Lamu is Kenya’s oldest living town, a place like no other where life is lived at it’s own relaxed rhythm, but a place whose history, charm and character built up over centuries has been retained.
The town of Lamu began life as a 14th century Swahili settlement and by the 1500s, the island was a thriving port, exporting timber, ivory, amber, spices and slaves. The island has seen many visitors and influences, including Portuguese explorers, Turkish traders and the Omani Arabs. All left their mark, but Lamu developed its own particular culture, which has ultimately endured
Until the 19th century dawned, Lamu’s economy was hinged on slave labour and with the abolition of slavery it declined rapidly. That is until the advent of tourists. In the 1960s Lamu was a hippy hangout and tourists have loved visiting the island.
There are no vehicles on this island; the donkey and the dhow remain the main means of transport.
The island is a beautiful place of rolling dunes and endless beaches, where tiny villages nestle among coconut and mango plantations. But Lamu’s real attraction is its Old town. The narrow streets remain unchanged, and in the markets and squares around the fort life moves at the same pace as it always has.
The island is famous for its intricately carved wooden doors and lintels and long narrow streets. Most houses have a rooftops used as a patio indicative of a society where ‘hanging back’ and ‘catching the breeze’ is important. To visit Lamu is to enter another world! Life slows down and long days are spent strolling along the waterfront, exploring the town or relaxing on the beaches.
Lamu is strictly Islamic, and the people are great believers in tradition and custom. This is a strong society built on a respect for the past.
Dhow safaris can take you beyond Lamu into the surrounding archipelago, where isolated villages, ancient ruins and a few luxurious and exclusive resorts lie hidden among the islands of Manda, Siyu, Pate and Kiwayu.
This idyllic island speaks to the heart and soul, and a trip to Lamu is a romantic experience that can become a life long affair.
One of the city-states founded by Arab travelers was located on the island just off the northern coast of modern Kenya, called Lamu. While there were certainly earlier settlements on the island, the present town site is not likely to be much older than the 14th century.
Lamu town flourished as an independent city-state until 1506 when Portuguese traders, seeking to control a lucrative market with the Orient, invaded. Over the course of the 16th century, the once prosperous Swahili town lost its middleman position and gradually declined. Resistance to the Portuguese was finally successful with the help of the Turks and in 1698 the last forces surrendered. The Omani’s who had helped overcome the European invaders now became the dominant force in the region.
Under Omani protection, coastal commerce slowly regained its former momentum. The commercial revival stimulated a resurgence of building all along the coast, and it was during this period that Lamu’s inhabitants built most of the traditional stone houses and mosques still standing in the old town today. They used the coral stone and mangrove timber from the archipelago, employed skilled craftsmen from India and brought slaves from the interior.
The island remained prosperous for over two hundred years until the late 19th century when the British began to take an interest in East Africa. They forced concessions on the ruling Sultan and the East Africa Protectorate was established in 1895. Lamu town became the headquarters of Lamu District, administered by a resident British official together with a Muslim official.
Agriculture had been the most important economic activity for Lamu, but its plantations withered after proclamations made the procurement of slaves increasingly difficult and expensive. The introduction of the Uganda Railroad stretching from Mombosa to Lake Victoria in 1901, left Lamu somewhat isolated. As the railroad’s terminus Mombosa became the main seaport of the East African coast, relegating Lamu to a minor role as a small local harbor.
With neither trade nor agriculture to support the economy, Lamu stagnated, and by the mid-1920s was in a full-scale depression. Population in Lamu District fell more than 40 percent. Lamu drifted into economic obscurity, as a small, remote island town. It was the town’s isolation from 20th century modernization that preserved the rich architectural heritage still extant today.
Mangrove exports, commerce, and government jobs coupled with traditional maritime activities have provided a stable economic base for the growth of the town since the 1960s. More recently, an increase in tourism has contributed an additional source of revenue. The rapid population growth coupled with an increased awareness of cultural heritage led government officials and residents to undertake a conservation study of Lamu town in the early 1970’s.
