There are places you must visit in Kenya if you’ve got the means and Lamu tops this particular bucket list. Being a history buff, I was over the moon when I got the chance to visit the historic island a few weeks ago. The excitement was laced with a bit of worry, given the horrific killings in Lamu County in recent months but I was determined to experience the fabled beauty and culture of Lamu, insecurity notwithstanding.
My trip to Lamu wasn’t without its share of drama. After several near misses that included running towards a plane on the runway with no belt or shoes on, it was finally time for me to miss a flight. Of all the flights, it had to be this one that I miss. My bout of disappointment and self loathing gave way to sheer ecstasy when the Fly 540 lady at JKIA managed to secure a seat for me in the evening flight of a rival company. I’m forever grateful if you are reading this.
So we set off for Lamu at 4PM. I’d become accustomed to Mombasa flights so I was more or less used to the landscape below but something I’d not seen before caught my eye. We flew over a dense forest for the last fifteen minutes of the flight and it registered that this must be the infamous Boni forest. I appreciated how difficult it must have been for our security forces to hunt down the murderers who massacred people in Lamu if this is where the butchers retreated to after their carnage.
We landed at Manda Airstrip which is situated across the channel from Lamu island. A short boat ride got us to the historic Lamu old town. The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site, a place considered to be of outstanding universal value by virtue of its cultural and natural heritage. It is situated on the Eastern side of the island, its sea front edge marked by a sea wall that runs North-South facing Manda island. The only motorable road in the island is adjacent to the sea wall. Zoning in Lamu old town is such that there’s a decrease in affluence the farther you move from the sea front.
A walk around Lamu island allows you to soak in its living history. The streets are quite narrow and you could just picture man and beast jostling for space along these alleys hundreds of years ago as they do today. The walk felt like being in a big, old maze. The alleys are built upwards along a gentle slope such that the town is washed clean whenever it rains as water drains to the sea front.
The multiple storey stone houses, most of which are 300-400 years old, still stand to date as a testimony to the advance architectural techniques of Lamu residents all those centuries ago. The buildings were built using coral rock and mangrove poles. Such structures dot the entire East African coast where the Swahili city states thrived as trading posts in the Indian Ocean trade. In the middle of the old town stands the majestic Lamu fort that once protected the island from invaders but is now used as a market. Several museums also exist from where you can get to know more about Swahili culture and how people lived in this island over the centuries gone by.
The sea front ends at Shela village in the South of the island where Shela beach starts. Shela beach is like a whole different world altogether where the hustle and bustle of the sea front transitions to the tranquility and serenity of the beautiful, deserted beach. Shela beach is largely devoid of human development save for a structures at Shela village and the Shela fort. I’d been used to seeing white beaches but Shela is a golden sandy beach that extends for 12 kilometres facing out to the ocean. I recently read that Diani was voted the best beach destination in Africa but Diani has got nothing on Shela in my books.
I was puzzled as to why such a place of wonderous beauty had never been inhabited over its long history considering Lamu is the oldest continuously inhabited place in Kenya. How was it that the various generations that had called Lamu home for approximately 700 years failed to build their settlements by this magnificent beach? As I came to find out, local legend has it that a settlement named Hadibu had once existed along Shela beach but had been buried under the rolling sand dunes of Shela.
The dunes are a distinct feature of Shela and rise upto 30 meters high in some places. During low tide, the sand is exposed to the elements and the dried particles are blown towards the island. Obstacles such as stones trap the sand particles which accumulate and increase in size. In time, the dunes start to form. Plants growing on the dunes serve to hold the sand particles together. The sand dunes serve an important function by acting as natural barriers against wind and waves, protecting inland areas from damage due to storms. It made sense that a settlement existed along Shela beach since it would take large obstacles such as multiple storey buildings to form dunes as high as those found here. I wonder if they’ll ever excavate the beach to establish the veracity of claims of Hadibu’s existence. The sand dunes were partly damaged by tidal waves during the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.
I’d had a lovely time immersing myself in the history, culture and beauty of Lamu but the residents did not share my joy. Times are difficult as a result of the insecurity that has haunted the County and the resultant dusk to dawn curfew. The curfew was declared as a response to the killings in June. While the island was not affected by the violence, the curfew had been extended to the whole County. Tourism had naturally been dealt a serious blow by the insecurity but the other mainstay of the island – fishing – had also been affected negatively. Most of the fishing in Lamu is done at night but the curfew put paid to this long held economic activity. The residents complained that the curfew was killing the economy of the island and could not hide their disappointment when the curfew was extended for a second month. As I write this, I can feel the collective despair given that the Inspector General of Police has just announced a third month of curfew.
But as has been the case throughout its history, Lamu will bounce back from the tough times. The island recovered from Portuguese domination which led to two centuries of decline in trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. The abolition of slave trade by the British during in the early 20th century dealt a blow to the economy of the island but Lamu evolved to have tourism as the main revenue earner given its status as the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlement along the East African coast. The island seemingly has nine lives and I’m certain it will recover in time.
Speaking of nine lives, Lamu is reportedly the only place in the world where cats with anatomy similar to those depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphs are still found. It is theorized that the cats were brought to the island with trade caravans and they have since existed and thrived in the isolation of the island.
A feeling of uncertainty hung in the air throughout my time in Lamu. The uniqueness of the island is bound to disappear forever with the construction of the port. You get the feeling that this island is at a cross roads where the isolation that preserved the unique identity and culture is about to come to an end. In time, Lamu will probably end up like Mombasa where the old town will be surrounded by the features of a modern landscape. It is imperative that you visit this lovely place if you can in the short window that remains before Lamu changes forever.