The Lamu Archipelago
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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.
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.
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.
Since the tragic events of September 2011 (see
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.
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 excursions is usually offered. The cheapest 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 (0710 519156), on the waterfront in Lamu town, organizes recommended dhow trips.
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.
A more recent initiative, the Lamu Yoga Festival in March brings together several hundred people, and yoga teachers from around the world, for four days of classes in different yoga styles in idyllic settings around Lamu town, Shela and Manda.
In 2011, two separate – and unprecedented – 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.
In 2014, the mainland of Lamu county was subjected to two major terrorist attacks when gunmen stormed the small towns of Mpeketoni and Hindi, killing nearly one hundred people, most of them migrants from central Kenya. The Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for both atrocities.
While tourists have not been targeted and Lamu island itself has seen no violence, security measures in the archipelago have been significantly heightened in recent years and foreign governments periodically warn against travel in the area.
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.
In March 2012, the government announced a massive US$20 billion infrastructure development project – the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) – at Manda Bay, 16km north of Lamu. This, 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; 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 so far little has been achieved but lucrative land sales and huge kickbacks from “feasibility studies”. With no financial backer and no credible economic rationale for the project, LAPSSET looks like a classic white elephant.
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.
Practically within shouting distance of Lamu town, Manda island – 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.
Just two or three 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 – so getting on and off the island requires deft awareness of the tides. Its remoteness, coupled with limited transport, deters travellers. In truth, though, Pate is not a difficult destination, and is an easier island to physically walk around than Lamu, with none of that island’s exhausting soft sand.
It’s wise to take water with you, 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. Mosquitoes and flies are a serious menace, especially during the long rains.
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 traded 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, 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. 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.