Lamu has remained a thriving port town through the turbulent Portuguese invasions and later the Omani domination of the 17th century. Lamu had a slave-based economy until the turn of the 20th century. When slavery was abolished in 1907 the economy of the island suffered greatly. Only recently has the influx of tourist dollars revitalized the town’s growth.
Lamu is not the random clutter of houses and alleys it appears. Very few towns in sub-Saharan Africa have kept their original town plan so intact and Lamu’s history is sufficiently documented, and its architecture well enough preserved, to give you a good idea of how the town developed.
The main division is between the waterfront buildings and the town behind, separated by Usita wa Mui, now Harambee Avenue (actually a narrow alley for the most part). Until around 1830, this was the waterfront, but the pile of accumulated rubbish in the harbour had become large enough by the time the fort was finished to consider reclaiming it; gradually, those who could afford to, built on it. The fort lost its pre-eminent position and Lamu, from the sea, took on a different aspect, which included Indian styles such as arches, verandahs and shuttered windows.
Behind the waterfront, the old town retained a second division between Mkomani district, to the north of the fort, and Langoni to the south. These locations are important as they distinguish the town’s long-established quarter (Mkomani) from the still-expanding district (Langoni) where, traditionally, newcomers have built their houses of mud and thatch rather than stone or modern materials. This north–south division is found in most Swahili towns and reflects the importance of Mecca, which is due north.
There are numerous sights in and around Lamu worth exploring. The architecture of the houses and buildings is especially unique. Most buildings date back to the 18th century or before and are constructed out of local materials including coral-rag blocks for the walls, wooden floors supported by mangrove poles, makuti roofs, and intricately carved shutters for windows. The villages of Shela and Matondoni, Lamu Fort, the Swahili House Museum, and the Donkey Sanctuary should also be included on every traveler’s itinerary.
Lamu – Swahili House Museum
Lamu’s Swahili House Museum is a renovated example of an 18th C Swahili house. The interior of the house features cookware, beds and other furniture that allow a glimpse of a classic working Swahili home. The ceremonial deathbed on display is where deceased family members would lay before burial. An echo chamber is another part of the house. This is where women could greet visitors when men were not around, without being seen. Close family members and friends were the only people to access the central courtyard. It was used for daytime activities such as washing. The kitchen, located on the second floor, has a large wooden pestle and mortar, a pasta maker, a water boiler and a flour-grinding stone on display as well as other common kitchen instruments.
Shela Beach is a dune-backed beach that runs for 12km along the headland. It is a 40-minute walk or 10 minute trip by dhow from Lamu. Located at the start of the beach is a mock fort built by an Italian entrepreneur. Shela is in the channel between Lamu and Manda Island, a perfect spot for windsurfing, sailing and water skiing.
Manda Beach is located on Manda Island, about a 20-minute dhow ride from Lamu. It is smaller and less busy but still excellent for snorkelling, swimming, and sunbathing. Manda Island provides the backdrop of mangrove forest, baobab tress and a variety of animals for a walking safari.
Since donkeys are the main method of transport in Lamu, the Donkey Sanctuary was started provide treatment for working donkeys. Located in northern Lamu, near the waterfront hosting, an estimated 2,200 donkeys used for agriculture as well as to carry household provisions and building materials can be seen here. Regular treatment clinics have been established, including a worming program every six months that are offered free of charge. Courses and training are offered including harnessing and donkey care. Local donkeys that have been injured are also brought to the stable for rehabilitation and rest. Animal welfare is promoted with an annual donkey competition that gives a prize for the donkey in the best condition.
German Postal Museum
Originally built as a private residence in the late 1800’s, it was later converted and used as the first German Post Office in East Africa, briefly from 1888 to 1891. Lamu was a major seaport with well-established links to the outside world. The building was restored and now houses a museum with photographic exhibits and memorabilia showing the long historical relationship between Germany and Kenya. It also depicts early industrial development through the form of communication via postal services in Kenya.
