Cristina (not her real name) was a Spanish lady that used to come every year to participate in a UN conference and spend a few months in Nairobi. We got to know her through some of Mabel Latin colleagues at work and, somehow, we ended up being invited to her apartment for dinner so that we could meet her baby.
At she was already in her later forties we were puzzled about the baby and it was with some degree of curiosity that we turned up in her house. She greeted us and then said, pointing to a young man of clear Swahili origin “this is Mohammed, my baby!” and then she burst out laughing. It was not rare in Kenya that older European women would develop a relationship with younger men when spending time at the coast but for us it was quite a shock at the time.
During dinner, Mohammed who was from Lamu happened to be a very nice young guy that insisted that we visited Lamu and that he would look after us there.
So, the day came when we decided to travel to Lamu island and we flew on a small plane from Malindi to Manda island where the airport serving the Lamu archipelago is located. The plane flew quite low and followed the coast line over lovely areas on the sea with different shades of blue and green as well as large areas of mangrove forests and what looked like very dry areas inland.
As part of the ticket they put us on a boat and took us across the channel to Lamu itself. Approaching Lamu was already amazing as it slowly it sunk in that this was a different place from anywhere we had been earlier. The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandas provided a visual impression of times past and I thought that the early explorers and adventurers must have faced seen similar sights when they first arrived to the Kenya coast.
We landed at the harbour hoping that Mohammed would be there as we had arranged earlier. So when people came to ask what we needed or to offer assistance I said that we were waiting for Mohammed. That was not a clever thing to say as, within a minute we were surrounded by “Mohammeds” offering all sorts of services!
Eventually, after a while, the “true” Mohammed came so, laughing, he welcomed us and took us to the place where we would stay. It was a family house and we were given the first floor with a roofless bedroom that opened into an inner patio surrounded by walls and a toilet with a bucket of water. At that time there were only a handful of hotels in Lamu and most visitors stayed in private houses.
Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Its houses are simple structures built in coral blocks and timber from mangroves with interesting inner patios and elaborately carved wooden doors and furniture.
That weekend we explored the place and saw that the old Lamu had maintained not only its architecture but also its social and cultural character. We learnt that it had been there for over 700 years and that it was an important place for Islamic education and Swahili culture.
The streets were very narrow and, apparently, its tortuous arrangement has its origins in Arab traditions of land allocation and urban development but the outstanding features of the town were the doors that were beautifully carved.
The Lamu doors were well known in Kenya and I had already seen them at various places in Nairobi and, particularly at Intona ranch where Joe Murumbi had built a house following the style of the coastal houses and they had fitted Lamu doors to it. Joe had told me that these doors were the result of artistic influence from various cultures that intermingled at the coast such as Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European.
With the exception of a rather new-looking green Land Rover pick-up belonging to the District Commissioner, there were no other cars in Lamu but enough pollution was provided by donkeys that were all over and left their dung and aroma everywhere. Aware of the high donkey traffic and the alleged contamination of the water supply, during a cholera outbreak they decided to introduce the diapers for donkeys. However, the residents did not support the project and it was abandoned.
However, the diaper idea stayed alive and it made a come back 30 years later if Wajir when, in 2016, the authorities forbade the entrance of “diaperless” donkeys into the town .
Of course we had some beach time while in Lamu and, declining the offer of moving by donkey, we walked following the coast towards the south to Shela, avoided the expensive Peponi Hotel, and stopped at one of the beaches where we were alone and able to enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean undisturbed.
Being a Muslim town, no alcohol was available (not an issue for us) but we discovered a new drink: lassi! This was the sweet variety based on yogurt, different fruits and what makes it special: spices! The drink is very popular in the Indian sub-continent where several kinds are on offer.
The following HSBC commercial (that I do not endorse in any way here!) is an excellent example of the discovery of lassi by an outsider!
The time in Lamu was too short and we were soon boarding the plane back carrying a strong impression that we had just been privileged to live a historical experience rather than a holiday and the memories of this trip would last for ever.
Credit: Justin Clements / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Not modified.