Donkeys, doors & dhows


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Africa » Kenya » Coast Province » Lamu
January 4th 2014
Published: January 4th 2014
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Well, we are sitting here on our private rooftop lounge as the sun slowly sets over the historic fort and the old town of Lamu, with the iman’s call to prayer echoing out from a nearby mosque. Down below, a bunch of local men play checkers, veiled women chatter animatedly and a couple of kids lead their rather good-natured donkeys home for the day…

After quite a hectic year, especially so for Jane, we were determined to begin our trip with a week in a relaxed and slow-paced environment. Thus, our first port of call after overnighting in Nairobi was the tiny island of Lamu, a Swahili settlement that is Kenya’s oldest continuously inhabited town, having first been mentioned in the annals of history in the 1300s, although rumours persist of an older community, now long buried beneath the shifting sands, dating back twice as far. Either way, Lamu today is a wonderfully charming settlement nestled off the northern coast of Kenya, built on sand dunes and lapped by the warm and welcoming Indian Ocean.

Flying in to Lamu was, well…interesting. Jane doesn’t enjoy flying at the best of times and I cringed inside as I glanced at her stoic face as we approached the small, aging and slightly dodgy propeller plane idling away on the tarmac. We clambered aboard, noting the few tatty seats and where the seals holding the windows in place were gradually peeling away and the ratty sticker that proclaimed that in the case of an unexpected diversion into the ocean, please feel free to use your seat as a flotation device. I did my best to mutter soothing words as we taxied and began to take off, and as usual, Jane grabbed hold of the armrest which she clenched tightly...until the entire thing came off in her hand…

Despite these less-than-reassuring omens, the flight was indeed quite smooth and we thankfully emerged safe and sound into the hot afternoon sun of the Lamu Archipelago. There are no cars on the island of Lamu (actually there is one which belongs to the Ministry of Agriculture, I believe) and the favoured modes of transport are by donkey and dhow, the beautiful Arabic triangular-sailed boats that conjure up those romantic yet cliched images of the Middle East. Thus it was a short boat ride later that we arrived at our hotel, a beautifully restored 300 year old house of a former liwali, or governor appointed by the Sultan of Zanzibar, that was nestled just behind the historic fort that dominates Lamu Town. The houses here are a wonderful coastal Swahili version of Arabic architecture, the general designs imported from Oman and modified over the centuries. They are made out of white coral blocks, with roofs that are propped up by large mangrove poles and they are full of internal courtyards, steep staircases, decorative niches, elaborate arches and walls of cascading flowers. And the entranceway is always fronted by a beautiful door, elaborately carved in a particular style; be it Omani, Indian, Swahili or a simpler local variant. We checked in to our lovely room perched on the rooftop, all the better to capture the late afternoon sea breezes and proceeded to spend much of the next few days aimlessly wandering the ever-so-narrow streets where you are often faced with a quite nervous stand-off with a recalcitrant donkey or two as there is rarely enough space for the both of you to squeeze past. We’d escape from the relentless heat every so often to grab another wonderfully refreshing passionfruit or lime juice, before heading back out again. Countless cats, believed to have come down via trading ships from Egypt, now laze around sunning themselves on doorsteps or fossicking for leftover fish scraps down alleyways. These ever so hectic days were coupled with evenings spent eating the most sumptuous seafood and lazing around our terrace doing very little but reading, enjoying the evening breeze and soaking up the general hubbub of daily life, the occasional braying of donkeys and the melodic calls to prayer…

The locals here are some of the most beautiful people, always greeting you with a vibrant smile and a buoyant jambo as you pass each other in the narrow laneways. Islam is an integral part of life here and the call to prayer echoes out five times a day, including at around 4:30 in the morning. But we wake, listen to the lyrical beckoning to forgo any more snoozing and dedicate yourself and the day to Allah, and then eschew that thought and slowly drift back to sleep. Indeed it seems a more Sufiistic version than the mainstream sorts, one beholden to poetry and peace. And while many of the women only emerge into public fully veiled with nothing but their eyes showing, this is apparently a purely personal choice and indeed, Lamu is apparently quite a matrilineal society where the women hold great power and responsibility. It seems bizarre that a mere hundred kilometres to the north lie the rigid badlands that are the militant home to the al-Qaeda aligned and notorious Al Shabab, who laid claim to the recent Westgate massacre in Nairobi. Indeed, the last few years have seen them carry out the odd sporadic kidnapping and killing of tourists and Western residents from a couple of islands in the Lamu Archipelago. However, such intolerance and hatred is seen as a perversion here and the difference between the two peoples couldn’t be starker. Indeed, the feeling on Lamu is one of utter peace, genuine warmth and respect and overwhelming hospitality.

The history of Lamu is a fascinating one and incorporates a mix of the traditional coastal Swahili people, intermingled with centuries of passing visitors - Yemenis, Omanis, Portuguese, Persians, Indians, Malays, Turks, Comorians, Somalis, British and Germans, who more often than not liked what they saw and chose to stay. Rumoured to have been inhabited since the 7th century, records exist from the late1300s when it featured as a successful Swahili trading post. By the 15th century Lamu was a thriving port, showing quite a bit of commercial success in regards to the slave trade. Various powers, but most notably the Portuguese, controlled Lamu’s interests right up until the end of the 17th century when it became a sort of fairly independent republic under Omani protection. This ushered in a golden age for Lamu where extensive Islamic studies and a focus on the arts, crafts and especially Swahili poetry rose to the fore. After the mid-1800s, Lamu faced an economic decline while being dominated by its southern neighbour, the Sultan of Zanzibar, before being passed around the Germans, the British and then gaining independence along with the rest of Kenya in the 1960s and forging a subtle notoriety in the 70s as the end of the African hippy trail.

