Looking Down On Lamu

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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.

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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.

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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.

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copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Looking Up In Zanzibar ~ From The Old Africa Album

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…a gateway to Africa. Through its portals passed not only slaves, spices and ivory, but also missionaries, explorers and conquerors.

Abdul Sheriff, Professor of History, Dar es Salaam University

 

In the last of our eight years in East Africa I was taken to Zanzibar as a birthday treat. I can’t imagine a more wonderful gift.  It was the end of October, the beginning of the hot season on the Indian Ocean. But there was an air of quietness too. Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s revered first president had just died. He had done his best by his nation while being shunned by western powers. This was because he said things like:

“No nation has the right to make decisions for another nation; no people for another people.”

And: “We, in Africa, have no more need of being ‘converted’ to socialism than we have of being ‘taught’ democracy. Both are rooted in our past – in the traditional society which produced us.”

And: “You cannot develop people. You must allow people to develop themselves.”

And also: “Democracy is not a bottle of Coca-Cola which you can import. Democracy should develop according to that particular country”.

In the days before independence he also told his British rulers: “In Tanganyika we believe that only evil, godless men would make the colour of a man’s skin the criteria for granting him civil rights.”

A man who got right to the point then.

We arrived mid way through the thirty days of national mourning, but even so, and despite being the descendant citizens of the former colonial power in question, we were treated with gracious hospitality as we wandered the shadowy alleys of Stone Town.

Here’s more about the island and Swahili culture from an earlier post:

Zanzibar  – it’s all in the name – the Indian Ocean shores where Arab merchants met with African farmers and created a new people: the Swahili. In the Arabic Kilwa chronicles of the Middle Ages, the word Zanj denotes non-Muslim black people, and the word bar means coast, and the term back then referred to much of the East African seaboard – to wherever the dhow traders seasonally put in to haggle with Bantu farmers for ivory, leopard skins, rhino horn, iron, ambergris and mangrove poles.  These, then,  are the shores of the Sindbad (Sendebada) tales, but today the term ‘coast of the blacks’ survives only in the name of the Zanzibar archipelago (Unguja and Pemba Islands), now part of Tanzania.

These days too, Zanzibar Island, more properly known as Unguja, is seen as the heartland of Swahili culture, and the place where the purest form of KiSwahili is spoken. Once, though, there were many other powerful Swahili centres – independent city states that included Manda, Lamu, Malindi and Mombasa in Kenya, and Sofala far to the south in Mozambique. Such states, with stone towns built of coral rag, began evolving from at least the early 800s CE (Manda),  by which time KiSwahili was already a fully developed language, albeit with many regional forms.

You can see the rest of this post HERE

 

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In the background on Zanzibar’s farms

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One of the must-do tours if you visit Zanzibar is a trip around the island’s spice and fruit farms. Hari our guide was intent that we should taste everything we saw growing, so here he is bargaining with a farmer for a ready-to-eat bunch of bananas. You can see the banana grove in the top left corner. Banana branches are usually harvested when the fruit is still green. There’s a knack of knowing just when to cut them.

Being a nosy writer who is always in need of background detail, and also a one-time student of cultural anthropology, I try to capture slice-of-life moments whenever I can. They’re usually not the best quality photos, but I hope to make up for technical shortcomings with content interest. (And yes it would be nice to have both). So here is my take on this week’s Thursday’s Special challenge from Paula – ‘in the background’. My choice of subject, however, did mean I had to switch my blog snow off. There’s enough climate change going on without having icy precipitation on Zanzibar.

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This farming family has a jackfruit orchard, as well as coconut palms. The jackfruit apparently weren’t ready for tasting, but I was anyway more distracted by the presence of the domesticated Muscovy duck. Now how did that arrive in the tropics? The mabati iron sheets on the farm house roof  (i.e. instead of traditional palm thatch) are a sign of  prosperity, and therefore of status.

