A cluster of desert islands tucked into Kenya’s north coast, the Lamu archipelago has long held an irresistible appeal for visitors. Together these islands form a separate spectrum of Swahili culture, a world apart from the beaches of Mombasa and Malindi.
To some extent the archipelago is an anachronism: there are still almost no motor vehicles, and life moves at the pace of a donkey or a dhow. Lamu island, itself, however, has seen drastic changes. Because of its special status in the Islamic world as a much-respected centre of religious teaching, Saudi aid has poured in: the hospital, schools and religious centres are all supported by it. In recent times too, the tourist economy, and consequent investment, has boomed. The island has outgrown its roots as a 1970s budget travellers’ paradise to become something entirely more commercial: by the early 2000s guesthouses and boutique hotels were thick on the ground in both Lamu town and Shela, along with satellite dishes, cybercafés and souvenir shops.
Today, islanders are concerned about the future. Western travel advisories have hit the tourism industry hard over the past few years, with a number of hotels and restaurants forced to close, or at least go into hibernation. A massive new port is planned, which might provide some jobs, although it will wreak havoc on the livelihoods of Lamu’s small fishermen and contribute to the destruction of the islands’ 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.
For now, however, Lamu island, most people’s single destination, still has plenty to recommend it. Here you will find 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 a few 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.