossessed Arab rulers – the Nabahani – arrived. The story may have been embellished by time, but archeological evidence does support the existence of a flourishing port on the present site of Pate as early as the ninth century. Probably by the fifteenth century the town exerted a considerable influence on most of the quasi-autonomous settlements along the coast, including Lamu.
The first Portuguese visitors were friendly, trading with the Pateans for the multicoloured silk cloth for which the town had become famous, and they also introduced gunpowder, which enabled wells to be easily excavated, a fact which must have played a part in Pate’s rising fortunes. During the sixteenth century, a number of Portuguese merchants settled and married in the town, but as Portugal tightened its grip and imposed taxes, relations quickly deteriorated. There were repeated uprisings and reprisals until, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese had withdrawn to the security of Fort Jesus in Mombasa. Even today, though, several families in Pate are said to be Wa-reno (from the Portuguese reino, “kingdom”), meaning of Portuguese descent.
During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, having thrown out the old rulers and avoided domination by new invaders like the Omani Arabs, Pate underwent a cultural rebirth and experienced a flood of creative activity similar to Lamu’s. The two towns had a lively relationship, and were frequently in a state of war. At some time during the Portuguese period, Pate’s harbour had started to silt up and the town began to use Lamu’s, which must have caused great difficulties. In addition, Pate was ruled by a Nabahani king who considered Lamu part of his realm. The disastrous Battle of Shela of 1812 marked the end of Lamu’s political allegiance to Pate and the end of Pate as a city-state.
From Faza you’re within striking distance of the desert island retreat of Kiwaiyu (also spelt Kiwayu). The island is a long strip of sand dunes, held in place with low scrub and the odd tree and fronted on the ocean side by a superb beach. The village of Kiwaiyu, near the southern end of the island, has limited provisions at a couple of shops. Twenty minutes’ walk to the south, you reach a private fishing lodge on the high southern tip of the island. From here, the empty, ocean-facing beach, with the reef close offshore, is just a scramble down the sandy hillside. There are one or two first-class snorkelling spots off this southern tip of the island, with huge coral heads and a multitude of fish. Ask for precise directions, as it’s possible to spend hours looking and still miss them. For something a little different, ask your captain on the boat over about a fantastic little hut in a baobab tree where travellers can spend the night. Your captain will make you the most amazing fresh fish, grilled on the back of the dhow over charcoal. Prices for the trip (including food) will vary according to each captain, but expect to pay a minimum of Ksh12,000 per night for up to six guests.
Since the tragic events of September 2011 (see Security in the Lamu archipelago) and the Kenyan military incursion into Somalia, Kiwaiyu Safari Village (the luxury beach lodge on the mainland facing the northern tip of the island that was the location of the first kidnapping) has been closed and tourism to the island has dropped off – check the latest security advice before travelling here.