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.