Though Kenya is known for its exciting wildlife and tribal adventures, Lamu Island, a tiny island just off the shore of Eastern Kenya in the Indian Ocean, offers none of those. Yet, a visit here feels like entering another world. It is home to a medieval old town with narrow streets and one of the longest-established, best-preserved settlements of the Swahili tradition.
Lamu Island is part of the Lamu Archipelago, about 75 miles south of the Somalia border. Due to its geographical location, Lamu Island has been a Swahili trading outpost and settlement for centuries. Thru its long history of dealing gold and spices, Swahilis interacted with visiting mariners and traders from far away. Some stayed on this magical Island, making Lamu a melting pot of Arabic, Indian, European, and Swahili traditions. As my local friend Nasir likes to say, we took the best of every culture and made it our own.
Because of the small winding roads on the Island, cars are banned. Lamu residents walk or ride a donkey to get to wherever they are going, thus the Swahili proverb “A man without a donkey is a donkey.” And, of course, to get from one town to the next, one can hop on a boat or a dhow, the majestic triangular sail vessel that has been gracing the island’s waters for centuries. No hectic pace here, a fact highlighted by the local’s favorite expression, “pole, pole” (slowly, slowly).
Lamu Island is relatively small, about 100 square miles in size, and home to 25,000 inhabitants, 3,000 donkeys (yes, I photographed every one of them), and what feels like a million cats. I was told that there are about 10,000 of them and that Lamu cats are the only cats on earth with the same physique as the ones depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics, another reminder of Lamu’s exotic history. I guess my eye is not trained enough to attest to that fact (and other breeds have since been brought to the island and likely diluted the gene pool,) but I certainly made many furry friends while I was there.
Though most people visit the island for the idyllic beaches of Shela, a small but stunningly beautiful coastal town, Lamu Old Town is what got my attention. Its narrow alleyways feel like a labyrinth where one can get lost, surrounded by homes built with local coral stones and mangrove timber. It is a bustling town, particularly on the waterfront. Every morning, dhows bring heaps of sand, stones, or any goods needed on the island. The goods are then placed on the donkeys who then carry these unimaginably heavy loads to their destination.
Most people in Lamu Island are of the Muslim faith, so one hears the call for prayers loud and clear five times a day. In fact, Lamu is host to a yearly religious festival celebrating the birthday of Mohammed, but more on that in my next story. Many women wear full-length bui bui (a black cover-all garment) outside their homes, and some wear face coverings as well. Women enjoy decorating their arms, hands, and feet with henna, but of a darker shade than I had seen before. Men dress in Western styles or wear a kanzu, a tunic-like long garment. Many of them also wear a kofia, a cylindrical hat very popular among Swahilis.
I also spent time in Matandoni, another town on Lamu Island, which used to be a very active dhow shipyard. However, the demand for traditional boats has dwindled because much cheaper options are now available, so the shipyard is almost like a graveyard. But Matandoni residents fish, and make baskets and mats out of palm fronds, sold and used in the mainland and beyond.
The beautiful local coral stones, an intrinsic part of the Swalihi architecture, now come from a quarry in the small village of Manda-Maweni in Manda Island, also part of the Lamu Archipelago. There, coral stone cutters hammer on heavy rocks under a scorching sun. Needless to say, the work is excruciatingly hard. The stones are then loaded on carts, pulled by donkeys, and then men carry piles of these heavy stones to the water. Interestingly, the people who quarry on the island are said to be of Luo origin from Western Kenya. They are thought to be the most skilled at hand cutting these blocks. Maybe Nassir is right, they take the best of every culture and make it their own.
No doubt, Lamu Island is a unique place. Oh, and the sunsets are magical,