Located in the northeast of the Lamu archipelago and is a part of the Kiunga Marine National Reserve. Many visitors to the island come to snorkel on the coral reefs, on the eastern side of the island The Dodori and Boni Game Reserves are off to the west of island. These wild areas protect the fauna and flora of eastern Kenya. The animals found on the reserves are often migratory such as elephant and buffalo. The permanent residents are lion, cheetah, serval, caracal, lesser kudu, monkeys and the rare African hunting dog. Kiwayu has gained a reputation as a retreat for the rich and famous but that is within a luxury resort found at the far end of the island.
Paté is the largest of the Lamu islands with a number of historical sites. Paté was originally settled in the 7th C by an Arabic colony. The island is surrounded by mangrove swamp and can only be reached at high tide. There are many ruins on Paté Island but the most spectacular is the fort at Siyu. Other highlights include overgrown tombs and ruined mosques. Paté town is an interesting maze of winding alleys and three-story homes. Founded in the 9th C, Paté became a center of trade and learning. The outskirts of town are outlined by a set of ruined medieval walls belonging to Nabahani. Tobacco has been planted among the ruins but houses, mosques and tombs are visible. Even though Nabahani has not yet been excavated, pottery and household objects can be seen in the interiors of many of the buildings. Faza is another settlement that should not be missed. The town was destroyed in 1587 and later resettled.
Located in the island’s main square. The Sultan of Oman reportedly commenced construction of this imposing structure in 1813. Upon its completion in 1821 the fort served as a garrison for Baluchi soldiers sent by the Sultan of Oman. Its protective presence encouraged new development around it and some Lamu merchants erected shop front and buildings. Lamu Fort served as a prison from 1910 to 1984 for the British colonial regime and the Kenyan government. After a complete restoration, the Fort now houses the Lamu branch of the Department of Coastal Archaeology, the Lamu Old Town Conservation Office and the Public Library.
The Lamu Museum is on the waterfront, housed in a building once occupied by Jack Haggard, Queen Victoria’s consul in this outpost. Displays on Swahili culture include a reconstructed Swahili house and relics from Takwa. Other exhibits include Lamu’s nautical history, the Maulid Festival and tribes that lived along this part of the coast, including the Boni who were legendary elephant hunters. The nautical section of the Lamu museum features a variety of dhows . Ceremonial horns, or siwa, are an important part of the collection. The Lamu siwa is made from engraved brass but the siwa from Paté was carved from a single elephant tusk.
The Takwa Ruins
The Takwa ruins on Manda Island was a flourishing town in the 16th and 17th C. It was abandoned in haste and no one knows why. Proof of its existence lie in the houses, mosque, pillar tomb and a city wall. Jamaa Mosque is the largest surviving structure, with a large pillar on top the qibla wall. It is among the most notable features, although the significance of the pillar is not known, some believe there is a Sheikh buried below the wall. It appears that Takwa was a holy city, as all doors faced Mecca. Some residents of Shela, who believe they are descendants of Takwa, still visit the ruins to pray.
Shanga was a large Swahili town approximately 1000 years old, occupied between the 8th and 14th C. Located on the south coast of Paté Island; Shanga is best visited with a guide as the undergrowth inhibits many travellers. The Shanga Ruins contain the remains of coral walls, two palaces, three mosques and a cemetery outside the walls with hundreds of tombs. A white pillar tomb is one of the first remains to be seen but the large Friday mosque and another mosque near the sea are also quite obvious. Local legend says that the town was settled by Chinese traders from Shanghai thus the name of Shanga. Chinese pottery has been found among the ruins to support this story.
Lamu has a strict Muslim culture and no alcohol can be consumed in view of the public. Therefore, there is no alcohol in any Muslim run restaurants, although they do amazing fresh fruit juices. Only a couple of hotels have bars. There is a Friday night local disco at the Civil Servants HQ playing and R’n’B. In Shela, at the other end of the island, you can join the jet set and watch the sun go down. A nice thing to do is organize a beach party; get the local guys to help with food, drinks, a fire and drums.
