Quayside Lamu ~ Thursday’s Special

The Swahili communities of the East African seaboard grew out of the commerce between Arab dhow merchants and African farmer-fishermen. It is a trade that began perhaps two thousand years ago, and it is a trade that relied on the gyre of monsoon winds – the kaskazi that bore the dhow merchants south from the Persian Gulf, and the kusi to take them home.

Some of them stayed of course, to manage the trade with the African hinterland. Gold and ivory, ambergris, leopard skins, tortoiseshell and mangrove poles were the lure. In return they traded beads, brass wire, textiles, rugs, dates, porcelain. And so from at least 800 years ago city states grew up along the coast – from Lamu near the Somali border in the north  to northern Mozambique in the south, and also out on the Indian Ocean islands of Zanzibar and the Comoros. So evolved a new culture as Arab merchants married African women, and along with it a new language KiSwahili – the fusion of Bantu vernaculars and Arabic. Today Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania) although the purest form is deemed to be spoken on Zanzibar.

The trade had its vicious side – slavery, and Stone Town on Zanzibar was notorious for its slave market. The slaving and ivory expeditions of Tippu Tip, a Swahili merchant, were the scourge of Central and East Africa during the nineteenth century. He himself was a Zanzibari plantation owner, but he also served the Omani sultans of Zanzibar who had extensive clove plantations on the island, and furthermore ruled much of the East African coast until the British arrived in the late nineteenth century and whittled down their control.

Even so the East African slave trade continued on into the twentieth century. Slaves were still being sold on Lamu until 1907 when the trade was finally banned.

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These days the main trade on Lamu is tourism, and the large Arab dhows, bearing dates and rugs and treasure chests, no longer call in there. Local trade using the smaller Lamu dhows still thrives though. Today’s main exports are mangrove poles, coral rag stone and coral mortar – all for the construction business, and boats are also the main form of transport around the island unless you want to walk or take a donkey. All auto traffic, apart from ambulances, is banned, although this year’s political campaigning has seen the arrival of illegal MPs’ vehicles and noisy motorcycles, so risking the rescinding of the town’s UNESCO World Heritage status. Hopefully things will settle down again. But in any event the quaysides of Lamu are still key to life there. In fact the two mile footpath from Lamu town to Shela Village, the other main community, seems to be one long quayside.




copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Thursday’s Special  Please visit Paula for more September word prompts. In case it’s not obvious, my choice was ‘quayside’.

35 thoughts on “Quayside Lamu ~ Thursday’s Special

  1. Lovely photos. I stayed on Lamu 39 years ago and it was charming. I’m between missions now, maybe working with Rohingya refugees on Bangladesh or perhaps on the rescue ship in the Mediterranean.

    1. Gosh Ian, both options sound action-packed. I’d been wondering what you were up to. I gather Lamu has been trying to re-invent itself these last few years by hosting lots of cultural events, food festivals etc. Of course there are also plans afoot for some great mega-port in that neck of the woods…

  2. It is obvious :D. Like Irene, I have never heard of it before. It is wonderful to see the architecture. I appreciate reading about KiSwahili. Thank you, Tish. This is a beauty of a post and I love the donkeys in it.

  3. Tish, I so enjoy these glimpses into a part of the world whose ways and history aren’t as familiar to me as those of many other places. Thanks! I’m just shaking my head at slavery until 1906. Now we have sex trafficking, which is all too similar but possibly even more heinous.


  4. Fascinating history, and I love your photos, especially the one with the green tinge. I would love to visit Lamu. The closest I got was Bagamoyo,Tanzania, close to Zanzibar 36 years ago.

  5. Gosh I learn so much from these posts Tish and appreciate the history lessons. These lines are poetry:
    “the kaskazi that bore the dhow merchants south from the Persian Gulf, and the kusi to take them home.”

  6. The place names conjure up such mythical images. Reading the actual history and seeing images of what the places look like now is really fascinating.

    1. The Sinbad stories may well have been inspired by the dhow merchants’ travels down East Africa, but even when you are there, the place feels like a storybook. When you walk on the beach there are shards of medieval blue and white Chinese porcelain to be found, which challenges once sense of reality somewhat 🙂

  7. one long wayside indeed – and had no idea there was a place with no auto traffic – very quaint. (even tho now there is a bit)
    your post reminded me of a local news story – just last week someone at virginia beach,va was lying in the sun on a fold up chair and a service truck ran them over. They are in hospital with minor injuries – but no auto traffic should be allowed on busy beaches in summer.

      1. I know – but they say it is non-life threatening – and i hate to say this – but in our litigious society – this person will end up with a hefty settlement – never makes up for injuries (imo) but they’ll make out

  8. Glad you made it to Lamu. In our days, it was practically “out-of-bounds”, very difficult to reach. Daughter #1 went while on her Doctors without borders mission on Lake Victoria. A welcome break fro her. She loved it. (Despite the donkeys) 😉

  9. This is very informative and a good read. The people of Lamu are so nice and accomodating, I totally enjoyed my 1 week stay there of which was myu first time ever. I’ve also published 2 blog posts on the Lamu festival and fun things to do in Lamu. Check it out. 🙂 PS: Awesome photography. I should watermark mine too!

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