We met up with a few other travellers while here and decided to hire a dhow for an afternoon trip to the Takwa ruins on the nearby island of Manda. It was glorious skimming through the warm water, basking in the sun as we flitted past stunning beaches and the most grandiose private villas perched along the coastline. We slowly made our way through a maze of mangroves and eventually glided up to the ruins where we wandered around what was a 500-year old Swahili village of 2500 people, that is until the seawater flooded the natural wells and everyone upped sticks and moved across to Lamu. Now, it’s a fascinating collection of coral and limestone ruins spread out across a harsh and unforgiving landscape and shrouded in spiky acacia plants and massive boab trees.

A while later we all wandered back, only to find that the young fella whose job had been to ensure that the dhow didn’t get marooned in the sand as the tide slowly receded, had instead decided on a nice afternoon siesta and indeed, the boat had done just that. The next half hour was spent recruiting more and more of the few local men who were around to help as we all tried in vain to shift the heavy vessel. Alas, it was to no avail and the captain quickly rigged up the motor on to a smaller boat and we moved ourselves and our belongings onto our new craft and prepared to head off. Only to discover that we were out of fuel. Option three was for the aforementioned young fella and the captain to wield a couple of large mangrove poles and slowly slowly (or pole pole in Swahili) push us towards home. We eventually pulled in to a nearby village and then to a private villa perched high on the clifftops, but of course they were all out of petrol too. Without many options, we continued the slow gondolesque poling, as the tide continued to drop, revealing treacherous coral reefs and the light slowly faded. Fortunately we did eventually manage to flag down a passing boat of well-dressed tourists on their way to a New Year’s Eve party whose captain handed over a plastic bottle of diesel as the tourists tittered amongst themselves and proceeded to take photos of this bedraggled lot of us, floating adrift amongst the mangroves in the darkness.

Eventually we did make it back, skimming through the last channel in near total blackness, and without any lights of course, but all still in good spirits and laughing and joking all the same. Having finally returned, we all eschewed the repeated offers of further ferry rides to the beach parties on nearby islands and our New Year’s Eve was spent eating scrumptious fresh crab, calamari and tuna and then taking in the local festivities along the waterfront of Lamu Town. These seemed to generally include an eagerly anticipated finals series of a strange boardgame that appeared to be a cross between snooker and tiddlywinks, a talented performer who dazzled the locals with his mastery of unicycle-riding and fire-breathing, an eating competition involving munching down piles of plain bread and baking soda of all things and a really rather lovely collection of maroon-robed singers who recited traditional songs and poems for hour upon hour. As midnight approached, we counted down the seconds and embraced our new friends, still chuckling over the day’s adventure. We then noticed that no one else had moved. The games still went on, captivating dozens, families chatted away, youngsters flirted and no one seemed the slightest bit interested in celebrating the New Year. Around fifteen minutes later, a few quite piddly fireworks, while not quite erupting, sort of sputtered over the beach and everyone wandered home. Ah, the joys of island-time.

I was also fortunate enough to experience a football match with some of the absolutely soccer mad locals. Due to the cost and limited availability of satellite television in the region, the local makeshift cinema doubles as central football provider and after forking over twenty shillings (about thirty cents) I was ushered in to a large blacked out room where the United vs Spurs game was projected on to one of the huge white washed walls. It was certainly an interesting experience as a hundred or so local fellas, as well as a couple of Maasai warriors in town to conduct a little tourist business on the side, continuously discussed, taunted and generally yelled at each other and the screen. It further appeared that the normal restrictions on alcohol that are prevalent throughout the town were generally and mutually suspended during game time as the locals passed around paper-bagged bottles of moonshine and vehemently chewed on bundles of khat, the mild stimulant leaf that is prevalent throughout the Horn of Africa.

After a few days soaking up the wonderful ambience of Lamu Town, we moved a few kilometres down the coast to the much-snazzier village of Shela where many of the expats of Nairobi and middle-class Kenyans come to spend their holidays, as do various European royals and past and present movie stars. And while the mizungu, or us white folk, could occasionally be spotted around Lamu Town, it was nothing compared to Shela. “Welcome to Little Europe,” quipped our captain as our boat slid on to the shoreline.

Shela is also the scene for the renowned New Year’s Day dhow race which pits twelve boats from various villages around the island in an hour long race. It was a wonderful spectacle to witness as locals and tourists alike crammed the shoreline to cheer home the Peponi dhow, winner for the fourth year running to take home the grand prize of 80000 shillings and a new sail. Which they’ll likely need as, in keeping with tradition, the entire crew of a dozen or so men and boys suddenly ran to the front of the dhow as it crossed the finish line in order to capsize it and begin the raucous celebrations on the overturned hull.

Thus the next few days continued in much the same vein as the last – lazing around eating fresh seafood, slowly ambling through the laneways, albeit amidst much fancier and better-kept abodes and passing time on the long, deserted beach. We managed to muster enough energy to head out on another dhow trip, this time to Manda Toto where we spent the day snorkelling amongst the colourful fishies, lounging on the deck and eating fresh barbecued fish and munching on mangoes.

And thus our first week here in Kenya has passed and much as we’d hoped, we’ve settled in to a much slower and relaxed frame of mind. Tomorrow we fly back to Nairobi and head up around Mount Kenya to Meru National Park where we’ve decided to splurge just a little and where we are also hoping to catch our first glimpses of some of the stunning wildlife that Africa has to offer. Until next time, a huge asante sana to the wonderful, wonderful people of Lamu and to the experiences that we’ve had here…

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4th January 2014

Dhou racing
Now that is something I need to see. Thanks for the blog. G

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