Travel with very young children can be difficult on Lamu as there is no transport other than boat or donkey. If you are travelling with young children I would recommend you stay in Shela as it is cleaner than the town and right on the beach. Bottled water is readily available.
Most of the shops close at midday but open again in the late afternoon. Lamu has lovely traditional furniture making industry; beds, chairs etc which can be exported. There are stalls selling local crafts, baskets and local beaded jewellery on the sea front. ‘Baraka’ in the street behind Palace hotel, has quality jewellery, clothing and artefacts from Africa and Indonesia, which lead into the highly recommended Whispers Coffee Shop.
Sports & Activities
It is essentially a beach life in Lamu. There a very few organised sports facilities but there is a real delight sailing on a dhow, snorkelling or diving. In Shela you can hire a wind surfer and take lessons from the extremely able and friendly local guys.
Peponi hotel located on the exotic island of Lamu is run by the Korschen family, who opened it in 1967 and still retains much of the character and charm that it had then. Although small and personal, it is the perfect rest after a safari or a hide away holiday from modern life. Peponi Hotel has a total of 24 rooms divided into superior and standard rooms. The superior rooms are differentiated by their location, size, a private outside area, indoor plants, artwork and Swahili furnishings. No two rooms are alike. Five rooms are built right on the beach, with private veranda areas overlooking the sea, while the rest have a combination of ocean and garden views. All rooms have an ocean view, overhead fans, mosquito nets, showers, fresh flowers, and personal safes.Kipungani Bay-Lamu
Kipungani Bay is an idyllic private beach hideaway that is calm, secluded and extremely low key with just 15 beach cottages or grass villas positioned to ensure privacy. The bedrooms have king size beds draped with mosquito netting as villas have no doors or windows to allow refreshing cool breezes. All villas have their own veranda facing the ocean. The walls and floors are made from local palm mats and have a high-pitched thatch roof.
In the village of Shela, in the island of Lamu, Kijani House offers a unique accommodation with its tropical garden, which leads directly to the sea, and two fresh water swimming pools. Each room has a bathroom and has its own balcony or veranda facing the garden and the sea. The rooms are spread throughout the garden into three small separate traditional Swahili buildings, which were formerly private homes, made of coral walls, with boriti ceiling and makuti roofs.
Kizingo is a wonderful, secluded and tranquil escape from the modern world. The lodge is situated at one end of a spectacular beach that stretches from Kizingo to the fashionable village of Shela. Kizingo has six beautifully appointed bandas (thatched cottages), set well apart from each other, with unrivalled sea views. In the early morning you can enjoy tea in bed and watch fishing dhows tack south to Malindi. Each room has a large double bed romantically draped with mosquito netting and comfortable chairs for lounging. Bamboo screens unfurl to give complete privacy. The en suite bathroom is well appointed with a flushing toilet, hot water shower, wash basin and dressing area.
Located on the North-Western tip of Manda Island, one of the many unspoilt, idyllic islands to be found in the romantic Lamu archipelago. Manda Bay lies in calm inshore waters on a long sandy protected beach. With miles of soft white sand, fascinating creeks and small islets to explore, it makes a perfect retreat for both family groups and honeymooners alike. In keeping with the local landscape and artisans the accommodation consists of ten cottages constructed from local materials. Five rooms are set right on the seafront and five are set in-between and slightly behind on higher ground. All the rooms have large ceiling fans and ensuite bathrooms. With its own private, fully fitted 60 foot traditional dhow – Utamaduni – it’s possible to arrange day cruises exploring the uninhabited islands of this fascinating archipelago. Activities include windsurfing, laser sailing, water skiing, creek fishing, massage, mangrove trips, scuba diving and day trips to Lamu island.