Sun-burnished mangrove leaves float like skeins of gold thread on the blue waters of the Indian Ocean. We’re sailing from Lamu Stone Town on Lamu Island to Manda Island that lies across the channel. Our boatman points to the village settled by the Luo from the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. The men quarry for coral on the island and chisel the hard rock into building blocks for construction. They are hardy men carrying up to five blocks on a shoulder to load the boats that carry them away. A statue of a quarry man with the bricks on his shoulder stands on the edge of the village that is called Jaluo after the people, so tells our Swahili boatman.
The tide is at an ebb. The boatman carefully veers the boat through narrow channels of mangroves, their aerial roots visible, a tangled pattern on mud. And then we’re at the walled sultanate of Takwa – or what remains of it – walking on the boardwalk through the mangrove-lined shoreline.
The story of Takwa is intriguing for the people settled here in the 16th century only to abandon it two centuries later. For much of the 19th century most of it crumbled and lay buried under the sand and scrub until the archaeologist James Kirkman excavated it in 1951 followed by James de Veer Allen the curator of Lamu Museum with financial support from Peponi Hotel, in 1972.
In the abandoned sultanate, the path leads us past the lime kiln, an important feature of the Swahili civilization with which the lime plaster for the building was produced
Takwa was an ornate little sultanate about five hectares in size sandwiched between the open ocean and the creek. Ali Simba the guide, an old hand at the sultanate having lived here for 20 years walks us through the realm of the past.
At the Great Mosque a striking pillar rises from the centre. Simba tells us that the mosque may have been built on the tomb of a revered person. On the outer wall, he points to the etchings of sailing dhows, ships and daggers partly visible on the crumbling lime plaster. In the midst of it all, towers a humongous baobab. Circling it with arms stretched, it was there before the sultanate was established – for every person with outstretched arms equals a century and we are five.
The rains have turned the sultanate lush with grass and flat-topped acacias. At this point we’re at what was the residential quarters – leading to the city wall where we’re greeted by an Orma man farming his plot.
During the time of the sultanate, these impenetrable walls were manned by sentries looking out through small openings big enough for them to shoot arrows at the intruder. An opening that would have been a gate to the sultanate leads us to the sand dunes bordering the open ocean. It’s a view for the senses – just the ocean and the sky from our high vantage point.
“Are there any casa (turtles) nesting here?” l ask the guide.
“Not in recent years but further along the beach there are turtle nests.”
Walking back along the sandy path my eye catches the spoor of an animal. “Nyati,” tells Simba. “We have many buffaloes on the island, and porcupines and also some hyena.”
It’s strange to think of an island with buffaloes but then again until the 1990s, elephants crossed over from the mainland through the shallow channel and on to the island – a phenomena that no longer happens because of the channel dredged to allow the islanders to sail safely to Pate from Lamu instead of tackling the open ocean.
Walking back past another baobab twice the size of the first one, Simba points to the banda on a hill for visitors to stay – l’d like to do that at some point. The wells in the sultanate are dry and that theory is that Manda ran out of fresh water forcing the citizens to sail across to Shela on Lamu Island.
And then we’re at the famous pillar tomb of Takwa that’s over six meters high and walled in. “People come to pray here,” continues Simba. “If you pray here, your wishes come true.” In any case, the Shela people come twice a year to pray for rain. An inscribed block on the tomb calls to Allah and the four caliphs with a date corresponding to the year 1683.
By now we’re at the end of our walk. The tide has flowed in covering the mangled roots of the mangroves as we sail back to Lamu.
Enjoy the sail to Takwa from Shela or Lamu – it’s inexpensive – about Ksh 400 per person and Ksh 100 for Kenyans to enter Takwa.
Lamu is an easy destination – catch Air Kenya from Wilson Airport and you’re there in about an hour.