The Old Swahili Isle of Lamu


There are only two ways to get to Lamu Town: take a boat or swim. It’s magical, it’s mysterious and it’s endangered. Post 1 of 3 covering a week flying solo in one of the world’s remote corners.


My path to Lamu (via Uganda)

 

 Lamu Town, Lamu Island and a few of Lamu’s neighbors

Lamu, oh Lamu.

Lamu is one of my all time favorite places I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting. I traveled solo to Lamu and stayed for five nights in late July of 2011, following seven weeks in Uganda conducting two research studies for the World Bank. It had been a fairly intense seven weeks and my time spent on the Kenyan Coast was an opportunity for some much needed R&R. I think Lori resents Lamu a bit, given that I went there with out her, but hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to return in the not so distant future before the island and region changes forever.

Aerial view of Lamu

The first time I ever heard of Lamu was actually in a guidebook. It wasn’t what the guidebook said about the UNESCO World Heritage Site that intrigued me as much as the walking tour map provided, which resembled one of those labyrinth games where you have to get the silver marble in the hole on the other side of the wooden box–quite simply, it was like nothing I had visited before (I hadn’t yet been to Zanzibar) and was intrigued.

The Lamu Law Courts mule, of course!

 

 “Streets” of Lamu Town

If you don’t take a plane, and don’t take your chances with pirates on the high seas, you get to Lamu by bus.

I’ve been on countless bus rides on unsealed roads through the bush, but this particular journey was in a class by itself. The first portion of the journey out of Malindi on the Tawakal bus was on beautiful sealed tarmac. After an hour or two, the bus headed off the main road (as if picking a point at random) and spent the next four hours hopping and dodging its way over the most insanely rutted out excuse for a highway you can think of.

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Of course, our bus broke down–it was bound to happen, and seemed only fitting. Thus, I spent an hour sitting under a shade tree, chewing on sugar cane and watching the other passengers (including a smattering of other foreigners) mill about. The most notable thing of the whole affair was that a) the bus happened to break down in front of a mechanic’s hut (mind you this was the only village we had encountered for an hour), and b) the mechanic managed to fix the entire problem by climbing up through the front wheel well. It was fascinating watching his two legs stepping in place while various belts and hoses periodically flew out from behind the mammoth tire.

After a long, hot and harrowing journey, we finally reached Mokowe, which was not my final destination, but merely the small village from where you catch the ferry to Lamu Town–but we were so close. I could feel it–even if we were standing in a barren field staring at a lonely water way waiting for a rickety wooden boat…you feel that stuff was about to get real.

Lamu Town waterfront, Kenya

The ferry wound down the passage between the mainland and Lamu Island, passing by Manda Island on the left. There wasn’t much to see on the way — mostly mangroves — until the magnifent old Swahili stone and coral buildings came into view, and one begins to realize you are approaching some place very special.

While accounts of Chinese merchant ships date back to at least 1415, Lamu has been a key Swahili settlement since the 1440s. And indeed, the history of Lamu is characterized by the contributions of various cultures and ethnicities (as is Swahili culture). Arabs, Portuguese, Chinese, British and of course, Bantu Africans, have all made indelible marks on the island and the culture. The primary religion is overwhelming Muslim — there are over 40 mosques on the small island! (nearly a dozen in the town center — which becomes sort of a “Battle of the Mosques” at prayer time, with the various Muezzins all calling out over the loudspeakers simultaneously (even at 4am!).

 

Lamu Fort

 

 

Incidentally, I had some great chicken wraps and ice coffees during my time in Lamu at a place called Whispers Cafe. It’s sort of a place that caters to Euro/ex-pat/”foreign” tastes, and I certainly found it a welcome respite following two months of chipatis, matoke and hotel food.

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I was not completely on vacation during my time in Lamu, as I still had a field report to write, so I found Whispers to be a great place to get work done as well, as they had a nice quiet atmosphere with a lovely little outdoor courtyard, and a power outlet nearby! The staff (and woman who runs the joint) were also incredibly friendly, and hospitable, and professional. Oh, and the food and drinks are really reasonable, especially given that they serve stuff you just can’t find many places on the Kenyan Coast. I asked the owner how she does this and she chuckled and answered with a reasonable reply: “The business doesn’t make any money…we barely break even…but wouldn’t have moved to Lamu if we just wanted to make money.”

 

 

Speaking of money, one can’t help wonder what people do in Lamu to make a living. There seemed to be a good amount of construction going on, certainly in nearby Shela. It was evident a lot of folks make their living from the sea — fishing, transporting, and whatnot — but the question did weigh on my mind (from a sociological, but also personal, perspective) as I often wondered if there was a place for myself in the Lamu economy. Yep, it’s safe to say I considered living in Lamu multiple times a day. I even looked a bit into physical therapy prospects for Lori, and there were actually a few.

Colorful Swahili dhows pack Lamu harbor

 

You may have noticed I have a lot of photos of boats and donkeys. That’s because those are the only two modes of transport on Lamu. It’s true, the public works department (if I recall correctly) did have a small golf-cart like vehicle that roved up and down the waterfront, but besides that, everything and everybody got around by foot, by mule or by boat. Frequently, I’d find myself having to hug up against the walls of the narrow passageways to let a team of mules carrying sand, lumber or whatever you can think of, up the road. Due to this organic form of transportation, the streets of Lamu are often covered in donkey poo (which has more than its share of critics on TripAdvisor.com, believe me), but is all part of the magic of Lamu. You really do feel like you’ve been transported back 500 years.

One of the many mosques dotting the Lamu landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

Another mosque…Lamu’s full of ’em!

 

Mule and thatch & stone Swahili house — note the precariously perched satellite dish…oh crazy globalization…

 

Casuarina Guest House

My home for the first three nights — Casuarina Guest House. I actually really wanted to stay at Yumbe House, an old traditional Swahili coral castle, but it was full those nights. I did end up being able to move over to Yumbe for my last two nights in Lamu. Casuarina is quite basic, but still authentic feeling–and the staff is incredibly friendly. Yumbe house is a bit more upscale, but also twice the price.

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In July 2011, I paid $11 USD for a double room with en suite (cold water) shower at Casuarina, and about $20 USD for a very comfortable triple en suite room with outdoor covered area for relaxing (or even sleeping) around the courtyard (more about Yumbe house in a later post). I will say that Casuarina isn’t the easiest place to contact ahead of time…you really just show up. But it’s easy to find (it’s a big three-story building on the water front near the ferry dock).

Lamu town is also beautiful after nightfall, as the alley ways are illuminated in various shades and townspeople leave the shaded safety of their homes to enjoy the lovely Kenya Coast evening.

 

 

Whispers Cafe by night.

 

The anachronistic Internet and Graphix house on the main drag

 

 Evening call to prayer in one of a dozen mosques in Lamu Town.
Lamu 2: Shela
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