“…to sleep, to dream…”
Anyone who has seen my post on The Swahili will know that I’ve had Lamu on my mind. The island lies off Kenya’s northern coast, and its Stone Town is one of the best preserved Swahili settlements, lived in for the last 700 years. We went there one Christmas, flying out of Nairobi in a small plane that let you watch the ground all the way there. This was comforting in some ways, but in others not: the bush country east of the capital is arid and little inhabited except by wildlife, and the coast hinterland, then as now, too often the haunt of Shifta (Somali bandits). Yet there was one especially striking moment that at once distracted me from other anxieties. It was the sight as we flew over the Tana River Delta and saw the red earth of the Kenya Highlands flowing out into the sea like blood: the country’s life force pumping away. It looked like a shark attack of epic proportions. I was glad when we touched down on Manda Island and our only concern was to catch the same ferry to Lamu as our luggage.
A storm blew up as we chugged across the strait in a Lamu fishing dhow. We tourists huddled under the awning to keep dry as the world turned steely grey. Our captain though, out in the rain, simply secured his hat and looked resolutely to shore. The rain did not last, and by the time we had put into Shela harbour, the coral rag walls of the houses were steaming; scents of jasmine and frangipani filling the air. As we followed our guide up a sandy path from the shore, I remembered it was Christmas Eve. It seemed we had stepped into a dream.
The hotel was also a dream for someone as nosy as Nosy-Writer. It occupied an old merchant’s house in the centre of the village, and best of all our room was up in the palm thatch with the whole top floor at our disposal. Not only that, most of the walls were open to the elements and overlooked the village. Sadly it seems, the place no longer exists, so perhaps I really did dream it.
Shela village square from our room with many views. In the foreground is a stack of the coral rag building blocks from which most of the houses are built. The spreading thorn tree was the place where the donkeys were parked until needed for transport.
On Christmas Day we bumped into Azrael who sold us the most delicious, freshly cooked, fish samosas – a local speciality.
The only problem with our room’s open-plan arrangement was that not only could I see into people’s kitchens, gardens and bedrooms, but we could hear everything too. It made for nights of fractured sleep – radios playing, pots clattering, cats yowling, but mostly hee-hawing donkeys, Lamu’s equivalent of night-sounding car alarms. Then just as you were drifting back to sleep, the dawn call to morning prayer would begin, the sacred strains of Allahu akbar (God is greatest) winding through my faithless semi-consciousness. It was a disorientating start to Christmas Day. Yet later on, when we set off on the two-mile beach hike between Shela and Lamu town, from every quarter the locals greeted us – Happy Christmas, Happy Christmas. There was no stinting on hospitality, and that extended to the plentiful provision of nice things to lie down on, and what with the steamy tropical heat by day, and the wakeful nights, these were more than welcome.
Lala salama, as they say in KiSwahili – sleep peacefully.
© 2013 Tish Farrell