Perhaps best left until the end of your stay in Kenya, Lamu island may otherwise precipitate a change in your plans as you’re lulled into its slow, soothing rhythm and deliciously lazy atmosphere. All the senses get a full workout here, so while there are sights and activities on offer, actually doing anything is sometimes a problem. You can spend hours on a roof or veranda just watching life 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 it by not coming here at the tail end of the dry season, when gutters are blocked with refuse, courtyard gardens wilt under the sun and the heat is sapping.
Lamu town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 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, its 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 town encourages an ethos that is more interactive than hippie-escapist. The crime rate is low, and the labyrinthine warren of narrow alleyways is safe to wander at all hours; leave your room at midnight for a breath of air and you can stroll around to your heart’s content, fearing nothing.
If you want to spend all your time on the beach, staying in Shela is the obvious solution, and there’s an ever-growing range of quite stylish possibilities there, including one hostel where you can also camp.
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 a much safer road from Malindi has led to a revived upcountry commercialism taking root around the market square.