Lamu is one of Kenya’s oldest living towns and a visit sometimes feels like stepping back in time to an African Eldorado of sorts. This peaceful tropical island conjures up childhood memories of Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional epic, ‘Treasure Island’ and the book’s larger-than-life character of Long John Silver.
You will of course not find the one-footed pirate and his parrot here but what you will most certainly get in Lamu are great warm, endless sandy beaches – and perhaps if you stay long enough and search hard enough, a few lost treasures.
Separated from the hustle of modern life by the Indian Ocean and the rich customs of the local peoples, little has changed over the centuries in its appearance and in the attitudes of her people – this makes her probably one of the more relaxing places to tour in Kenya
The arrival by air gives one an overview of the 3 main islands of Lamu, Pate, and Manda. Transportation between the 3 islands is by dhows, ancient forms of wooden crafts popular in the waters of the Indian Ocean.
Here, you live life as it was created to be lived – at it’s own relaxed rhythm as you go back in time to behold the mysteries and fascinations of medieval living through Lamu’s ancient stone town.
Lamu, apart from being an island where rest and relaxation can be found to your heart’s content, does have a few things to see. There is the Lamu Fort which dates back to 1821, having been completed by the Sultan of Oman after Lamu asked for protection. A second site is a fluted pillar tomb, which may date as far back as the 1300s.
Within Lamu, movement is strictly by foot. Donkeys are used to transport goods and materials. There are very few vehicles on the island, mostly belonging to the government. This should not discourage you though as everything is within easy walking distance.
When you arrive at the old 14th century dock built by Arab traders, you find that the narrow alleyways lead to the main shopping, just one block in from the ocean. There you can find beautiful woodcarvings, an array of jewellery and khangas or kikoys to purchase.
These are worn by men and women alike and are very versatile as well as comfortable. The jewellery is made of local shells and some of the very old pottery washed ashore from old trading ships.
The woodcarving can be seen everywhere you look. Ornate doorways that lead into private homes only hint at the beautiful craftsmanship that lie inside. Large wooden trunks with ornate brass inlays are found for sale in local shops and are only one example of the wonderful carving found here.
Lamu’s museum holds some of the finest Swahili art from the 17th and 18th centuries. The museum also contains a collection of replicas of dhows and representations of traditional home interiors.
The museum houses a priceless collection of 2 siwa horns which are probably the oldest surviving musical instruments in black Africa. There is even a description and history of the buibui, including the fact that it was only introduced in Lamu in the 1930s.
The clear blue sky and warm water of the Indian Ocean, combined with the easy going atmosphere of Lamu, is conducive to a local malady called ‘coastitis’. This consists of a desire to sit idly in the shade with a tall, cool glass of mango juice and calmly watch life go on around you. It is said the only cure is to move inland.
The warm waters are also home to some of the best deep-sea fishing as well as wind surfing and snorkelling you can hope to find anywhere. The reefs are home to a large variety of colourful fish well worth observing.
The climate is warm, the breezes tropical, the people friendly, and the food excellent, the perfect setting for an advanced case of coastitis. Who would ever want to move inland after a time in a place such as this?
Just north of Lamu are the ancient ruins of Shanga, which adds its own bit of interesting history to the Kenya coast. The site covers 221 acres and contains what remains of the coral walls of 160 houses, 2 palaces, 3 mosques and hundreds of tombs.
What is fascinating about Shanga is the local legend behind the name, which says that it was settled by Chinese traders from Shanghai – and so the name of Shanga. Supporting this theory are the facts that the words for tea – chai – are the same in Swahili and Mandarin and also that Chinese pottery has been found among the ruins.
But a trip to Lamu cannot be complete without a visit to its 14th century town with its narrow winding streets that almost look endless. Of course a trip to the beach would just aptly conclude your experience of this great coastal town.
Visit Lamu one of these fine days and lose yourself in its rich history and heritage.