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I’m wondering where this little girl is off to in such a hurry. Also one of the reasons why I’m showing off the tall trees in the background is that if you intend to make a living from them, then someone has to climb up them to pick the fruit…

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Thursday’s  Special: In the background

One Word Photo Challenge: Seafoam

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Here are some more Lamu photos (see previous post). Some of you will have seen the top one before, but it is one of my favourites, and I thought the colour of awning fits with Jennifer Nichole Wells’ one word seafoam challenge. It is a colour that I anyway associate with the Indian Ocean. This shot was taken on a dhow taxi in the middle of a tropical downpour. It was December, the monsoon season, and we had just flown in to the little local airport on Manda Island. The strait between the two islands looked suddenly grey and forbidding. It seemed strangely cold too in the midst of the hot season, and not the best start to our four-day Christmas break from Nairobi.

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But then the rain passed. This is the waterfront of Lamu stone town, one of the best surviving Swahili settlements on the Indian Ocean seaboard, and a world heritage site. You will have to look harder here for the gentle shade of seafoam.

Lamu is a captivating place. I was so impressed by our four days there that I wrote a teen novel, Sea Running,  published by Macmillan Pacesetters for the African children’s literature market. It’s a good yarn about drug runners and first love. It also has a splash of seafoam on the cover.

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For more posts on Lamu:

Dhow-dreaming

The Swahili

Christmas on Lamu

Wind in the palms on Kenya’s coral shores

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Tiwi Beach, South Mombasa

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These leaning coconut palms and the photo of me holding on to my hat remind me that there is nearly always a breeze on Tiwi Beach. You need it too. In the hot season, around December to February, it makes the sticky tropical humidity bearable. It also keeps malarial mosquitoes at bay.

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Don’t let go! Me, at Capricho Cove, too many years ago

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But the tropical breeze is not so good for kite launching. The team leader never did get his kite airborne.; the wind endlessly beating it into the sand. No matter. I think we decided that kite flying was probably too active an activity, even at the day’s end. Much better to crack open a Tusker beer, one almost chilled in

Graham tries to fly his kite

Graham not flying his kite at Maweni Cove.

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the beach cottage’s rackety  refrigerator.

Maweni cottage at sunset

Maweni Cottages built in the Swahili style.

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In the holiday season, and especially at Christmas, these beach villages tend to be the haunt of expatriates (especially aid workers), and mixed race families who do not always receive the best of treatment in Kenya’s fancy beach hotels. The cottages are designed to keep out too much sun and let in maximum draught: coral rag walls, high makuti  thatch, glassless windows and shutters with moveable slats. This is of course a European take on indigenous Swahili architecture.

I have written in another post about Swahili culture and how it might be said to have been shaped by the monsoon winds: the north-easterly Kaskazi that for centuries brought Arab merchant ships down the coast of Africa; the south easterly Kusi that blew them away again after a windless sojourn during which sailing dhows were beached and repaired and liaisons with African communities forged.

From this age-old congress between Arab seafarers and Bantu farmer-traders, came a blending and melding of body, mind and spirit that evolved into the urban coastal people whom we know as the Swahili. Their language, KiSwahili, is also a fusion: of Arabic and Bantu vernaculars, and as such, presents a fascinating exemplar of multicultural integration that has forged a distinct identity of its own. That’s something to ponder on, isn’t it: how different races can create together; how it took the monsoon wind to bring them together?

Salamu (Greetings)

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A Word A Week Photo Challenge: Wind: go here for more wind stories and see the ones below:

http://irenewaters19.com/2013/12/19/a-word-a-week-wind/

http://hamburgundmeehr.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind/

http://geophiliac.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/a-word-a-week-photography-challenge-wind/

http://bambangpriantono.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind-angin-the-wind-blown-flag/

http://schelleycassidy.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/a-word-a-week-challenge-wind/

http://mang0people.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind/

http://emiliopasquale.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind/

http://sillarit.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/a-word-a-week-photograph-challenge-wind/

Related:

Weekly Photo Challenge: Culture (The Swahili)

Travel Theme: Beaches (Mombasa)