Perhaps best left until the end of your stay in Kenya, LAMU may otherwise precipitate a change in your plans as you’re lulled into a slow rhythm in which days and weeks pass by unheeded and objectives get forgotten. The deliciously lazy atmosphere is, for many people, the best worst-kept secret on the coast. All the senses get a full work-out here, so that actually doing anything is sometimes a problem. You can spend hours on a roof or veranda just watching the town go by, feeling its mood swing effortlessly through its well-worn cycles – from prayer call to prayer call, from tide to tide, and from dawn to dusk.
If this doesn’t hit the right note for you, you might actually rather hate Lamu: hot, dirty and boring are adjectives that have been applied by sane and pleasant people. You can certainly improve your chances of liking Lamu by not coming here at the tail end of the dry season, when the town’s gutters are blocked with refuse, the courtyard gardens wilt under the sun and the heat is sapping.
Lamu is something of a myth factory. Conventionally labelled an “Arab trading town”, it is actually one of the last viable remnants of the Swahili civilization that was the dominant cultural force along the coast until the arrival of the British. In the 1960s, Lamu’s unique blend of beaches, gentle Islamic ambience, funky old town and a host population well used to strangers was a recipe which took over where Marrakesh left off, and it acquired a reputation as Kenya’s Kathmandu; the end of the African hippie trail and a stopover on the way to India. Shaggy foreigners were only allowed to visit on condition they stayed in lodgings and didn’t camp on the beach.
Not many people want to camp out these days. The proliferation of guesthouses in the heart of Lamu town encourages an ethos that is more interactive than hippie-escapist. Happily, visitors and locals cross paths enough to avoid any tedium – though for women travelling without men, this can itself become tedious (see Information). Having said that, there can hardly be another town in the world as utterly unthreatening as Lamu. Leave your room at midnight for a breath of air and you can stroll up a hushed Harambee Avenue, or tread up the darkest of alleys, and fear absolutely nothing. It’s an exhilarating experience.
If you want to spend all your time on the beach, then staying in Shela is the obvious solution, and there’s an ever-growing range of quite stylish possibilities there, though hardly anywhere really inexpensive.
Fewer people see the interior of Lamu island itself, which is a pity, as it’s a pretty, if rather inhospitable area. Much of it is patched into shambas with the herds of cattle, coconut palms, mango and citrus trees that still provide the bulk of Lamu’s wealth. The two villages you might head for here are Matondoni, on the north shore of the island, by the creek, and Kipungani, on the western side.
The undeniably Arab flavour of Lamu is not nearly as old as the town itself. It derives from the later nineteenth century when the Omanis, and to some extent the Hadhramis from what is now Yemen, held sway in the town. The first British representatives in Lamu found themselves among pale-skinned, slave-owning Arab rulers, and the cultural and racial stereotypes that were propagated have never completely disappeared.
Lamu was established on its present site by the fourteenth century, but there have been people living on the island for much longer than that. The fresh-water supplies beneath Shela made the island attractive to refugees from the mainland and people have been escaping here for two thousand years or more. It was also one of the earliest places on the coast to attract settlers from the Persian Gulf and there were almost certainly people here from Arabia and southwest Asia even before the foundation of Islam.
In 1505, Lamu was visited by a heavily armed Portuguese man-of-war and the king of the town quickly agreed to pay the first of many cash tributes as protection money. For the next 180 years Lamu was nominally under Portuguese rule, though the Portuguese favoured Pate as a place to live. In the 1580s, the Turkish fleet of Amir Ali Bey threatened Portuguese dominance, but superior firepower and relentless savagery kept them out, and Lamu, with little in the way of an arsenal, had no choice but to bend with the wind – losing a king now and then to the Portuguese executioners – until the Omanis arrived with fast ships and a serious bid for lasting control.
By the end of the seventeenth century, Lamu’s Portuguese predators were vanquished and for nearly 150 years it had a revitalizing breathing space. This was its Golden Age, when Lamu became a republic, ruled over by the Yumbe, a council of elders who deliberated in the palace (now a ruined plot in the centre of town), with only the loosest control imposed by their Omani overlords. This was the period when most of the big houses were built and when Lamu’s classic architectural style found its greatest expression. Arts and crafts flourished and business along the waterfront made the town a magnet throughout the Indian Ocean. Huge ocean-going dhows rested half the year in the harbour, taking on ivory, rhino horn, mangrove poles and cereals. There was time to compose long poems and argue about language, the Koran and local politics. Lamu became the northern coast’s literary and scholastic focus, a distinction inherited from Pate.
For a brief time, Lamu’s star was in the ascendant in all fields. There was even a famous victory at the Battle of Shela in 1812. A combined Pate-Mazrui force landed at Shela with the simple plan of capturing Lamu – not known for its resolve in battle – and finishing the construction of the fort which the Nabahanis from Pate had begun a few years earlier. To everyone’s surprise, particularly the Lamu defenders, the tide had gone out and the invaders were massacred as they tried to push their boats off the beach. Appalled at the overkill and expecting a swift response from the Mazruis in Mombasa, Lamu sent to Oman itself for Busaidi protection and threw away independence forever. Had the eventual outcome of this panicky request been foreseen, the Lamu Yumbe might have reconsidered. Seyyid Said, Sultan of Oman, was more than happy to send a garrison to complete and occupy Lamu’s fort – and from this toehold in Africa, he went on to smash the Mazrui rebels in Mombasa, taking the entire coast and moving his own sultanate to Zanzibar.
Lamu gradually sank into economic collapse towards the end of the nineteenth century as Zanzibar and Mombasa grew in importance. In a sense, it has been stagnating ever since. The building of the Uganda railway from Mombasa and the abolition of slavery did nothing to improve matters for Lamu in economic terms, and its decline has kept up with the shrinking population. However, the resettlement programme on the nearby mainland and – in recent years – a much safer road from Malindi has led to a revived upcountry commercialism taking root around the market square.
Security in the Lamu archipelago
Security in the Lamu archipelago
In 2011, two separate events sparked intense media attention questioning the safety of tourism in the Lamu archipelago. In September, bandits raided a British couple’s banda at Kiwayu Safari Village on a remote beach on the mainland facing the northern tip of Kiwaiyu island. The man was shot dead and his wife kidnapped – she was released six months later after a ransom was paid. In October an elderly French expatriate was kidnapped from her home on the island of Manda. She died soon afterwards owing to her fragile state of health.
Foreign governments issued travel advisories warning against travel in the area, and security measures in the archipelago were significantly heightened. In early 2013, British travel advice still warned against travel to Kiwaiyu island and the mainland areas north of Pate within 60km of the Somalian border. Pate, Manda and Lamu islands are not included in the warnings and, with greatly increased marine surveillance, are considered as safe as the rest of the coast.
Festivals on Lamu Island
Festivals on Lamu Island
Maulidi, a week-long celebration of Muhammad’s birth, sees the entire town involved in processions and dances, and draws in pilgrims from all over East Africa and the Indian Ocean. For faithful participants, the Lamu Maulidi is so laden with baraka (blessings) that some say two trips to Lamu are worth one to Mecca in the eyes of God. If you can possibly arrange it, this is the occasion to be in Lamu, but unless you make bookings, you’ll need to arrive at least a week in advance to have any hope of getting a room. The other principal festival of the year is the Lamu Cultural Festival held in November to promote Swahili culture and heritage. With donkey and dhow racing, swimming, dancing and traditional craft displays, including carving, dhow-building, embroidery and henna decoration – all of it fairly competitive – the festival engages the town for the best part of a week.
Swahili Stone architecture
Swahili Stone architecture
Lamu’s stone houses are perfect examples of architecture appropriate to its setting. The basic design is an open box shape enclosing a large courtyard, around the inner walls of which are set inward-facing rooms on two or three floors, the top floor forming an open roof terrace with a makuti roof. The rooms are thus long and narrow, their ceilings supported by close-set timbers or mangrove poles (boriti). Most had exquisite carved doors at one time, though in all but a few dozen homes these have been sold off to pay for upkeep. Many also had zidaka, plasterwork niches in the walls to give an illusion of extended space, which are now just as rare. Bathroom arrangements are ingenious, with fish kept in the large water storage cisterns to eat mosquito larvae. In parts of Lamu these old houses are built so close together you could step over the street from one roof to another.
