The Exotic Island of Lamu
Cast into the Indian Ocean off the coast of Kenya, the island and town of Lamu is heir to a distinctive tradition over a thousand years old. The Swahili culture and style of Lamu are a mix of East African, Omani, Yemeni, Indian, and some Portuguese and Victorian influences. Of all the old Swahili towns of East Africa, Lamu is one of the very few remaining substantially intact.
Lamu is enchanting. As Kenya’s oldest living town it has retained all the charm and character built up over centuries. There are no cars so donkeys are the main means of transport. Children play in the narrow streets, Muslim men chat on street corners and women in their black buibui eils busy themselves through doorways. Most houses have a rooftop which is used as a patio – indicative of a society where ‘hanging back’ and ‘catching the breeze’ is important. Keep an eye out for the intricately carved wooden doors and lintels for which the island is famous. The island has a long history and by the 1500s it was a thriving port, exporting timber, ivory, amber, spices and slaves.
When the Portuguese arrived, it surrendered without a murmur and in the mid-1800s it became a subject of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which nominally controlled the whole coastal strip until Kenya became independent in 1963.
Until the 19th century dawned, Lamu’s economy was hinged on slave labour and with the abolition of slavery it declined rapidly. That is until the advent of tourists. In the 1960s Lamu was up there with Katmandu as a hippy hangout and it has since been under siege by tourists. There are two banks, a post office and a book shop, the Lamu Book Centre, which sells local newspapers and international news magazines. Lamu also has world class hotel touts, who have the persistence of insurance salesmen, so be polite but firm in declining. Lamu is strictly Islamic, so be sensitive in the way you dress. The best way to get to Lamu is to fly. Otherwise the road to Lamu is rough and while there are buses, the journey is tedious.
As Kenya’s oldest living town, Lamu has a rich and colorful history. The town was one of the original string of Swahili settlements that stretched from Somalia to Mozambique. It remained a thriving port town through the turbulent Portuguese invasions and later the Omani domination of the 17th century.
Lamu had a slave-based economy until the turn of the 20th century. When slavery was abolished in 1907 the economy of the island suffered greatly. Only recently has the influx of tourist dollars revitalized the town’s growth.
Lamu appears to be a region almost frozen in time. The physical appearance and the character of the town have changed very little over the centuries. The narrow, winding streets accommodate only pedestrian or donkey traffic. The population of Lamu remains almost exclusively Muslim. Men still wear full length robes known as khanzus with kofia caps while women cover themselves in the black wraparound cloth common in other Islamic cultures. In the early 1970s, Lamu became famous for its reputation as an exotic, remote, and self-contained society. It became a spiritual center of sorts for hippies and other non-conformists drawn to its undisturbed traditional culture. Some people feel that Lamu’s popularity and increased tourism will ultimately undermine the unique value system and culture of this Swahili settlement. Others argue, however, that without the tourist industry Lamu will suffer and stagnate.
There are numerous sights in and around Lamu worth exploring. The architecture of the houses and buildings is especially unique. Most buildings date back to the 18th century or before and are constructed out of local materials including coral-rag blocks for the walls, wooden floors supported by mangrove poles, makuti roofs, and intricately carved shutters for windows. The villages of Shela and Matondoni, Lamu Fort, the Swahili House Museum, and the Donkey Sanctuary should also be included on every traveler’s itinerary.
Lamu is a Swahili town resulting from a combination of trade and Islam, modified by the environment. Trade provided wealth, Islam the incentive for permanent settlements reflected in the requirement of Islamic canon law that Friday noon prayer be held in a permanently settled location. The monsoon winds supplied the energy the ships needed and the building materials, coral and mangrove were available on the shores.
The streets of Lamu are narrow, cool and quiet. They are surprisingly intimate spaces enclosed by massive stone buildings whose thick coral rag walls give the town its distinct colour and texture.
Lamu, Town, Island and Archipelago, all of the same name, lie 2 degrees below the Equator along Kenya’s coast. The archipelago is a chain of Islands separated from the mainland by a narrow channel bordered with dense mangrove forest and protected from the Indian Ocean by coral reefs and large sand dunes. The many historical sites are proof of the area’s long and rich history which, when combined with all the natural attraction of its tropical setting, make Lamu a wonderful place to visit.
Any tour of Lamu is best begun at the Lamu Museum which provides an excellent introduction to the town and the region, both past and present. The exhibits include the material culture of the archipelago, ethnographic tableaux of neighboring coastal peoples, as well as collection of maritime artifacts and model dhows. After this orientation you are ready to amble through the streets, set sail for nearby ruins, or just go fishing.
Lamu is a traditional Islamic community, with over 20 active mosques in the town and most women veiled in public. Visitors are welcome, but are asked to observe and respect local custom. The naturally protected harbour on its northeast side led to the founding of Lamu Town which became a centre of coastal commerce. Today, Lamu’s economy is still dominated by maritime activities: shipping, fishing mangrove cutting and shipbuilding.
The people of Lamu are devout followers of Islam and the town is a place of religious pilgrimage where Muslims from all over eastern Africa gather every year to celebrate Maulidi, the Prophet’s birthday. Lamu is remote even by Kenyan standards.
A thousand years of trade, settlement and Islamic expansion have left ruins up and down the East African coast. In the 2nd century, the Greeks knew of this coast and called it Azania. Later, in the 9th and 10th centuries Arab and Persian traders and settlers called it Bilad-al-Zenj. Their small settlements grew into fiercely independent city-states which brought forth a distinct Arab-African culture called Swahili.
The buildings in Lamu’s historical core date from the 18th century, though both folklore and archaeological evidence point to an older settlement just south and possibly also north of today’s town. In December 2001 Lamu Town became a world heritage site in order to protect the oldest inhabited settlement south of the Sahara.