I ♥ LAMU
Arriving in Lamu, by bus (with armed escort) from Mombasa and then by boat from Mokowe, the town emerges as a cluster of white buildings rising out of the Indian Ocean. We are greeted at the jetty by our guesthouse host, who leads us through the alleyways to our home for the next few days. The smell of donkey droppings permeates, these gentle creatures wandering the streets chomping on garbage. Greyish water runs through the maze of neat little open sewers. Cats dart around the corners, appearing at the sight of food. Heat and stickiness thickens the air, made lighter only by an ocean breeze blowing through the rooftops.
With this description, it is perhaps difficult to understand what makes us (and many others) love Lamu. But it is the ease of slipping into the island’s life that makes Lamu so liveable, and loveable.
If you ask its inhabitants – many of whom hail from or have lived in Arab countries, Europe, and other parts of Kenya – they invariably seem to respond that Lamu is a good place, peaceful, it is where they want to be. There is pride in living in Lamu, the oldest town in east Africa. We meet a man who loves singing and playing taraab, and he plays us a song he has composed. “We have the right to be proud of what we have,” the lyrics say. It is true.
Morning starts for many with the Muslim call to prayer, but muted, a melodic and gentle song. Around 5:20am, footsteps begin. We peer through the windows and see men walking through the streets in the darkness. On some mornings, the call begins much earlier, and goes on for about an hour. We enquire why, and are told about a rare practice of singing an extended call to prayer for beauty and pleasure – wonderful if true. It is musical and soothing, and I fall back asleep despite wanting to stay awake to watch the footsteps through the streets.
Just before the morning heat breaks, we awake for breakfast on the rooftop. Then perhaps a walk to Shela beach for a swim, or a look through the market, or a wander through the narrow streets to look for beautiful buildings in the old Arab quarter or visit small shops in the Swahili town. Or we may decide to stay at home, doing laundry and reading on the rooftop. The mornings somehow disappear.
A walk to the waterfront at lunchtime for fresh fruit juice (mixed fruits with coconut) and chapatti. After lunch, we wander around town, perhaps stop by the Old Fort to watch Lamu life passing in the central square. Beautiful women walk by, many wearing the full-length bui-bui personalized by colourful touches peeking out from underneath their skirts. Donkeys plod past, overburdened with heavy loads of coral bricks.
We are chatted up by a local man named Mohsein, who invites us to his home for coffee, sitting in the alcove with a simple scruffy blanket and bare pillows on the floor (“local seats”), tiny kittens roaming around us. He is enthusiastic about Lamu, and about his family history from Yemen, and about Islam. He telephones acquaintances he knows in our home countries and insists that we speak to them, shows us his father’s old British colony passport and share certificates in the (defunct) Lamu Arab trading company, and gives us airline magazines from his flights to the Middle East as gifts. He loves speaking about flight connections and Kenyan customs taxes ¬ understandable, as his store sits empty.
Towards evening, a woman appears in front of her home, frying up local delicacies in the entryway. We head back to the waterfront for fresh seafood and coconut rice, or beef stew and matoke at a local restaurant. Mohsein grabs us as we pass by, and insists on feeding us the Swahili bahjias and patates that she is cooking, pushing piece after delicious piece into our hands. A gathering of local women is there, some wearing the hijab and others wearing tank tops, all of them chat with us openly. We are full before starting dinner, but head to the restaurant anyway as we have promised the lady that we are coming. As we pass a local church, the people inside break out in song: “Hallelujah!”
After dinner, Lamu life continues, with Swahili coffee being served and people chatting quietly in the town square, and women’s events in the Old Fort (which we can hear but cannot see). We walk carefree back to the guesthouse, led by flashlights to watch out for the open gutters and donkey droppings.
Such is morning, afternoon, evening, and night in Lamu.