The private space inside Lamu’s houses is barely distinguishable from the public space outside. The noises of the town percolate into the interiors, encouraged by the constant flow of air created by the narrow coolness of the dark streets and the heat which accumulates on upper surfaces exposed to the sun.
Tradition and morality in Lamu
Tradition and morality in Lamu
A number of old photographs on display in the museum belie pronouncements about “unchanging Lamu”. The women’s cover-all black buibui, for example, turns out to be a fashion innovation introduced comparatively recently from southern Arabia. It wasn’t worn in Lamu much before the 1930s when, ironically, a degree of emancipation encouraged women of all classes to adopt the high-status styles of purdah. In earlier times, high-born women would appear in public entirely hidden inside a tent-like canopy called a shiraa, which had to be supported by slaves; the abolition of slavery at the beginning of the twentieth century marked the demise of this odd fashion.
Outsiders have tended to get the wrong end of the stick about Swahili seclusion. While women are undoubtedly heavily restricted in their public lives, in private they have considerable freedom. The notion of romantic love runs deep in Swahili culture. Love affairs, divorces and remarriage are the norm, and the buibui is perhaps as useful to women in disguising their liaisons as it is to their husbands in preventing them.
All this comes into focus a little when wandering through the alleys. You may even bump into some of Lamu’s transvestite community – cross-dressing men whose lifestyle, which derives from Oman, is accepted and long established. In fact, the more you explore, the more you realize that the town’s conventional image is like the walls of its houses – a severe facade concealing an unrestrained interior.
Where the hotel hustlers left off after you settled in, the dhow-ride men take up the challenge. You’ll be persistently hassled until you agree to go on a trip and then, as if the word’s gone out, you’ll be left alone. The fact is your face quickly becomes familiar to anyone whose livelihood depends upon tourists. Dhow trips are usually a lot of fun and, all things considered, very good value. The simplicity of Swahili sailing is delightful, using a single lateen sail that can be set in virtually any position and never seems to obstruct the view. Sloping past the mangroves, with their primeval-looking tangle of roots at eye level, hearing any number of squeaks and splashes from the small animals and birds that live among them, is quite a serene pleasure.
There are limitless possibilities for dhow trips, though only a short menu of possibilities is usually offered. The cheapest trip is a slow sail across Lamu harbour and up Takwa “river”, fishing as you go, followed by a barbecue on the beach at Manda island, then back to town. This might commence with some squelching around in the mud under the mangroves, digging for huge bait-worms. If the trip is timed properly with the tides, you can include a visit to Takwa ruins, or, for rather more money, you can stay the night on the beach behind the ruins and come back the next day. This is usually done around full moon. Takwa has to be approached from the landward side up the creek, and this can only be done at high tide. A further variation has you sailing south through Lamu harbour, past the headland at Shela and out towards the ocean for some snorkelling over the reefs on the southwest corner of Manda around Kinyika rock. Snorkel and mask are normally provided, but bringing your own is obviously much better. Although all dhows should carry enough useable life jackets, this is particularly essential if you’re venturing beyond the reef, where the seas can be very rough and accidents happen all too often.
The price you pay will depend on how many are in your party, where you want to go, for how long, and how much work it’s going to be for the crew. Agree on the price beforehand (a full day with lunch starts from around Ksh1200 per person) and pay up afterwards, although some captains may ask you for a small deposit to buy food. Be clear on who is supplying food and drink, apart from any fish you might catch.
Cameras are easily damaged on dhow trips, so wrap them up well in a plastic bag. And take the clothes and drinks you’d need for a 24-hour spell in the Sahara – you’ll burn up and dry out otherwise. The Promise Ahadi Dhow Operators Collective (t072 3650807), on the waterfront in Lamu Town, or Shela Marine (t072 5003411) in Shela organize recommended dhow trips.
The Lamu Port project
The Lamu Port project
In March 2012, the government initiated a massive US$20 billion infrastructure development project 16km north of Lamu, the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET). This, which would be the continent’s largest ever civil engineering project, would see a pipeline built to deliver oil from South Sudan to a new refinery near Lamu island, alongside the building of a giant tanker terminal, more than 1700km of new highways and railways to South Sudan and Ethiopia, and three new airports and tourist resorts in Lamu, Isiolo and Lake Turkana. Unsurprisingly, the plans have met resistance from local groups, and many are sceptical that the project will ever be fully realized.