I’ve written of our long ago Christmas stay on Lamu Island HERE. We stayed in Shela village, an ancient Swahili settlement, two miles along the beach from the more ancient Stone Town, now a World Heritage Site. Our rooftop room in the Island Hotel gave me wall to wall views of surrounding village rooftops. The smartly made-over ones tend to belong to Europeans who have come to the island to lotus eat or to run small hotels.
Lamu lies just off the Kenya mainland near the Somali border. It was once one of a chain of Swahili city states situated along East Africa’s Indian Ocean seaboard from Kismayu in the north, to Kilwa down in Mozambique, and including the islands of Zanzibar. These Bantu-Arab settlements had their origins around 800-900 CE, and their growing wealth and prestige during the Middle Ages depended on the Arab dhow trade – the exchange of African slaves, ivory, leopard skins, mangrove poles for oriental silks and rugs, porcelain, dates, treasure chests. Kilwa was also the nexus for the export of African gold from the Shona city of Great Zimbabwe.
The ocean trade depended on the cycle of monsoon winds to carry the dhows to and from the Persian Gulf. If winds were missed then, crews were stranded for months along Africa’s shores, though this gave the captains a chance to repair storm-ravaged boats, and crews the spare time to do some concentrated liaising with the locals. This, then, was the world of Sinbad (Sendebada in KiSwahili), the Basra merchant-adventurer who made many such voyages in a bid to restore his fortunes. His stories, too, have their origins in the 9th century, around the time many of the city states were making their first appearance as permanent harbour-settlements built of quarried coral rag.
Now that the Arab dhow trade is long gone, and the prosperity of the Swahili city states pretty much forgotten, Lamu islanders’ main income tends to be tourism related. The recent trend, then, of private European investment in small, perfectly formed guest houses, involving the thoughtful restoration of the many of the old merchant houses, is probably no bad thing. In recent years, too, there has also been great community enthusiasm to find new ways to promote and share the island’s unique cultural heritage with visitors.
Lamu’s Stone Town has long and famously hosted the religious Maulid Festival, celebrating the birth of Mohammed, but there are many secular events through the year, including the famous New Year’s Day dhow race; donkey racing; sport fishing contests, and cultural, art, yoga and food festivals. In many ways it may remain a deeply conservative community but, by all accounts, still very much a welcoming one. And apart from anything else, in over twenty years I have not forgotten the absolute deliciousness of Lamu’s fish samosas and mango smoothies.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell